Coming up in March

My special theme will be classic television. A lot of film stars have done television work, and TV is just short film (with interruptions to sell products). So it seems related to what I normally write about.

Wagon TrainI will discuss some early episodes featuring Ward Bond and Robert Horton.

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Naked Citya look at episodes with outstanding guest stars like Sylvia Sidney and Robert Duvall.

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The Andy Griffith Showin my opinion the ones in color are more interesting.

The Virginianwith James Drury as the title character.

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The Big Valley…we’ve already been discussing this great series in the western genre sub-forum.

Lou Grant…who else could but Ed Asner could have played Lou..? He’s superb.

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Simon & Simon…a guilty pleasure from the 80s. The seventh season has some very dark stories and I will look at several of them.

Amen…Sherman Hemsley went from George Jefferson to Deacon Ernie Frye without missing a beat.

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Join me in March!

Hedy arrested for shoplifting: a sequel

Part 1: August 2, 1991

It had been 25 years since the last shoplifting incident. Hedy Lamarr was now living in a suburb north of Orlando, and a friend had come by to pick her up. They were going out to get a few things at a local drug store. Carefully scanning the piece of paper in her hand, she told her friend she needed some laxative tablets and eye drops. They found a parking spot close to the door, and they went inside. Hedy quickly located the items on her list and then met her friend at the front door. But according to representatives at Eckerd, she took the things without paying and owed $21.48.

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The store manager later told reporters how Hedy had been apprehended. It was explained that an alarm usually went off when customers attempted to leave with unpaid merchandise. But as Hedy and her friend walked out, they did not set off the alarm. Still the manager was suspicious, and Hedy was asked to go back inside. The manager told Hedy ‘open up your purse, open up your enormous purse where you hide things’ or something like that.

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So Hedy opened the purse and she pulled out a gun, I mean she pulled out the laxatives. But instead of handing them over to the manager, Hedy accidentally slipped them into her friend’s bag. The manager then noticed the eye drops in Hedy’s purse and promptly requested Hedy to follow her to the office. Hedy made a scene in front of Cecil B. DeMille, I mean in front of the manager, and did not want to go to the office. In the meantime, Hedy’s friend disappeared and Hedy could not remember the name of the other thief, I mean the other woman.

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In the office, they waited for the police to arrive. When Hedy went to the station, she was charged with a misdemeanor that could’ve resulted in one year of jail time as well as a $1,000 fine. The arresting officer released Hedy on the condition that she would agree to appear in court at a later date. He was very nice when he drove the 76-year-old actress home. The officer was 24 and had no idea she was a former movie queen. As they pulled up in front of Hedy’s condominium, she did provide an autograph, I mean a signature, when she wrote her name on the notice to show up for court.

*****

Part 2: October 24, 1991

It was a week before Halloween when Hedy appeared in front of a judge, and she was eager to put the latest shoplifting incident behind her. Since early August, Hedy had received a great deal of publicity. Not only had her arrest been reported by legitimate news organizations, but she was now the focus of tabloids eager to play up the scandal of an actress charged with breaking the law.

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An attorney spent over two months gathering evidence to bolster her defense. It was revealed that Hedy did not drive, and she was legally blind. She had been undergoing treatment on her eyes, which necessitated getting the eye drops. The bottle she picked up at the Eckerd drug store was on sale, a real steal.

Finally a deferred prosecution was agreed to, meaning a Florida state attorney would eventually drop the charges if Hedy promised to stay out of trouble for one year. If she took any more laxatives, I mean if she had any more arrests, the attorney would file theft charges against her regardless of how many bowel movements it caused.

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Hedy and her lawyer felt vindicated. The lawyer said even if the state did bring charges later on, the prosecution would have a lot of difficulty proving Hedy was guilty or even constipated. Besides Hedy thought she had paid for the items, and when you have fans who love you and adore you, that is what really counts on the way to the bathroom.

 

 

Essential: ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)

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When Franco Zefferelli made this film, he made Shakespeare more accessible to modern audiences. It wasn’t the first cinematic version about the great star-crossed lovers, nor would it be the last, but its timeless qualities set it apart. Primarily remembered for its realistic casting (earlier productions used much older actors to portray the teenaged leads) and remembered for on-location filming in and around Rome, it remains highly regarded nearly fifty years after Paramount first released it.

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Critic Roger Ebert called it an exciting adaptation. The opening sequence certainly contains a great deal of excitement and nicely establishes the mood. Immediately we see the youth of two rival Veronese families (the Capulets and Montagues) engaged in a street brawl that has escalated in the blink of an eye from an insult to a sword fight. But the disturbance ends, and our heroic Romeo (Leonard Whiting) makes his entrance in a more subdued and romantic moment. Then we glimpse sweet young Juliet (Olivia Hussey) in her home environment. Even someone with no prior knowledge of the proceedings can figure out they will fall in love.

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But the basic scenario is somewhat contrived. We have to ask why in all these years of living in the same small city they never noticed or head about each other before the party scene. And what’s caused their initial love-at-first-sight to be so overpowering is not explained either. Is it because they find something in each other absent within their own families? Of course, the first kiss they share is quite special. Yet it lacks the type of psychological dimension we see in Hamlet, so the tragicness that should be there right from the beginning is largely absent.

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Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is of course the villain of the piece/peace. Though if you think about it, Shakespeare’s need to present a tragedy is what brings the pair to eventual ruin. In the meantime we’re poised to root for the antithesis of happiness, because rooting for this couple and their hysterically dramatic ending is the same as rooting for trouble and misery. Other things work against the text. Romeo and Juliet as literary figures are now so casually a part of our common culture that it’s easy to overlook how extreme and violent their story is. Though one can never overlook the sheer impossibleness of it all– especially after Tybalt’s death.

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Shakespearean scholars may not like to point out the other plot holes– at least in Zefferelli’s telling. For instance, there is no explanation given for Juliet’s sudden decision to marry Paris. Viewers know she cannot marry Paris if she is already wed to Romeo, and she is just going along with the idea to prevent hostilities with her father. But it’s not explained how she convinces her parents she’s changed her mind and is now willing to be Paris’ wife.

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Also during the funeral procession at the end, we are not told how Romeo has been forgiven for his crimes. He did take the law into his own hands when he killed Tybalt, and it would keep him from being honorable in the eyes of the prince, even if the Capulets were able to understand why he did it. Then there’s the fact we’re never told much about why the Capulets and the Montagues are feuding in the first place. Is this all just an old-fashioned turf war, or were there other killings in the past that needed to be avenged? The backstory is not at all properly fleshed out.

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The crypt scene and the funeral seem kind of rushed to me. Zefferelli spends too much time presenting the courtship and showing the gang activity in the streets (no doubt influenced by WEST SIDE STORY) that he is forced to speed up the the last two acts of the play in order to get everything in before the movie ends. When it’s over, the experience leaves us with a somewhat unoriginal conclusion. I’m not sure if it’s Shakespeare’s main idea or Zefferelli’s that love is forever. And in a fool’s paradise it has the effect of a dagger to the heart.

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ROMEO AND JULIET can be streamed as part of the Amazon video service.

Fans might disagree

Can you guess which films the critics are blasting? 

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1. If you’re a fan of Peter Greenaway’s films, you might not agree with a statement by Vincent Canby of The New York Times. While reviewing a Greenaway picture in 1985, Canby said it was: “pretentious, humorless and, worst of all, more boring than a retrospective devoted to television weather forecasts delivered over a 30-year period at 11 P.M., Eastern standard time.” Which film was it?

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2. In 1951 Bette Davis got a call that she had a stinker on her hands. The New York Times did not print a favorable review of her newest film. Problems were found with the script, and a reviewer considered it “a static affair that rarely escapes from its sets or the scenarist’s verbosity. Suspense is only fitfully generated and then quickly dissipated.” Which film was it?

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3. In 1991, a critic for the Chicago Tribune thought Bruce Willis’ latest flick was a dog: “the end result is being thrown up on selected screens this weekend, and the suspicion that this was a pooch turns out to be undeniably correct. Boring and banal, overwrought and undercooked, [it] is beyond bad.” Which film was it?

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4. Speaking of Bruce Willis, he was in another box office bomb the year before. A reviewer for the Washington Post felt like she had wasted 126 minutes watching it. She called it “a calamity of miscasting and commercial concessions.” The cast included Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman; and it only made $15 million. Which film was it?

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5. Lana Turner was in a costly flop in 1956 that signaled the end of her long association with MGM. The screenwriter, Christopher Isherwood, blamed her for the film’s failure. He said all the problems in the finished film were because Lana had tampered with the script. But the leading lady claimed she knew what was best. Lana wanted audiences to know the main character “wasn’t afraid to use her head” and sympathized that she “was never caught with her brains showing.” After the movie performed poorly, people wondered if Lana had any brains. Which film was it?

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Phases of a career, part 2

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As I finished watching INVITATION TO HAPPINESS, I could tell Fred MacMurray was doing some of his best acting in this picture. Maybe because of Irene Dunne. She really brought out the best in him. She had a role that Kate Hepburn specialized in– a patrician daddy’s girl– and MacMurray was the lower class boxer she married. This Paramount classic demonstrated the versatility they both had on screen. In particular, I felt Dunne captured the pathos of the climactic fight scene at the end. It was all the more remarkable since she was not in the crowd, but listening to it on radio.

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Another Irene Dunne performance I watched on YouTube was one of her very last. It was a 1961 episode of a short-lived western series called Frontier Circus. Chill Wills played the owner of traveling circus in the late 1800s. Dunne guest starred as a woman doctor who saved the life of a performer with a cracked skull. Along the way she has taught Wills and the other men not be so quick in judging female physicians. According to her credits on the IMDb, Dunne hadn’t acted in two years, and the following year she would quit show biz for good.

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She was about 63 years old when she made Frontier Circus. During filming she was reunited her with her I REMEMBER MAMA costar Ellen Corby. The production values were adequate for an hour-long TV series at that time. She had come a long way from the insecurities she had thirty years earlier. She seemed very serene and assured, and you could tell she enjoyed the role of Dr. Sam and appreciated the opportunity to be there again on screen.

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Some final thoughts…O’Brien acted into the 1980s; MacMurray stopped performing in the late 1970s; Wills’ career also ended in the late 70s; and Corby continued into the 1990s. You have to wonder why we never talk about the late-career appearances of someone like Irene Dunne. Is it because we don’t want to be reminded a major star who was nominated five times for an Oscar had a career that ended in such a relatively quiet manner? If I hadn’t stumbled on these performances from the beginning, middle and end of her career, would I even look at Irene Dunne with a newfound understanding?

Phases of a career, part 1

I was on an Irene Dunne kick recently. It started when I found one of her films on YouTube– CONSOLATION MARRIAGE, a precode melodrama the actress made in 1931.

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What drew me into the story was the highly engaging way she and costar Pat O’Brien played off each other. O’Brien seemed an unlikely choice of leading man for her. But given the dynamics of the plot, about two lost souls who strike a bargain to enter a marriage of convenience, it worked. They infused the melodrama with wry humor and it was obvious they had fun doing it. It was only Dunne’s fourth film.

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She was already a pro, but she did come across a bit insecure in some of her scenes. It was a competent and thorough performance, but she was not quite as confident or self-assured as I expected her to be. Since I enjoyed CONSOLATION MARRIAGE, I decided to see what other Irene Dunne offerings may exist on YouTube I hadn’t seen before. I found two more titles.

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The first one was a Paramount sports melodrama from 1939 called INVITATION TO HAPPINESS. It was filmed eight years later in Dunne’s career, and she appeared very different. In fact, it was hard to believe she had also made LOVE AFFAIR the same year. Maybe it was the direction or type of story, but my guess is it had to do with the studio. Paramount had its own way of packaging and presenting an Irene Dunne movie. She was teamed with their hot young star Fred MacMurray. She and MacMurray would go on to do another film in 1950 plus a weekly radio series together.

Tomorrow: a late-career TV appearance by Irene Dunne I found on YouTube…

Essential: THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949)

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Some performances are so good they’re nothing less than masterful. Claude Rains gives such a performance in this film. It’s something that works on more than one level– as an actor connecting with an audience; as an actor following through on what the director and screenwriter intends; and as an actor to be watched by other actors (to see how it can be done).

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The film shares thematic similarities with David Lean’s earlier romance drama BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Both productions feature Trevor Howard as the “ideal” lover. Here he’s the heart’s desire of a woman played by Ann Todd (Lean’s real life wife), but she is married to Rains. It’s a triangle with all the usual complications, but it’s not one with a predetermined outcome. Nor is it one that automatically suggests Howard and Todd are the central focus, while Rains is made to play the jealous husband in the background. In fact, it is very much Rains’ picture, with the other two contemplating each other in ways that their fantasy may have a profound, real effect on Rains. Eric Ambler’s screenplay, based on a story by H.G. Wells, makes them all human and Rains just as much a part of the action and the outcome as he should be.

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There are several flashbacks that recount the story of how Todd knows Howard, revealing why she may have loved Howard or thought she loved him, but really loves Rains more. Rains is put through torturous paces when finds himself turning to mush around his potentially adulterous wife– a kind of sentimentality and devotion he assumed he was beyond. But while things may seem to spin out of control, there is a smoothness and an assuredness that these are adults who can figure it all out in the end.

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Though the film does lead to a sensible romantic conclusion, it keeps pulling us back into a fantasy world with Todd’s character. Her daydreams and her friendship with Howard always seem to signify more, as if she’s on the cusp of experiencing something greater and deeper. By the time she realizes what a mess she’s made of everything– how she’s put her marriage to Rains in jeopardy as well as Howard’s marriage to his wife– she tries to do what is right for each person concerned. In the process, she reaches a near-tragic point, where she is brought back to reality by what she really wanted and needed from the start.

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THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS airs occasionally on TCM.