Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Novel Life of FORREST GUMP

The anniversary of the release of Paramount's colossal box office hit, FORREST GUMP, comes up this month. I've written about this before yet I feel it's worth repeating. If you want some good summertime reading, hit your local library or bookstore for a copy of FORREST GUMP, the 1986 novel by Winston Groom. I read it in about three days. I read it because of a co-worker. I was on a shoot for the weekend WNBC weekend news show. The cameraman, the audio guy and I were in the van. The audio guy would break out into an infectious laugh. We asked him what was so funny. He said, "This book I bought." It was FORREST GUMP. He was at a garage sale in his neighborhood, saw the paperback on sale for 25 cents and bought it for something to read during lunch breaks at work. He said that it would make a good movie. I told I read that it was being made into a movie with Tom Hanks. He replied, "Hmmm." When I got home, I went to the nearby library, found a copy and checked it out. I broke out into laughter reading it just like the audio guy had done.
I'm positive there have been times when you've mentioned a movie that you liked and some Poindexter chimed in with "The book was so much different." Movies based on books have usually been different from the source material ever since films learned how to talk. I feel "The book was so much different" is not a true comment on the movie you mentioned, it's a way for someone to brag about having read a book that you probably didn't. The next time you talk about a movie you liked and someone says "The book was so much different," try responding with "But isn't that usually the case?" and see what the reaction is. GONE WITH THE WIND is one of the most famous Old Hollywood classics ever made. It was a top Oscar winner and, into the 1970s, the 1939 classic was still being re-released and still making big money. Millions of people loved the novel. Millions of people loved the film. The Margaret Mitchell novel opens with "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

Who won the Best Actress Oscar for her powerful performance as Scarlett O'Hara? Beautiful Vivien Leigh.
I can readily think of three films that we quite faithful to the books/stories that were their source material: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

Within the three days I spent reading FORREST GUMP, I realized why the audio guy responded with "Hmmm" when I told him Tom Hanks was playing the lead. I love Tom Hanks and I was curious to see how he was going to pull off playing Forrest. I'll tell you like this -- if it was being made today, one of the frontrunners for the lead role surely would be...John Cena.
John Cena fits the novel's description of how Forrest Gump looks.  Gump is an attractive muscle-bound young blond hunk with a crewcut. He's got a clinging old bat of a mother and a sexually active girlfriend. He doesn't see them the way we readers do because he's different. He's athletically gifted and fairly well-endowed. But his I.Q. is low. In the Winston Groom novel, Forrest Gump is an idiot savant. Being an idiot savant gets Forrest into a series of adventures and misadventures. Forrest has sexual encounters and even winds up making a low-budget sci-fi thriller with a formidable starlet named Raquel Welch.  Forrest will often get intro predicaments because he's not too bright. As he says in the book, "Bein' an idiot is no box o' chocolates."

Eric Roth won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay. Basically, Roth took the vinegar out of the Winston Groom story and replaced it with lemonade.  To see how a movie could keep the characters and some of the adventures of a book but completely change the tone of the story, read FORREST GUMP if you've seen the movie. Because the hit 1994 film became somewhat of pop culture phenomenon, the book was a best-seller again in paperback. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture and Tom Hanks took home his second Oscar for Best Actor.

Eric Roth's recent hit screenplay was for the Lady Gaga remake of A STAR IS BORN. In that screenplay, he included numerous bows to the first remake screenplay of that classic, the 1954 Moss Hart screenplay for the version starring Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor.

I've long wondered how novelist Winston Groom feels when he hears us really misquote Forrest Gump when we say "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Consider the funny, naughty, entertaining novel by Winston Groom for your summertime reading.  The movie was so much different.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Movies with My Dad

Yesterday was Father's Day and I thought a lot about my late dad.  If you've followed my blog posts for an appreciable amount of time, you know that my parents divorced. I'm the oldest of three children. Mom and Dad separated when I was on the brink of starting high school. He moved out of our house, a short distance from Compton, and moved into Grandmother's spare room. His mother lived in Inglewood. When I saw an ad in a Sunday edition of The Los Angeles Times that read "Wanted: Movie Buffs for New Game Show," I was a classic film geek and Catholic high school student in a single working mother household. For someone who is passionate about classic films, I was lucky to have the parents I did. They loved the Hollywood and foreign film greats. We saw many noteworthy films at the drive-in movies -- and drive-in movies were a terrific bargain back in those days. You saw a double feature and children under 12 were admitted free. Two movies plus coming attractions (now called "trailers") and a cartoon. That was my favorite family pastime. Dad loved movies directed by David Lean. Mom loved anything that starred William Holden. I was in the back seat, wearing my pajamas under my street clothes, as the Rivers Family had a night at the drive-in to see THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, directed by David Lean and starring William Holden.
I grew up fascinated by films, but I was fascinated with some kinds of films that Dad wasn't. Like screwball comedies and musicals. Dad was a World War 2 veteran. He'd been a sergeant in the Army. Before he went into the service, he was a weightlifter. I was still under 12 when we went to the Twin-Vue Drive-In one night and the second feature was WHAT A WAY TO GO!
My parents knew it had some of their favorite stars -- Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum -- however, they didn't expect it to be such a festive satire with fabulous outfits on Shirley and musical numbers featuring Gene Kelly. I did expect it.
When the colorful opening credits started, even before her name appeared, I enthusiastically leaned over to Dad from the back seat and proclaimed, "The costumes are by Edith Head!"
I was quite proud of myself for knowing that. Daddy never turned around. He remained still, stone-faced and looking forward, as if he was a statue on Easter Island. Mom calmly told me to sit back down. If I'd been a cartoon character, I would've been this little bookworm rooster getting lessons in how to play sports from Foghorn Leghorn.

When I saw the ad in the newspaper for the movie buffs and read that the buffs were needed for a new game show about movie trivia, I was determined to get on the show. But the ad also read "18 years or older." All interested parties were to schedule taking a written test.

I was determined to be contestant on that TV show. But how? My sister wisely commented that it would be tough, unless I made it seem like Mom's idea that I take the test. It was a great and perfect suggestion. I casually mentioned to Mom that I saw an ad in The Los Angeles Times. I read it to her, followed by a manipulative "I wonder if they'll get any contestants from South Central L.A."

Mom replied with a "Probably not." She went on to say that Hollywood doesn't think our people have such knowledge. She added that I could probably ace that test in a heartbeat if I called and told the folks I'm under 18 but I'm in the Watts area and love old movies and want to take the test. She said that could make the community proud if I got on the show. She ended her mini-Mama-logue with "But no one ever listens to me."

I called. I got an appointment to take the written test. I did better on that test that I'd do on my SATs. I aced it. I was given another test in a different room with visuals flashed on a screen. I aced that too. The execs wanted to speak to my mother. That summer, I'd be the first Black contestant on THE MOVIE GAME

The syndicated show was shot at the old Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. The day of my taping, a special edition with two teen rivals, Mom took off from work to drive me there and to be in the studio audience with my sister. I woke up that morning nervous and excited and giddy that I was "going to the studio."

The morning began as usual. I walked a couple of blocks over to the store to get the morning paper. As usual, I read the entertainment section. Then, a photo on the front page of the Sports section caught my eye. A columnist had a cigar in his mouth. He was wearing his horn-rimmed eyeglasses, sandals and a toga. He wrote about his day working as an extra in an upcoming new film adaptation of Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR.

The game show taping started. My opponent was tough. So tough that, by the end of the show, we made another piece of history with a tied score. A tie-breaking special question was needed. We had to name a male star. The first clue was read. We didn't know the answer. The second clue was "He'll soon be seen in a new version of JULIUS CAESAR."

I hit my buzzer and said "Charlton Heston."

I was the first Black winner of THE MOVIE GAME.

Mom's surprise and delight at my winning, something that left her sweetly impressed nearly to the point of being speechless, meant more to me than the prizes I got. I wanted to prove to her that my interest in films was serious and not adolescent vaporing.  When we got home, she told me to call Dad and tell him how everything went.

Dad was also thrilled. I told him the show was taped and was scheduled to air in a couple of months. He asked about the tie-breaker question.  "How'd you know that answer?"

I replied, "Because of something I read today in the paper. In the Sports section."

"What?," he exclaimed.

I repeated what I said.

"You were reading the Sports section? You were reading the Sports section!"  One could practically hear my dad gleefully shouting "My son was reading the Sports section of The Los Angeles Times and it made him a winner on a TV game show!" as he did cartwheels down a sidewalk in Inglewood.

I guess that made up for my Edith Head moment during WHAT A WAY TO GO!

I thought about all that on Father's Day -- and it made me laugh. A lot.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Spike Lee Adds Zest of Lemon Andersen

Please allow me to gush about a multi-talented New Yorker. He's an actor. He's a writer. He's a story editor for a Spike Lee series on Netflix. His name is Lemon Andersen.
In my TV career, something I totally loved to do, something the lit me up inside, was to introduce viewers to a talented newcomer I'd seen. Ironically, this was difficult to do in the 90s during my days on local New York City morning news programs. Difficult because producers were often resistant to the idea instead of realizing that putting a spotlight on local unknown talent for three minutes was a good idea that could pay off in the long run.

In the fall of 1992, I was regular on a new WNBC/Channel 4 local weekend morning news program. Early in its run, I was invited to a dinner party. Over dinner, I met an actor who'd been on an off-Broadway show. He was the only man in a short comedy play called FIVE WOMEN WEARING THE SAME DRESS. He and I traded phone numbers. I had a hunch this unknown actor was going places. I went to our show's producer and pitched a segment for myself called "People You Should Know." Every time I pitched the interview of the unknown actor to my producer boss, I called the actor and told him so. Three weeks later, I was still hearing "No" to my idea. My producer said "No one knows who he is." I replied, "That's the point. I'm introducing viewers to local talent they might hear about in the future."

The actor graciously called me to thank me for my efforts to get him on the show. He thanked me and told me he'd decided to move to L.A. to try his luck there. His luck was good. Thomas Gibson was cast as "Greg" on the sitcom DHARMA & GREG. After that, he was Aaron Hotchner on the series CRIMINAL MINDS.

I was cast in a local one-act play in New York City's East Village. Two people involved with the production stood out to me and I pitched my segment idea again in 1994. An actress in the play won my heart with her charm and talent. The playwright wrote some fabulously funny and original material. Again, my segment idea was rejected. The actress and the playwright thanked me for pitching them. They, like Thomas Gibson, relocated to L.A. to try their luck. How'd they do? Camryn Manheim was in the cast of THE PRACTICE on ABC. The playwright, Alan Ball, got work writing on two sitcoms and then he won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for AMERICAN BEAUTY which also won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1999.

In 2002, married friends of mine flew up from Florida suburbs to New York City for a little vacation. I wanted to treat them to a Broadway show. The wife is an excellent schoolteacher and avid reader and a writer. I had a hunch she'd love RUSSELL SIMMONS DEF POETRY JAM ON BROADWAY. My hunch was right. It thrilled all three of us. What  show. What great new voices. One of the standouts was a slam poet named Lemon. The audience loved him.
The next day, we were walking down 7th Avenue in my Chelsea neighborhood and we saw him standing in front a shop. We didn't want to bother him but I did say out loud as we walked, "We saw you yesterday and you were terrific!"

He looked over at us and replied, "Are you Bobby Rivers?"

My jaw just about dropped down to the concrete sidewalk with a thud like I was a character in a 1940s Tex Avery cartoon.

Lemon Andersen came over to us and reminded me that he and I had met.
After I quit the WNBC weekend news program, I accepted an offer to be a weekday contributor on Fox5's GOOD DAY NEW YORK. One weekday morning, later in the 1990s, I was doing a live shot from a community center. The center was an arts haven for local youths. Two Puerto Rican buddies, Flaco and Lemon, were doing slam poetry. For one of my segments, I decided to share my spotlight and put the attention on them. I didn't ask the control room if I could. I just did it.  I introduced the two young poets to our viewers let them do some of their slam poetry live on-air from the community center.

Lemon Andersen told me that Russell Simmons happened to be watching the show and got in contact with him via the center. Before long, Lemon was making his Broadway debut performing his own material.

I am extremely proud of that. Look at what happened because someone with connections (at that time) saw his talent on TV, got in contact and took it to the next level.

After his Broadway debut, Lemon Andersen went on to act in the Spike Lee films SHE HATE ME (2004), INSIDE MAN (2006) and MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008).  He is now a story editor on Spike Lee's Netflix adaptation of SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT.  For the show's second season, Lemon got to write an episode about Puerto Rico, land of his ancestors and the place where two of his loved ones are buried.  The episode takes place on the island and it's titled #OhJudoKnow.
When it comes to heartbreak and hard times, Lemon Andersen definitely paid his dues early in life. Fortunately for us, he embraced the arts. He's now an accomplished artist.  I am still humbled and grateful that he remembered me. I've given you three of his film credits and his current Netflix credit. Check out his work. He's worth your time.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Bard, a Beatle and Franco Zeffirelli

The film work of Franco Zeffirelli helped me get an "A" in my high school English Lit. class. To this day, I am still grateful and I still recall the visually rich, artistically enlightening film of his that I saw. My hometown community, South Central Los Angeles, had schools lacking the healthy fine arts education budgets that schools in predominantly white communities did. I attended a parochial high school in Watts, a school with a mostly Black and Mexican-American student body. Teachers at our school dug into their own pockets to contribute to our fine arts supplies and knowledge. They also took great advantage of group sale discount rates for schools to attend weekday matinees of prestigious films. These were films that usually had exclusive engagements in Hollywood and were based on acclaimed plays or literary pieces that students might be studying in school. This was exactly the case with Zeffirelli's young, lively, passionate and popular 1968 version of William Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET.
The 1936 Hollywood version starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard aired a few times on local KTTV/Channel 11 when I was a kid. The stars playing the young star-crossed lovers were in their 30s. I would watch most of it when it aired but never the whole thing in one sitting. Zeffirelli's ROMEO AND JULIET was delicious eye candy. The intelligent opulence of it was exactly what I hoped a big screen grand romance would deliver.  College-aged actors, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, had the lead roles. Their youth and vibrancy connected to us students. Our class boarded busses to see the film as a field trip one school day. We were studying Shakespeare's tragedy of young love that semester. Zeffirelli's film made Shakespeare's language come alive for me. I was no longer intimidated by it. The nudity in the film truly was tasteful and not lascivious.
In an age of BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE GRADUATE, the "Bard of Avon" (William Shakespeare) had written a hit movie. Zeffirelli's ROMEO AND JULIET clicked with young moviegoers the way superhero action fantasies click today. Critics loved it. Audiences loved it. ROMEO AND JULIET may have had a romance that didn't end well but their box office was terrific.  Even the soundtrack was a best-selling album.

Those high school field trips for the sake of fine arts education were special to me. I always appreciated them. They made my embrace of the arts more enthusiastic. When the ROMEO AND JULIET nude scene appeared on the Hollywood screen, the audience was packed with students from other schools that also had taken advantage of the discounted group rates. There was very little giggling at the nudity. What I remember topping the sound of giggles was the sound of teen girls sniffling and crying at the beauty of the scene. A scene that came from the classic writing of William Shakespeare and presented through the eyes of an Italian filmmaker.

One marvelous morning in 1989, the name of Franco Zeffirelli came up in an interview. I worked on VH1 at the time and had my own celebrity talk show. For a VH1 special, I was flown to London to interview Paul McCartney.  Here's a clip with McCartney, me and the Zeffirelli mention.

Yes. In 1968's ROMEO AND JULIET, we could've seen the bare bum on one of The Beatles.
Franco Zeffirelli's ROMEO AND JULIET was one of Paramount's biggest hits of that year. It won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. It was nominated for Best Picture.

His other film credits include 1967's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, 1972's BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON, his 1979 remake of THE CHAMP and 1999's TEA WITH MUSSOLINI starring Cher, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Lily Tomlin.

Director Franco Zeffirelli died this weekend at age 96.

Think about it. Because of him, we could have seen Paul McCartney in tights. Wow.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Meryl Streep Was Right About PARIAH

Dinner time. The lights are low in the family dining room. The mother and father are home from work. They are professionals. The father is a policeman. The mother has an office job. Both are neatly attired. He's having a beer. She's having a glass of white wine. With them at the dinner table are their two daughters. Both are in high school. One is still in her school uniform. The other is in casual, less feminine attire. This is an African-American family in Brooklyn. One of the girls is coming out as a lesbian. If the church-going mother could pray her daughter into a state of total heterosexuality, she'd put that glass of wine aside and pop a bottle of champagne.  This is the family we meet in the 2011 indie film, PARIAH.  It was written and directed by Dee Rees.
I watched this movie because of Meryl Streep. She mentioned it in one awards show the season she won an Oscar for playing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in THE IRON LADY directed by Phyllida Lloyd. The night Streep won that Oscar, I was in Northern California watching the telecast. Afterwards, the network affiliate aired a live post-Oscars show. Meryl Streep was relaxed and giddy and available for interviews. She spoke to one of the correspondents and said that, aside from winning, one other thing she was happy about was that there easily could have been more than five nominees for Best Actress. She was thrilled to see so much good work from other actresses that season. She singled out Kim Wayans as having been worthy of an Oscar nomination for her performance as the conflicted Brooklyn mother in PARIAH.
A tremendous compliment like that from Meryl Streep on live television? Wow. I definitely made a point to see it. Streep's compliment stood out to me because, like millions of other TV viewers, I knew Kim Wayans from weekly comedy duty on the sketch comedy series, IN LIVING COLOR.

I watched PARIAH soon after that live Hollywood post-Oscars telecast. I watched the movie again a couple of weeks ago. Meryl Streep was right about PARIAH. What a good movie. It presents different images of an African-American family dealing with something we don't often see Black families deal with in films focused on a Black family. The daughter is finding her own voice and identity sexually and intellectually. She knows she's not straight. She knows the school she wants to attend after high school graduation. Her sister knows the truth. Her loving father senses it. Her mother breaks your heart as she watches the rug pulled right out from under the plans she made for her daughter. Also, there's a little tension in the marriage.

I could feel the Kim Wayans performance. I could see some of my own mother in her. Audrey (Kim Wayans) is not a mean, irresponsible mother. She's self-deluded. You see the pain behind her eyes. You know Audrey feels if co-workers and church friends find out that her daughter is a lesbian, they will see her as a failure in Black Mothering.  Audrey breaks her own heart thinking she could arrange her child's life the way she'd arrange furniture in the living room before company arrives.

Her daughter is smart, a good student and responsible. She prefers not to wear traditional feminine clothing. It jars Audrey that her daughter won't complete Audrey's image of the fine middle class African-American family with two working parents and two lovely daughters both in school. To her husband, Audrey snaps "I'm tired of this whole tomboy things she's doing!"
Applause also goes to Adepero Oduye as Alike, the lesbian daughter and Charles Parnell as the tough but understanding father who's not above expressing humility.
To witness the dramatic acting power of Kim Wayans was amazing. Where has she been since PARIAH? Is she another actress of color who gave an outstanding film performance and then had no Hollywood script offers to follow it? If she was known for comedy and then delivered a dramatic film performance so moving that it got high praise from Meryl Streep on live TV, that should count for something.

PARIAH is a great film to see during Pride Month.  Filmmaker Dee Rees followed PARIAH with the exceptional MUDBOUND, one of the best films of 2017.  In MUDBOUND, Dee Rees directed Mary J. Blige in a dramatic performance that earned her an extremely well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Look for MUDBOUND on Netflix.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Another Look at SHOW BOAT (1936)

During this week in history, Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel was born. You know that the late star was the first Black person nominated for an Oscar and she was the first to win. Her victory came in the Best Supporting Actress category for the 1939 classic, GONE WITH THE WIND. Before GONE WITH THE WIND, you saw her hold her own in small parts opposite big stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Mae West and Irene Dunne. Her film with Irene Dunne was 1936's SHOW BOAT.
When my sister and I were kids back in Los Angeles, we heard a lot about GONE WITH THE WIND. We heard the legend of its long, famous search for the perfect Scarlett O'Hara, we heard about its sensational business at the box office and the record number of Oscars that it won. GONE WITH THE WIND had not yet made its highly-rated 1976 network TV premiere on CBS. It would be re-released and make even more money. It was re-released when Betsy and I were kids. Being a movie geek, I begged Mom to let us see it one Saturday afternoon. That was fine with Mom. She'd drop us off at the movie theater in Inglewood and pick us up when it was done. I think she was secretly glad she'd have us out of her hair for most of an afternoon.

My sister and I were dazzled by this old Hollywood classic. The print was pristine. The sound was good. The movie was action-packed. There seemed to be something happening every three minutes. True, I know the racial politics were funky but I was taken mostly with the production values of this Hollywood epic, the sweep of it and the acting.  When it was over, we stood outside the theater and waited for Mom to drive up to get us. When we got in the car, one of the first things she said was "What did you think of Hattie McDaniel? Wasn't she something?"
She certainly was. Even early in my teens, I could feel that Hattie McDaniel stole every scene she had in that long film. Vivien Leigh deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar for GONE WITH THE WIND. The film also won for Best Director (Victor Fleming) and Best Picture. Vivien Leigh owns that movie. She gives a galvanizing performance as Scarlett O'Hara.  Your eye is constantly on her. Nevertheless, as strong as her performance is, the only cast member who can pull focus from Vivien Leigh is actress Hattie McDaniel. When Hattie's in a scene with Vivien Leigh, you're looking at Hattie. Hattie had big screen charisma. She brings dimension and depth to a role that, in those Hollywood days, could have wound up just another generic plantation servant character. Hattie knew how to lift that character off the script page and give her a real life, a real vibrancy you could feel.
Hattie McDaniel was a gifted and versatile actress whose roles, even after she won the Oscar, were irritatingly limited because of race in Hollywood.  Hattie could deliver the goods in dramas, comedies and musicals. That brings me to 1936's SHOW BOAT, the first sound era version of the successful 1927 Broadway show.

Hattie McDaniel was born June 10, 1893. She was a groundbreaker. She was also a Hollywood outsider because she was black. James Whale directed 1936's SHOW BOAT. He was a groundbreaker. He was also a Hollywood outsider because he was openly gay. Whale changed the game for horror movies in the 1930s. He directed FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Look at BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN again. It's practically BROKEBACK MONSTER. The big, intimidating creature escapes from the bondage of conservative villagers and flees to the woods. He's given care, food and shelter by an older blind man who introduces the creature to classical music, wine, cigars and throw pillows. They have a nice, peaceful life together in a cottage in the woods until conservative white men with guns show up to disrupt and ruin it all. The next thing you know, the lonely monster is back in the conservative village on the verge of entering into what could seem like a marriage of convenience with the newly-created Bride of Frankenstein. That marriage will not work out. Tragedy will ensue. He was happier with the older guy in the woods.

Director James Whale had empathy for the outsider. In his version of SHOW BOAT, African-Americans are the outsiders and the attitudes of racism are The Monster. The 1951 MGM version, done in glorious Technicolor, softened the racial aspect. Whale makes his strong points with the power of visuals just like he did in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The show boat is a travelling theater eagerly awaited by the townsfolk in every stop along the Mississippi.

Notice when ticketholders walk into the show boat theater.

You see Americans, black and white, headed into the same place for entertainment. They're pretty much side-by-side, like animals boarding Noah's Ark, but notice they are separated. There are two lines. One for white people. One for black people. The white people are seated on the main floor. The black people have to sit upstairs in the segregated gallery.

Irene Dunne, first seen as the young lady who longs to be on the stage, is fascinated by all the performers. Her best friend -- and the show's main attraction -- is torch singer Julie LaVerne. I know that modern-day viewers may cringe at the blackface Irene Dunne's character does onstage. Blackface was a tradition at that time. I feel Whale is showing the bruising irony on the show boat that reflects society. Because of segregation, black folks could not be stars in the show. Black folks could not sit on the main floor. Black folks had to sit in the gallery where they endured watching a white person perform as a caricature of a black person and get applause.

In SHOW BOAT, Hattie McDaniel sings. She plays Queenie. Yes, Queenie is a servant character. However, this is one of those rare films in which Hattie plays a woman who has a man responding to her romantically. The character is Queenie's husband, Joe, played by one big handsome hunk o' man, famed singer/activist Paul Robeson.  Here's a photo of Robeson with director James Whale. Robeson sings "Ol' Man River." Unlike the 1951 MGM adaptation, as "Ol' Man River" is sung by Joe in the 1936 version of SHOW BOAT, we see how horribly racial oppression can wear down one's life. The original production covers a period from 1887 to 1927.
The way Whale stages the "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" number shows not only a warmth and relaxation, it shows an equality that society won't let exist on the stage or in the audience. This number happens in the kitchen where Queenie is the ship's cook. It happens before the disruptive revelation that Julie LaVerne is really a light-skinned black woman who kept her racial roots a secret. She's committed the crime of marrying a white man. When the truth is revealed by a law enforcement official, she'll be forced to leave the Mississippi River show boat.

See what I mean? The director of FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN may have seemed an odd choice to direct SHOW BOAT, a musical that includes a theme of racial prejudice. However, he was a perfect choice. As a gay man, he understood how it felt to be an outsider and excluded. He made racism the monster.
There is racial harmony in this number. In the kitchen, the three women can co-exist in the same space on the same level -- the black woman, the white woman and the light-skinned black woman who's been passing for white.  The monster of racism will come along and kill that harmony. Here are Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan. As Julie LaVerne, Helen Morgan recreates the role she originated on Broadway in 1927.

The wonderful Sir Ian McKellen, an openly gay actor, got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing director James Whale in the 1998 drama, GODS AND MONSTERS.  Hattie McDaniel was born this week in history. In addition to that, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Loving v. Virginia this week in 1967. The Supreme Court ruling made interracial marriage legal all across the country thanks to Mildred and Richard Loving. You read that correctly. Interracial marriage was still a crime in several states as America entered the 1960s. After being jailed in Virginia for simply getting married, Mildred and Richard Loving took their case to a high court. You can see their story in the fine 2016 film called LOVING. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are excellent as the landmark couple.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Female Power in THE WIZARD OF OZ

Iconic. That word is overused today. However, it truly does apply to the 1939 MGM release that launched Judy Garland's ascent to extraordinary film stardom and Hollywood legend status. One part of my childhood that I loved and waited eagerly for was to watch the annual network airing of THE WIZARD OF OZ.  It was usually around Easter time and always on a Sunday. This was definitely "must-see TV" for kids because this was way back in the days before cable, VHS, DVDs and such. THE WIZARD OF OZ aired once a year and only on one network. In our house, Mom always made that special night extra special by baking snack treats for us to enjoy while Dorothy Gale and her new-found friends went skipping down the Yellow Brick Road.
The movie still has a magical pull on me. I have grown to be more in awe of it as I got older. THE WIZARD OF OZ is something we rarely get today, today in the 21st Century. It is an original big screen musical with some of the most memorable, most poignant and some of the wittiest lyrics ever penned for a Hollywood film. I cannot remember and sing a single song from LA LA LAND but I can sing "Over the Rainbow," "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead," "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," "If I Were King of the Forest" and the other songs from that gorgeous original score.

Think about the comic book-based superhero franchise films we get today. A number of those characters are caped as they zoom through the air. Dorothy Gale flew through the air too. She flew when lifted up by a twister, an occurrence of nature.

We need to watch THE WIZARD OF OZ again. We need to appreciate it with modern-day movie-goer sensibilities. 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ is still a groundbreaker. It's an original action/fantasy musical with a strong feminist tone.  Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale shares a cinematic sisterhood with Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in 1986's ALIENS.

THE WIZARD OF OZ highlights the light and dark of female power.  Let's look at the opening of the film with the sepia-toned scenes on the humble farm in Kansas. Who really runs the farm? Uncle Henry? No. Kind-hearted Auntie Em is the take-charge force on the farm. She gives orders to the three male farmhands. Fantasy versions of them will be Dorothy's close friends in the Land of Oz.  The burr in Auntie Em's backside is that mean ol' Almira Gulch. She's the most powerful person in the county. She has authorities give her the power to take Toto away from Dorothy. Says Auntie Em, "Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us." Dorothy and Toto, her little dog, will run away from the financially-struggling farm and, well... you know what happens next.
Dorothy and Toto land in Oz. Who are the two main forces of power there? Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West, a green menace who resembles Almira Gulch. She is one of the most ruthless villains in a classic Hollywood film. In order to get the ruby slippers from Dorothy, slippers that will the Witch the greatest power in all of Oz, she's prepared to kill Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Man …. and Toto too. She'll also destroy Dorothy if she needs to. Dorothy, however, is more resourceful than she realizes -- especially when a friend is in danger.
Dorothy is a good human female who bravely saves a friend from an inhuman female force of evil. Think of Ellen Ripley rescuing Newt from the gigantic Alien Queen Monster in ALIENS.
Dorothy's three friends on the Yellow Brick Road are male characters. Toto is a male. In terms of Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West having the most power, you may say "What around the Wizard of Oz?"  Remember he really wasn't a wizard at all. He was just an ordinary man behind a curtain with a special effects machine.

Wearing the ruby slippers, Dorothy had more power than he did.
The Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda the Good Witch and Dorothy Gale. These are the characters who have the most power in THE WIZARD OF OZ.
At the end, Dorothy's brave and selfless act when Scarecrow was set on fire by the Wicked Witch unexpectedly liquidates the Wicked Witch.  Jubilant Dorothy expects that The Wizard of Oz can now take her safely home. Her hopes are dashed when she discovers he's just a man with no wizard-like skills at all. But Glinda arrives to tell Dorothy, with affection, that she's always possessed the power she needed to get back home all by herself.

Female power was a golden force in making this production a success if you consider the casting of young Judy Garland. She'd been under contract for about three years when she won the role of Dorothy Gale. She wanted it but MGM, her studio, originally sought to borrow Shirley Temple from 20th Century Fox. Temple, a major movie star, was about the right age for Dorothy as she is in the books by L. Frank Baum. Garland was technically a few years too old for the role, something that became a very minor point in the long run. Fox would not loan out Shirley Temple. This turned out to be a blessing. Judy had depth in her acting. She also had that exquisite singing voice, far superior to Shirley's. Judy Garland was a 16 year old who could act and sing. She had the soulfulness, longing, sweetness, spirit and charm the character needed. She also had, as Norman Maine says in 1954's A STAR IS BORN (starring Garland), "that little something extra" that equals "star quality."

Garland started production on the film in late 1938 when she had a few film appearances under her belt. However, she was not yet a star. In those films, she was a supporting player. Temple was a star. In that regard, MGM was taking a chance giving its contract player the lead role.

16 year old Judy Garland, a screen newcomer, starts work in the lead role of Dorothy Gale. She is surrounded by show biz veterans in their 30s and 40s. Her co-stars (Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, Billie Burke), the composers of the film's original songs (Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg), the director (Victor Fleming) and the producer (Mervyn LeRoy) are all twice her age or older. THE WIZARD OF OZ is an expensive, A-list production with a newcomer in the lead role -- a newcomer who's just a teen-ager. If her performance in the action/fantasy original screen musical doesn't work, the whole film falls apart. If she doesn't fully commit to the character, if we cannot believe that she believes in the film's fantasy and message, it fails. On top of that, she has to learn new songs in addition to all her dialogue. That was a lot of adult responsibility to put on the shoulders of a kid.
Garland's young female power as a singer and actress came forth. The rest is movie history. She took THE WIZARD OF OZ "Over the Rainbow" to an Oscar win for Best Song and a nomination for Best Picture.

Now go re-appreciate all the female power in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

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