Thursday, May 30, 2013


Leave Her To Heaven starring Gene Tierney.  That 20th Century Fox melodrama gets me every time.  She plays a beautiful young socialite whose heart belonged to daddy -- and it's murder on her family.  Just like in Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Blvd., there's obsession, jealousy, love, water, death...and a writer.  Leave Her To Heaven is not in black and white, but it has such dark emotions and deeds that Martin Scorcese calls this 1945 movie, "film noir in Technicolor."  Like Polanski's Chinatown.  I totally agree.
Gene Tierney was a longtime star at the studio known for its "Fox blondes" -- like Alice Faye, Sonja Henie, Betty Grable and iconic sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe.  Tierney was a raven-haired beauty who usually played sympathetic characters.  She was the young and talented Manhattan career girl loved by many in the classic film noir murder mystery, Laura.  Directed by Otto Preminger, it's also one of Tierney's signature films.

She's not so lovable in Leave Her To Heaven.  Her character, Ellen, is lovely but there's something monstrous under that gorgeous exterior.  Her own mother senses it.  If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.  If you haven't, I'll let you discover it for yourself.  If you have seen the movie, it's worth another look for the imaginative art direction.  Lyle R. Wheeler contributed to that.  One color dominates.  It's a blue-green that you'd associate with lake water.  It dominates when the movie opens and we see Ellen having dozed off while reading a novel in a train car.  Notice the car's interior.

This is how the fellow passenger, gentle novelist Richard Harland (played by Cornel Wilde), will see her.  It's his novel that Ellen Berent is reading.  But she doesn't know it.

He will politely make her acquaintance after being caught by her sleeping beauty.

Ellen is immediately attracted to this stranger on a train.  Not because he's a handsome young man, but because he bears such a striking resemblance to her late father.

As the story unravels, there will be a psychological use of this pretty color.  It comes to represent Ellen's dark obsession and jealousy.  We see it in the intense, famous rowboat scene on the lake.  By this time, she's married the man who looks like her father.

We see it in in the sleepwear attire she dons while upstairs after an argument with a loved one.  She's having another fit of jealousy.  Her family will be stricken with another tragedy.

We see it behind Richard and others in Ellen's life during the courtroom scenes near the end.  It's the same color that surrounded Richard and Ellen when they met on the train.

Gene Tierney received one Oscar nomination in her film career -- and it was for 1945's Leave Her To Heaven.  The Oscar went to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce.  If you young acting students want an example of how effective stillness can be onscreen, watch Tierney's performance in this film.  When she's alone on a horse in the hills, spreading the ashes of her dead father, you wonder "What is she thinking?"  It's like a moment out of some Greek tragedy with a somber music score that serves as a warning.

We get a clue into her true nature as she and Richard have a sandwich after her private funeral service for her father.  Iron-willed Ellen worshipped her father extremely.  About this extreme worship, Dr. Freud would've said, "Oh, girl...we need to talk."  She tells the smitten novelist that he's eating delicious wild turkey that's found roaming near the family's place there in New Mexico.  Ellen casually reveals how much fun she has shooting those turkeys because they're so clumsy and stupid that they can't fly away.

And, once again, there's the rowboat scene.  Gene Tierney makes her fabulous face as still as a death mask.  She wears shades.  Just like Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis does in Double Indemnity while she's in a Los Angeles supermarket, meeting her lover by the canned beans to plot her husband's murder.  You wonder what the hell is going on in that twisted mind of Ellen's.  This sequence in Leave Her To Heaven, directed by John M. Stahl, surely helped Tierney land her Best Actress Oscar nomination.  Stahl also directed the original versions of Back Street (1932) starring Irene Dunne, Imitation of Life (1934) starring Claudette Colbert and Magnificent Obsession (1935) also starring Irene Dunne.

Says Ellen to Richard, "I'll never let you go.  Never, never, never."  This is a tale of obsession, one that is smartly framed, photographed and decorated.  Look at the film literature is this shot.  Notice the books to the right of Richard and the guns to the right of Ellen as she holds him.  Those details tell you something about the characters.  She wants him.  Only him.  Ellen is always the winner, always the loner.  She can be tender and brutal.  Even her immediate family isn't fully aware of her madness.  Ellen's widowed mother remarks, "There's nothing wrong with Ellen.  It's just that she loves too much."

Leave Her To Heaven also stars Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price.

There's also a terrific, memorable supporting role performance by teen actor Darryl Hickman as the  writer's disabled younger brother.  If another cast member in this picture had scored an Oscar nomination, it should have been young Darryl Hickman in the Best Supporting Actor category.  He's excellent.

Cornel Wilde was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor of 1945.  Not for this film but for A Song to Remember, a historical biopic love story made at another studio.  Wilde played classical music composer Frederic Chopin.  Merle Oberon was his leading lady, co-starring as George Sand, the famed French novelist.  In one scene she carries a candelabra to place on the composer's piano.  That scene had a great impact on a young pianist from Milwaukee who became known as Liberace.  A candelabra became part of his act.

Besides Tierney in the Best Actress race, the film received Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.  It won for the color cinematography.  Leave Her To Heaven came out on Blu-ray recently and aired a couple of weeks ago on cable's TCM.  I watched it again that night.  Wow.  The rich, bright Technicolor really pops in the restored edition.  The sumptuous color production is a different yet effective way to present a definite femme fatale with a heart of darkness.

This movie must've been an awesome feast for the eyes on the big screen.  Watch the contrast of the vivid colors to the chilling actions in the film.  Watch how Ellen moves through the tranquil, sea-like aquamarine color in costume and set design like a seductive, dangerous fish in the water.  In 1988, it was redone as a TV movie starring blonde Loni Anderson, formerly of the WKRP in Cincinnati sitcom cast.  Anderson did this after she acted in a TV remake of another classic film that co-starred Jeanne Crain.  She took on the Linda Darnell role in TV's A Letter To Three Wives.  Loni Anderson played Ellen in the TV version of Leave Her To Heaven which was re-titled Too Good To Be True.  It was no match for the original -- a classic Fox film that I highly recommend you rent for some weekend enjoyment.  I think you'll agree with Scorcese...just like I did.

For a DVD double feature with more heaven and Gene Tierney, lighten the mood with an afterlife romantic comedy.  Famed director Ernst Lubitsch, the man worshipped by Billy Wilder, made only one film in Technicolor -- and it's a gem.  An often overlooked gem.  Heaven Can Wait stars Tierney opposite a delightful Don Ameche.
Based on a play, this 1943 comedy opens with a recently deceased and stylish old gentleman who goes to the lower level.  Henry assumes that, because he had a definite eye for the ladies during his most of his long life and marriage, he'll wind up in Hades after his life review.  We look back on this sweet playboy's life.  We see how his roving eye started.  We see how the enchanting and lovely Martha won his heart.

Insecure Martha was afraid that she would wind up a lonely spinster in Kansas.  New Yorker Henry made sure that didn't happen.  He may have had to pay off a chorus girl or two here and there, but Martha remained his loving and loyal wife for 25 years.

What will "His Excellency" make of Henry Van Cleve's life review?  Watch and see.

Fox's Heaven Can Wait starring Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, Charles Coburn, Spring Byington and Marjorie Main got Oscar nominations for Best Picture of 1943 and brought Ernst Lubitsch one for Best Director.  It's a Criterion Collection DVD release.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Downey Jr. Picked Himself Up

You have to give him credit.  He cleans up very well.
Robert Downey Jr. was one of my most memorable guests on my VH1 talk show in the late 1980s.  He was very late arriving to the studio for the taping.  His clothes were quite rumpled.  He was talkative.  One of the first things he said in the interview was, "I've never done drugs."

Seriously.  And I hadn't even asked.  But he wanted us to believe that he didn't have that in common with the character he played in his new movie, Less Than Zero.

Less Than Zero was such a truly 1980s movie, a decade for his "bad boy" behavior.

Remember when he was a cast member on NBC's Saturday Night Live in the mid '80s?  Robert Downey Jr. got his share of "bad boy" press because of his party drug behavior.  But one could never say that he lacked talent.  I admit that I was a bit irritated because he was so late showing up.  But I was impressed with that performance.  I am so glad he got control of himself and gave us even better performances.  I did the DTST (Danny Thomas Spit Take) with my soda watching his comic brilliance in Tropic Thunder, directed by co-star Ben Stiller. It's one of Downey's Oscar-nominated roles.  He deserved that Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.  His work as the vain but vapid movie actor shooting a war movie on location was, alone, worth the price of the movie ticket.
You just know this hue-altered character sees himself as a male Meryl Streep.  It was one of the funniest and smartest comedy performances I'd seen a guy deliver in a long time.  Downey is two characters -- the pompous method actor movie star who's clueless in the jungle and the character the movie star is playing in this jinxed action production.

My other favorite Robert Downey Jr. movie performances are in Soapdish, Wonder Boys, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Zodiac and the current Iron Man franchise.  One day, I'll get to rent Chaplin.  I hear he's outstanding as silent screen legend, Charlie Chaplin.  I'm an uncle now.  My two young nephews totally loved him in Iron Man 3.  Millions of others seem to be loving him too based on the Iron Man 3 box office reports.

I'm so glad he conquered that pain in his heart, let some light in and got good roles to put his versatility on display.

As for his "I've never done drugs" statement on my show way back when, a future guest came on who'd seen the show.  Off-camera, he said to me "Oh, please.  He was the biggest pusher at Hebrew camp."

I cannot tell you who broke me up laughing when he made that remark with a totally deadpan expression.  Like  Robert Downey Jr., he's still working.  He stars on a very popular TV series.

I'm eager to see Iron Man 3.  And Chaplin.

By the way...if you want a real edgy DVD double feature one weekend, rent Tropic Thunder.  But, first, watch James Whitmore star in the controversial 1964 race drama based on a real life story.  The independent film is called Black Like Me, based on the autobiographical book of the same name.
And, yes, it stars the same James Whitmore from the movies Battleground, The Asphalt Jungle, Kiss Me Kate, Them! and The Shawshank Redemption.  He plays a reporter who goes undercover as a black man to gain first-hand knowledge of the minority experience in America.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

John Landis on CABIN IN THE SKY

Movie director John Landis needed me as his segment producer.  Also, his short video shows why we have Black History Month -- to keep our history accurate.  Landis talks about CABIN IN THE SKY, the 1943 MGM musical movie adaptation of a Broadway hit featuring recording and Broadway star Ethel Waters. He makes incorrect statements about Ethel Waters' Broadway stardom and about Best Song Oscar history in his opening minute.

This all-black musical was the first feature film directed by Vincente Minnelli, the man who'd go on to direct some of MGM's best and most famous musicals.  His An American in Paris starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1951.  Minnelli won the Best Director Oscar for Gigi, also starring Leslie Caron, and it was the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1958.  Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, and The Band Wagon, starring Fred Astaire, were other future Minnelli hits.  He came from Broadway.  As did Ethel Waters.  As did A Cabin in the Sky.  When Ethel Waters premiered in that new musical, she'd been a Broadway star since the 1930s.
On Broadway, she sang tunes that became pop standards -- like Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave."  She introduced "Heat Wave" in Irving Berlin's 1933 Broadway hit, As Thousands Cheer.  Since the 1920s, she was a top recording star.  Ethel Waters is another black performer spotlighted in the Ken Burns' Jazz documentary.  She had a 1933 hit record with "Stormy Weather," a song that became associated with Lena Horne in the following decade and the rest of her career.  Horne sang it in the 20th Century Fox all-black 1943 musical, Stormy Weather.  Waters was definitely a Broadway star.
She added film appearances to her resume.  Here she is in the 1933 musical short Rufus Jones for President.  There's Ethel Waters holding a very young Sammy Davis Jr who played Rufus Jones.  His terrific musical talents were evident even then.

Cabin in the Sky premiered on Broadway in 1940.  Her leading man was Dooley Wilson.  He'd go on to movie fame as "Sam" in Casablanca, having key scenes with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  He and stage co-star, Ethel Waters, would get to do a movie scene together in MGM's 1942 musical comedy, Cairo.  In the movie, Waters played the maid to Jeanette MacDonald's character.  Ethel didn't look pleased about it.

In the 1943 Minnelli film version for MGM's famed producer of A-list musicals, Arthur Freed, the Dooley Wilson part of "Joe" went to Eddie Anderson.  At the time, Anderson was hugely popular as "Rochester," a regular on Jack Benny's hit comedy radio show.
The beautiful Lena Horne, a sophisticated and talented band singer, made her film acting debut as the temptress, Georgia Brown, in this musical folk tale fantasy.

It's a power struggle between good and bad for Joe's soul in this story.  Will Joe be good and make his Bible-lovin' wife happy?  Or will gambling and Georgia Brown lead him astray?  Here's a photo with Lena Horne and director Vincente Minnelli.  He's to the left of her.  That looks like actor Melvyn Douglas on her right.
A new song was written for the movie version and Ethel Waters performed it beautifully.  It was written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, the pair that wrote all the original songs for 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Landis got the name of the song wrong.  It's "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe."  Not what he says in his video.  One more thing:  It did not win the Oscar for Best Song.  He was incorrect there, too.  The Oscar went to "You'll Never Know" sung by Alice Faye in Hello, Frisco, Hello.  Here's Landis.
Finally...does Landis know that the movie musical stardom of Waters and Horne, and the rest of those gifted black performers, was limited due to racial attitudes in Hollywood, especially in the 1930s and '40s?  Did Ethel have as many opportunities for future lead roles in musical comedies as Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams or June Allyson did? After 1943's Cabin in the Sky, her next film appearance did not come until 1949.  That was in the racial drama, Pinky, directed by Elia Kazan.  Waters played a maid.  She's also the grandmother of a light-skinned woman who studied to be a nurse.  Pinky, played by Jeanne Crain, is angry and conflicted.  She's light enough to pass for white and escape racism.  If she passes for white, she can move up in her profession and have equal opportunities.  She's angry that her grandmother was treated like a second-class citizen.
The grandmother sees her granddaughter headed for heartbreak if she's not true to herself.  And if she's not true to her race.  This was strong pre-Civil Rights movement material for Hollywood.
Ethel Waters made Hollywood history with this performance.  She was the second black performer to be nominated for an Oscar.  The first was Hattie McDaniel who won for 1939's classic, Gone With The Wind.  Hattie won for Best Supporting Actress.  Ethel Waters, for Pinky, was nominated in that same category.

Waters had another Broadway success and, again, was lucky enough to repeat the role in  the movie adaptation.  Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and Brandon De Wilde reprised their stage roles in 1952's Member of the Wedding.  Fred Zinnemann directed the film.

I do agree with John Landis that you should see Ethel Waters in Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky.  On that, he was not wrong.  Just listen to her glorious singing voice.  It's like an orchestra unto itself.  What a shame that color limited her future Hollywood film opportunities back then.  As it did the rest of that talented cast which included Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.  As for that Cabin in the Sky video commentary by John Landis -- I should've researched it for him.  And I should've written it.
Look for Cabin in the Sky on Turner Classic Movies.  To learn more about the legendary entertainer, check out the most recent book from noted film historian and TCM contributor Donald Bogle:  Heat Wave:  The Life and Career of Ethel Waters.
Director John Landis should add this book to his library.  Just a thought.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...