Monday, July 21, 2014

Loved Me Some James Garner

He was one big handsome hunk o' talent on TV and the big screen.  Just like the Warner Brothers stars of the 1930s like James Cagney, he showed up with no controversy, got on stage and was totally honest as the character he played.  It was as simple as that.  In fact, he made the often difficult work of acting look simple because he just got out there and told the truth in the dramatic or comic role.  And, Lord, was he entertaining!
He always came across as the working class actor who took the work seriously but didn't take his image seriously.  James Garner had a refreshing "common man" charm.  He was not driven to be a star and, yet, he became one.  He had crossover appeal from one generation to the next.  Proof of that was in my household.  When I was a kid, ABC had a string of popular prime time westerns from Warner Bros.  He starred in one of the best.  Playing the gambler and good shot named Maverick, the series made him a prime time TV star.  My parents loved that weekly series.  So did I.  I thought he was the coolest of the cool as dapper Bret Maverick.
One of ABC's other TV western stars was Clint Walker as Cheyenne.  Like Garner, he was another beefcake TV star who'd go on to act opposite Doris Day in hit movie comedy.
Walker was the man who made a hypochondriac husband jealous in the Doris Day and Rock Hudson marital comedy, Send Me No Flowers.

Years later in the 1970s, James Garner again was the object of our family time at the TV.  The Rockford Files on NBC.  Those were the nights we bought excellent pizzas and watched Garner's excellent, witty private eye show.  It was his second hit TV series.
Growing up, I didn't care what the TV show or movie was about.  If James Garner was in it, I wanted to see it.  I totally dug him on Channel 9's "Million Dollar Movie" as Cash McCall.  That 1960 Warner Bros. film is not one of his most famous features but it's glossy entertainment that hooked me every time I saw it on local TV.  I watched him every week in TV western attire.  Cash McCall showed that he could also rock a tuxedo and a suit.  Cash McCall is a rich, young, bachelor businessman who falls for the daughter of a man whose failing business Cash wants to acquire.

It's a drama/comedy romance with A-list Warner Bros. production values and it floats thanks to the chemistry of its cast headed by Garner, lovely Natalie Wood, Dean Jagger and Nina Foch.  The scene in which Natalie Wood's character meets Cash, instantly falls for him and offers him her Technicolor lips fascinated me.  I didn't know her lips were Technicolor until several years later.  We had a black and white TV set when I was little.
That scene must've been hot stuff for teens seeing it on the big screen in 1960.  Cash did the right thing and didn't take advantage of the young, love-smitten lady.
Then came that magical, memorable Saturday afternoon.  I went to movies and saw The Great Escape.  Wow.  What excitement!  The matinee audience loved it.  James Garner may not have considered himself a star but he sure was a star to me when I saw him in The Great Escape.  Garner, Steve McQueen, Charles Coburn and Charles Bronson outwitting Nazis.  Hard to believe that well-written, well-acted prisoner of war action movie got only one Oscar nomination.  For editing.

Maybe that's what a movie star is -- someone you want to go to the movies to see and you don't really care what the movie is about and long as that actor is in it.  His work marked a milestone in our Rivers Family History.  1966's Dual at Diablo was a western drama co-starring Sidney Poitier.
By then, our family had grown from four to five.  Duel at Diablo was the first film we five saw in a walk-in movie theater because my brother, the youngest in the family, was old enough to sit in a theatre seat, an upgrade from our usual drive-in movie nights.  He didn't get fidgety.  We had a fun rainy Saturday afternoon seeing another really good movie starring James Garner.  The fact that Garner co-starred with the groundbreaking Oscar winner, Sidney Poitier, made that family movie outing even more significant for us.

My parents gently coaxed me to watch Garner in Sayonara.  Marlon Brando was the star but Garner's onscreen charisma held its own opposite Brando.  Mom and Dad felt it had an important message about the senselessness and tragedy of racial discrimination.  Brando and Garner were U.S. Air Force members stationed in Japan during the Korean War.  The story focused on how the U.S. military opposed its white men marrying Japanese women.  In 1963, James Garner, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier were some of the stars who participated in Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March of Washington for Civil Rights.  Here's Garner at the march holding the hand of Diahann Carroll.
The Great Escape is now considered a classic.  When I went to the movies in my adolescent and teen years, I felt he gave classic performances even if the movies didn't become classics -- like the 1968 marital comedy How Sweet It Is! with Debbie Reynolds taking on the kind of 1960s wife role opposite Garner that usually went to Doris Day.

I wish he'd done another comedy with Debbie Reynolds.  They were good together in How Sweet It Is!

There's The Art of Love, a goofy comedy about a struggling artist in Paris.  It teamed Garner with Dick Van Dyke and Ethel Merman as the pink-haired Madame Coco.
What I dug about James Garner was hit "What are you, nuts?!?!" scowl and slow burn he got on his face when having to endure some of an unexpected drama someone tossed at him.  I loved that look.  I also loved that, even though you could work his character's last good nerve and make him cranky, he was always the gent and the loyal buddy who had your back.  He'd lose his temper but he'd stick by you.  My favorite Garner characters made you feel safe and only demanded that you be a regular guy -- even if you were a girl.  Or a girl pretending to be a guy.

Today it's almost commonplace for actors to accept TV and/or movies scripts that embrace sexual diversity.  But in the 1960s through the 1980s, taking on such material was pretty bold.  Garner did that in two films.  He was the male lead in another film that aired on L.A.'s Channel 9 when I was a boy.  It aired at night for "mature audiences."  The material was beyond me because I was so young when I first saw it, but I was sharp enough to realize Garner's commitment to the material and his character.  It was William Wyler's remake The Children's Hour.  He'd directed a 1930s version of the Broadway play.  That 1936 version was retitled These Three and the implied lesbianism of the play was deleted because of Hollywood production codes (censorship) of the time.  But it still had the grit of what happens when a vicious lie spreads.  In 1961, Wyler remade it retaining Lillian Hellman's original title, the lesbian subject matter plus the bigotry towards people accused of being gay.  Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine co-starred.
The acting is very good and the film has some memorable scenes.  But I prefer what Wyler did in his original version.

He starred opposite Doris Day in what I feel are two of her best comedies.  One was a remake.  Cary Grant and Irene Dunne starred in the funny 1940 hit, My Favorite Wife.                        

Dunne's character had been lost on a tropical island for seven years and was declared legally dead.  Her husband remarried.  Well...she wasn't dead and she returns to him seven years later as he's in a hotel elevator on his way to his honeymoon night.  Now thing's are complicated.  He and the non-dead wife have two children.  He's still in love with her, she's still in love with him and their kids find his new wife to be annoying.  She is annoying.  Hilarity ensues.  Marilyn Monroe was remaking this for director George Cukor when she died during production.  The remake title was Something's Got To Give.

Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Cyd Charisse and Tom Tryon (actor-turned-bestselling novelist with his  supernatural thriller, The Other, turned into a box office hit movie that he produced) took on the roles originally played by Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Gail Patrick and Randolph Scott.

A year after Monroe's untimely death, the project was repackaged and recast.  James Garner and Doris Day starred in this remade comedy of remarriage now called Move Over, Darling.

As much as I loved Marilyn Monroe, that remake felt like a much better fit for James Garner and Doris Day.  Move Over, Darling is the one in which Doris gets stuck in a car that goes through a car wash.  Garner was a mighty fine follow-up to Cary Grant and, like Grant, he was a pro at screen comedy.  He and Day were also delightful in The Thrill of It All.  He plays her doctor husband in that one.  She's the housewife who becomes a TV reality star of sorts when she does live commercials for bath soap.
One of Garner's other successful remakes used comedy to embrace sexual diversity.  He had great chemistry with Doris Day in two movies.  He had great chemistry with Julie Andrews in two movies.  One of them was Blake Edwards' Victor Victoria.  He's the Chicago tough guy in Paris checking out a new act he might be able to take back to Chicago to headline in one of his nightclubs.  He's accompanied by his blonde bimbo girlfriend (fabulously played by Lesley Ann Warren).  The act turns out to be a female impersonator called Victor (fabulously played by Julie Andrews).  Victor is really Victoria, a struggling soprano who falls for the tough guy while she's pretending to be a guy who pretends to be a girl onstage.

James Garner Americanized the role originally played by Anton Walbrook (of The Red Shoes) in the 1933 German comedy, Viktor und Viktoria.

Blake Edwards' 1982 remake was a big hit, perfectly timed for a decade in which gay Americans were coming out and demanding respect.  Victor Victoria was a faithful remake with a clever script that expanded upon sexual stereotypes and sexual diversity.  It was inspired.  Not only did it highlight the screwball comedy chops of Julie Andrews, changing the role of the blonde socialite to a brassy dumb blonde showgirl was brilliant.  As did Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren got an Oscar nomination for her work in this film.  Garner, as usual, made comedy look easy with that slow burn.  He's terrific in Victor Victoria.  It's one of Hollywood's last truly wonderful screwball comedies.

I feel that his previous film with Julie Andrews rates re-appreciation.  In between Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, she showed her dramatic skills in a smart film with a definite sexual element.  War, sex and heroism are topics in this World War 2 satire with a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky of Network fame.

The Americanization of Emily, in which Julie Andrews plays a British woman in uniform who is not a virgin, is one of Garner's best films.  He gives one of his finest film performances in it as Charlie, an American G.I. who loves the good life while troops are dying in the fight for democracy.  He's not heartless.  And he's no hypocrite.  He sees how war is marketed.  Charlie knows the absurdities of war.

The Americanization of Emily is worth a look.  Worth a second look, if you've already seen it.  Garner and Julie Andrews brought out the best in each other onscreen.

James Garner seemed to have an effortless, natural chemistry with all his co-stars.  Remember the popular TV commercials for Polaroid that he did with Mariette Hartley back in the '70s?  She's a good veteran actress, a woman who made her big screen debut opposite two major Hollywood stars -- Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in 1962's Ride the High Country.  But no movie role seemed to make her as nationally popular as those delightful, wisecracking commercials with Garner.  They were so popular together that many viewers thought they were married.
They weren't married to each other but, as in his acting, his commitment in marriage was just as impressive and inspirational.  He was married to the same woman for over 50 years.

Doing the work that you love and going home to someone special that you love, what a wonderful life that would be.  That would make me feel like a star whether I was big at the box office or not.

From the Oscar-winning Sayonara (1957) to Grand Prix (1966) to 1982's Victor Victoria, James Garner starred in films that earned Oscar nominations for production teammates on or off the screen.  I was thrilled when he got a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for the 1985 charmer, Murphy's Romance co-starring another ABC prime time series veteran, Sally Field.

Another film that he did, and another one of my favorites even though it's not one one of his best-known movies, is the 1996 Warner Bros. comedy My Fellow Americans.  He and Jack Lemmon starred as bickering former U.S. presidents who must get over their political differences and team up to fight some dangerous political intrigue.  Sexual diversity is embraced in this Garner film too.  Just like when I was a kid seeing The Great Escape, I was happy and entertained once again at a James Garner movie.

Whether in feel-good comedies, action movies, or darker and more complicated dramas like 36 Hours and Mister Buddwing and Marlowe (in which he followed Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery and Dick Powell in the role of private eye Philip Marlowe), he excelled.  He did make it all look easy.  He credited his skills to others saying, with great humility, "I just do what the writers write."

I saw Garner in a national TV interview -- it may have been conducted by Robert Osborne on TCM -- and he was asked how he'd like to be remembered.  He said that he wanted to be remembered with a smile.

That is indeed how I will remember actor James Garner.  He made me smile for most of my life.  He leaves behind performances that will continue to make me smile.

James Garner.  He was a class act.  First class all the way.

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