Sunday, August 31, 2014

Roz Russell Labor Day Double Feature

"Labor Day.  That's sometime in November, isn't it?"                                                                          
So says the charming and charismatic Auntie Mame to her new little love at the end of the colorful comedy that highlights diversity and chosen family in New York City. Transferring her Broadway hit to the big screen, the role brought Rosalind Russell another Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  This was a role she was born to play. In her early 50s, Russell was sophisticated, radiant, energetic and memorably funny in the part.  It's a great performance in a must-see classic film comedy.

Auntie Mame was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1958.

Picnic, co-starring Rosalind Russell, was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1955.  Like Auntie Mame, it was a project that originated on the Broadway stage.  Roz didn't star in the Broadway play.  She replaced Eileen Heckart as the middle-aged, high school teacher who's afraid she'll live the rest of her life as an old maid, an unmarried woman.  In 1950s movies, you were an old maid if you were 29 and a single woman without a steady boyfriend.  Rosemary digs a good stiff drink once a while.  Well, more than once in a while.  You'll see at the Labor Day picnic.
This is of my longtime favorite Labor Day movie rentals.  The action starts on Labor Day.  William Holden plays a drifter in Kansas.  He'd been in L.A. and there was a hint of him becoming a movie star because of his butch good looks, but nothing happened.  Now he's in Kansas looking up a buddy from college days.  The town is preparing for the holiday picnic.  The drifter, Hal, seeks some handyman work but everyone has the day off.  He stays and helps a local family.  Come to find out, the oldest daughter, Madge, is the town beauty queen and the girlfriend of Hal's old frat house buddy, Alan.

Madge has an intellectual and neurotic younger sister, an unmarried and bitter mother who's pushing Madge to marry the safe and financially secure college Alan...and Rosemary the spinster lives in the house too.  Rosemary has a bumpkin of a middle-aged man she sees but she doesn't take him seriously in that conservative, dull town.

Hal enters with his macho self and carbonates the hormones of all those females.  They're all repressed in a very 1950s way.  He sets their hormones spinning like they're in those giant teacups at DisneyLand.  Of course, Madge falls for Hal.  The dames will have a corn-fed meltdown at the picnic.  Rosemary will drink too much and cruise Hal's package.  Then she'll make a drunken pass at him.
The intellectual sister will have a drink and cry because she's not pretty like Madge.  The mother is still angry that her husband deserted her.  Madge realizes that Hal is sexier that Alan.  Kim Novak plays Madge and Cliff Robertson plays nice-guy Alan.  One reason why I love the letter-boxed DVD is the community pool locker room scene in the first 20 minutes.  Shirtless William Holden and Cliff Robertson are talking.  On a big screen, Robertson's nipples look the size of nuclear missiles ready for launching.
The other thing I love is the famous dance scene.  This is one of the coolest and sexiest movie dances from Old Hollywood studio days that was ever performed by two non-dancers.  Holden didn't want to do the role.  He felt he was too old.  Technically, he was.  But, he was big box office at the time and he'd won a Best Actor Oscar for Billy Wilder's 1953 World War 2 prison story, Stalag 17.  Holden's name on a marquee brought in movie goers -- and it certainly did with this hit film.  Also, Holden hated having to shave his chest hair to make him look younger.  Those discomforts gave him an edginess and insecurity that worked for the Hal character.
The only woman who can handle Hal's rugged masculinity is the kindly old next door neighbor played by Verna Felton.  She lives with her ailing -- and loud -- elderly mother.  As soon as Helen Potts (Felton) meets Hal the drifter, she offers him food and tells him to take off his shirt.  Work it, Helen!
The love theme to Picnic, blended into an instrumental of "Moonglow," became a pop music hit from the soundtrack.  That jazz cut knocks me out in the movie.  It makes no sense in the scene but it totally works.  Watch it and notice what a master Holden was of screen technique.  He's not a dancer.  But look at how he sensually caresses Kim Novak's hand.  That's where his real choreography is.  It reveals Hal's hidden feelings.  Plus the way they stop, gaze at each other, then resume swaying to the beat.  Oh, baby, I dig that.

Why does the instrumental make no sense?  The town is at this Kansas picnic.

Listen to the conservative music that's played from bandstands during the picnic portion of the movie.  At nighttime, the music has all been on the bland Lawrence Welk side.  Perfect for that section of Heartland America. When Hal tells the bookworm sister that he'll teach her a dance step her learned in L.A., the music instantly goes from small town whitebread to sounding like the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  A cool Pacific Coast jazz beat comes out of nowhere -- but I'm so glad it did.

Hal and Madge have fallen in love.  But Rosemary has been drinking straight from the bottle and wants to dance with Hal horizontally. And feels him up to prove it.  She makes a hot mess of herself at the picnic.  Maybe life will give her break come the morning light.
There you have it.  The same holiday mentioned in two classic films with Roz -- Auntie Mame and Picnic.  You can have a holiday double feature starring Rosalind Russell and see Cliff Robertson's perky nipples in one of her films.  Happy Labor Day.

1 comment:

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