Monday, August 31, 2020

A Sergio Mendes Music Break

It is still summer. Saturday, the weather here was lovely. Sunny, comfortably warm and with a nice breeze. As the afternoon grew later, it reminded me of those wonderful Saturday afternoons back in Los Angeles when I was a kid. Mom, Dad, my sister, our little brother and me in the living room with the front door open. We'd be getting a delicious Pacific Coast breeze through the screen door. The smooth, familiar voice of local TV sportscaster would be on local CBS covering horseraces from Hollywood Park and chatting with Hollywood stars. Dad would've grilled hamburgers and hot dogs in the backyard. He was a master on the barbecue. His burgers were classic. Thick, juicy burgers practically the size of Frisbees. For me, Saturdays like that matched Christmas Eve -- because we'd be going to the drive-in movies. Going to the drive-in was my absolute favorite family pastime. Especially when Mom wrapped up the extra burgers and hot dogs, along with chips and a soft drink in a thermos, for our nighttime snacks during the movies. In my Southern California youth, I loved Saturdays in the summer with the family on our block. At the drive-in, you had to hook a little box-like metal audio gizmo onto your window for the sound. At the drive-ins then, there would be music playing before the features started. At the drive-in, on the radio at home, on TV, I always loved hearing Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66.  This group was just the coolest. It provided many of the best sounds of summer. So, let's have a little Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 music break.

Here's the group on the old HOLLYWOOD PALACE variety show. Weekend entertainment on ABC.

Here's my favorite by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. Their tasty version of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune from the 1967 James Bond spoof, CASINO ROYALE. Here's "The Look of Love."


I hope you enjoyed some of the music from my L.A. youth.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Muriel Box's SUBWAY IN THE SKY

In 1947, she won an Oscar for co-writing the Best Original Screenplay. The movie was the British psychological drama, THE SEVENTH VEIL starring James Mason and Ann Todd. Through the 1950s, she took her place behind the camera and directed several feature films. She directed Shelley Winters, Peter Finch, Julie Harris, Laurence Harvey, and Peggy Cummins, Glynis Johns and Sir Ralph Richardson. Those were noted actors. So why, even in today's discussion of female directors past and present, do we never hear any mention of director Muriel Box? I feel the late director still suffers from the absolute, undiluted, 100% misogyny of the male film critics in her day. I've read reviews of her films. Some were unjustly, uncomfortably harsh. It seems that she never had a champion, never had anyone to applaud her breaking the glass ceiling of the British filmmakers boys club. Why didn't the American film critics give her any encouragement? An Oscar-winning female screenwriter became a British film director working through the 1950s. That was quite an achievement. Director Muriel Box is a forgotten trailblazer in the category of female filmmakers -- and that needs to change.
Maybe she wasn't a David Lean, Carol Reed or Lina Wertmüller. Maybe some of her dramas didn't have the overall gritty and concise punch of the Hollywood films actress Ida Lupino directed in the early 1950s. Nonetheless, Muriel Box gave moviegoers some entertaining features that boasted fine performances.
I written blog posts about films directed by Muriel Box that I've seen. The films are: BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW (1953), CASH ON DELIVERY (1954), SIMON AND LAURA (1955), EYEWITNESS (1956) and THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN (1957). Overall, her films were just as entertaining as Hollywood films from 20th Century Fox in the early 1950s. I thought of the Fox dramas DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK and VICKI. I thought of the early '50s Fox comedies LET'S MAKE IT LEGAL and WE'RE NOT MARRIED, both featuring Marilyn Monroe. Shelley Winters as the lovable, brassy American babe in England trying to claim an inheritance in CASH ON DELIVERY was just as much fun as those two Fox comedies directed by men. Had it been a Hollywood project at Columbia Pictures in the late 1940s, the studio probably would've tooled it for Lucille Ball like it's 1949 comedy, MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND, co-starring William Holden. Here's a photo of director Box with Shelley Winters.
Box's comedy, SIMON AND LAURA, lampooned live reality TV in the early days of the BBC decades before reality TV became standard TV fare. BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW is a solid crime drama focused on the hard work of policewomen. Not only was Box a divorced female director (when married, Sydney Box was her co-screenwriter of THE SEVENTH VEIL), her directorial trademark was to focus on the female experience be it funny or serious.

Saturday, I found another film directed by Muriel Box. She directed another Hollywood actor. Van Johnson starred in the military murder mystery, 1959's SUBWAY IN THE SKY. I had a good time watching this mystery/romance. SUBWAY IN THE SKY is another Box film that made me think of the Hollywood films from Fox in the early '50s. In fact, I could see the SUBWAY IN THE SKY script having been tailored as a film noir-ish drama for Betty Grable, something like her 1941 movie, I WAKE UP SCREAMING.

The scene is Berlin. We see a U.S. military jeep speeding back to the base. A sergeant is killed in the woods. The search is on for the killer. In the city, lovely and sophisticated Hildegarde Knef  appears as Lilli. She's renting a deluxe apartment for six months. She's renting it from a rather nervous woman named Anna who's quickly leaving Berlin to care for her terminally ill sister. She dodges leaving a forwarding address. Lilli is with a friend who would like to be more than a friend. However, Lilli tells him honestly that she treasures his friendship. However, she now loves being single and independent. She was married. She loves her job and she loves her life as a single woman who can take care of herself. Lilli sings at a classy nightclub. Says Lilli, "I always wanted to live in a penthouse..." and "...I fancy myself as a spinster."

While alone, Lilli is frightened to see a U.S. soldier enter her apartment. He had a key. He's Baxter Grant and he's wanted as a deserter. How does he have access to the apartment? He's the husband to Anna who's later described as "unstable, neurotic." Baxter deserted because he was framed for a crime. He was a medical officer framed for peddling drugs. This all ties in to the murder. Lilli allows him to hideout and be her roommate while she goes to work and tries to deflect U.S. military police from searching her apartment. The plot may be a bit far-fetched. I think the best way to view this movie is as an enjoyable B-movie mystery.

One of the highlights of the movie is Lilli at work. Dressed like she's ready to be photographed by Richard Avedon for the cover of a glossy fashion magazine, Hildegarde Knef, with her throaty voice, sings a tasty jazz tune called "Love Isn't Love."

Baxter and Lilli will fall for each other. To show how their attraction has progressed, there's a scene that would've been forbidden in a Van Johnson Hollywood film of the 1950s. The camera travels into Lilli's room. We see clothing strewn about on the floor and on furniture and then it pans over to show us her double bed. He's lying shirtless on one side under the covers. We see that a head had rested on the pillow next to his. Then we hear Lilli in the shower. That was pretty sexy for 1959.

After that, the hunt to find the killer intensifies.  As for the odd title, it came from Baxter's childhood. In New York, he got lost once on the subway and felt helpless. Now he has that same feeling of helplessness in Lilli's -- sing it along with me -- "deluxe apartment in the sky -- hy..."

SUBWAY IN THE SKY directed by Muriel Box runs about 90 minutes.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

On Chadwick Boseman

This has been the cruelest year. Many of our hearts suddenly cracked and broke again Friday night when we read the news that actor Chadwick Boseman died. He'd been battling cancer since 2016. While battling it, he continued to work. A message on social media from those close to him read "It was the honor of his career to bring King T'Challa to life in BLACK PANTHER. He died in his home, with his wife and family by his side."  Chadwick Boseman, in his early 40s, died loved and appreciated -- probably loved and appreciated more than he ever knew.
He was well-cast as baseball great Jackie Robinson in 42, a 2013 biopic addressing the racism Robinson faced in professional sports while he batted through segregation.
                                                                                               
As good as he was, I felt Boseman was even better as singer James Brown in GET ON UP. Lord have mercy, he burned up the screen with that performance! I was in awe of his talent. I was proud of his talent. Viola Davis starred as the mother of James Brown. Octavia Spencer co-starred  The biopic was directed by Tate Taylor, the man who directed Viola and Octavia in THE HELP (2011).

In 2017, we saw Chadwick Boseman in another big screen biopic. In MARSHALL, the versatile young actor played the man who became the first African American Supreme Court Justice. He starred as Thurgood Marshall.

Then came 2018's BLACK PANTHER with Chadwick Boseman as King T'Challa.


Even as recently as the 1980s, Hollywood's discriminatory notion was "Black stories don't sell." Director Norman Jewison, a successful Caucasian Canadian whose IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967 with Rod Steiger taking home the Oscar for Best Actor. was stunned at the top studio rejections he got when he wanted money to film A SOLDIER'S STORY, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play. The rejection came because the story had a predominantly Black cast. Jewison offered to work for way less than his usual fee in order to raise money for the production. He got the movie made -- and A SOLDIER'S STORY, featuring newcomer Denzel Washington, was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1984.

Magnificent talents like Cicely Tyson had to go to TV for steady work and good scripts. After her Best Actress Oscar nomination for her remarkable performance in SOUNDER (1972), Hollywood had no other scripts for the Black actress. No other lead role offers. She had to go to TV to play Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman and groundbreaking Chicago teacher Marva Collins. Collins' technique and dedication were covered when she was profiled on CBS' 60 MINUTES. Hollywood did not have such biopic opportunities for Black performers.

Chadwick Boseman starred in three big screen biopics and then he played a king in an action/fantasy that not only showed Africa as a rich and culturally advanced civilization, it had Black actors in the lead roles. BLACK PANTHER embarrassed old Hollywood creeds that "Black stories don't sell" by becoming a domestic and foreign box office blockbuster helmed by a Black director, Ryan Coogler.

The work of Chadwick Boseman made me feel so significant, so proud and so grateful to be alive to see it. I remember one weekend when the popularity and importance of BLACK PANTHER was in the entertainment headlines. TCM was airing old Tarzan movies for early Saturday morning fare. In those early 1930s adventures, Black Africans were never presented as intellectual or important. They were disposable citizens in their own land. They carried Bwana's British luggage on their heads during his journey to exploit their land. If they refused to follow his orders, he'd shoot them. Or they'd be the victims of angry gorillas. Or, in early Hollywood images of "Black on Black crime," they'd be killed by pygmy savages. Those pygmies were played by white actors in blackface. Around that time, the Orange Man in the White House had referred to Africa as "a shit-hole country" in conversation. Shining through and cutting through all that like a giant, golden sword was BLACK PANTHER starring Chadwick Boseman as King T'Challa.
 Angela Bassett co-starred with him in BLACK PANTHER. Upon hearing of his death, she wrote "This young man's dedication was awe-inspiring, his smile contagious, his talent unreal."

Millions of us loved and appreciated Chadwick Boseman. He had the spirit of a great king on screen and off. He used his time and his talents well.




Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Thank You, MR. SOUL!

There's some powerful Black History in this documentary that many of us missed and many others might not have known was hitting the TV airwaves. The documentary ends with a montage of contemporary faces and images -- people and events that the late TV host, Ellis Haizlip, surely would have talked to or talked about on his show. Spike Lee, Misty Copeland, Ava DuVernay, the murder of George Floyd. Long before the three words became a forceful social statement and a global phrase, SOUL! was a weekly TV talk/variety show fueled by the creed "Black Lives Matter." SOUL! aired on WNET, New York City's PBS station, from 1968 to 1973. Ellis Haizlip gave audiences a show that was a huge groundbreaker in presenting diversity and cultural awareness on television. Mr. Haizlip was Black, a visionary and he was gay.
Melissa Haizlip has directed a documentary about her trailblazing uncle and it's something we really need to see now. I was enlightened, entertained, moved and humbled. I wish I could have met him to thank him for his work, his compassion and his honesty. And, Lord, did he book some sensational talent on his show! Muhammad Ali, Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, Al Green, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, little Arsenio Hall, Stevie Wonder, Carmen de Lavallade, Harry Belafonte, Ashford & Simpson, poet Nikki Giovanni, the Last Poets. SOUL! was fierce. I loved growing up in South Central L.A. However, I wish I could've been in the New York area at that time to see some SOUL!
The show came along when there was hunger from African Americans for positive images of our community on television. The 1960s had the Civil Rights movement and there was also coverage of the uprisings in Black communities across the country. It's understandable why some Black citizens viewed TV "...as a tool to denigrate human life." The coverage of the uprisings, like the Watts Riots I witnessed as a youngster in that community, were presented via a white male news reporter gaze. My parents and I watched the Watts Riots coverage on local TV news and we read the reports in the Los Angeles Times. There was no Black reporter on TV at a local station to go into our community and file reports. There was no Black reporter on staff at the Los Angeles Times. That was August 1965. SOUL! presented the accomplishments, achievements, angers and attitude of Black people via a Black gaze. The gaze of the remarkable Ellis Haizlip. His show would,  be fresh even by today's standards. He had a mostly female production staff, he gave great attention to female artists on his show, he loved and acknowledged the theatre arts and he featured spoken word artists. Long before rap and hip-hop, we had the Last Poets. He finessed a TV broadcast of poet Nikki Giovanni interviewing James Baldwin. All this cultural richness was in the spotlight thanks to a gay Black TV host and executive producer. Here's a trailer.

Ellis Haizlip punctured sexism and homophobia on TV -- especially within programming for Black audiences. About his being gay, same-gender loving, two spirit or whatever you choose to call it, one of his relatives initially was not accepting of it. Nonetheless, as one person says on-camera about Haizlip's being different, "...that was his magic."
If I had known about SOUL! in the 70s when I was starting college, if I had known there was a gay Black man making positive TV history, if I had seen those shows and learned from them, I'm positive I would have been more confident and braver in my TV career -- especially during my talk show host years in New York City in the late 80s.

A buddy and former co-worker is in this documentary. He's the fascinating Felipe Luciano. Felipe knew Ellis Haizlip. Felipe himself became a TV host. He was a news anchor on New York City's Fox5 station. He anchored on GOOD DAY NEW YORK. For that local morning news show, I did entertainment features in the 1990s. Every time I worked with Felipe on the air, I felt that his energy made me better. He's smart, sophisticated, earthy, sexy, provocative, truthful, giving and wise. He is exactly the kind of person I hoped to meet when I moved to New York. I mention him because, gay man that I am, I always felt safe in his presence be it on-camera or off. I felt I could be myself with him. Ellis Haizlip must've felt the same way. Felipe's warm accounts of their friendship are some of the highlights of this documentary. And there are many. The production is dedicated to the late actress/singer Novella Nelson. She was a marvelous talent many of you may recall from the 2002 drama, ANTWONE FISHER, starring and directed by Denzel Washington. She was in the original Broadway cast of the hit musical, PURLIE!, based on a comedy play by Ossie Davis.

Before Oprah, before Arsenio, there was Ellis Haizlip. SOUL! was an extraordinary cultural landmark. The documentary director says that her uncle "was considered to be the Black Johnny Carson." He was a true pioneer with a revolutionary show. The TV history he made deserves to be remembered. MR. SOUL! starts streaming August 28th. Thank you for this lively and revealing documentary, Melissa Haizlip. It is most relevant today.

www.MrSoulMovie.com.


Monday, August 24, 2020

Suffragette Loretta Young (1941)

This year, 2020, marks the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment in America. The amendment to the Constitution granted Caucasian women the right to vote. It was a victory for suffrage and for democracy. There would be more work to be done to secure voting rights for Black and Native American women. Classic film fans have seen suffragettes in old Hollywood films. Look at the montage in the opening five minutes of KITTY FOYLE (1941).  Olivia de Havilland played a spunky suffragette in the comedy, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE (1941). As a London wife and mother, Glynis Johns was a singing suffragette in Disney's MARY POPPINS (1964). Just like Olivia de Havilland in THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, there was another spunky suffragette in another 1941 comedy. Loretta Young starred as THE LADY FROM CHEYENNE, a 1941 comedy western from Universal. Her leading man was the handsome Robert Preston.
Is it a 4-star comedy like MY MAN GODFREY, THE AWFUL TRUTH, THE LADY EVE or SOME LIKE IT HOT? No. But it is worth a look for the suffragette angle and to see an upgrade on the kind of roles Black actors got in movies of that era.

Here's the plot: In the 1860s, a prim and proper Philadelphia Quaker schoolteacher gets an inheritance and heads west to Wyoming to open a school for youngsters. She's independent and pro-Abraham Lincoln. There's a selling of lots, real estate, and a scam is being pulled off during the sales. Edward Arnold, in the kind of role he mastered, plays the shady tycoon at the heart of this scam. He's also the tyrant who will oppose the freedom of the local press. Annie Morgan (Loretta Young) gets a deed, of course, and she gets her schoolhouse where she can teach kids about William Shakespeare and Robert Browning. The greedy tycoon is determined to control the water rights of Annie's schoolhouse. His control would deprive farmers of water. Steve Lewis (Robert Preston) is in on the tycoon's scam. He meets Annie. The schoolteacher is experiencing feelings she didn't have in Philadelphia.  "Square dancing and moonlight. Doesn't it sound romantic?" she says to him. We know that love will ensue.
Annie has a quick and formidable temper as the men in the town saloon see for the themselves when she causes some damage. She gets a quick lesson in local politics in her quest to beat the town tyrant. She has to get a bill passed. Annie must proceed to support what one male character calls "that scatterbrained idea." That idea -- she lobbies for women to get the right to vote in the town's local elections. Politics is a new game to suffragette schoolteacher Annie Morgan.

Willie Best was one of those many Black actors constantly given racially stereotypical roles to play in Hollywood films. He was usually a slow-moving, uneducated janitor or elevator operator or porter.
Many classic film fans will surely remember Best as the wide-eyed Algernon in the 1941 crime thriller, HIGH SIERRA, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, Rare was the film like the snappy 1940 mystery/horror comedy, THE GHOST BREAKERS, starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. In that, Willie Best was the well-dressed valet/buddy to Bob Hope's character. It's refreshing to see the quality of scenes he gets with Hope and Goddard in the Paramount feature.

Willie Best plays George in THE LADY FROM CHEYENNE. George and Annie bond. George may seems to be mostly in a service worker role, but he has keen knowledge of politics and how they work. He knows how the game of lobbying and get a bill passed is played. George becomes to Annie what the Jean Arthur character was to James Stewart's newly-elected junior senator in Frank Capra's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939). Except for the romantic angle, it's the same dynamic. The insider tells the newcomer how the game of politics has to be played in order to take-down some town corruption.
Loretta Young was a pro at comedy and she knows the right energy to keep this story afloat. She would win her Best Actress Oscar for another and better political comedy years later -- THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER (1947). In THE LADY FROM CHEYENNE, the Quaker schoolteacher from Philadelphia needs the help and support of other women. She must convince them that the bill for women's suffrage is "...one of the most controversial issues of the day."

The women she connects to, the women who give her advice and support, are the brassy and wisecracking saloon tootsies. They know the secrets of the guys who run the town. They give the movie a nice comedy zest. THE LADY FROM CHEYENNE may be one of the few old Hollywood movies in which we see an all-female jury.

Near the end, Annie walks over to her political mentor and says "Goodbye, George. And thank you so much for everything." She shakes his hand.

Considering the kind of roles Willie Best and other Black actors got at the time in Hollywood, roles in which their characters were presented as second-class citizens, that movie moment with Loretta Young was quite significant.  1941's THE LADY FROM CHEYENNE starring Loretta Young, Robert Preston, Edward Arnold, Willie Best, Gladys George and Iris Adrian runs 1 hour and 28 minutes. You may be able to find it on YouTube. And, yes, Annie Morgan is from Philadelphia even though the movie is called THE LADY FROM CHEYENNE.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

See THE APOLLO

It's not just Black history. It's American history. It's entertaining. It's enlightening. At times, it's infuriating because it's socio-political. It's a 2019 documentary I saw on HBO. A documentary called THE APOLLO and it takes us to the truly iconic Apollo Theater in Harlem. The Apollo stands as one of the most famous theaters in New York City.
I've never revealed this about my TV career, but it's the truth. I didn't seek a TV career to become a star. I want to be popular on the medium, yes. Because if I was popular, I was drawing an audience. If I was drawing an audience, I could stay employed. I wanted to do work that I loved and be paid well for a job well done. I wanted to land the kind of work opportunities that were denied Black people when I was a kid and I wanted to make enough money to give my divorced, single mom a better home with a more comfortable life. I did the best I could. There was pay disparity. Between 2000 and 2008, with years of national TV credits on my resume including having been the first African American talent to get his own prime time celebrity talk show on VH1, I was offered national broadcast work that paid $500 a week. When I got those offers, I thought to myself, "They wouldn't offer me this low money if I was white like Rosie O'Donnell or Tom Bergeron."

Despite that, in my career, I have been blessed enough to meet and often interview several people who are interviewed in THE APOLLO. Those people are  Leslie Uggams, Patti LaBelle, the late Nipsey Russell, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Chris Rock, Angela Bassett and Paul McCartney. The documentary, directed by Roger Ross Williams, take us from the 1930s when an unknown singer named Ella Fitzgerald got onstage and sang a song she loved by vocalist Connee Boswell to the modern times of Black Lives Matter. Yes, it's entertaining. However, this doc also makes you say "The struggle is real and the struggle has been long." Here's a trailer.
Patti LaBelle talked about her early career and times when she was not treated with the same respect as white performers. She also talked about the hardships of being a Black woman performer on the road back in the days when restaurants and hotels had a "White Only" policy.
There's talk about the racial inequalities in the entertainment world of yesteryear. There's talk about the racial inequalities in America today.
Paul McCartney tells how he and The Beatles were heavily influenced by Black music and entertainers who headlined at The Apollo. The Beatles wanted to visit The Apollo when they made their first trip to America. During my VH1 years -- 1987 to 1990 -- I flew to London to do an exclusive interview of Paul McCartney for a one-hour special. In it, I asked him about The Beatles' first appearance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW on CBS. The audience was packed with screaming teen girls. I asked if he noticed that there were no Black teens sitting with those screaming Caucasian girls. He replied that he most certainly did. The Beatles wanted their audiences to be integrated.

THE APOLLO is a very good documentary. Look for it on HBO Max, YouTube or Amazon Prime.

Friday, August 21, 2020

For Richard Burton Fans

He was an extraordinary actor. When he didn't allow the excesses of stardom to dim his talents and wisdom of script choices sometimes, Richard Burton graced the screen with several terrific performances. By the time the celebrated Welsh actor with the magnificent voice starred with Edith Evans in the screen adaptation of LOOK BACK IN ANGER (1959), he was a Hollywood star who had a couple of big screen clunkers and a couple of Oscar nominations under his belt. He'd been appearing onstage in London, wowing critics and audiences, when he was discovered with the help of two high profile fans who'd seen him -- Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Richard Burton came to America to screen test for Fox's 1952 costume drama, MY COUSIN RACHEL. Starring as the mysterious and alluring Rachel in the Daphne du Maurier story was two-time Best Actress Oscar winner, Olivia de Havilland. For his Hollywood debut, Richard Burton earned himself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. For his performance as Fox's 1953 Biblical epic, THE ROBE, he was an Oscar nominee in the Best Actor category. After that, movies like the overblown ALEXANDER THE GREAT (1956) and the soggy SEA WIFE (1957) co-starring Joan Collins as a shipwrecked nun didn't make box office history. However, a great Hollywood romance and some great scripts were only a few years away for him. Great scripts such as BECKET, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and, or course, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? co-starring Elizabeth Taylor, then Mrs. Richard Burton. 
In between the box office bombs and the sizzling romance with Elizabeth Taylor was LOOK BACK IN ANGER based on the popular and landmark John Osborne British play of the same name. It ushered in the era of "the angry young man" in British plays and films. Burton pounced on the opportunity to play Jimmy Porter, the angry young working class musician. Edith Evans played Mrs. Tanner, the maternal lady who can make him smile and drop his anger for a moment.
For the two actors, the 1959 film was a reunion. At the beginning of his film career, in Great Britain, they played mother and son in the 1949 drama, THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN. He's not the star of the film. A few names appear onscreen in the opening credits before we see his. The two top stars are Edith Evans and Emlyn Williams. Williams not only starred in the film, he directed it and wrote the screenplay. His previous work as a writer is known to fans of classic Hollywood films. Two of his plays -- the psychological thriller, NIGHT MUST FALL, and the dedicated schoolteacher drama, THE CORN IS GREEN, were both made into good, Oscar-nominated Hollywood films. 1937's NIGHT MUST FALL starred Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. 1945's THE CORN IS GREEN starred Bette Davis.

THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN is a tale of revenge and a mother's love. Williams plays the angry businessman who returns to the little village in Wales he left 20 years earlier when he was about 12. He was a poor kid, in a low-income Christian village, who was ridiculed for stealing. He never forgot or forgave some kids for laughing at him when he was caught. Now it's 1892 and he's been a successful businessman working for a water company in London. The haughty man returns to the Welsh village with the intent of buying the town out and making it seem like a great opportunity.

The movie opens with a modern-day scene. People stand on a bridge and read a plaque on a stone overlooking a great body of water. Out of the water, poking up, we see a church steeple. The plaque tells us about the great Dolwyn flooding. Two lives were lost. Only one body was retrieved.

Water from the company has to be distributed. Corporate heads know the water could be distributed around the village. However, Mr. Davis connives his way into handling the account in a rather clandestine way. The conniving Mr. Davis says "Money can buy anything -- and I've got it." He also says "I'm settling an account with the village." Smiling, he gathers the villagers and tells them that, in the name of progress, they will all get money to relocate to Liverpool where they can have better homes and jobs waiting for them in that more sophisticated city. All they have to do is take the money and go over the mountain to the other side. When he reveals the "progress" that will take place, the village clergyman replies "Dolwyn will be drowned."

And it will be. The village will be no more. That's Mr. Davis' evil plan of revenge.

Merri (Edith Evans) is a simple, Christian woman with two grown sons. She constantly reads her Bible. She doesn't push her views on anyone. She just reads her Bible, applies good Christian principles to her own life and she's the caretaker of the town church. She keeps it dusted, tidy and orderly for services.  She's a loving mother who loves the simple life of her village. Her son, Gareth, has lived in Liverpool and he's home for a visit. He too loves his village. Gareth (Richard Burton) is a sweet young man who will find romance during his stay at home.

Ironically, the one thing that keeps mean Mr. Davis from buying the village is a document Gareth finds in his mother's possession. She didn't even realize she had it but it carries great weight with the London corporate heads. It can save the village from being flooded and allow the families to stay in their homes. Merri challenges Mr. Davis.

It's fascinating to see early Richard Burton in this role. He was Welsh. In THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN he plays a villager in North Wales and he speaks Welsh. To hear him speak some of that language, to see him trim and smooth-faced with his voice at a higher octave, to see him energetically running happily through the fields of his village is quite lovely.
The kindness and unselfishness of Merri makes mean Mr. Davis even angrier. His hunger for revenge makes him a crazed man who gets into a brawl with Gareth. Merri will be forced to make a decision she never expected she'd have to make in her lifetime.
Edith Evans -- wow. What a performance. Emlyn Williams is perfectly evil as Mr. Davis and young, unspoiled Richard Burton is a joy to watch. How does the village of Dolwyn get flooded? You must see for yourself. If you can find THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN, take the 95 minutes to give it a look. It's good.



Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Thanks, Kenneth Branagh

This is post is about a lovely, brief moment I have in New York City with actor/director Kenneth Branagh one night. It's also an appreciation for the racial inclusivity he's long displayed in his filmmaking.
My article is also a reminder of why I'm so passionate about racial inclusion within the groups of arts critics -- film critics and theatre critics. If the field is predominantly white male, as the field of film critics on national TV has been for decades -- key elements will be missed or ignored. Race and gender inclusion in the critical conversation about the film arts, I believe, ultimately can be helpful to the filmmakers in their future work. Let me give you a couple of examples before I tell you about Branagh's new work. Tom Doherty is one of the film journalists I follow on Twitter. He teaches at Brandeis University. He was excellent on-camera giving historical observations in this year's PBS documentary about Mae West entitled DIRTY BLONDE. He's a white male. This week on Twitter, he wrote that he watched Quentin Tarantino's fine film, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, for the fifth time. Doherty noticed something he had never noticed in his previous viewings. He noticed an "attention-to-period detail" in the long-barreled Buntline revolver brandished by the home invaders associated with Charles Manson.
I didn't notice that. What I noticed was the lack of Black people as pedestrians on Hollywood Blvd. I grew up in South Central L.A. I still vividly recall listening to KMPC radio when the bulletin broke about the Sharon Tate murder in August 1969. I was teen-ager and I spent many summer afternoons on Hollywood Blvd taking in a movie, hitting record stores to buy new albums or browsing in bookstores that had well-stocked movie sections. I was not the only Black person walking up and down Hollywood Blvd or sitting at one of its bus stops to start my RTD ride back home. I attended a parochial all-boys high school in Watts. The student body was mostly African American followed by Mexican American. Our English Lit. class went on a field trip. The school took advantage of the student ticket group rates discounts offered by movie theaters. We all got on the bus, with our teacher, and went to Hollywood to see Franco Zeffirelli's ROMEO AND JULIET. The pic above is from Tarantino's film. That's right. Black and Chicano dudes, some with Afros like Linc's on THE MOD SQUAD, headed into a Hollywood movie theater to see a new film adaptation of a famous Shakespearian tragedy. With the late 1960s movie and music scene, there was plenty of Black youth on Hollywood Blvd. If I had been a film critic on TV reviewing Tarantino's film, I would have mentioned that. There are many Black and Latino members of Screen Actors Guild who could've worked as background actors in those scenes. I know. I'm a SAG member. I've worked as a background actor in a few movies.

Critics raved about the Coen Bros. 2013 film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. The drama focused on a week in the life of a young singer trying to make it in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961. I hadn't seen the movie. I asked a Black friend of mine, an actor with a respectable list of TV and film credits, if he had. He responded that he had and the movie irritated him. He said, "Greenwich Village, the folk music scene, the 1960s and there's no Black people in it. Not even on the sidewalks." We both lived in New York City at the time.

I saw the movie because of what he said -- and he was right! There was no Black actor in a key lead or supporting role and I had a hard time finding Black people in the exterior shots on the sidewalks of the Village. Folk music and jazz -- two music scenes that were alive and kickin' then in the Village and Black talent was definitely involved. Writers Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin lived in the Village. The Civil Rights movement was in progress. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS gave us a non-racially mixed Greenwich Village. Again, if I had been a film critic on TV, I would've pointed out that fact -- a fact I don't recall any white critic addressing verbally or in print.

In New York City, following a nighttime preview screening of 1993's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING directed by Kenneth Branagh, there was a reception with a couple of castmembers -- and food. Branagh's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING gave us Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton and Denzel Washington doing Shakespeare.

I was determined to thank Mr. Branagh and the Fates were kind. At the reception, I had the opportunity. He was standing alone, I walked over and introduced myself. I worked on a local morning news show at the time. I had a wonderful time seeing his adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy and I thanked him for casting Denzel Washington. I told him that, when I was a kid in school, seeing a reflection of myself in quality films on the big screen and TV, was most significant to me. It made my embrace of the arts wider. He beamed a warm smile and graciously replied, "That's what I was going for." He believed in the importance of racial inclusion and told me he planned to do more of that. Branagh kept his word. Critics may not have been keen on all his works but I, as an average moviegoer, will see his films because I appreciate his racial diversity and inclusion. In his works, we people of color are present. He sees us. His new film is a Hercule Poirot murder mystery I saw back in 1978 -- Agatha Christie's DEATH ON THE NILE with an all-star cast that included Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, David Niven and Peter Ustinov. Kenneth Branagh stars in and directed a new version. Here's a trailer for the new DEATH ON THE NILE.

Thanks, Kenneth Branagh.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Bette Davis Sitcom?

This post has an item that may give you a few chuckles. In the history of Old Hollywood, actress Bette Davis was fearless and peerless. Look at some of varied and memorable dramatic performances in classic films she slammed across in her film careers. Films such as 1934's OF HUMAN BONDAGE, JEZEBEL, DARK VICTORY, THE  PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, THE OLD MAID, THE LETTER, ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, THE LITTLE FOXES and ALL ABOUT EVE -- just to name a few.
Bette Davis loved to work. But, when she was well into middle age, she did not love having to travel way out on location to shoot.
In my first professional on-air broadcast job, I was a reporter for a popular FM rock radio station in Milwaukee. One of my earliest assignments was to get a couple of soundbites from Bette Davis. The formidable film legend was in Milwaukee to promote her new film, 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE. Promote it, she did. During her time with local press, she mentioned that the only thing she "haaaated" about making the film was having to fly out the country to do location work. She preferred being in a studio. Like in her celebrated Warner Bros. days of the 1930s and 40s. By the way, I did get DEATH ON THE NILE story soundbites from Bette Davis to air on WQFM radio when the star and I sat just about knee-to-knee for a couple of minutes.

After her big film success with the 1962 psychological thriller, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, a movie that brought the two-time Best Actress Oscar winner her tenth and last Oscar nomination, she went on to do a lot of good work as a guest star on episodic TV. She gave strong performances in made for TV movies. We saw her in 1976's THE DISAPPEARANCE OF AIMEE co-starring Faye Dunaway as evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. There was 1979's STRANGERS: THE STORY OF A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER co-starring Gena Rowlands. Davis played a veteran flight instructor for director Ron Howard in 1980's SKYWARD and the topic of suicide among the elderly drove 1983's RIGHT OF WAY starring Bette Davis and James Stewart. By the way, Davis won her first Oscar for DANGEROUS (1935) and her second for JEZEBEL (1938).

Reportedly, she was greatly impressed with Lucille Ball's work situation. Ball was the CBS Queen of Comedy during the 1950s and 60s. Every week, Lucy could go to work at the CBS Studios in Hollywood, finish for the day and then go home to her house in Beverly Hills. That's the kind of life Bette wanted. She wanted the luxury of going to work at a Hollywood studio and then driving home to her family. With that in mind, Bette Davis did a 1965 sitcom pilot for producer Aaron Spelling of ABC. The script was written by Mart Crowley who'd later write the highly groundbreaking and influential 1968 off-Broadway play about gay men, THE BOYS IN THE BAND.

Mary Wickes was one of the best and most beloved wisecracking character actresses in film and TV. We loved her in 1954's WHITE CHRISTMAS with Bing Crosby, we loved her as a nun in 1966's THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS and in 1992's SISTER ACT with Whoopi Goldberg.
Wickes had snappy scenes with Bette Davis in NOW, VOYAGER (1942), THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942) and JUNE BRIDE (1948).  Mary Wickes was Bette's sidekick in the sitcom pilot. Had it sold, TV audiences would've seen Bette Davis getting laughs as an interior decorator every week on ABC. Here's that unsold 1965 Bette Davis pilot for a half-hour sitcom.


Years later, Bette Davis did appear in an ABC TV series produced by Aaron Spelling. She was in the original cast of the hit series, HOTEL. The show premiered in 1983. Davis starred as the owner of the deluxe hotel in San Francisco. Early in production, she suffered a stroke and, understandably, needed time to recuperate. She was replaced by her friend, actress Anne Baxter. Yes, the same Anne Baxter who played Eve Harrington, the backstabbing rival to Broadway star Margo Channing in 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE. Davis decided not to return to the series. HOTEL aired from 1983 to 1988.

Bette Davis waged her own personal campaign to land the coveted lead female role in the 1989 film version of DRIVING MISS DAISY. Said Richard Zanuck, the film's producer: "We received many calls from Bette Davis. Rough calls. She was very forceful on the phone." See what I mean? She was fearless and peerless.








Friday, August 14, 2020

On THE ROOF from De Sica

Vittorio De Sica. What a master filmmaker that Italian director/actor was. I was introduced to his work by my parents during my youth back in South Central Los Angeles. Mom and Dad were another working  class couple in the community. He was a postal clerk working at the main post office in downtown L.A. Mom was a registered nurse. They both loved films, domestic and foreign. I was a little boy in the back seat of the family car, wearing my pajamas under my street clothes, delighted by the peels of laughter from Mom and Dad one night at the drive-in movies. They were watching De Sica's YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW. They were tickled by the reactions from Marcello Mastroianni to the private striptease being performed just for him by luscious Sophia Loren. When TWO WOMEN aired on local TV, I knew that Sophia Loren won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as the Italian woman trying to protect her daughters from the horrors of World War 2. I knew it was directed by De Sica. I was still a kid and I knew this thanks to mentions from Mom and Dad. When I went away to college and took film courses, one film we watched and studied in class was De Sica's classic, BICYCLE THIEVES. Experiencing Vittorio De Sica films has made for some of the happiest hours of my life. Have you heard of his 1956 film, THE ROOF? The Italian title is IL TETTO.
I watched De Sica's THE ROOF last night for about the sixth time since I first discovered it back in 2014. For about the sixth time, the final scene brought a tear down my cheek. Vittorio De Sica's THE ROOF is like a warm, reassuring hug from a dear friend when you're down and out. If you love BICYCLE THIEVES, I think you'll also find a special place in your heart for THE ROOF.
We go to post-war Italy. As the opening credits in this little black and white gem roll, we see laborers at work on a construction site. New residential buildings are being constructed. Luisa (Gabriella Pallotti) has just married Natale (Giorgio Lituzzi), a tall and lean young man with a cherubic face. The couple is so poor, the two don't have their own place on the wedding night. The bride had to borrow her wedding dress. They stay with relatives, sharing the same room with relatives. Some of the only time Natale and Luisa have alone is when he's pulling their few belongings on a cart as they take to the streets in search of an inexpensive room of their own. Natale hopes to find steady employment as a bricklayer. His brother in law could teach him more about that trade.
The newlyweds and the relatives who take them in are living hardscrabble lives. We see strength in the fact that the poverty never dents, never strains the love Natale and Luisa have for each other. Together they will endure.

Natale decides to build a house for them. A little "squatter's shack" in the outskirts of town. Literally on the wrong side of the tracks. He sees that other villagers have done such. His must be erected overnight when police are not present. A law states that any building with a roof cannot be torn down. With this law in mind, hopefully with the help of relatives and villagers, Natale is determined to build a one-room home -- with a roof -- for his bride. Can he do it? If he does, will the cops tear it down as they have done others?

A little one-room building with a roof, a structure the size of a backyard playhouse for youngsters in an upscale family today, would be heaven on earth for De Sica's newlywed couple. With today's massive unemployment and millions of working class Americans teetering on the brink of eviction, perhaps now is the perfect time to appreciate this classic foreign film.

I've long cherished Vittorio De Sica films because I feel that his Italian neo-realism reflected the spirit and specialness of my South Central community. I recognized how his unprivileged characters were push aside by society because of class and income. I love how De Sica showed that ordinary people are some of the most extraordinary people you could ever hope to meet. We meet two such characters in 1956's THE ROOF. A lovely film, it runs 1 hour and 40 minutes.
De Sica's THE ROOF (IL TETTO) is streaming on Amazon Prime. If you rent it, be sure to click onto the upper right-hand corner options and get the English subtitles.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

She's THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (1953)

This is for you fellow classic film fans who really dig musicals. You know how sometimes, when you were having a meal at a fine restaurant, you needed a palate cleanser in between dishes? Something like a nice lemon sorbet? Well, with the pandemic and all the political news headlines last week, my spirit needed a lemon sorbet. I wanted a light, entertaining, Technicolor feature that ran under two hours. What a surprise that I found the perfect sorbet in a 20th Century Fox musical that I'd never heard of until this summer. From 1953, it's THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. Playing the title role is June Haver in her final big screen performance. She married the following year. The marriage was a long and happy one to actor Fred MacMurray. 20th Century Fox was famous for its Fox Blondes. There was singer/actress Alice Faye in the 1930s and champion ice skater Sonja Henie also in the 1930s. Betty Grable with her great gams plus her singing and dancing skills was a queen of the Fox lot through the 1940s. Then Betty's buddy, Marilyn Monroe, came in to be Fox's top blonde of the 1950s. June Haver became one of the new Fox Blondes in the 1940s. She was in the clever, patriotic time travel World War 2 musical entitled WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? The star was Fred MacMurray, her future hubby who possessed a good singing voice. Just like WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?, THE DOLLY SISTERS was a 1945 musical. A loosely based biopic, it would get one of those fabulous old movie lampoons years later when done by the company on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. In THE DOLLY SISTERS, Haver was teamed with Betty Grable. I watched Haver's musicals on TV. I liked her but she didn't give me that "bazazz" feeling I got from Betty. I think 1940s moviegoers felt the same way. Haver was talented and lovely but too mild for me, personality-wise. Her 1953 outing was different. Haver's final screen performance might possibly be her best. She delivers plenty of verve, along with plenty of musical numbers. I loved June Haver as THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.
The movie runs 90 breezy minutes. It's a B-musical given an A-treatment. The screenplay was written by Isobel Lennart. She wrote the screenplay for Doris Day's best film, the dramatic biopic LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955), the Ingrid Bergman drama, THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS (1958), and FUNNY GIRL (1968) starring -- of course -- Barbra Streisand.
 In THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, June Haver plays Jeannie Laird. Jeannie is a Manhattan chorus girl who works her way up to swanky nightclub headliner and then wants to cut back on her work load to have a real life. She wants a home in the suburbs where she can lounge in a backyard and throw dinner parties. During her first dinner party, she meets her next door neighbor. He's a widower dad played with refreshing charm by Dan Dailey. Billy Gray plays his little boy. Gray was the boy in the sci-fi classic, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and he won TV fame as one of the Anderson kids on the hit sitcom, FATHER KNOWS BEST. The widower dad next door is a cartoonist for a New York newspaper. His comic strip is on the verge of being syndicated. The dad, Bill Carter, and the nightclub star, Jeannie Laird, fall for each other and the little boy gets jealous. But he'll learn to love Jeannie too.
Dailey did duty as a Fox song and dance man in late 1940s musicals. Dailey starred in about three musicals with Betty Grable. They played husband and wife show biz teams and had nice chemistry. Dan Dailey, in musicals, could often overact and be too extra. Grable was keen in her ability to neutralize his hyper energy so it wouldn't eclipse her performance. Judy Garland did the same opposite Mickey Rooney at MGM. His success as a Fox song and dance man was solidified with his Best Actor Oscar nomination for 1948's WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME. In that, he and Grable starred as a husband and wife vaudeville team. The husband drinks too much. To some Hollywood folks, the nomination may have come as a surprise. Someone not in the Best Actor Oscar race? Humphrey Bogart for 1948's THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. (Laurence Olivier won for HAMLET.) Dailey dials down the overacting in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and, in doing so, gives his character a nice warmth and depth. His more natural acting style here serves him very well. Then there's June Haver who drops the mildness of her previous films and makes Jeannie a vivacious lady whose nightclub stardom we can believe.

It's a fun little Fox musical. Haver, Dailey and Billy Gray mix well. The sidekicks are good. Dennis Day, launched from being the "boy singer" on the hugely successful Jack Benny radio show, has a supporting role. Similar to Rudy Vallee in THE PALM BEACH STORY, he's a likable nerd. The role fits him like a glove. His sweetheart, Jeannie's wisecracking best friend, is played by Cara Williams. Cara Williams was also a Fox veteran, a non-blonde, who worked up from being an extra. Did you see Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb in LAURA (1944)? When Waldo Lydecker goes to Laura Hunt's office to apologize and endorse her company's ink pen, look at the ladies at the desks behind Gene Tierney. One of them is Cara Williams. She'd get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her dramatic role in 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. She'd sing and dance with James Cagney in 1959's NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL.

Not that any of the many songs in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR made it to the Billboard charts, but they're all enjoyable. The movie highlights what a good dancer Haver was. (Her singing is dubbed.) Dailey is in fine dance form and Billy Gray gets a couple of numbers. The dad's cartoonist occupation serves as a gateway for two very cool animated sequences.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR starring June Haver and Dan Dailey. Is it TOP HAT, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or THE BAND WAGON? No. Nonetheless, it is a colorful, cute, well-produced and well-performed early 50s Fox musical.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

About THE SNAKE PIT (1948)

I turned on the TV mainly for some background noise. However, I found Olivia de Havilland having a nervous breakdown on a cable channel and I was riveted. Once again. FXM Retro, the Fox classic movie channel, was airing the 1948 drama, THE SNAKE PIT.  I've been staying at my sister's apartment. We have been Olivia de Havilland fans ever since we were kids watching her old movies on local TV at home in Los Angeles. THE SNAKE PIT holds a very special place in our hearts. In it, de Havilland plays a newlywed who discovers that she's in a mental institution. But she cannot recall how she got there. It's a film that led to reforms being made in conditions at mental institutions across the country. The actress allows herself to look frayed and psychologically fractured in this film. She brings you into the character's jumbled and clouded emotions while remaining fully grounded in her character's humanity. Instead of feeling that you're watching a lady go crazy, you feel "Wow, that breakdown could happen to anybody." A moving performance, it shows de Havilland at her best.
THE SNAKE PIT (1948) was made in between Olivia de Havilland's two wins in the Best Actress Oscar category. Her first was for Paramount's TO EACH HIS OWN (1946) and her second would be for Paramount's THE HEIRESS (1949).
Anatole Litvak directed THE SNAKE PIT. I've seen the movie several times. When I watched it this week on TV, something stood out to me that had not stood out to me in earlier viewings. Modern day Hollywood could have taken a tip from THE SNAKE PIT in the area of good roles for females. And I don't mean just the leading lady role played by de Havilland. Watch this social issue drama and notice the dozens of speaking parts for females. Some are supporting roles done by recognizable faces such as Celeste Holm, Beulah Bondi and Betsy Blair (who went on to give a lovely performance as the shy Clara in 1955's MARTY with Ernest Borgnine.) Many others are bit parts done by actresses you've seen in other films. Actresses who were never stars yet they were always solid, dependable performers. There are plenty of them in THE SNAKE PIT. You get a feeling that director Anatole Litvak was blessed -- all he had to do was give those pros the script, tell them what he needed, leave the rest to their inspiration, sit down and yell "Action!" Here's a trailer.

I wrote "female" because the many roles cover a wide age group. We see Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) when she was a little girl faced with a family loss that would effect her emotionally. There's a child actress for those flashback scenes. When we get inside the institution with patients and nurses, we see women who are young like newlywed Virginia, middle-aged women and women in their senior years. THE SNAKE PIT hired dozens of talented females for on-camera duty. They weren't all stars but they sure were good. Here's a clip.

20th Century Fox's THE SNAKE PIT brought Olivia de Havilland one of her Best Actress Oscar nominations. Anatole Litvak was a nominee for Best Director and the film was in the Best Picture Oscar category. Her other nominations were in the Best Actress category for Paramount's HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941) and in the Best Supporting Actress category for the 1939 MGM release, GONE WITH THE WIND.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Burt Lancaster and Acting Lessons in ELMER GANTRY

He had the most enormous head I'd ever seen. In a close-up, it filled the entire screen of the Vermont Drive-In that night in Los Angeles. Maybe his head looked so enormous because his hair seemed to be a mile high. Also, the actor's intensity filled the screen. This was what I thought of Burt Lancaster as ELMER GANTRY. Lancaster's performance would bring him the Oscar for Best Actor of 1960.
Burt Lancaster was a wonderful actor who believed -- and proved -- that movies could be entertaining and address social issues at the same time. I grew up in a Black Catholic household in South Central L.A. Mom, Dad and the three of us kids in a 2-bedroom/1 bathroom house on a cul-de-sac street. I loved that modest house and I loved growing up on 124th Street and Central Avenue. For a guy whose passion for film started quite early in his elementary school years, I was lucky to have had the parents I did. They were movies fans. Not just Hollywood movies. Foreign films too. Our frequent family outings to the drive-in movies were my favorite family pastime. Often, I was too young to grasp all the mature goings on and subtext -- such as in the movies SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, THE BEST MAN or De Sica's YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW -- but experiencing the movie was a thrill. Sometimes, the social message did get to me. I was a Catholic schoolkid when we saw ELMER GANTRY. Even at my young age then, the message of hypocrisy and religion was not over my head.


Burt Lancaster won the Oscar for Best Actor. Shirley Jones won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Moviegoers had loved her daisy-fresh image as the wholesome leading lady in musicals. She sang in OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL before taking on the role of the smart, spiteful hooker who has the goods on Gantry, a  con artist preacher man. Jean Simmons is magnificent in the lead female role as the revivalist who acquired a huge flock of faithful Christian followers. Simmons did not get a Best Actress Oscar nomination, but she should have. (Elizabeth Taylor won for BUTTERFIELD 8.) Her performance burned itself into my memory since the first time I saw the movie. Her character is conflicted. She appears as focused in her mission as Joan of Arc. However, money and sex could cause her religious career to go up in flames.


I saw ELMER GANTRY when it made its network TV debut. I've rented it from my video store a few times. Beside the social issues, it made me aware of good screen acting and the fact that every part, a leading role or a bit part, is important.

Max Showalter also burned himself into my memory with his performance. In later years, it taught me a valuable lesson in acting. Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones are stars you know. Max Showalter was not a star although his face was recognizable because he worked in many films and TV programs. You knew his face but you didn't know his name. If you're into classic films, he played the husband opposite Jean Peters who gets involved with the troubled married coupled played by Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe in NIAGARA. He's seen as one of the singing salesman on the train in the opening number of THE MUSIC MAN.
His role in ELMER GANTRY was uncredited but that doesn't mean it was unimportant. He's in the last 15 minutes of the movie, playing a deaf man at a revival meeting. Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons) is preaching. Max Showalter has very few lines in his intense scene with Jean Simmons. It's a bit part. Nonetheless, he is fully committed to his character and totally absorbed in the script's overall story. His bit part sets up a huge, incendiary scene in that last act. If he is not totally committed as he delivers those few lines in his uncredited bit part, that key final scene would have less punch. His commitment adds muscle to the mystery of Sister Sharon.

Most of the on-camera acting I've done has been in TV commercials. I did two bit parts in episodes of THE SOPRANOS. My bit part in the Season 3 episode entitled EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH was influenced by Max Showalter's work in ELMER GANTRY. I had only five lines. However, I was given the entire script to read. When I did, I realized what was driving the episode and the action that led up to my brief appearance. That information told me exactly how to play the character. I didn't treat the role as "only a bit part."

ELMER GANTRY, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, was directed by Richard Brooks. Brooks also wrote the screenplay. To me, the movie was not just entertaining. It was enlightening and educational. By the way, in that script for THE SOPRANOS, the TV reporter was written as "a young, willowy blonde." The casting director had seen me months before at another audition, remembered me, and gave me the part. She said, "Forget the description of the character. I've seen your work. I know you can do it." And I did.


Monday, August 3, 2020

Tony Bennett Music Break

I mentioned in July post ("Some Music From My Youth") that Sundays were groovy music days in our house on 124th and Central Avenue in Los Angeles when I was growing up. Especially on lazy Sunday afternoons in the summer. Mom and Dad would play a variety of albums on our stereo, mostly jazz. One of our favorite vocalists -- I picked up the love from my parents -- was Tony Bennett. We had several of his albums in our family record collection.
There was one Tony Bennett cut that always got a verbal swoon from Mom when she heard it. I always giggled when she let out that appreciative sigh. She kind of sounded like Olive Oyl in the cartoons when she saw Popeye's muscles. The Tony Bennett cut was his silky rendition of the love song written for the movie, THE SANDPIPER. The movie starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The song is "The Shadow of Your Smile."

"The Shadow of Your Smile" won the Oscar for Best Song of 1965. Personally, I miss the days when songwriters gave us great title tunes and love songs for the movies.

My favorite Tony Bennett album at home was "When Lights Are Low," a jazz LP he did with the Ralph Sharon Trio. Man, I still totally dig that record! I was lucky enough to meet Tony Bennett during my VH1 years. When he showed up in our studio, I wasn't scheduled to interview him but I just had to introduce myself and tell him how I much I loved his album with the Ralph Sharon Trio.  His eyes lit up and he said, "Ralph!" I didn't know it but Mr. Sharon had come to the studio with Tony Bennett. He motioned Ralph Sharon over so I could shake his hand. I was giddy with glee. Then I made Tony Bennett laugh by doing a loving imitation of him in his Hollywood debut. Honestly, the movie laid such an egg that it was both his debut and his farewell film role.  THE OSCAR is one of those deluxe movies that's so bad it's good. Tony played the narrator/former best friend of Frankie Fane, a vain Hollywood star who used everybody he came in touch with so he could win an Oscar. Tony Bennett was Hymie Kelly, the character in that cheese-fest who said "Man, he wanted to swallow Hollywood like a cat with a canary. And he did it!"


"I've Got Just About Everything" is a swingin' cut from the Tony Bennett LP with Ralph Sharon. Treat your ears. Click onto this link:

https://youtu.be/F_FM4s14JDg.

Tony Bennett. Absolute coolness.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

On MUCHO MUCHO AMOR

With that state that the country is in nowadays, many of us need a hug. But, because of the coronavirus, there are new guidelines on how we must approaching hugging. This is a perfect time for feel-good features. They can be a great balm for our spirits as we emotionally recharge and gather up the courage merely to walk outside to mail a letter. If the postal system is still in operation. Anyway, I've got a feel-good feature for you. It's a documentary on Netflix. It lightened my heart to such an extent that I watched it twice. It's called MUCHO MUCHO AMOR: THE LEGEND OF WALTER MERCADO.
He was an international media sensation. A Puerto Rican astrologer with a Liberace-like flair in his attire. He had sort of an androgynous look and, frankly, resembled the kind of TV personality who would've been lampooned on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Perhaps he was. I don't speak Spanish but I would watch him on Spanish TV because his charisma was so arresting. Besides having an enormous Spanish-speaking viewer audience here in the U.S., Walter Mercado was also highly popular in Latin America, Brazil, Italy, Holland and the United Kingdom. Then he disappeared. He was not on TV for a few years. We'll find out why.

He's interviewed in this documentary. He is the feel-good element. He takes us back to Puerto Rico in 1932 where his story began. He knew he was different and he knew he wanted to study the fine arts. He wanted to dance and act professionally. Which he did. In a very masculine, very heterosexual, very Catholic society, he realized he was about as butch as cotton candy. However, his loving and loyal mother said "to be different is a gift."

It wasn't that Mercado was seeking fame. Fame seemed to be seeking him. Back in his old Puerto Rican community, neighbors felt he had a special spiritual gift because of his way with animals. As an adult, in his TV years, he was asked to go on the air and give astrology forecasts. He did this in flashy garb and with the spiritual quality the folks in the old neighborhood loved. He was an immediate hit.

In his interviews, it's obvious that he's older and slightly frail. He'd been doing a TV show since 1969. You'd expect him to exude a slightly out-of-touch Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD personality. Instead, he's pretty hip and engagingly pokes fun at himself and his image. One thing he was always serious about and that was the work. The work and especially his message of love and peace. Walter Mercado left a spirit of good will.

In his TV astrological forecast career, a young and clever -- and ambitious -- producer guided him to fame and fortune. He became like a son to Mercado. That same producer caused the financial and legal nightmare that took Walter Mercado off TV screens for a few years. He's interviewed and, honestly, it is a shock that he shows not one drop of guilt or remorse for what was basically identity and brand theft.

Walter Mercado could've understandably been bitter and angry in reliving that long, humiliating episode in his career. But he wasn't. There's an air of forgiveness about him. He gives off a warmth we sorely need in the world today. One of Mercado's many fans was Broadway wonder boy Lin-Manuel Miranda. Their meeting in the documentary is a heartwarming highlight.


Despite terrible things that happened to him contractually, Walter Mercado kept his spirit towards the light. He was a TV pioneer who broke through gender stereotypes, was truly committed to giving people hope and love, and he lived his life in a certain flamboyant state of grace. You'll feel like you spent 90 minutes getting to know a very dear person.

MUCHO MUCHO AMOR: THE LEGEND OF WALTER MERCADO was directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch.

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