Sunday, August 21, 2011

Officer O'Hara, Mr. B. and Hugo Barnstead

Jack Carson
1910 - 1963

Born in Carmen, Manitoba, raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and schooled in Vaudeville, Jack Carson is one of classic Hollywood's most beloved character actor stars. Arriving in California in the mid 1930s Carson can be spotted in small roles in many films as he worked his way up the ladder including Stage Door and Bringing Up Baby, and gradually larger supporting roles in Carefree and Destry Rides Again. He's outstanding as a gangster's henchman with an unusual sense of humour in The Saint in New York.

Jack was very busy at Warner Brothers during the 1940s where he would make his mark in a number of well-remembered films, including a number with genial singing star Dennis Morgan such as Shine on Harvest Moon and It's a Great Feeling. Jack is a well-meaning salesman in Larceny Inc., a no goodnik in Blues in the Night (Really, what kind of a guy would stomp on Priscilla Lane's heart?) , the loquacious would-be playwright Officer O'Hara in Arsenic and Old Lace, a former college football hero in The Male Animal, a romantic vaudevillian in The Hard Way, Rosalind Russell's helpmeet in Roughly Speaking and Mildred Pierce's slimy patsy Wally Fay. Jack also had radio success with a series called Everybody Loves Jack which ran from 1943-1947.

In the 1950s Jack would turn in exemplary performances in movies such as Phffft with Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak, Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels, George Cukor's A Star is Born and Richard Brooks' movie of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Where is Jack's Oscar nomination? Recount!) .

For all his screen success, Jack Carson still needed a live audience. During the 40s he would take a break from the studio to perform as a clown with the Clyde Beatty circus. In 1952 he starred as John P. Wintergreen in a Broadway revival of the Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing. It was during rehearsal in 1962 for a production of Critic's Choice that Jack fell ill and eventually was diagnosed with a stomach cancer which took his life at the age of 53. Jack had been married four times and was the father of two.

Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney, Jack Carson
The Strawberry Blonde

A role that typifies Jack's prevailing screen image is that of Hugo Barnstead in Raoul Walsh's 1941 version of actor/playwright James Hagen's successful 1933 play One Sunday Afternoon. Set at the turn of the 20th century The Strawberry Blonde stars James Cagney as Biff Grimes, a dentist and an ex-con who, one Sunday afternoon, ruminates on his hard luck in life and love. Most of his hard luck can be traced back to his friendship with Hugo, a sneaky, lying, ambitious, two-faced friend to no one whose comeuppance is a long time coming thing of beauty. The billigerent softy Biff is one of Cagney's finest characterizations. Olivia de Havilland is warm and lovely as Amy, the right girl for Biff. Rita Hayworth would make audiences remember her as Virginia, the girl of Biff's dreams. Jack Carson was a force of nature as Hugo roared through the movie. In his autobiography Cagney by Cagney, Jimmy speaks of the movie with fondness and of how his mother, who appeared as an extra in the beer garden scene, thought it captured the New York of her youth. The Strawberry Blonde is a movie of much charm and heart.


Don DeFore
1913 - 1993

The world is full of baby boomers with fond recollections of television, among them Don DeFore as the neighbour "Thorny" on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and "Mr. B" (Baxter) on Hazel. The image of Don DeFore in those sitcom roles is a hearty and pleasant one. His career in films is equally pleasant to contemplate. The Iowa native was studying at The Pasadena Playhouse when he went east to Broadway in a limited run of a play called Where Do We Go From Here? In 1940 Don found success in the role of Wally Myers, a college football star, in James Thurber and Elliott Nugent's The Male Animal. Nugent directed the film version for Warner Bros. with Henry Fonda playing the role Nugent himself had played in New York. Coming west to repeat his stage success was Don DeFore as Wally. In the set-up of the play, there is an older counterpart to the footballer and that role was taken by Jack Carson. In the 1952 revamp She's Working Her Way Through College, Don would play the Jack Carson role. (Trust me, it makes sense.)

Don's film appearances in the 1940s include A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, Without Reservations with John Wayne and Claudette Colbert and My Friend Irma with Marie Wilson. He stars in Roy Del Ruth's impossible to dislike Christmas perennial It Happened on Fifth Avenue and as Betty Hutton's exasperated love interest in The Stork Club. Don crosses paths with Jack Carson again in Doris Day's debut film Romance on the High Seas. I'm particularly fond of his hot-headed young gunslinger in Andre de Toth's Ramrod and of his role in 1960s The Facts of Life as Lucille Ball's neglectful husband. He also impressed in later TV appearances on St. Elsewhere and Murder, She Wrote.

In real life, Don and his wife Marion were married for 51 years and the parents of five children. Don passed from a heart attack at the age of 80.


Don DeFore, Dorothy Malone, Janis Paige, Dennis Morgan
One Sunday Afternoon

In 1948 Warner Bros. revamped The Strawberry Blonde as a Technicolor musical with songs by Ralph Blane, Raoul Walsh once again directing and a return to the original title. Dennis Morgan was given the role of Biff in which he performs earnestly. It is not fair to compare any performer to Cagney. Janis Paige is a bright and brittle Virginia. Dorothy Malone is every inch the equal of de Havilland as the sympathetic Amy. Guess who plays Hugo! Yes, Don DeFore tackles the sneaking, lying, ambitious...we've been down this road before, haven't we? Really, who else would they cast? One Sunday Afternoon should work, but unfortunately the songs are weak and the energy and heart that make The Strawberry Blonde such a winner is nowhere in evidence. If you're not familiar with the 1941 version, it is a passable time-waster, nothing more.



James Hagen's Broadway success of One Sunday Afternoon ran for 322 performances. Steely-eyed Rankin Mansfield (To Hell and Back, The Brothers Rico) played Hugo. Lloyd Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Somewhere in the Night) was everybody's favourite dentist, Biff Grimes.






Paramount Studios filmed the first version of the play in 1933. The role of Hugo Barnstead was played by handsome Neil Hamilton. (So sue me - I had a crush on Commissioner Gordon!)

Gary Cooper made an oddly unlikeable Biff. It is a movie I would recommend for comparison purposes only.




Friday, August 19, 2011

How did she know?


When Dawn of Noir and Chick Flicks chose this blog among her honorees for The Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award, did she know of my overwhelming admiration for strawberry shortcake? Of all the awards in all the cyberspace, what could be more appealing than that fruity, creamy, flaky goodness?

Of course there are certain provisos with being greeted by a picture of the desert to end all deserts, namely linking back to your host, sharing with and notifying 12 worthy bloggers, plus the dreaded "7 random things about me". Even though, for some reason, I'm feeling a little shy about the sharing part today, I can't help but think that bringing shortcake will mean an automatic welcome.


Bloggers, new and old, who brighten my day:


Seven random things about Caftan Woman:
  • I live by Lake Ontario.
  • I spend $6 a week on the lottery. Not so much a gambler, as a dreamer.
  • I'm a very sloppy eater. The friend who made my wedding dress used extra material to fashion a bib that looked like the bodice, just in case of slopped gravy.
  • I get a kick out of singing Brahms.
  • My childhood dreams included becoming a poet (people laughed), a police officer (too much Dragnet), and a big band singer (born too late).
  • My family likes to put things I need on shelves I can't reach. They think it's funny.
  • My husband claims he was tight the night he proposed and if I'd been a gentleman I'd have forgotten all about it.

Well, folks, I'm off to the fruit market to fulfill my strawberry shortcake dreams. Thanks, Dawn.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Born in a trunk: Ethel Griffies

Ethel Griffies
1878-1975

On April 26, 1878 in Sheffield, England actress Lillie Roberts presented her husband actor-manager Samuel Rupert Woods with a daughter, Ethel. Three years later the couple presented the girl on stage and a 80 year career began. Known professional as Ethel Griffies (A youthful bid for independence? A youthful indiscretion? Ethel Woods sounded too much some ancient king? Advice from a fortune teller to have a 13 lettered name?), the actress learned her craft in the provinces and made her London debut in 1899 at the Haymarket. Her Broadway debut would occur in 1924 in a short run production of Havoc directed by and co-starring Leo G. Carroll.

Forty-three years on the New York stage would see some also rans including The Shop at Sly Corner featuring Boris Karloff and Una O'Connor which closed in one week in 1949 and The Natural Look featuring Gene Hackman, Zorha Lampert, Jerry Orbach, Doris Roberts and Brenda Vaccaro which opened and closed on March 11, 1967. Ethel did enjoy successes such as Irving Berlin's Miss Liberty in 1949-50, The Criminal Code in 1929-30 (filmed by Howard Hawks), Frederick Knott's Write Me a Murder in 1961-62 and John Galsworthy's Old English directed by and starring George Arliss. Ethel Griffies would make the film version with George Arliss, also appearing in his movies The House of Rothschild and The Millionaire.

Old English was not Ethel's first foray unto the silver screen. In 1917 she appeared in The Cost of a Kiss and that same year she married the movie's co-star, Edward Cooper. Five years Ethel's junior, the marriage would last 40 years until Edward's death in 1956. This was Ethel's second marriage. Her first husband, Walter Beaumont passed in 1910.

Edward Cooper's Broadway career encompassed roles in plays as varied as Hay Fever and The Hasty Heart. He appeared in Lady Dedlock with Ethel in the 1928-29 season. On-screen the couple are featured in, besides The Cost of a Kiss, Torch Singer, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Holy Matrimony.

Edward Cooper has over 75 movie/tv credits to his name, most often uncredited in the role of a butler as in Clive of India, On the Avenue, Small Town Girl, Crack-Up, The Dark Angel and more. The next time you spot the prison clerk in 1935s Les Miserables, the BBC official in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or the Indian Chief in Diplomaniacs say to yourself "That's the guy who married Mrs. Whack!".

Ethel Griffies, Zeffie Tilbury
Werewolf of London

Mrs. Whack may be my favourite character in Ethel Griffie's movie career. She and the incredible Zeffie Tilbury as Mrs. Moncaster in 1935s Werewolf of London steal the picture as Horror's best comedy relief. Obsessed botanist Henry Hull was bitten by werewolf Warner Oland in Tibet and now, jaunty scarf around neck and walking stick in hand, Hull stalks the streets of London by the light of the full moon. Competing landladies and drinking companions Whack and Moncastle are alternately curious and frightened by the philosophical and dangerous stranger in their midst. You never saw a flirt like Mrs. Whack!

Ethel didn't always require an acting partner the likes of Miss Tilbury to make her presence felt. In 1944s The White Cliffs of Dover she dominates fellow train travelers Irene Dunne and Frank Morgan with nary a word. While her forceful personality is played for laughs in that British flag waver, in John Ford's 1941 Oscar winner How Green Was My Valley she is quite intimidating as the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs. Nicholas.

Ethel played another tippler, Grace Poole in the 1934 and 1943 versions of Jane Eyre. She played as many landladies as her husband played butlers, in fact, playing that role in both the 1931 and 1940 versions of Waterloo Bridge.

Well-remembered titles from the 1930s include Alice in Wonderland, Doctor Bull, Four Frightened People, The Painted Veil and Anna Karenina and from the 1940s you can see Ethel in Stranger on the Third Floor (landlady), Billy the Kid, A Yank in the R.A.F., The Keys of the Kingdom, Forever and a Day and The Horn Blows at Midnight.

In Caftan Woman's universe actors get an extra gold star for appearing in a Charlie Chan picture and Ethel has two to her credit in the waning days of that series' run at 20th Century Fox.


Ethel Griffies, Sidney Toler
Dead Men Tell

1941s Dead Men Tell finds Ethel as Patience Nodbury, a superstitious eccentric with a treasure map and a murderous ghostly ancestor. Sidney Toler's Chan is so patient in his scene with Miss Nodbury that he might be channeling Warner Oland, that is when Oland isn't biting botanists in Tibet.

Ethel Griffies, Sidney Toler, Oliver Blake
Castle in the Desert

1942s Castle in the Desert gives Ethel another eccentric in Madame Saturnia, a mystic, a busybody and, of course, a murder suspect. She seems almost sane compared to some of the crackpots the Inspector and Jimmy (Sen Yung) are dealing with in this outing.

The Chan series notwithstanding, to the general public an actor's bid for immortality comes through an association with either Walt Disney or Alfred Hitchcock. Ethel certainly has her Hitchcock connection as Mrs. Bundy, the emphatic amateur ornithologist in 1963s The Birds. She is most enjoyable in the diner scene where, at 83 years old, Ethel has lost none of her ability to dominate a scene and hold your attention.

In his IMDb mini-bio on Ethel, Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide, states: "Presumably at the invitation of fellow Briton Arthur Treacher, Ethel Griffies was a frequent guest on TVs Merv Griffin Show in the late 1960s, never failing to bring down the house with her wickedly witty comments on her 80 years in show business."

Doesn't that make you long for a specialty channel devoted to retro talk shows? I would love to hear Ethel's story in her own words. Luckily we still have decades of movie work to enjoy.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Sopranos (Really.)

From time to time I have mentioned my son Gavin whose challenges with autism/developmental delay are offset by the gifts of a tremendous memory and talent for mimicry. Gavin remembers every line from every beloved movie, and when he gets going you would swear that everyone from Phil Harris to Kathryn Beaumont to Jerry Colonna was in the room with you.




Lately Gavin has been spending a lot of time on YouTube looking up the movies that Family Channel Canada used to screen in the days of his youth. He was overjoyed to come across this clip of Jeanette MacDonald and Ramon Navarro in 1934s The Cat and the Fiddle. He spent the entire weekend enjoying the Jerome Kern music to the exclusion of any other diversion.




My youngest sister Tracey at six. She was and always will be 16 years my junior. She was and always will be a woman of strong opinions.

It was at this age, and in response to what I can only assume were some annoying scales and arpeggios issuing from my throat, that she declared (with hands on hips) "If you can't sing like Jeanette A-Donald, forget it!"







Well, maybe I can't sing like Jeanette A-Donald...













... but my son sure can!







Monday, August 8, 2011

Honours and Benefits at My Age!


Isn't that the prettiest thing? "Liebster", as I know (or somewhat guessed) from singing Brahms in "my" choir, means favourite or beloved. Starting in Germany, this token of esteem has traveled the internet world, and this site is lucky enough to be among those chosen by the wonderful Becky of Becky's Classic Brain Food to receive and continue the electronic pat on the back.

I have found the blogging world to be full of the type of people you would like to meet in every day life. In fact, I shouldn't be surprised if the five bloggers I am going to forward the "Liebster" to have already been selected by another of their fan/friends. However, if I stop to check, I might be here forever like some sort of demented Flying Dutchman.

Link
Skeins of Thought

Moira was one of the first bloggers I started following regularly. She has heart and, boy, can she write!

Another Old Movie Blog

Jacqueline is amazing - a fine and interesting writer, and a woman with an inquiring mind and the spirit of a teacher.

A Guinea Pig's Tale

Autobiographical vignettes by Carolyn Davis. When those commercials say more relations are starting online, I don't think this is what they have in mind, but I'm proud to call Carolyn a friend of long-standing.

Kevin's Movie Corner

The more I read Kevin's take on classic film, the more fun I have. Liebster!

Miss Tracey Nolan

Okay. We're related. However, even if she wasn't my baby baby baby sister, reading her blog would make her somebody I'd want to adopt - or at least have a glass of wine with.



Thursday, August 4, 2011

Loving Lucy Blogathon: Lucy and Bob Hope

True Classics is hosting a blogathon salute to Lucille Ball on the occasion of the centenary of her birth on August 6. In Caftan Woman's universe Lucy has a prime spot on the ruling counsel.

A few years ago, Carlton Cards issued a Bob Hope Christmas ornament that featured Bob dressed as Santa with three gifts. One was labeled for Dolores, another for Bing and the third for Lucy. In my memory it seems Bob Hope was always popping up on one of Lucy's programs and she was was always popping up on one of his. They always seemed as delighted with each other as the audience was to see them. While their output as a big screen team doesn't rival that of Loy & Powell or Rogers & Astaire, Ball & Hope made four movies together from 1949 - 1963.



Lucy and Bob's first movie was 1949s Sorrowful Jones, a remake of the Shirley Temple vehicle Little Miss Marker based on Damon Runyon's Markie in which an orphan girl is left with a bookie as collateral and changes everyone's life. I'm a sucker for a Runyon story and while the earlier version has a raw originality, this version has an adorable Mary Jane Saunders and Lucy and Bob working their magic.

In her posthumously published autobiography Love, Lucy, she wrote:

This year was the beginning of my great association with Bob Hope. Going to Bob's set every day was like going to a party. I couldn't wait to get there. And I loved working with him.

Bob is predictable and never moody. He's fun, sweet, kind, good; a gentleman and a trouper. I can bounce vitriolic remarks off his big chest and they come out funny, not like acid. Because he's such a strong male figure, he makes me appear more feminine.

Like everything Damon Runyon wrote, Sorrowful Jones had pathos as well as comedy, and Bob at first was rather afraid of the straight scenes. "What if the audience laughs in the wrong place? he worried. He was feeling his way, and so was I. And this was the first movie I'd ever made with Bob. But after a few days, when he still seemed a bit uneasy, I found the courage to take him aside and say, "Don't be afraid to play it straight. If you believe in the scene, the audience will, too."



The following year saw the dynamic duo in another remake as Fancy Pants turned Ruggles of Red Gap on its ear. The director was George Marshall, a Hope veteran of The Ghost Breakers and Monsieur Beaucaire, who had worked with Lucy on Valley of the Sun. He would also work on her series Here's Lucy.

The 1935 movie starred Charles Laughton in a funny and touching story as a misplaced butler finding a new sense of self in the new territory of the old west. In Fancy Pants Hope is an actor pretending to be a butler and turning tomboy Lucy into a lady. It's loud, garish and filled with zany slapstick. Lucy rides, ropes, tumbles and fights. It's also very funny by not trying to ape the earlier classic. John Alexander has a chance to trot out his Teddy Roosevelt impersonation. They even throw in a couple of songs by Livingston and Evans of Buttons and Bows fame. Lucy is dubbed by Annette Warren, but Bob gets to do his own singing.



My favourite of Lucy and Bob's collaborations is 1960s The Facts of Life, a movie I call "Brief Encounter with Laughs". This is my slightly worn review first posted 2008.
Directed by Melvin Frank and written by Frank with Norman Panama, The Facts of Life is an adult love story that will surprise you.
Kitty Weaver and Larry Gilbert are two perfectly nice suburbanites. If Kitty's husband (Don DeFore) seems a little preoccupied with work and his gambling habit, and Larry's wife (Ruth Hussey) a little too caught up with the kids - well, that's life. They have no thought of straying. They certainly have no thought of straying toward each other. However, Fate (in that way of hers) forces these two perfectly nice people to spend time together. Kitty discovers that "the jerk who tells the lousy jokes at the country club" is a genuinely warm and funny fellow. Larry sees a softer side to that stuck up Kitty. Love blossoms with the added complications of vows and conscience.
How Larry and Kitty deal with their feelings, their need to be together and the realities of their lives is played out in a frank, touching and very funny manner. It is wonderful to see two actors who happen to be bona fide comic geniuses working together in such perfect sympathy. The humour of character and situation also involves some gut grabbing slapstick, and some quiet moments that will make you smile or sigh a sentimental sigh for two perfectly nice people.


Lucy and Bob's final movie is 1963's Critic's Choice based on a Broadway play by Ira Levin. Lucy is Angie, a devoted wife and stepmother. Bob plays her husband, Parker Ballantine, a renowned and ascerbic theatre critic. He treats Angie's playwriting ambition as a whim to belittle. Sweet Angie turns stubborn at this and the household routine is thrown to the wind in the cause of art. Parker pans the completed play and scathingly backs up his opinion. Angie forges ahead by taking the play to their producer friend (John Dehner) and while he thinks it needs work, he also thinks it is doable. Family life becomes more unsettled with a little sideline help from Parker's ex, an actress played by Marilyn Maxwell and an egocentric director played by Rip Torn.

The climax of the story concerns whether or not Parker should or will review the play on opening night. He has already stated he doesn't like it. He has also turned down a plea for help from Angie. Parker looks upon it as a matter of self-respect. For Angie it is all about love and support. Our couple finds common ground by the end, but how this is achieved left me a little unsettled, however I think the movie is still a worthwhile watch. Lucy is marvelous in the role of a loving and determined woman trying to come out of her shell. The funny stuff is mostly left to Bob with nifty one-liners and a drunk scene.


Lucy's legacy of movie work is a tribute to her talent, her versatility and her commitment as an actress. All this can be found in the four movies she made with her most felicitous co-star, Bob Hope.