Monday, April 30, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for May on TCM

Stars in My Crown (1950) is Joe David Brown's adaptation of his 1947 episodic novel featuring stories which previously appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.  The screenplay is by Margaret Fitts whose other scripts include The Sun Comes Up, Talk About a Stranger and the adaption of her own novel The King and Four Queens.

Stars in My Crown is a nostalgic story where a man recalls his youth and the importance of his mentor, Parson Josiah Gray.  In the novel, the parson is the grandfather.  In the film, Parson Gray played by Joel McCrea is the adopted uncle of the orphaned John Kenyon played by Dean Stockwell.  Ellen Drew is the youngster's loving Aunt Harriet.

The tone for the film directed by Jacques Tourneur (I Walked With A Zombie, Cat People, Canyon Passage, Nightfall, etc.) is set right from the top as an unseen congregation sings the parson's favourite hymn, Stars in My Crown.

I am thinking today of that beautiful land
I shall reach when the sun goeth down
When through wonderful grace by my Saviour I stand
Will there be any stars in my crown
Will there be any stars any stars in my crown
When at evening the sun goeth down
When I wake with the blest in those mansions of rest
Will there be any stars in my crown . . .


The narrator, Marshall Thompson as the adult John Kenyon, greets us with these words : -

"Do you hear that?  You might say I was raised on that song.  It takes me back - back to the old times when I was young - back to Walesburg.  According to the words of the song we're promised a City of Gold in the hereafter.  I used to think that was a long time to have to wait, but I know now that there is a City of Gold right here on earth for every one of us.  The city of our youth.  Walesburg is only one name for it that's all.  Walesburg not as it is now but as it used to be.  I just have to shut my eyes and I'm there.  Nothing's changed.  I'm always a boy in Walesburg.  There at my side, as he'll always be, is the parson.  Parson Gray."
 
Dean Stockwell, Joel McCrea, Juano Hernandez 

We meet the people of Walesburg and follow their stories as John recalls them with both the clear eyes of uncensored youth and the nostalgic glow for a time past.  We meet the sweet and pretty schoolteacher, Miss Samuels played by Amanda Blake and her beau, the opinionated young doctor played by James Mitchell.  There is Juano Hernandez's Uncle Famous who dispenses understanding and fishing tips to growing boys.  Charles Kemper's Professor Jones the traveling medicine show man.  The parson's best friend farmer Jed Isbell played by Alan Hale and his five tow-headed sons.  There's the town's ruthless businessman Lon Backett played by Ed Begley.  Arthur Hunnicut as the town character Chloroform Wiggins and Jack Lambert as the town bully Perry Lockey.  Their stories play out through greed and illness, through acts of kindness and acts of courage.
 
James Mitchell, Amanda Blake 

The young Dr. Harris has inherited his position in town sadly from the passing of his father.  The senior Dr. Harris had the confidence and love of Walesburg.  The junior Dr. Harris has, in the words of his father "A lot of education, but very little sense."  Conflict and heartbreak will be his maturing with the help of Parson Gray.


Dr. Harris Jr.:  As long as I am doctor in this town you will oblige me by asking my permission before you interfere with my patients.
Parson Gray:  I came out here tonight because I was sent for, same as you.  We'll be meeting like this right along now and you may as well get used to it.  Souls don't always enjoy perfect health you know - any more than bodies do.
Dr. Harris Jr.:  Well, I'm not interested in souls, Mr. Gray.  And when I want a sermon on the subject I'll come to church for it.
Parson Gray:  Good.  I'll be glad to preach  you one.

The stories of Stars in My Crown are played out at a gentle pace befitting the backwards view.  When silence is all that is necessary, as at the side of a sick bed, we see the experience in silence.  When dialogue is necessary, it is amusing as when the parson diffuses a difficult situation with a humourous anecdote.  It may be revealing as in the relationships between the parson and his friend Jed or the parson and his devoted and clear-eyed wife.

There are wonderful scenes between the young John and his friend Chase Isbell played by Norman Ollestad (Sky King) as they philosophize as only the young may.  One scene features the lads riding a hay wagon with the sunlight dappled through the treetops.  The B&W cinematography by Charles Schoenbaum gives you the feel of the warmth of the sun and the scratchiness of the hay.

In both the novel and the movie, one of the most moving scenes and challenges to Parson Gray is dealing with the ambitions of Lon Backett to force Uncle Famous from his land over mining rights.  The Klan is organized to frighten the old man and when that doesn't work, murder is in their hearts threatening the very soul of Walesburg.

Parson Gray will not use guns and will not accept help as he faces the evil.  The first time I read the book, I was reading that section in public and could not hold back my tears.
 
"Night Riders.  Yellowbacks in fancy dress!  You shame me and you shame the Lord that made you and called you men.  And if I wasn't His servant I'd take a buggy whip to the lot of you." 

When Stars in My Crown ends, it ends much too abruptly for my liking although all of the stories that wanted telling have been told.  Perhaps, like John Kenyon, I want to spend a longer time in Walesburg.  There is not a false moment in any of the performances and the people and emotions are genuine.  Joel McCrea often sited Stars in My Crown as a favourite among his films and director Jacques Tourneur so loved the story that he offered to work on the film for scale, which may have tarnished his reputation among studio executives.  Nonetheless, he left us a true classic film.

I can't help but wonder if during the filming second lead Amanda Blake took any notice of a gangly young man with an engaging smile who was the tallest of Alan Hale's brood.  Could she possibly have imagined that inside of a decade she and James Arness would make television history as 19 year co-stars as Kitty Russell and Matt Dillon?  Before any regular visitors to this blog ask, the answer is yes.  All roads lead to Gunsmoke.

TCM is screening Stars in My Crown on Wednesday, May 16th at 12:45 AM.  I hope they will pardon my saying that I believe the movie deserved a prime time spot during Joel McCrea month. 
    

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jack Albertson and the Movie Buff Moment

I started out in vaudeville, and vaudeville died.  I hit the burlesque houses and they padlocked 'em.  I tried radio, and you know what happened to radio.  Then live TV, and it vanished.  Now that I've finally got a toehold in movies, look what's happening to them.  - Jack Albertson (1907 - 1981)

Massachusetts born Jack Albertson, and his sister Mabel, inherited the show business gene from their mother who appeared in stock.  I don't imagine Jack's Russian-Jewish immigrant parents were too impressed when their son left high school to pursue life upon the wicked stage, but they probably understood.  In those early years perhaps Jack himself often wondered why he kept at it when he wasn't making enough money to put a roof over his head and had to wonder where the next sandwich was going to come from.  However, people like to be entertained and this versatile and willing performer persevered.  By the 1950s High Button Shoes and Top Banana would see Jack on Broadway with Burlesque compatriot Phil Silvers.  Television audiences would start to recognize him on shows such as The Jack Benny Program, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Twilight Zone, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Mr. Ed and more.  He played his share of reporters, doctors and desk sergeants in movies.  And one very famous postal worker who can be seen every Christmas season sending bags of letters to Santy Claus at the courthouse in Miracle on 34th Street.  Jack Albertson was working steadily, but if he had early dreams of acclaim and awards - well, that time was probably past.  

Enter Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses in Broadway's 1964 season.  The three person character study won Best Play from the Tony Committee.  Young Martin Sheen was nominated for Featured Actor in a Play and Jack Albertson won the award in that category.  The 1968 film of the play brought both actors to the screen with Patricia Neal replacing stage star Irene Daily.  Ms. Neal was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and Jack Albertson won Best Supporting Actor.

 
  Amanda Blake, Jack Albertson
Gunsmoke

Suddenly, in his 60s, Jack Albertson wasn't "that guy playing the cop or neighbour".  He was the special guest star on series with episodes written for his character such as "Danny" who had a mysterious hold on Kitty's affection in Gunsmoke or a pool shark on Ironside: "Side Pocket".  Five Emmy nominations and two wins would come his way for guest spots and the sitcom Chico and the Man.  Popular film roles would rack up with The Poseidon Adventure, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Fox and the Hound.  Jack Albertson certainly had a career to be proud of.

  Gavin Hall
Easy to shop for!
 
My boy Gavin has his challenges with autism/developmental delay.  He has limited independent language skills, but if you take the time you will find him to have a good memory and a rollicking sense of humour.  He is also a movie buff.  My husband and I often fight over which side of the family Gavin gets his good looks from, but we know beyond the shadow of a doubt he gets the movie buff gene from me.

Gavin is also imaginative.  He invented the alternate casting game.  He must have invented it because no one has every played it with him.  Gavin likes to write out the casts of his favourite movies and get his dad, sister Janet or I to read the list aloud.  Every so often Gavin will throw in a ringer and watch for our reaction.  For instance, in The Jungle Book he'll put Hans Conried as Colonel Hathi (Everybody knows J. Pat O'Malley was the voice of Colonel Hathi!).  Gavin watches us with wide eyes waiting to see our reaction.  He's so proud of us when we catch it.  By the way, wouldn't you agree that Billy Gilbert and Martin Short would have been fine as "a monkey" in The Jungle Book?

 
 Jack Albertson - Amos Slade
The Fox and the Hound

Last weekend Gavin was in a The Fox and the Hound mood.  That means if you are not in a The Fox and the Hound mood, you are in for a rough time because that is all that will be playing for hours.  The weekend also brings one of Gavin's favourite activities which is going to the library with Daddy and borrowing a movie.  After his last trip to the library Gavin bounded into the house clutching Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  He made us sit in the living room.  He turned on the disc of The Fox and the Hound and paused at the credit "Jack Albertson - Amos Slade".  He replaced the disc with Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and paused at the credit "Jack Albertson" and turned with triumph in his eyes to see our reaction.   "Yes" we told him.  "Jack Albertson - Amos Slade and Jack Albertson - Grampa Joe."

 
 Jack Albertson - Grampa Joe
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

It may not have been the Helen Keller "water" moment, but what movie buff can't relate to the "Aha!" of discovery.  It brought me back to the glorious day when it finally dawned on me that Irving Bacon, Olin Howland and Tom Fadden were not the same guy.  It was an exciting moment for my boy and it was gratifying that he wanted to share.  I may have gotten a little carried away because Gavin gently let me know that although he was pleased that I understood his joy, the hug was too much and a high five would suffice.  I'll gladly take that high five and the movie buff connection with my son.  If he must have a label - and apparently he must - let it be Gavin Hall, movie buff.
                

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Richard Kiley - Man of ... Gunsmoke?

Richard Kiley
1922 - 1999

Richard Kiley was on tour in his famous Tony winning role of Cervantes/Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, thrilling sold out audiences at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts. In his spare time he was autographing the cast album at Eaton's Department Store, telling amusing show business anecdotes and shaking hands. I was working downtown at one of my first secretarial jobs and happily spent my lunch hour with the crowd at Eaton's. Next in line for an autograph I couldn't believe I was that close to Richard Kiley. Everyone was saying how much they enjoyed Man of La Mancha or how much they were looking forward to it. I had enjoyed the show as well, but when I handed my album to Mr. Kiley I told him how much I enjoyed all his guest appearances on Gunsmoke. Well, it was different anyway. Kiley looked up from the album with a bemused smile on his face and sat back. I don't think a theatre buff/western fan is such a rare creature, but maybe on that day I was. "Thank you" he said. "I always enjoyed working on that show. Great people."

An actor never really knows what sort of an impact they are making on an audience, do they? Acclaim and awards are a good indication. Fans at the stage door. Or it could be a week's work on episodic television.

Richard Kiley on Gunsmoke

Stark, Season 16, 1970
Written by Don Sanford
Directed by Robert Totten

Richard Kiley plays Lewis Stark, a cold and calculating bounty hunter. Shelly Novak is the wild son of a rich, stubborn rancher beautifully played by Henry Wilcoxon. Stark captures the young man, who has escaped prison, and holds him for ransom. The plan to make some fast money is complicated by Suzanne Pleshette as the rancher's very modern daughter, and Wilcoxon's failing health. A brutal beating and the torn open heart of a dysfunctional family feature in this engrossing drama with excellent performances.

Lynott, Season 17, 1971
Written by Ron Bishop
Directed by Gunnar Hellstrom

This time out Kiley is Tom Lynott, a lawman between jobs who takes over in Dodge while Matt is recovering from a shooting. Lynott is a garrulous soul with his own way of doing things which is more suited to the rough cow town Dodge used to be. His loving wife played perfectly (what else?) by Peggy McCay is the rock for the rambling interim marshal. He has a wee bit of a liking for the drink and is perhaps too close in temperment to the outlaws he should be policing. What cost will come with Lynott's new found respect for his position? Great dialogue and memorable characterizations from bad guys Anthony Caruso and Jonathan Lippe (currently the World's Most Interesting Man).

Bohannan, Season 18, 1972
Written by William Kelley
Directed by Alf Kjellin

Doc Adams is determined to prove the flamboyant faith healer Bohannan a charleton. Bohannan himself is in a crisis of faith that is heightened by his relationship with a terminal ill youngster played by Vincent Van Patten and his mother, Linda Marsh. A touching and thought-provoking episode.

Kitty's Love Affair, Season 19, 1973
Written by Paul Savage from a story by Susan Kotar and Joan E. Gessler
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Well, the title just about says it all. How could Kitty not be impressed with the attentions of reformed gunfighter Will Stambridge who comes to her aid against outlaws? After all, it's Richard Kiley.

The Macahans

Kiley's future work with producer John Mantley and actor James Arness includes 1976s The Macahans as Timothy Macahan, father of a family relocating to the west in the Civil War era. Also, the second made-for-TV Gunsmoke movie 1990s The Last Apache.

Richard Kiley's television work garnered him 9 Emmy nominations including 3 wins. A 1983 win as Paddy Cleary in The Thorn Birds, in 1988 as Joe Gardner in the well-remembered A Year in the Life and a Guest Performance Emmy in 1993 for Picket Fences as Jill's father, Hayden Langston. He also won Golden Globes for The Thorn Birds and A Year in the Life, plus a nomination for 1991s Separate But Equal.

Richard Kiley, Peter Falk

Police Commissioner Mark Halperin's byzantine murder plan is doomed to failure when Lt. Columbo is on the case in 1974s A Friend in Deed. When "Lt." arrests the culprit, the look of pure hatred on Kiley's face is chilling.

National Geographic specials were more special when narrated by Richard Kiley. That voice! Mellifluous, commanding and sexy. High on my list of favourite Kiley TV appearances is on American Playhouse in 1993, Verse Person Singular. Kiley wrote the narration and the music for this one man show with poems by Poe, Lewis Carroll, Kipling and others. My favourite was T.S. Eliot's Gus the Theatre Cat. After all, that's what Richard Kiley was - a theatre cat.

Along with touring, Richard Kiley appeared in 17 Broadway plays between 1953 and 1987. He won 2 Tony Awards for Man of La Mancha in 1966 and Redhead in 1959. He was nominated in 1962 for No Strings and in 1987 for All My Sons.

The Blackboard Jungle

Let's not forget the movies. The pilot in 1974s The Little Prince. Narrating 1993s Jurassic Park. Heading a Board of Inquiry in 1998s Patch Adams. The crusading lawyer in 1955s The Phenix City Story. The murderous communist agent in 1953s Pickup on South Street. The naive high school teacher in 1955s The Blackboard Jungle. The fate of Josh Edward's jazz records breaks my heart.


Speaking of record albums, when my husband and I became a couple we faced the chore of combining our record collections. Not surprisingly, since we met doing community theatre, the only doubles were the Original Show Cast Albums. It is my copy of Man of La Mancha that has the autograph and is wrapped up with the memory of a bemused smile and a warm handshake.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for April on TCM

Ruth Etting was a very popular vocalist in the 1920s and 1930s with hit records and Broadway and movie appearances. Scandal sent her career off the rails when her gangster ex-husband Martin Snyder shot and wounded her younger lover, pianist and arranger Johnny Alderman. Martin would serve a brief stint in jail and Ruthie would marry Johnny in a happy union which lasted 28 years until his death. It sounds like the stuff of the movies, doesn't it? Hollywood has always loved a good show business biography and Ruth gave the rights to her story and told them to go ahead "warts and all", as did Alderman and Snyder. Later Ms. Etting would sentimentally decry the fact that the happiness of her post show business career wasn't the "stuff of movies".

Ruth Etting, Martin "The Gimp" Snyder

MGM produced the Ruth Etting story as a Technicolor blockbuster titled Love Me or Leave Me, the title of a popular Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn torch song. The screenplay which won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story is by Caftan Woman favourite Isobel Lennert (Holiday Affair, The Sundowners, East Side, West Side) and Daniel Fuchs (Cross Cross, Storm Warning). Charles Vidor directed with his usual sure hand that guided such films as Gilda, Ladies in Retirement and Blind Alley.

Doris Day, James Cagney

Who to star? Adding another of his real-life portrayals to his resume (George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy and later Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces) and returning to the gangster role, but one quite different from his early psychos, was Oscar winner James Cagney. Cagney was thrilled to have such a strong role and to work with Vidor whom he described as "a nice version of Michael Curtiz". The leading lady? It would have to be someone special. Someone who audiences would root for. Someone who could carry off all of the great songs that Ruth sang. Of course, Doris Day! Away from her home studio of Warner Brothers, Day was given the role of a lifetime.

The story of the ambitious Ruth and the businessman of the rough and tumble methods plays out against the backdrop of Chicago in the roaring twenties and the Great White Way of Ziegfeld. James Cagney and Doris Day had worked together previously in the Warner's musical The West Point Story. Cagney related to biographer John McCabe for 1997s Cagney that when rehearsals began for Love Me or Leave Me he saw that there was much more than just another talented pretty girl in Doris Day. Cagney considered Doris Day to be an actress on a par with theatrical legends Pauline Lord and Laurette Taylor. Their intense screen personalities and acting styles of delving into the souls of the characters were perfectly matched leading to one of the screen's more interesting combinations and surely one of Cagney's most intriguing leading ladies.

The crucial role of musician Johnny Alderman was played by Cameron Mitchell (Death of a Salesman, All Mine to Give, TVs The High Chaparral). Caught up in the whirlwind of the obsessive relationship between Ruthie and "The Gimp" (as Snyder was called due to a limp resulting from childhood polio), Mitchell's portrayal is of a man full of heart and understanding. An interesting bit of trivia is that Johnny Alderman was an arranger on the delightful 1937 James Cagney musical Something to Sing About.

A scene in the movie that makes me chuckle about how little the world has changed is when Alderman, who is playing piano in a Snyder run club, is asked by The Gimp to work with Ruth on her singing. After listening to her Alderman assumes his boss will want to know if the girl can sing or not. Cagney/Snyder responds that it doesn't matter. You put a pretty girl up on stage and tell folks she's a singer - that makes her a singer. As the saying goes, no one ever went broke underestimating the public. In this case Ruth and her public were on the right track. The woman could sing and her popularity was well-deserved.

If all you were looking for in the biography of a singer as popular as Ruth Etting was great songs, this movie is filled with them, including You Made Me Love You, Ten Cents a Dance, Mean to Me, Shakin' the Blues Away, At Sundown, I Cried for You and more, plus an original song I'll Never Stop Loving You by Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn that was nominated for a Best Song Oscar. The winner was Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's theme for Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.

James Cagney would receive his third and final Oscar nomination for the role of Snyder. The winner that year was Ernest Borgnine for Marty. Doris Day was overlooked at award time and would receive her only nomination a few years later for Pillow Talk. As a fan I am pleased that her comic abilities were acknowledged, but also as a fan I am surprised that her sterling dramatic turn as Ruth Etting was overlooked.

In addition to the wonderful standards, beautifully sung by Doris Day and released as a top selling album, this is the dramatic story of three people, their loves and their intertwining fates. Love Me or Leave Me is entertaining and unforgettable. TCM is screening the film as part of their month long salute to Doris Day on Friday, April 7th at 8:00 pm.