Thursday, April 05, 2007

It's been almost a week since i've blogged; haven't really been rushing to see anything new. Yesterday, went to the press screening for the Chinese documentary "West of the Tracks: Rust" which is the first four hours of a seven hour work. It's one of those docs which was done on digital video, and it seems intended to be shown on television. Fascinating depiction of the day-to-day events of smelting factories which are on the verge of closing in China, because of the changes in global economics.

Yesterday, watched the first three movies in the RKO Lost and Found films on TCM: "Rafter Romance", "Double Harness" and "One Man's Journey". Just some notes: in "RafterRomance", the ethnic humor (particularly the Jewish landlord, his wife and son) was rather thick. But people forget that it was such an ingrained part of American show business at the time. Now, there's such sensitivity about racial humor, but people forget that it extended into all ethnic groups. (It's like the point i've always tried to make about Mickey Rooney's character in "Breakfast at Tiffany's": for Blake Edwards, it's no different than the exaggerated "French" character of Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau, with his linguistic malapropism, his clumsiness, his sexual frustration. If you're French, are you supposed to be offended by Inspector Clouseau? In Blake Edwards, it's just part of a show business tradition that stretches all the way back: Edwards himself is a third-generation show business scion.) You can see a bit of it in "Double Harness", where the Chinese cook is the comic antagonist of Reginald Owens's English butler. Though i'd seen "Double Harness" before, i was glad to see it again, because it didn't leave a big impression. When i saw it a few years ago, it played with La Cava's "Gallant Lady", which was sensational: one of the best La Cava movies, an amazing screwball comedy. The reason "Gallant Lady" was amazing was that the plot was pure weepie (girl gets pregnant and her fiance dies before they can get married, she gives up the baby for adoption, years later she becomes the nanny to her own son, then the adoptive mother dies) but La Cava turns it into a comedy, by having a number of supporting characters who wisecrack and debunk the heroine throughout. "Gallant Lady" (which also starred Ann Harding) was so vivid it made "Double Harness" seem rather tepid. But on its own, "Double Harness" is a reasonably sophisticated marital drama. "One Man's Journey" is one of those good-man-through-the-years sagas. Usually the man is a doctor (when it's a woman, she's usually a teacher, cf. "Cheers for Miss Bishop", "Remember the Day", "Good Morning, Miss Dove", etc.), and, sure enough, here Lionel Barrymore is the country doctor of such virtue he practically moos, so stuffed is he with the milk of human kindness. But it's a pleasant enough movie, with a nice supporting cast.

The daytime schedule for TCM yesterday was a tribute to Anthony Perkins, starting with "The Actress", which i watched before i headed out to Anthology for the "Rust" screening. I've always liked "The Actress", but, then, i think Jean Simmons is a wonderful actress. And the film begins with her face in close-up, as she watches "The Pink Lady" in total rapture. And she makes that yearning so acute and funny. (Michael Douglas has a very funny story, about how his father had a party and was asking all the men there - who included Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum - who the sexiest actress was, and they all agreed it was Jean Simmons. That was when Kirk Douglas was having problems with "Spartacus", and he wound up casting Jean Simmons to replace the original European actress who had been cast by Anthony Mann. And Anthony Mann was replaced by Stanley Kubrick.) Jean Simmons was one of those actresses that, in the industry, was always regarded as someone who should have been a big star, and she was very well-regarded critically. But her career derailed when she became the object of contention between MGM and Howard Hughes: in 1950, Rank Studios sold her contract to MGM, but Howard Hughes had wanted the contract. He took MGM to court, and was allowed to buy out half her contract. But Simmons (who was married to Stewart Granger at the time) did not want to have an affair with Hughes (that's what the whole brouhaha was really about). And so he punished her. The highlight was "Angel Face": she didn't want to do the movie, Hughes insisted, she retaliated by cutting her hair, so she had to wear a wig (that's the reason for the rigid hairdo in the movie), and she went through the movie stone-faced (which actually worked for the movie). She was angry on the set, and that impacted, stoney-faced fury really adds to the movie.

But "The Actress" was a complicated story. Jean Simmons had been the original choice for "Roman Holiday" but when the property changed (Frank Capra and Cary Grant were no longer attached, it became William Wyler and Gregory Peck... when it was Capra and Grant, with Capra and Grant producing, the fee to borrow Simmons from her MGM/Hughes contract was included, but when Wyler produced, Peck's fee was too much to include Simmons's fee as well, so they went and cast an unknown who wouldn't cost as much... of course, in the studio days, the fee for the loan-out would have gone to MGM/Hughes, with Simmons merely getting her standard fee, the extra being pure profit for MGM/Hughes), Simmons was left without a project (though she had just finished "Angel Face" for Hughes, which meant that her next project could be for MGM).

Debbie Reynolds had actually been cast as Ruth Gordon Jones in "The Actress", but she was working on "Give a Girl a Break", which dragged on because of the constant disputes (the film was dividing into factions, with Gower Champion on one side, Bob Fosse on the other; if Champion choreographed a number, then Fosse insisted on choreographing another number). This was a relief to George Cukor, who didn't want to work with Debbie Reynolds; since Jean Simmons was free (and was an MGM star), she was cast.

But MGM is an example of gross negligence. MGM bought Deborah Kerr's contract in 1947, she was seen as the replacement for Greer Garson. But by 1950, MGM had also bought out Jean Simmons's contract. But MGM didn't know what to do with Deborah Kerr, and they didn't know what to do with Jean Simmons. (What was lucky for Deborah Kerr was her loan-out to Columbia for "From Here to Eternity"; from that point on, all the big pictures which made her a star, such as "The King and I" and "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison", were done for other studios. In addition, the money problems at MGM in the mid-1950s were such that when Kerr's contract came up for renewal in 1954, it was dissolved by mutual consent and she was free to free-lance.)

There are some ironies about MGM in the 1950s. The last MGM contract star would be, in fact, Debbie Reynolds. The last male contract star (and MGM was letting go of their stars left and right: Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Spncer Tracy... all of them were let go) would be Glenn Ford (who would sign with MGM in the mid-1950s, and would actually star in a number of box office hits, such as "Blackboard Jungle" and "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (yes, that was a hit). The irony of Glenn Ford being the last MGM star is that, when he was starting out, he married one of MGM's biggest stars, the musical star Eleanor Parker, and she retired (even though he was only a contract player with Columbia at that point). But in the mid-1950s, he came to MGM in triumph (whereupon he divorced his wife). Even though MGM had signed Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons, the three biggest MGM stars of the 1950s would be Debbie Reynolds, Grace Kelly (officially, she was an MGM star, though she did most of her movies on loan-out to Warners and Paramount) and Elizabeth Taylor.

But "The Actress" is a charming movie, and Jean Simmons is lovely.


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