Monday, May 31, 2010

The Genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein: Carousel

It is impossible to describe Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel without using the word “haunting”. Considered by most critics and admirers to be their darkest musical, Carousel is a blend of beautiful and memorable music, a story of love unspoken, feelings unexpressed, disappointment, joy and death. These are not the usual components of a musical play. In fact, it begins with the hero, Billy Bigelow (Gordon McRae) already dead and working in a sort of way station to heaven, polishing stars. Based on the novel “Liliom” by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnar, Carousel retains most of the story without many of the bleaker aspects of the original novel.

Carousel was released in 1956 and directed by Henry King (known for movies such as Song of Bernadette, Twelve O'Clock High, The Sun Also Rises and Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing). It is the story of Billy, a carnival barker for a carousel owned by the tough, street-wise Mrs. Mullin (Audrey Christie). Billy is handsome, charismatic, and well aware of his effect on women. One evening he meets Julie (Shirley Jones), a young girl who attracts Billy by her beauty and demeanor of quiet poignancy. At first, Billy sees Julie as just another conquest, but her decency and trust arouse a different feeling in him. He is a man who is not accustomed to much depth of thought, and he is surprised and a little annoyed by his feelings of protection toward Julie. In one of the most beautiful love scenes in movie history, Billy and Julie sing “If I Loved You”, their timid foray into intimacy with each other. Julie chooses to stay with Billy even at the expense of her reputation, and Billy leaves behind his job as a barker for the jealous Mrs. Mullin.

We are never quite sure if Billy and Julie are intimate before their marriage, but they are next shown returning to Julie’s Aunt Nettie (Claramae Turner) as a newly married couple. Billy, a rather surly and egotistical man, refuses to find ordinary work, and the couple lives with Julie’s aunt. Billy meets a shady sailor, Jigger (Cameron Mitchell) who encourages Billy’s baser interests in gambling and lazy living. A reluctant husband, Billy bristles indignantly at the rumor that he has beaten Julie, angrily answering that he just hit her. Then Julie tells Billy that she is going to have a child, and Billy begins to grow into a man. One of the most famous and moving songs, “Billy’s Soliloquy”, finds him looking forward to being a father, thinking first of a son with whom he can have fun, then realizing his child may be a daughter. Billy’s tough-guy character shies from fathering a girl, until feelings of tenderness and protection bring him to the conclusion that he must make something of himself to protect his unborn child. His feelings toward a daughter mirror the protective feelings he found in himself toward Julie. The song and MacRae’s performance are brilliantly written and performed.

Julie’s friend, Carrie (Barbara Ruick), has taken a different path and marries Mr. Snow (Robert Rounseville), a rather dull but dependable man who promises to be a solid husband. There are two numbers sung by Carrie, “When I Marry Mr. Snow” and “When The Children Are Asleep” which are lovely and tender. Julie understands the difference between her husband and the steadfast Mr. Snow, but she never wavers in her love and loyalty to Billy.

A rollicking dance number    “June Is Busting Out All Over” precedes a clambake attended by the young people of the town. Billy and Jigger decide to sneak off during a treasure hunt to rob one of the rich ship-owners. Billy can think of no other way to make money for his family. Julie, unaware of his plan, is nonetheless worried and begs him to stay with her at the clambake. After he leaves, Julie sings a song to the other women explaining the loyalty women feel toward their men, “What’s The Use Of Wondering”, a song of sadness and love.

In his attempt at robbery, Billy is thwarted by the shipowner’s defense, and he accidentally falls on his knife. The clambake party returns, and Julie sees that Billy is dying. He asks her to tell their unborn child that he had plans to make something of himself, and dies in Julie’s arms. Aunt Nettie consoles the heartbroken Julie with what is probably the most famous song from the musical, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

Years later, Billy is given the chance by the Starkeeper (Gene Lockhart, who also doubles as the village minister) to return to earth for one day to see if he can help his daughter Louise (Susan Luckey ), now a troubled teenager. For me, the number “Louise’s Ballet” is the tour de force of this film, and is worth seeing just on its own. Famed ballet dancer Jacque D’Ambois dances the part of a carousel barker, using dancers to form a magical impression of a carousel and horses. Louise is captivated by her dreams of the father she never knew, and her budding feelings of love for the handsome barker. It is a number not to be missed.

I will not go further for the sake of those who have not seen the movie. In Molnar’s original novel, Liliom actually commits suicide after the botched robbery, and is unable to help his daughter, and subsequently doomed to hell. For a Broadway musical and movie of this era, such an ending would not be acceptable. Nonetheless, the story loses none of its realistic portrayal of imperfect people in an imperfect world, struggling with love, self-doubt and morality.

Originally, the part of Billy Bigelow was to be played by Frank Sinatra. As much as I love Sinatra’s singing and acting, I think he would have been totally miscast. He left the production after learning that for the technique of Cinemascope each scene would have to be filmed twice. McRae was hired and filming continued. Interestingly, immediately after Sinatra’s departure, the filming process was changed and the need for that technique was no longer necessary. McRae had the part for which he was perfect.

The part of Julie was originally offered to Judy Garland, also in my opinion a casting mistake. However, that never materialized, and popular Shirley Jones took over. Shirley said that Carousel was her favorite musical. Richard Rogers also said that his score for Carousel was his favorite.

Carousel began as a Broadway musical, with John Raitt in the part of Billy. I have heard Raitt’s performance, particularly the Soliloquy, and his rendition actually surpasses McRae’s, as good as McRae was. You may know that Raitt is the father of country singing star Bonnie Raitt.

The "Carousel Waltz," heard at the beginning of the film is one of Richard Rogers’ most beautiful numbers. It sets the haunting tone for this unusual and brilliant work. Rodgers and Hammerstein's creation of depth and eloquent pathos done in the musical genre is without equal.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

This Week's Poll: What is your favorite movie set primarily aboard an airplane?

Film sequels are rarely as good as the originals...but does that hold true for movie polls? After last week's surprisingly popular poll about movies set on submarines, I thought it'd be fun to ask a similar question: What is your favorite film set aboard an airplane?

The challenge, of course, is to narrow the nominees to a reasonable number. Therefore, this poll focuses solely on films set primarily aboard an airplane. There are several post-1980s movies that fit this criterion (e.g., Air Force One, Passenger 57, Executive Decision, Red Eye, Flightplan)...but they're too recent to qualify as classics at the Cafe. Therefore your nominees for this week are:

The High and the Mighty - The grandaddy of disaster films recounts the drama aboard Trans-Orient-Pacific flight 420 when the plane suffers an engine fire midway between Honolulu and San Francisco. Robert Stack plays the pilot with John Wayne as his first officer (whose wife and child died during a crash in which he was the pilot). The passengers include a Grand Hotel gathering of stars such as Laraine Day, Claire Trevor, Robert Newton, and Phil Harris.

Airport - This 1970 adaptation of Arthur Hailey's bestseller features Van Heflin as a mentally unbalanced passenger who plans to blow up an airliner so that his wife can collect on the life insurance policy. Burt Lancaster stars as the airport manager coping with the crisis on the ground, with Dean Martin as the pilot who tries to talk Heflin's character out of sabotage. The all-star supporting cast included Helen Hayes, who won an Academy Award as a charming stowaway. This huge hit spawned several sequels of declining interest.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet - In this bizarre 1973 made-for-TV film, millionaire architect Roy Thinnes and his English wife (Jane Merrow) transport a Druid altar from England to the U.S. aboard a chartered flight. Unfortunately, they don't realize that they have disrupted a sacrificial ceremony that occurs once every 100 years. The Druid spirits escape from the altar, determined to take a new sacrifice--and, by the way, they have halted the plane flight in mid-air. That's bad news for pilot Chuck Connors and passengers William Shatner, Paul Winfield, Tammy Grimes, and Buddy Ebsen.

Airplane! - This grand spoof of disaster films is probably the funniest collaboration among Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (ZAZ). Robert Hays plays a pilot Ted Striker, who has a fear of flying (due to wartime trauma) and Julie Hagerty is his stewardess girlfriend. But the plot is just an excuse for a succession of hilarious sight gags and one-liners. Playing against type, Lloyd Bridges (as a wacky air traffic controller) proved he could be an adept comedian; it revived his career. Followed by a non-ZAZ sequel.

The Spirit of St. Louis - How do you make a movie about Charles Linbergh's solo transatlantic flight and keep audiences engrossed for the full running time? Director Billy Wilder's solution was to intersperse flashbacks that flesh out James Stewart's portrait of the famed aviator. Considered a misfire by some critics, the film still has its fans who admire Wilder's ingenuity and Stewart's subtle performance.

If I've made left out any notable films, please leave a comment below. Last week, several Cafe readers were aghast that Run Silent, Run Deep was omitted from the list of submarine-set films. (Apologies abound, but tough choices had to be made!) In the meantime, please cast a vote for the nominees in the green sidebar on the right.

Trivia Time - Part 38

Welcome to the 38th edition of Trivia Time. Are you ready?

Who Are We? We are a 60's rock group that did the scores for two "cult films" of the 60's. Who Are We?

#1. What are the films?

#2. Who are the directors?

#3. What is the only film that James Stewart dies in?

#4. Name at least three of his co stars.

#5. Spencer Tracy made two "war films" between 1943 and 1944. Name the films in order.

#6. What 1968 western has the credit "Introducing Lee Majors? Who was the star?

#7. Name the films John Wayne and Susan Hayward made together.

#8. Richard Jorden and Robert Mitchum made two films together. Name the films.

#9. Name the directors.

#10. Brain Buster # 1. Who did James Stewart dance with in Born to Dance?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Swing Time with Fred and Ginger...and that Awesome Dress


If you don’t think Top Hat is the best Fred and Ginger film ever, then chances are you think that honor belongs to Swing Time. To many it is a toss up. I, of course, prefer Top Hat, but there are many who say Swing Time is better. In regards to political correctness, Top Hat is the one that stands the test of time, as Astaire performs in blackface in Swing Time. So, let the debate begin…once I give this film the once over, of course.

Based on the Elwin Gelsey story “Portrait of John Garnett” (screenplay adaptation by Howard Lindsay and Allen Scott), the film was directed by George Stevens (he needed a break—he’d just finished working with Katharine Hepburn). The charming dance numbers are the beneficiary of an excellent soundtrack by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. “The Way You Look Tonight” took home the 1936 Oscar for Best Song and Hermes Pan was nominated for Best Dance Direction for “Bojangles of Harlem”. Besides these two great routines, there is also “A Fine Romance”, “Pick Yourself Up”, “Waltz in Swing Time”, and “Never Gonna Dance”.

The plot is very thin, but thankfully Fred and Ginger’s dancing make you forget this. Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a vaudeville “hoofer” who wants to be a professional gambler. He also wants to marry his rich girlfriend Margaret (Betty Furness), but he and his wedding trousers are sidetracked by his dancing partners who don’t want him to quit the business. He arrives hours late to the wedding and is informed by Margaret’s father, Judge Watson (director George Stevens’ father Landers Stevens) that there isn’t going to be a wedding. Lucky and the judge then come to an agreement: if Lucky goes to New York City and makes $25,000 then the judge will reconsider.

127543134_fd2ce7b843_o So, off to the big city goes a broke Lucky, his lucky quarter, and his best pal, Pop (Victor Moore). Once in New York they soon meet Penny Carol (Rogers), who promptly tries to have them arrested for theft. Lucky is still in his wedding clothes, so the officer doesn’t believe her. Miffed, Penny strides off to her job at the Gordon’s Dancing Academy with Lucky in hot pursuit. Upon entering the studio Lucky encounters receptionist Mabel (Helen Broderick), who offers him a free dance lesson in hopes that he’ll enroll in a $45 course. Seeing Penny’s picture on the wall, he asks to take his free lesson with her. An infuriated Penny must endure his faked ineptitude, which leads to the film’s first musical number, SwingTime_2 “Pick Yourself Up”. Many critics have said this song was a nod to people trying to endure the Depression. With lyrics like: “Don't lose your confidence if you slip/Be grateful for a pleasant trip/And pick yourself up/Dust yourself off/ Start all over again” it is easy to see where they may have gotten that idea. When Penny is fired by the dance studio’s owner, Mr. Gordon (Eric Blore), for insulting him, Lucky steps in and shows off what he’s “learned” from Penny. In a fluid shot, Stevens captures the duo as they do their famous swinging twirl and leap over the dance railings. Mr. Gordon is so impressed that he decides to send the duo to his friend Simpson’s (Pierre Watkin) Silver Sandal club for an audition. To get a dinner jacket for the audition, Lucky tries to gamble but ends up losing his pants in the process. No audition and Penny is yet again angry with him.

soap Fast forward a bit and you find Lucky and Pop picketing outside Penny’s room. With the help of Mabel, Lucky finds his way into her room and tries to convince her to give him (and their dance partnership) another shot. And what’s the best way to convince an angry woman to reconsider slicing your heart open with her stiletto? You serenade her with “The Way You Look Tonight”. Penny, soapy hair and all, forgives him and agrees to a new audition. Too bad Ricardo (George Mataxa), the band leader at the Silver Sandal, is in love with Penny and won’t play for the swingtime_lduo because he’s jealous of Lucky and because his contract now belongs to Dice Raymond (John Harrington), another night club (and casino) owner. So, Lucky gambles Dice Raymond for Ricardo’s contract—and wins. The first musical piece he conducts for his new boss is “Waltz in Swing Time”. This waltz is definitely in “swing time”, as it is lightening fast with Astaire and Rogers doing some very nimble foot work and interesting gliding back kicks, amongst their usual twirls. It is a breathtaking dance, both figuratively and literally.

swingtimea Later in the film the duo travel with Pop and Mabel (an odd couple if there ever was one) to a rundown lodge. It is the middle of a snowy winter and they are driving in an open convertible—really? Of course, by this point in the film Penny and Lucky are in love, but he’s giving her advances the brush-off because of his engagement to Margaret. Having all of her romantic advances rebuffed is too much for Penny and she begins singing “A Fine Romance”. The song is very sarcastic and well, cute: she wants them to be hot tomatoes and he wants them to be cold potatoes. Eventually, Pop lets her in on the fact that Lucky is engaged—just as Lucky decides to give in to his feelings.

Back in the city they begin performing at the swingtimeblackfaceSilver Sandal and continue their flirtation. It is at this point in the film that today’s viewer may become a bit uncomfortable, as Astaire performs in blackface in "Bojangles of Harlem". What today’s viewer doesn’t know is Astaire did this as a tribute to the African American tap dancer Bill Robinson. It is an excellent solo number for Astaire and the set design was inspired. boja Tap dancing amongst twenty four singing chorus girls dressed in half black and half white, Astaire showcases his wonderful tap work. Later in the number, Astaire performs a shadow dance amongst three screen projected shadows and outduels (or better yet, out-taps) them all. This is the only time he ever did a blackface number in a film. Anyway, at the end of the number Lucky notices that Margaret is in the audience. Uh-oh.

In a very quick amount of time a lot happens. Lucky loses Ricardo’s contract to Dice and Penny is introduced to Margaret. Both of these events convince Penny that she should marry Ricardo and finally be done with the gambling (and engaged) Lucky. swing-time-never-gonna-dance-1 When Lucky learns that Penny is going to marry Ricardo he convinces her to have one last dance with him when he starts singing “Never Gonna Dance”. This is perhaps the most “emotional” dance the duo ever performed together. As long as they continue this dance their romance can go on, but if the dance ends so does the romance. And, so this is one of the longest numbers the duo ever performed together. All of their earlier dance routines are intermingled with Ginger Swing Time Dress this one. It is awesome to watch this, as well as when they spin their way up a curved staircase and end the number in what can only described as an explosion of twirls. At the end, she runs away from him. It is rather devastating to watch…but then you remember it’s Fred and Ginger: I know there’s a happy ending somewhere! Okay, but we still must talk about Ginger’s dress in this number. Ten trillion times better than the Ostrich number Ginger Rogers majesticfrom Top Hat, this low-cut, white satin gown was designed by Bernard Newman and it is one of the all-time greatest film gowns EVER! With cross-your-heart pleats and a cut to die for, not to mention a startling cape that was connected by a rhinestone choker, this is the ultimate “I’m just too damn sexy” dress.

But back to the story, in the end Margaret tells Lucky she doesn’t want to marry him, which frees him up to steal Ricardo’s pants before his wedding to Penny. In a rather quirky, but very sweet, ending, the two end up serenading one another with the other’s song, he sings her “A Fine Romance” and she sings his “The Way You Look Tonight”.

This is my second favorite Fred and Ginger picture. It is a lot like Top Hat, especially with the art deco set designs and the usual plot devices. I don’t know if I can make a definitive statement as to which number, “Cheek to Cheek” or “Never Gonna Dance”, is the greatest. Both are spectacular, but Ginger does wear that itchy ostrich dress in “Cheek to Cheek”. Oh, well, I’d like to hear what you think on this subject…and anything else you might have to add.

Dancing Cheek to Cheek? Top Hat Required


When considering the Fred and Ginger phenomenon, one need only remember what Katharine Hepburn said about the duo: “She gave him sex, and he gave her class." Alone, he was far from sexy and she wasn’t close to genteel. Yet, when you put them together, all of that fell away and you saw a beautiful, sophisticated couple. All told, they made 10 films together—most of which were quite good. Their chemistry, both dancing and romantic, is undeniable and has stood the test of time. That is why today they are still regarded as THE greatest dance team ever.

Director Mark Sandrich obviously worked well with the duo, as he directed five of their films. Working from a witty screenplay penned by Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor, based on the Alexander Farago and Aladar Laszlo play The Girl Who Dared, Sandrich’s deft directorial decisions about how the film should be shot made Top Hat the duo’s biggest box office success, as well as their most critically acclaimed film. It was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Interior Decoration, Best Song, and Best Dance Direction), but won none.

Astaire and Hermes Pan choreographed Swing10the film to five wonderful Irving Berlin songs: “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails,” Cheek to Cheek,” “No Strings,” “Isn’t This a Lovely Day To Be Caught in the Rain,” and “The Piccolino.” All the musical numbers seem to seamlessly meld in with the progression of the story—which I find to be a huge plus.

The plot revolves around a simple case of mistaken identity, which complicates a budding romance born out of an accidental meeting. Doesn’t sound too simple to you, eh? Trust me, it’s Fred and Ginger, so it’s definitely simple.

In the beginning, we meet Broadway star Jerry Travers (Astaire) as he’s hanging out in a VERY British gentlemen’s club waiting for producer Horace Hardwick (the always top-hat-no-stringsfunny Edward Everett Horton). After the two meet up and go to Horace’s hotel, Jerry learns that Horace’s wife Madge (Helen Broderick) wants him to come to Italy and meet a woman she’s picked for him. Jerry’s not interested in this, as he has a strong aversion to “strings.” Thus, Astaire starts singing “No Strings” and does a bit of noisy tap dancing. This awakens the lady sleeping in the room below, Dale Tremont (Rogers). Thus, Jerry and Dale meet when she angrily knocks on the door to complain. She thinks he’s a flake, he thinks she’s wonderful and rethinks the whole “strings” aversion.

The next day we find Jerry buying flowers (from Lucille Ball nonetheless) and being rebuffed by Dale when he offers to take her to a riding club. Not deterred, he decides to pretend to be the hansom cab driver. She recognizes him by his tapping feet, but isn’t that angry. Later, as she’s riding a storm breaks out and she seeks cover. Jerry attempts to come to the rescue, but she gives him the cold shoulder. That is, until a tophatloud clap of thunder sends her into his arms. Once she recovers herself, her icy nature is even worse. To pass the time and make her loathe him a tad less, he sings "Isn't This a Lovely Day”. Once finished with the warm-up number, he begins whistling and trying to get her to dance with him. Eventually she gives in and they perform a sort of shadow dance, mimicking the other’s moves. This number just goes to show that Rogers was just as good a dancer as Astaire, which many people seem to overlook. There is a quote I heard somewhere about how Rogers may have even been better because she danced backwards and in high heels. Anyway, by the end of the scene they are on friendly terms.

Back at the hotel Dale gets a telegram from Mrs. Hardwick suggesting she look up her husband at the hotel. After much confusion, Dale begins to think that Jerry is Mr. Hardwick—oh, no you didn’t! Slap! Not given the courtesy of knowing why he’s been tophatw slapped, Jerry is flabbergasted. Still, not deterred, when he learns that Dale is headed to Venice, he demands Horace take him there right after the next number: “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.” Of course, top hat and tails were Astaire’s trademark look, so this is one of his quintessential numbers. Backed up by an entire male chorus wearing top hats and tails, Astaire tap dances (cane in hand) in front of a Parisian backdrop (Eiffel Tower included). It’s interesting to watch Astaire wield his cane as a weapon and the dancing sequence is spectacular.

With a quick dissolve, we find ourselves looking at an interesting Art Deco set of what RKO thought Venice should look like. Evidently everything there is a glowing white color. Anyway, after arriving in Venice Dale informs Madge about her husband and the two cook up a plan to teach him a lesson. Of course, Dale cheekstill thinks Jerry is Horace and what ensues is a comical game of cat and mouse. At one point, Madge pushes the two to dance together and Jerry finds himself “in heaven”; and, thus starts the spontaneous “Cheek to Cheek” duet. And so the ostrich feathers start to fly! Yes, I know this dress is legendary (for many reasons), but I just hate it! It does work very well in the dance, but it looks itchy and I can’t watch this great number without wanting to scratch. It is a seductive dance that is symbolic of the courtship and eventual consummation of a romance. A mixture of classic ballroom dancing and innovative modern (for that time) dance, it is the signature Fred and Ginger performance. At the end of the dance, Dale is crestfallen when she realizes she’s in love with a married man—one who proposes to her. Oh, no you didn’t! Slap—again.

To escape her conundrum, Dale decides to marry her designer, Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes). After learning that the woman he loves has married another man because she mistook him for Horace, Jerry decides he must rescue Dale before she can consummate her marriage. His rescue plan: to dance as loud as possible above the bridal suite. This angers Beddini, a master fencer, and he goes to challenge Jerry to a duel. This give Jerry the opportunity to kidnap 12187AB93ED936D6E5F69174B9CC3 Dale in a gondola and for the rest of the cast to pursue them in a motorboat low on petrol. So, while everybody else is out to sea, Dale and Jerry return to the hotel to watch a group of dancers perform “The Piccolino”—they eventually join in on the number. With a nod toward Busby Berkeley, Sandrich uses overhead camera shots to capture the dancers forming patterned images. They will reprise this number at the end of the film, after it is revealed that Dale and Beddini aren’t actually married. Happy ending!

Overall, the musical numbers are top notch. The standout number is, of course, “Cheek to Cheek”, but the other numbers are of a high caliber as well. Irving Berlin combined with Astaire and Pan’s choreography is pure magic.

The Art Deco sets are elegant and quite interesting to observe. In addition, the clothes (especially the evening gowns) are chic and expertly designed. When you combine the wardrobe and set design, you have one very sleek, sophisticated looking film.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bond Is Forever: "GoldenEye"

British secret agents, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), aka 007, and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), aka 006, are attempting to decommission a Soviet chemical weapons plant. In the course of the mission, Trevelyan is captured and killed, and Bond, after detonating explosives, narrowly escapes. Nine years later, 007 tracks Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), engaged in a questionable relationship with a Canadian admiral. Onatopp kills the admiral to steal his identity and commandeers a helicopter that can withstand an EMP (electromagnetic pulse). She and General Ourumov travel to a Severnaya complex, confiscate the controls to the GoldenEye satellite, and fire an EMP at the complex. Bond is initially upset upon learning that Ourumov is behind the plot, as he blames the man for the death of his friend, Trevelyan. Unfortunately, 007 soon discovers that the true mastermind is Trevelyan himself, who had faked his death and sworn revenge against Britain for the death of his parents during World War II. Bond and computer technician Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) must stop Trevelyan, who plans to aim a second GoldenEye satellite at England.

The six-year gap between the previous Bond film Licence to Kill (1989) an
d GoldenEye (1995) was the longest period that James Bond stayed off screens. In 1989, the Australia-based Qintex group was negotiating to acquire MGM/UA, the studio currently distributing Bond films. That deal fell through, as Qintex didn't quite have the financial assets to secure the rather sizable down payment, but an offer from Pathé Communications was accepted in 1990. However, Danjaq, parent company to EON Productions, brought legal action against MGM-Pathé chairman and Italian businessman, Giancarlo Parretti. MGM-Pathé was working deals to broadcast the Bond films on TV in various foreign countries without the consent of Danjaq. In 1991, Crédit Lyonnais, the French bank which had financed Parretti's purchase of MGM, took ownership of the company. Parretti and Crédit Lyonnais were tied up in legal disputes, and, fearing bankruptcy, the French bank removed Parretti as chairman and hired former Paramount Pictures CEO Frank Mancuso to chair MGM/UA in 1993. At the time, United Artists had not released a film since Rocky V in 1990.

During all of the legal battles, producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli stayed committed to Timothy Dalton as James Bond. Despite disappointing box office returns on the last Bond film, Licence to Kill, Broccoli maintained that there was a three-picture deal with Dalton. However, by 1993, when it seemed that all of the legal turmoil had settled, production on a new 007 film had yet to begin. In April 1994, Dalton officially resigned from the role, and Pierce Brosnan was then approached. Brosnan had actually been offered the part after Roger Moore left the series, following A View to a Kill (1985). Brosnan was starring on the hit TV series, Remington Steele, but the NBC series had been canceled. Reportedly, once it became clear that Brosnan might be the new 007, the network renewed the show, and the actor, still under contract, was unable to accept the offer. In 1994, Brosnan, with no contractual obligations, agreed to play Bond... James Bond.

Brosnan was not the only introduction to the Bond series in GoldenEye. Dame Judi Dench took over the role of MI6 head, M, becoming the first female to portray the character and only the third actor, after Bernard Lee and Robert Brown. Dench is outstanding, and it comes to no surprise that she was asked to reprise her role in the 2006 Bond overha
ul, Casino Royale. Samantha Bond (no relation to 007) also makes her debut in the series as Miss Moneypenny. Lois Maxwell had played the character in every Bond film with actors Sean Connery and Moore and even the solitary film starring George Lazenby. Caroline Bliss was Moneypenny in the two films with Dalton. Bond (the actress) is an alluring Moneypenny, a role she would play for all the movies with Brosnan. (And in all fairness to Samantha Bond, she has yet to be replaced, as Miss Moneypenny has thus far not appeared in the latest Bond films, Casino Royale and 2008's Quantum of Solace.)

Cubby Broccoli was very ill during production of GoldenEye. His daughter, Barbara Broccoli, and his stepson, Michael G. Wilson, took the reins in the production department. Barbara Broccoli was only 22 years old when she was assigned the role of assistant director in Octopussy (1983), a job she also handled in A View to a Kill. She was credited as associate producer for the two Bond films with Timothy Dalton, The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill, but GoldenEye was her first movie as producer. Her stepbrother, Wilson, became a part of EON Productions in 1972. He was named assistant to Cubby Broccoli in 1977 with The Spy Who Loved Me, following the departure of producer and EON Productions/Danjaq co-founder, Harry Saltzman. Since Moonraker (1979), Wilson has been either an executive producer or producer of each Bond film. In 1996, seven months after the premiere of GoldenEye, Albert R. Broccoli died of heart failure.

The character of CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker) was evidently meant to replace fellow agent Felix Leiter, presumably due to the injuries he sustained in the previous Bond outing, Licence to Kill. Interestingly, in the Bond film before that, The Living Daylights, Baker had portrayed the villainous Brad Whitaker. Robbie Coltrane, as Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky, would reprise his role in 1999's The World is Not Enough, which also stars Brosnan. In GoldenEye, his mistress is played by the (at the time) little known Minnie Driver. Driver was already garnering critical and commercial attention for the movie, Circle of Friends, released the same year and also starring Alan Cumming, who plays Natalya's co-worker, computer whiz Boris, in GoldenEye.

By 1995, audiences were anticipating gadgets in the Bond films. The mos
t significant gadget utilized in GoldenEye is an explosive pen. It is armed by clicking the pen three times and disarmed with three additional clicks. It leads to a fun sequence with a villain, unaware of the pen's true function, fiddling with the device and clicking it multiple times, as Bond nervously watches. GoldenEye, which was not based on any of Ian Fleming's novels or short stories, took its title from the name of Fleming's estate in Jamaica, which has since been turned into a resort. The film's title song was performed by Tina Turner and written by Bono and The Edge of the Irish rock band U2.

The general consensus for this Bond outing seems to place it as a favorite among Brosnan's movies. I, however, disagree with this assessment. While I admire director Martin Campbell's work (he would return to direct Casino Royale in 2006) and think Bean and Famke are standout villains, I find little else which makes this an exceptional part of the series. Natalya is a terrific character, but Scorupco's performance is a little bland. Likewise, the plot is cheerfully complex, but it hits a lull at the midway point, and there doesn't seem to be much left but explosions and near-escapes. Still, it's a good movie to welcome Brosnan to the series, and the Irish actor is undeniably dashing and debonair.

Any Pierce Brosnan or GoldenEye fans out there? Praises? Complaints? Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Underrated Performer of the Month: Versatile Kay Thompson

Kay Thompson, born in St. Louis early in the 20th Century (in 1903, 1905 or 1908, take your pick), might best be described as a phenomenon.

On film she is known for her role as chic, ebullient Maggie Prescott in Funny Face (1957), but Thompson was a woman of many, many talents. She is probably remembered most today for the best-selling 'Eloise' books she began writing in the mid-'50s about a precocious little girl who lived at New York's Plaza Hotel.

Thompson was born Katherine Fink, the daughter of a St. Louis jeweler...more to the point, she was always musical. After college she began singing and by the time she was in her mid-20s she was working in radio as a singer and choral director. She toured with Fred Waring as a singer and arranger, and her group, The Kay Thompson Swing Choir, appeared in Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937).

Through two songwriter friends, Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, Thompson became a vocal arranger at MGM in the early '40s. Her projects included Week-End at the Waldorf (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946) and Good News (1947). She had a small part in another of her assignments, The Kid From Brooklyn (1946). Thompson was also vocal coach to the stars: Sinatra, Garland (who named her Liza's godmother), Lena Horne (who termed her "the best vocal coach in the world"), Ann Sothern, June Allyson and others. Watch and listen to these performers before and after Thompson worked with them and you'll see and hear a difference. Critic Rex Reed has commented, "Kay did things with June Allyson, who didn't have much range, to make her sound great in Good News."

In 1948, when her MGM contract was up, Thompson left the studio and formed a sophisticated smash-hit nightclub act, Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers (Andy was one of the brothers).

Singer Julie Wilson recalled Kay's show, "Her act at the Persian Room was electric. Kay and the Williams Brothers moved so well, with one terrific pose after another. It was an absolute knockout. Kay's energy took your breath away. She wore those wonderful white pantsuits, which no one wore at the time. The show was very stark and modern, and the rhythm never stopped." A critic from Variety reported, "Her act is paced like a North Atlantic gale," and concluded, "Miss Thompson is more than an act. She's an experience."

Andy Williams remembered, "It's hard to imagine there wasn't an act like us before, because there have been so many since. Up to that time everyone just sang around a microphone, and when the song was over, the singers would raise their arms...[Kay] wrote wonderful songs, she could arrange, she could play the piano beautifully, she could stage numbers. And she could sing! She taught me more about singing and show business than anyone else in the world."

Her show-stopping turn in Funny Face was Kay Thompson's only major film role. Her next and final outing was a small (but memorable) part in Otto Preminger's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) starring goddaughter Liza Minnelli. During her final years, Thompson lived in Liza's Upper East Side penthouse; she passed away there in 1998.

In 2003 Disney produced two movies for TV based on the first two Eloise books, "Eloise at the Plaza" and "Eloise at Christmastime" featuring Julie Andrews as Nanny (the first Eloise book was originally adapted for TV in 1956). In 2006 an animated TV series based on the book's characters debuted on Starz! Kids & Family with Lynn Redgrave as Nanny. A film production of Eloise in Paris starring Uma Thurman and Pierce Brosnan was slated to go into production this year but was suspended due to a contract dispute.

"Liza's at the Palace" was a limited engagement at New York's Palace Theater that ran from December 3, 2008 - January 4, 2009. Included in the concert was a recreation of Kay Thompson's nightclub act. The NY Times critic wrote, "From the moment Ms. Minnelli joins forces with a male singing and dancing quartet to resurrect part of a famous nightclub act Thompson created in the late '40s and early '50s with the Williams Brothers, the Palace Theater blasts off into orbit." The show was a popular and critical success that won several awards including a Tony for Best Special Theatrical Event.

The influence of multi-talented Kay Thompson continues; in December 2009, New York's Plaza Hotel opened an "Eloise Shop" and has plans for an Eloise-themed suite designed by Betsey Johnson.

Who's That Lady?

The game is on hiatus this week...will return next Tuesday...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Funny Face..."let's give 'em the old pizzazz!"

Pizzazz! The very word only came into being with Funny Face in 1957.

Vividly colorful and stylish, Funny Face is a full-blown extravaganza, a collaboration extraordinaire of some of the greatest talents of the era. Producer Roger Edens and director Stanley Donen worked with writer Leonard Gershe, cinematographer Ray June, costumer Edith Head, couture designer Hubert de Givenchy, photographer Richard Avedon and the film's incomparable stars Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson. Abetted by several great Gershwin tunes, this is a movie with considerable pizzazz...

Funny Face had been a work in progress for years, but the vital element that finally brought the project together was Audrey Hepburn. Then under contract with Paramount, Hepburn was the hottest star in the business and any picture with her name attached had a great shot at getting made. She loved both the script and the chance to dance with Fred Astaire and signed on.

Astaire, then pushing 60, was coming to the end of his career in musical films. Funny Face and Silk Stockings were released within months of each other in 1957 and were his last great musical successes on film.

Though its title was taken from a '20s Gershwin musical in which Astaire had starred, that and a few tunes were all the film had in common with the Broadway show. The film's story came from "Wedding Day," Leonard Gershe's musical about the fashion world based on 'the aura' (rather than the life) of legend-to-be photographer Richard Avedon and his wife. Doe Avedon, a great beauty of the time, was a reluctant muse; it was her husband who turned her into a model and guided her career.

Kay Thompson, ace vocal coach, arranger and cabaret star, had worked with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Lena Horne and many others while working for MGM's music department. Gershe had her in mind from the start for the role of Maggie Prescott, a character closely modeled on powerhouse fashion editor and style doyenne Diana Vreeland. According to Leonard Gershe, it was Vreeland who coined the word 'bizzazz' that morphed into 'pizzazz.' Thompson as Prescott is an invigorating presence and she steals just about every scene she's in; early on, her "Think Pink!" number kicks Funny Face into high gear.

Funny Face is a Cinderella tale, the kind of story that was Audrey Hepburn's specialty. The film begins in the offices of "Quality" magazine, where editor Maggie Prescott decrees that the world of fashion shall think and wear pink! Soon after, she and photographer Dick Avery (Astaire) venture into bohemian Greenwich Village on a shoot...where bookstore clerk Jo Stockton (Hepburn), an ugly duckling with swan potential, is unearthed. The plot takes off from there. Cut to Paris where newly made-over model Jo wears exquisite Givenchy haute couture and is gorgeously photographed by Dick everywhere in the City of Light. Songs are sung. Dances are danced. Love blooms. A fairytale ending eventually comes.

The plot is nothing new, but watching Hepburn, Astaire and Thompson cavort through this high fashion romp is so easy on the eyes and ears that in so many ways...'s wonderful.

Then there's the 'beatnik' interlude, most noteworthy for Audrey's dance routine in a subterranean Parisian club dressed in black clothes and white socks. Though Hepburn battled Donen over the color of her socks, he won and the result was memorable.

Director Stanley Donen, who was never nominated for an Academy Award, made some of the best and most popular musicals in movie history - including Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He also made several successful non-musicals, films like Charade and Two for the Road. In 1998, the Academy honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In his acceptance speech, he both sang and danced to Cole Porter's "Cheek to Cheek"...he knew how to "give 'em the old pizzazz!"

(YouTube has a clip of Donen receiving and accepting his award from Martin Scorsese)

This Week's Poll: What's your favorite film set aboard a submarine?

Cramped quarters. Poor air circulation. Spies lurking among the crew members. Threats of depth charges, enemy torpedoes, underwater volcanos, and giant squids! It's no wonder that submarines have provided a memorable cinematic setting for everything from tense war films to colorful science fiction to comedy. But what is your favorite movie set aboard a submarine in the classic film era?

There were a surprising number of good sub pictures competing for the seven highly-sought-after nominations below. Some were omitted because they fall just outside the Cafe's purview (e.g., 1990's The Hunt for Red October, 1995's Crimson Tide). Other serious contenders were dropped solely because I wanted to provide some variety among the genres. Feel free to take issue with my picks if you're a fan of The Deep Six, The Bedford Incident, The Mysterious Island, Atragon, Up Periscope, The Silent Enemy, Run Silent Run Deep, and On the Beach (whew!). For that caveat, here are this week's nominees:

Destination Tokyo. Cary Grant commands the Copperfin, a World War II submarine navigating through enemy waters. His crew includes John Garfield as Wolf and Alan Hale as Cookie (perhaps, this was the beginning of nifty names for sub crew members). Directed and co-written by Delmer Daves, the film's climax places in the Copperfin in an underwater mine field.

Das Boot (The Boat). Wolfgang Petersen's art-house picture, set aboard the cinema's most claustrophobic German U-boat, became an unexpected worldwide hit in 1981. At the time, it was the second most costly German film, trailing only Metropolis.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Walt Disney's fanciful adaptation of the classic Jules Verne novel increased the "cool" quotient for submarines significantly. The Nautilus looked spectacular, featured an offbeat commander (James Mason as Captain Nemo) who played an organ, and there's that famous giant squid fight, too.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Vote the film and you get the TV series for free--or vice versa! Both featured the super sub Seaview and its inventor Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon in the movie and Richard Basehart on TV). Enemy subs, giant octopus, aliens...the Seaview faced them all!

Fer-de-Lance. Long before there was Snakes on a Plane, this was this nail-biting 1974 made-for-TV movie pitting David Janssen and Hope Lange against poisonous snakes running amok aboard a submarine. A cult classic from the Golden Age of TV Movies.

Ice Station Zebra. Allegedly, this Alastair MacLean adaptation was Howard Hughes' favorite film during the billionaire's later life. It's not hard to guess who the spy is aboard the submarine headed to the Arctic on a secret mission, but Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown make it fun.

Operation Petticoat. The most famous submarine comedy has Cary Grant (again) as the Sea Tiger's commander and Tony Curtis as his inventive (but sneaky) supply officer. Their routine existence is turned upside down when they have to transport a group of nurses (Joan O'Brien, Dina  Merrill, and others).

If you wish to vote, select your choice in the green sidebar on the right. Also, please leave any comments below about serious omissions! (Yes, the weekly poll has made a few faux pas in the past, such as leaving out Bones McCoy in the "TV Doctor" poll. Fortunately, the Cafe's patrons are very smart!)