Monday, October 1, 2012

A Stanley Kramer Gift

He was nominated for 9 Academy Awards.  He was a recipient of the esteemed Irving Thalberg Award.  Besides being a highly respected producer, he was also a renowned director.  Social issues and social commentary were a hallmark of Kramer films.  Something else that I've noticed about films he directed:  Stanley Kramer had a gift for drawing solid performances out of entertainers known for music  and musical comedies.  He got those exceptional performances out of them for films in which they didn't sing a note or dance a step.  If Fred Astaire had received an Oscar nomination for one of the classic RKO musicals he did with Ginger Rogers, it should've been for 1936's Swing Time.  If nominated for a musical in his post-RKO period, it should've been his work in 1953's The Band Wagon.  The one nomination he did get was a Best Supporting Actor nod for wearing a tuxedo and surviving The Towering Inferno, an all-star 1974 box office blockbuster of a disaster film.  To me, Astaire gave his best dramatic film performance as the scientist who speaks out against nuclear arms in 1959's On the Beach, directed by Kramer.  The movie co-starred Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.  Gardner and Astaire had a sweet cameo moment in the opening scenes of Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon.
This was Astaire's first dramatic movie role.  He may seem like an odd choice to play a nuclear scientist  but he's right for the role.  Off-screen Astaire was pro-civil rights and again the blacklisting of the Sen. McCarthy era.  On the Beach is a doomsday warning in the age of nuclear aggression in the same way that comedy Dr. Strangelove and the drama Fail-Safe were in 1964.  The role of Julian Osborne connected with Astaire's soul.  He's authentic in the part.  There was always great acting in Astaire's work.  It was often overlooked because he was dancing.  His sheer joy of living as he dances the title tune in Top Hat.  Then look at all his complex emotions of possibly losing the woman he loves in the "Never Gonna Dance" number with Ginger near the end of Swing Time ... his increasingly drunken defeat during his heartbroken -- and athletic -- "One For My Baby" number in The Sky's the Limit.  Watch his understated "Dancing in the Dark" poetry in motion as he discovers an artistic compatibility while falling in love with Cyd Charisse's character in The Band Wagon.  Under Kramer's direction, you were reminded that Fred Astaire was a good actor.  Not just a song and dance man.  Julian drinks a bit too much.  Probably because he's bitter.  Bitter at the what the world has done to itself.  There's also probably a splash of self-loathing mixed in because, as a nuclear scientist, he may have added to the atomic madness.  Says Julian, "Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?"
Julian has political rant of a monologue when he's had one too many at a party.  As he did with his marvelous dance numbers, Astaire took difficult business and make it look easy.  That should've been his first Oscar nomination for dramatic work.  In 1960, Kramer directed another veteran of MGM musicals in an exceptional dramatic perfomance.  Gene Kelly played the cynical and loveless journalist covering a media sensation trial in Inherit the Wind.  Unlike Astaire, Kelly did land an Oscar nomination for a musical comedy.  During the WWII years, Kelly was a new screen star and earned an Oscar nomination for playing a lovable ladies' man sailor on leave in 1945's Anchors Aweigh.  For Kramer, he stretched himself by daring to play an unlikable character.  The big happy-go-lucky smile flashed in musicals such as On the Town, Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris, seems to be shark-like here.  Kelly goes to the dark side and he's quite effective.
That smarmy newspaperman is one of my Top 5 favorite Gene Kelly film performances.  He's so slick, so oily as he covers up a heartbreak and vulnerability no one but the wise old Spencer Tracy as a Clarence Darrow-like lawyer detects.  1960's Inherit the Wind is based on 1925's Scopes "monkey trial."  John Scopes, a high school science teacher down South, taught the theory of evolution. Bible-devoted fundamentalists were furious.
Yet another MGM musical superstar -- a former dance partner to Astaire and Kelly -- triumphed dramatically in a Best Picture nominee directed by Stanley Kramer.  Judy Garland earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg.  She played Irene Hoffman Wallner, a German whose youth was beaten down by Nazis when she was accused of defiling the Aryan race.  She was accused of doing this when she was 16, the same age Garland was when she made The Wizard of Oz.  Irene Hoffman is now a married woman living in post-war Germany.
She's called to take the stand in the 1947 war crimes hearings, a trial to determine who was responsible for the Holocaust.  Hoffman was harassed by Nazis because of her friendship with an elderly Jew whom she describes as "the kindest man I ever knew."
Mrs. Wallner is sworn in by an American court clerk played by William Shatner.  Memories of the horrors of her youth and the evil of Nazism return when she breaks down during cross examination.  She remains loyal in her friendship with the Jewish gentleman even when the defense attorney implies the relationship was sexual.  Irene is brave yet brittle.
Garland deserved that nomination.  It's so strong that, despite her years of now-legendary musical comedy work at MGM and her Best Actress Oscar nomination for the Warner Bros. 1954 dramatic musical remake of A Star Is Born, she was nevertheless under-utilized as a dramatic film actress.  She could sing.  She could dance.  And she really could act.  Judy Garland was a triple threat star.  Hollywood could never quite figure out what to do with Broadway legend Ethel Merman.  Several of her hit stage musicals were done on film by someone else.  The Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers characters were blended into one for Judy Garland to do opposite Mickey Rooney in the 1943 film version Broadway's Girl Crazy.  Garland was slated to star in Annie Get Your Gun but the part Merman made famous onstage was ultimately played by Betty Hutton.  Ann Sothern replaced Merman for the MGM adaptation of Panama Hattie.  Lucille Ball did the same for the adaptation of DuBarry Was a Lady.  Her Broadway zenith was playing the tough stage mother to Gypsy in 1959.  The show's playwright and eventual director, Arthur Laurents, revealed on National Public Radio that Judy Garland was wanted for the film version.  But the studio head picked Rosalind Russell.  Stanley Kramer directed "The Merm" in the best non-singing role and performance of her film career.  If life is a banquet, then Mrs. Marcus in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a trail of ants that made its way to the table.  Ethel Merman was flat-out perfect as the ultimate pain-in-the-ass mother-in-law.
She had a bullhorn of a voice, she never shut up, she couldn't mind her own business and she was the most annoying backseat driver that a film comedy had ever seen.  I was a kid when this opened theatrically.  I recall seeing it as a Saturday matinee.  Grown men like my dad howled with laughter every time that battle-ax character opened her beak to criticize somebody.  Merman never seemed as relaxed on camera as when she played that old crow -- and never before had her comedy skills been so well-utilized.
Comically, Ethel Merman stood out and held her own opposite top funny male co-star Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett.
1979's The Runner Stumbles, based on a hit stage drama, is the last film Kramer directed.  The play was inspired by an actual court case from the early 20th Century.  A Catholic priest was accused of murdering a nun.  We see if a forbidden romance blossomed before the young nun's untimely death.  Kathleen Quinlan played Sister Rita, the new nun who brightens life in a drab coal mining town.  The compassionate priest was played by Dick Van Dyke, a veteran of Broadway and Hollywood musical comedies such as Bye Bye Birdie (stage and screen), Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Maybe The Runner Stumbles isn't a classic, excellent Stanley Kramer film like The Defiant Ones and Judgment at Nuremberg, but it also took on social issues.  Moviegoers looked at discrimination and, in regards to the  Catholic church's reputation, a sudden loss of innocence.  I liked seeing Van Dyke challenge himself dramatically as Father Rivard, a man in a not-too-friendly poor town and working within the often spirit-stifling rules, customs and margins of the Catholic Church.  Another stage and screen musical comedy veteran co-starred as Fr. Rivard's superior.  In his final movie, Ray Bolger -- famous as Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz -- took on the role of strict Monsignor Nicholson.
Within some top musical comedy entertainers existed an impressive, non-singing actor.  Stanley Kramer  realized that.  He had the gift for bringing those talents out for us to see.









1 comment:

  1. Nice post! Can’t wait for the next one. Keep stuff like this coming.
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