Saturday, September 23, 2017

Billy Wilder Tapped British Films

Did you know that a 1949 British comedy starring a young Petula Clark influenced a Billy Wilder classic?  First of all, it should be no surprise that the master director and screenwriter appreciated British films.  Look at his adaptation of the hit Broadway comedy, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH.  He tailored that to fit the talents and star quality of Marilyn Monroe.  And his tailoring fit her like a velvet glove.  Tom Ewell originated the role on Broadway.  He plays the middle-aged, average New York City man who works in the publishing business.  The paperback division.  His wife and little boy are in Maine to escape the dog days of the Manhattan summer.  He has rather innocent James Thurber-esque fantasies in the apartment while he's alone, missing his wife and son.  In his brownstone building, his fantasies increase when he meets the gorgeous young blonde TV commercial actress who has rented the room upstairs.  The Girl was played by Marilyn Monroe at her sensational sex symbol peak.
About the adaptation...did you see the William Wyler classic THE HEIRESS starring Olivia de Havilland?  Remember the maid, Mariah?  ("Bolt the door, Mariah.")  She was played by Vanessa Brown.  Brown originated the role of The Girl on Broadway opposite Tom Ewell in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH.  Let's face it -- Mariah was no Marilyn Monroe.
In Wilder's THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), he joshes the British film classic, BRIEF ENCOUNTER.  In the 1945 drama, an innocent friendship between a suburban wife and a hospital doctor develops into an unexpected affair.  Both characters in this David Lean film are middle-aged.  His film was a big hit with American audiences too.  Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 is BRIEF ENCOUNTER's major music theme.  Wilder gently lampoons Lean's film by using the same Rachmaninoff piece for married Mr. Sherman's middle-aged fantasies in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH when he's innocently attracted to The Girl Upstairs.

BRIEF ENCOUNTER had a piece of business that inspired THE APARTMENT.  In BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the doctor has a single friend who has an apartment.  The doctor uses his judgmental bachelor friend's apartment for privacy with the married woman.

This character with the apartment, Stephen, intrigued Billy Wilder and inspired Jack Lemmon's C.C. Baxter character in THE APARTMENT, the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1960.  Wilder won Oscars for producing the Best Picture, for directing it and for Best Original Screenplay co-written with I.A.L. Diamond.
A lesser known British film is the 1949 comedy/drama called THE ROMANTIC AGE and later retitled NAUGHTY ARLETTE.  We meet The Dicksons.  Mr. Dickson is the rather starchy, middle-aged teacher in a girl's academy.  Mrs. Dickson is a pianist.  Future 1960s pop music star Petula Clark played their charming daughter, a student at the school.  Mai Zetterling, not French and proving it with her accent, played the irritating French girl determined to seduce the teacher.  She does succeed at getting him in a hot kiss in the rain.  His lips respond.  Will this spoiled French tart succeed in breaking up his marriage and home life?
About ten minutes into the 1949 film, Mrs. Dickson is at the piano.  She plays a selection that's immediately recognizable to Wilder fans. It's heard again in NAUGHTY ARLETTE.  The composition is called "Jealous Lover."  We came to know it as the wonderful and popular Theme to THE APARTMENT.  Billy Wilder used the Charles Williams music composition from the 1949 British film for his 1960 Hollywood classic.  If I was Charles Williams, I'd be thrilled that my memorable piece of music found a great life by being used in a much better film than it originally was.
And that's how Billy Wilder tapped British films.  

Friday, September 22, 2017

Actress Carolyn Jones

If her name came up in a sitcom category on JEOPARDY, it would be connected to THE ADDAMS FAMILY, the entertaining ABC sitcom in the 1960s based on the highly popular magazine cartoons from Charles Addams about a ghoulish and bizarre but loving family.  With her oval-shaped face, expressive eyes, high forehead and the hipster vibe she could so deliciously project, Carolyn Jones was perfect to play Morticia Addams in the network TV series.                                                              
Not all Hollywood actresses could go from drama to comedy to drama again with great results and not all Hollywood actresses changed hair colors as frequently as Carolyn Jones did onscreen in classics like the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

And, man, could she act!  Carolyn Jones was one of those actresses who could take a small role, give it that little something extra, and make you remember her as much as you remembered the stars in the lead roles.

Look at the two comedies she appeared in with Frank Sinatra.  When I was a kid, one of my favorite fun movie to watch on TV was -- and still is -- THE TENDER TRAP starring Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Celeste Holm and David Wayne.  Sinatra plays a Broadway theater agent who is juggling project and girlfriends.  Debbie, of course, stars as the talented performer who wants marriage more she wants stardom and will upset the playboy's apple cart.  In that breezy romantic comedy, I always love Carolyn Jones as the always punctual, always business-like dogwalker who walks the agent's dog and is one of his girlfriends.  Jones gives that minor character an eccentric rhythm that is so much fun to watch.

She had a larger part, a supporting role, opposite Frank Sinatra in A HOLE IN THE HEAD as the sexy free spirit who digs having the single dad as a playmate but is frustrated by his being anchored by commitments. He can't be a free spirit too. He has a little boy.  In those two roles, notice that she's not a raven-haired female like Morticia.  

What I wrote about her ability to take a small role and make it stand out was evident in her first big screen assignment.  She's a brassy, sassy, smart blonde in 1952's THE TURNING POINT starring William Holden and Alexis Smith.  In 1953's HOUSE OF WAX, she's Cathy, the blonde friend who gets coated in wax by the psycho villain.   In Billy Wilder's 1955 comedy, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, the middle-aged, ordinary married man has short Thurber-like mental fantasies while his wife's away on vacation on the Marilyn Monroe character is renting a room upstairs in his building. In one, he's a hospital patients who arouses the uncontrollable lust of a redheaded night nurse.  She's so lusty that security has to carry her out of the hospital room against her will.  That screaming redheaded nurse was played by Carolyn Jones.

Whether she was an extra, a bit player, a supporting character or the lead, Carolyn Jones always stood out.  She always popped onscreen.  It's been years and years since I've seen this movie but I remember the electricity she gave to a small role in the 1957 drama, THE BACHELOR PARTY. Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplay and she, with dark hair, plays The Existentialist.  The first time I saw this film, I was in middle school and it was on local TV in L.A.  I didn't know what an Existentialist was.  But her look, her talent, her performance gripped me.  In later years, when I was a young adult and it played on TV, it gripped me even more.  One line she did burned itself into my heart.  One of the bachelor party guys tries to kiss this hipster chick.  She says, "Just say you love me.  You don't have to mean it."
Carolyn Jones got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for that performance.

This week, I watched another Carolyn Jones performance that I first saw on TV during my L.A. youth.  It's my favorite of her screen performances.  She was a dogwalker for a theatrical in THE TENDER TRAP.  In Paramount's 1959 drama, CAREER, she plays a theatrical agent.  She's a brunette in this one and she just about steals the picture.  No small feat considering the stars are Anthony Franciosa, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine.  Franciosa is the likeable, talented actor who won't compromise, won't play the game and is so obsessed with his career that his personal life suffers.  When we meet him, he's a waiter in a Broadway restaurant.  There's a touch of gray in his hair.  He's still going to auditions.  We see his life in flashback when someone who is obviously special to him from his past enters the restaurant for dinner.

Being older now, and an entertainment industry veteran, I've grown into her performance.  Shirley Drake, the unmarried New York City theatrical agent, was once an actress.  And a talented one, as she tells talented hopeful actor Sam Lawson (Franciosa).  She had talent and she went from show to show to show.  Then, one day, she couldn't get work.  And that day lasted for years.  Jones gives the character a frankness and a sense of realism that is never bitter.  In her career and in her life, she played the hand she was dealt.  She becomes Sam Lawson's loyal and honest agent.
Turner Classic Movies often puts a TCM Spotlight on a certain star.  I feel that Carolyn Jones deserves to be in the TCM Spotlight.  She was one talented actress whose work should not be forgotten.  When we baby boomers were in grade school watching THE ADDAMS FAMILY on ABC, Carolyn Jones was in the entertainment news headlines due to her high profile divorce from TV producer Aaron Spelling.  She'd married him 10 years prior when he was unknown and struggling.  She helped his career.

TCM should show Carolyn Jones in...
KING CREOLE starring Elvis Presley (1958)
CAREER (1959)

Reportedly, there was serious interest in Carolyn Jones playing Alma in 1953's classic, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. A case of pneumonia took Jones out of consideration.  Donna Reed got the role and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  Wow.  Jones also could've been powerful as Alma in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.  Hollywood should have utilized the impressive Carolyn Jones skills way more than it did in good supporting and lead roles.  There was a passion, intelligence, honesty, depth, wit and spark that lit up her performances.

The versatile and talented Carolyn Jones was taken from us way too early.  She succumbed to colon cancer at age 53 in 1983.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Happy Birthday, Sophia Loren

For me, it was a religious experience.  Like seeing the apparition of a saint.  In my head, I heard sweet music -- strings, flutes and a choir of angelic voices singing.  Why?  Because, as two friends and I were headed from the parking lot into the lobby area of a Los Angeles hotel, we turned a corner and there stood...screen goddess Sophia Loren.  She was leaving the lobby with companions.  This was in July 2016.  All we could do was stop and stare.  We were awestruck.  Up close, she looked flawless and regal and divine.  As she has for years.
Sophia Loren was one of my mother's favorite actresses.  Loren quickly became one of mine too.  Every year on my birthday, she'd always smile and mention "You were born on the same day as Sophia Loren."
I admit it.  I smiled when Mom said that too.  I loved being connected to a movie legend's biographical data like that.

I vividly recall both Mom and Dad laughing with delight at the famous striptease scene in De Sica's YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.
When my younger sister and I were gradeschoolers, whether the film was dubbed, subtitled or in English, if it starred Sophia Loren and it was at the drive-in, The Rivers Family was going to the movies.  Mom and Dad were definitely fans.

They were such fans that they'd see Sophia Loren in a historical epic that got so-so reviews. Like THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION co-starring Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.

Here's more about my parents and that Sophia Loren film.  This is from a recent podcast:

Our mother passed away this year.  In June.  I loved her very, very much and the loss of her puts a hole in my heart that will never go away.  She was in her 90s and had a long life.  Still, I will miss hearing her cheerful birthday wishes and the reminder that I was born on September 20th, the same day as Sophia Loren.

I told Mom about unexpectedly coming face-to-face with gorgeous Sophia Loren in L.A. She got such a kick out of that story.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Michael K. Williams, Groundbreaking Actor

When he was on HBO's THE WIRE, his electricity as an actor sent a jolt of pleasure right through you.  He was so good.  We regular viewers were talking about his mean streets character, Omar Little.  As writer Julie Miller of VANITY FAIR would agree, Omar was a "complicated badass."  Her August 22nd feature on Williams is titled "Michael K. Williams Has a Story You Need to Read to Believe."
I'll not spoil the surprises of that current VANITY FAIR piece.  But I just wanted to point out something that occurred to me.  Omar Little was not only a street tough power figure, he was gay.
Omar was not the typical gay character we've seen on TV.  Williams did another series.  I proudly admit that I binge-watched the first season of SundanceTV's HAP AND LEONARD. Twice.   I loved those 1980s country characters created by novelist Joe Lansdale.  This crime series is fresh, witty and socially relevant.  James Purefoy plays the pacifist, Hap Collins.  He opposed the Vietnam War.  His loyal and blunt best friend, Leonard Pine, is a tough-as-nails Vietnam veteran with a heart o' gold under all that gruffness.  Leonard protects Hap and himself.  His short-fuse temper can make you laugh.  Oh...and Leonard the Vietnam vet is gay.
Again, Williams gives us another image of a gay man that we haven't seen much of on television.  He wasn't the the fabulous and always fashion-conscious big city young gay man who's quick with the witty comebacks.  He's a working class gay male.  HAP AND LEONARD also looks at something the network TV rarely did once gay characters became plentiful and acceptable.  The SundanceTV series looks at the straight/gay male best friend relationship.  I love that.

Early this year, he was in the cast of the ABC mini-series, WHEN WE RISE.  This docudrama was about the history of America's LGBT community fighting for its rights and fighting discrimination.  Williams played the real life character, Ken Jones.  Jones was in San Francisco fighting against AIDS bigotry and he worked to make the gay rights movement more diverse.  WHEN WE RISE went from the Stonewall Riots in 1969 through to the AIDS epidemic that started in the 1980s.  Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths co-starred.
In a CBS SUNDAY interview over the weekend, Oscar-nominated and BAFTA Award-winning actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, said that he was cautioned against taking on the role he did in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, the 2005 film that brought him the Oscar nomination and the BAFTA Award.  He was cautioned because he'd be playing a man in love with another man and playing a gay character could halt his career.  It didn't.

African American actor Michael K. Williams has played three distinct gay characters on series television.  I cannot think of another Black actor who can match that.  Michael K. Williams is a groundbreaking actor.

When GLAAD hands out its awards and honors at its next gala, it should polish one up for Michael K. Williams.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

mother! starring Jennifer Lawrence

Yes, the title is in lower case letters -- as if it was written by e.e. cummings.  Jennifer Lawrence.  One talented young actress.  She's got 4 Oscar nominations to her credit.  She won the Best Actress Oscar for 2012's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  And she's only 27.  Her new film is an intense, often incomprehensible psychological thriller in which her character has no name.  She is simply...mother.  I saw the film.  The first thing you need to know is that this is NOT a first date film for a Saturday night.  In fact, when I left the theater, I thought to myself, "I am so glad I did not take a date to see that movie."
I like Jennifer Lawrence.  But, to be honest, I went to see it because I love Javier Bardem and Michelle Pfeiffer.  Bardem plays the acclaimed writer husband.
Pfeiffer plays the wife of a fan who just shows up and becomes an annoying house guest.  The wife, like her husband, also wears out her welcome.  That's the character.  Personally, I am thrilled that Michelle Pfeiffer has time to do movies again.  She almost steals the film from Jennifer Lawrence and she's only in half of it.  When I saw it, the audience loved Pfeiffer -- but it didn't love the film.  The wife's husband is played very well by Ed Harris.  Oh.  No one has a name in this movie.  It's "mother," "Him" (the husband) "Man" (Ed Harris), "Woman" (Michelle Pfeiffer) and so on.

Man smokes in the house when Mother has politely asked him not to smoke.  Woman goes into rooms she's been told are private and touches items she was asked not to touch.

This is the kind of story that could not have happened in Compton, California or in a Harlem townhouse.  Had Mother been a Black or Latina woman, she'd have gone upside the heads of that overbearing couple with a skillet in the first act.  In the second act, she'd have said "Oh, hell, no!" as she grabbed her keys, purse, phone and caught a cab to the nearest police precinct.

Lawrence is shot constantly in tight close-up. Within the first five minutes, we sense a dissonance in her situation.  She's young and lovely.  The first clue that something will go wrong is that she and her writer husband live alone in a huge house in the woods that she's renovating.  A house in a remote location. There's no visible evidence of neighbors or other nearby buildings.  You don't even see a drive-way.  Think of all the horror movies since the 1930s FRANKENSTEIN features that had a big, secluded house or castle and a monstrous entity on the loose.

When the husband enters the close-ups with the wife, he always seems to avert her direct gaze.  The acclaimed writer has had a stretch of writer's block.  We get the feeling that he blames it on her.  She keeps taking some kind of medicine.  Is she sick or is she pregnant?  But he seems to avoid having sex with her.  Is he closeted gay or just WTF is going on?

You might think it's going to be a ROSEMARY'S BABY kind of thriller because the ad echoes the poster for Polanski's 1968 classic starring Mia Farrow.

Remember the 2000 thriller WHAT LIES BENEATH?  This is sort of WHAT LIES BENEATH THE FLOORBOARDS.  Then, when dozens of people keep charging into her house uninvited and proceed to eat, drink, telephone, renovate, sleep or's like WHAT LIES BENEATH meets the famous  stateroom scene with Groucho Marx in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.
She orders folks out but no one listens to her.  They only listen to the husband.  When she discovers that she's pregnant, the husband's has a surge in writing creativity and all seems idyllic.  Then the movie gets hallucinogenic and brutal.  You also keep wondering if there's a dying body beneath the floorboards.

Is this a statement on the artist as narcissist? A statement on how a woman's freedom and rights are marginalized?  Is this a statement on Catholicism -- zeroing in on the Communion ritual in which we Catholics are told the wafer we're eating represents the body and blood of Christ?  The last act and most visually surreal one of MOTHER! has just about everything but that Pushmi-Pullyu from the old movie musical DR. DOOLITTLE in it.

I kept wondering "How freakin' huge is this white girl's house?!?!?"  There's practically half a Third World nation in her living room.

MOTHER!  Visually fascinating but I don't know what the heck this allegory is trying to say.  But, man, I sure did love Michelle Pfeiffer in this Darren Aronofsky film.
For a good psychological thriller you can follow, rent GET OUT ...or 1968's ROSEMARY'S BABY.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

I Will Miss Mike Hodge

He was President of our New York chapter of SAG-AFTRA.  I've been a proud union member since the 1980s.  I grew even prouder when Mike Hodge was our president.  He got things done.  For one year, I had the privilege to serve on the New York City board with him.  To me, Mike was an excellent president and he was also an excellent actor with Broadway, film and TV credits.  He was also one of the kindest people I knew in New York City during a rough period in my life.
As it did millions of others, the Great Recession hit me with a brutal punch.  Money I'd saved from my modest income as a TV host & entertainment contributor had gone to help my mother with her house.  I was knocked down by layoffs in two jobs within two years.  I could not get work.  I could not get representation to help me get work.  I lost my apartment and most of the belongings in it.  Come the end of 2011, I was living with relatives outside of Sacramento, praying for work and guidance.  I had no job, no checking account, no credit card and no unemployment.  I was interviewing for jobs via Skype.  Until my computer blew out.  Mike Hodge kept in touch with me and told me not to give up.
While outside of Sacramento, I got an August 2014 invite to be a guest film reviewer & historian on a cable show taping in New York City.  I accepted.  My terrific flight attendant cousin got me a free stand-by ticket.  I'd be in Manhattan for two weeks, staying at a friends' apartment and stretching a little cash of my own plus $100 from my mom.  Two weeks in New York were a chance to wear out my shoe leather and hunt for employment.  Which I did.  When the two weeks were nearly up, another friend invited me to crash on a couch for a few weeks more and continue my hunt. Then another friend offered me a couch.  Here and there, I started to get a few days of work.

Mike Hodge sent me a text message and when I told him about my luck sleeping on spare couches in friends' NYC apartment, he texted back "I love life, don't you?"

I texted, "It feels miraculous."

Hodge replied, "And that's what life is."

During my long, long stay, he invited me over to the SAG-AFTRA offices right across from Lincoln Center and he took me to lunch.

He had total empathy for my rough patch.  He'd been through a similar one himself.  He really opened up about that to me.  He was generous with his time, his sage advice, his compassion and humor.

He continued to stay in touch and to tell to me I "offer a very rare skill set" as a TV performer and writer.  He'd followed my career.  Mike Hodge made me feel very significant in his life.  He was like a big brother who always gave me hope.  As a union member, I knew full well to my soul that President Mike Hodge had my back.  He was a force as a unionist.

I gasped in shock early Monday morning when I got on Twitter to see news headlines and found the report that he'd died suddenly at age 70.

I shall miss him so very, very much.  Mike Hodge was a remarkable, gentle man.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Our Podcast Chat about Kirk Douglas

I still give thanks and count my blessings that I had a national talk show on TV -- and my first and only guest for the premiere edition was Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas.  Yes, Spartacus himself!  Kirk Douglas was a model of Old School Hollywood class and graciousness when he arrived to tape my 1988 show.  He not only arrived on time.  He was early.  Very early.
Spartacus threw our little ragtag VH1 TV crew into a bit of a brief tizzy.
I give my friend Keith Price the backstory on our podcast.  Then I give you a list of films starring Kirk Douglas that I highly recommend you watch to see Douglas in peak performance.  I also mention a rare romantic comedy that Douglas did.  He did it with Mitzi Gaynor.
The mention of marvelous Mitzi Gaynor prompted Keith to tell about the time he interviewed that star of 20th Century Fox's deluxe 1958 adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Broadway musical hit, SOUTH PACIFIC.

Mitzi had worked with Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe in the Fox's 1954 deluxe musical, Irving Berlin's THERE'S NOT BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS.
 Mitzi had Merman stories for Keith.

OK.  Hopefully, now you want to hear our podcast segment.  If so, go here:

Talking about life and classic movies with Keith is too much fun.

Friday, September 8, 2017

A TCM Noir Alley Note

Eddie Muller is a popular new host on TCM.  He's seen on Sunday mornings as the host of TCM's Noir Alley.  As you can probably guess, his weekend show is devoted to those gritty black and white dramas called film noir.  Eddie Muller is seen in a short TCM feature called "Rebels Without a Code" in which he details characteristics and details of classics in the film genre.  One movie he highlights is the 1949 trucker drama, THIEVES' HIGHWAY directed by Jules Dassin.  You can always count on film noir for having street-wise dames.
Muller is a San Francisco writer and film historian.  In his TCM Noir Alley, he focuses on one sizzling scene in THIEVES' HIGHWAY.  The film starred Valentina Cortese and the under-appreciated Richard Conte.
The film noir genre peaked after the war.  It knew how to detour around the prissy Hollywood Production Code rules and show a darker, more realistic world.  Muller loves the scene in which Cortese plays tic-tac-toe with her finger on the bare chest of Richard Conte.  It's erotically charged displays and a bolder, more mature sexuality than Hollywood studio films before World War 2 did.
Here's some trivia for you.  A Paramount comedy released in 1948 beat 1949's THIEVES' HIGHWAY.  The comedy is called MISS TATLOCK'S MILLIONS.
John Lund (the leading man in Billy Wilder's A FOREIGN AFFAIR starring Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur) plays a Hollywood stunt man for Ray Milland.  Barry Fitzgerald plays the guy who sees that he bears a striking resemblance to a long lost heir in Southern California.  He hires the stunt man to pretend to be the found heir so his sweet, innocent heiress sister can claim her fortune instead of it going to greedy, freeloading relatives.  The heir is...well, sort of a happy-go-lucky idiot.  The kind of character that Jerry Lewis would've been assigned by Paramount in a few years.  Wanda Hendrix plays the sweet heiress sister.  Of course, the stunt man falls for her while pretending to be her eccentric brother.  She had a habit of doing some finger business on the lunatic brother's bare chest that would delight him like he was a toddler.  She does it to the stunt man and he gets an erotic jolt.
She does it more than once.  When she does it to him at the beach, he has to make a mad dash for the water.  Sort of the equivalent of taking a cold shower.

And there you have it.  The bare chest play in Fox's 1949 film noir thriller, THIEVES' HIGHWAY, is memorable.  But it wasn't the first time it was done in a movie.  Paramount had bare chest play in the 1948 screwball comedy, MISS TATLOCK'S MILLIONS. Tell that piece of movie trivia to TCM's Eddie Muller.