Saturday, 22 March 2014

"A Rumour in St. Petersburg" from Anastasia (1997)

Today was a busy day for me, so I did not have time to write a full blog post. I will then leave you with one of my all time favourite songs from an animated film: "A Rumour in St. Petersburg" from Fox Animation's 1997 film Anastasia. I still cannot believe that it wasn't even nominated for the Oscar for Best Song (although "Journey to the Past" from Anastasia was). Quite frankly, in my opinion not only should it have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best song, it should have won ("My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic did). Anyhow, without further ado, here is "A Rumour in St. Petersburg".


Friday, 21 March 2014

The Big Valley Starring Barbara Stanwyck

The Western television shows that proliferated in prime time on the American television networks in the Fifties and Sixties generally had one thing in common. Their stars were male. Out of all the Westerns that aired during the period there was one notable exception, The Big Valley (which ran on ABC from 1965 to 1969). Indeed, not only did The Big Valley star a woman, but it was also notable for starring a genuine movie star. By the time Barbara Stanwyck starred in The Big Valley she had been acting in film for over 35 years. What is more she had starred in some fairly important films over the years, including The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and many others.

In some ways it should come as no surprise that Barbara Stanwyck would be the star of a television Western. From Annie Oakley in 1939 to Forty Guns in 1957 Miss Stanwyck had starred in eleven different Western movies. What is more, in many of these films she did not play the typical wives, mothers, schoolmarms, or saloon girls who are in some way dependent upon men. Instead, Barbara Stanwyck played independent, self sufficient women (a landowner in Cattle Queen of Montana, a saloon owner in The Maverick Queen, and so on). Barbara Stanwyck's roles in Westerns were largely on par with the independent women she had played in such films as The Lady Eve (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), Meet John Doe (1941), Christmas in Connecticut (1944), and others. Barbara Stanwyck's role as Victoria Barkley, matriarch of the Barkley family and owner of the Barkley Ranch, was then a natural extension of roles she had played throughout her career.

Of course, in many ways the Western genre was nearly a perfect fit for Barbara Stanwyck, not the least of which is the fact that she once said the Western was probably her favourite genre. She had a real interest in the West and admired those who had opened up the West to settlement. Beyond having a genuine love of Westerns, Barbara Stanwyck was suited to the genre in many other ways. She was a very athletic woman with a love of the outdoors. She and her husband Robert Taylor bought a ranch in the West Los Angeles area. When Mr. Taylor and Miss Stanwyck divorced, it was Miss Stanwyck who retained ownership of the ranch. She was very skilled at riding horses, and it should come as no surprise that she did nearly all of her own stunts. This was even the case when she starred in The Big Valley, even though she was 58 when the series began.

Given that Barbara Stanwyck starred in many Western movies and that she loved the genre, it was perhaps inevitable that she would star in a Western TV show. Indeed, the genesis of The Big Valley can be traced back to the mid-Fifties when Westerns dominated the small screen. It was around this time that Miss Stanwyck turned 50, this in an era when interesting film roles tended to decrease as an actress grew older. With fewer offers of films coming her way, Barbara Stanwyck looked to television for more and more work. Miss Stanwyck made her television debut on an episode of The Ford Television Theatre and went on to guest star on such anthology shows as Alcoa Theatre, Goodyear Theatre, General Electric Theatre, and The Dick Powell Theatre. Not surprisingly, Barbara Stanwyck guest starred on Western TV series, including Zane Gray Theatre, Rawhide, and Wagon Train.

At the time that Barbara Stanwyck made her move into television the networks in the midst of a boom in Western television shows that had begun with the debuts of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyenne in 1955. By 1959 there was at least one Western television show (usually more) on every night of the week. Nine different Westerns (Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun--Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Lawman, Cheyenne, Rawhide, and Maverick) ranked in the top twenty for the 1959-1960 season. It was only natural that Miss Stanwyck decided she could star in her own Western television series. Her idea was that of an anthology show that would centre on frontier women.

Unfortunately neither the agency that represented her, MCA, nor the television networks were particularly keen on the idea of an anthology show devoted to women in the Old West. In the end Barbara Stanwyck would not get her anthology show devoted to the women of the West. Instead NBC offered her an anthology show that would largely be patterned after the highly successful Loretta Young Show. The Loretta Young Show debuted in 1953 and proved to be a huge success, inspiring such similar shows as Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre (essentially a revamp of the old anthology show Fireside Theatre) and The DuPont Show with June Allyson. After many negotiations between NBC and Miss Stanwyck, The Barbara Stanwyck Show debuted on that network on 19 September 1960.

While The Barbara Stanwyck Show did not fulfil Miss Stanwyck's goal of a Western anthology centred on women, she did star in the majority of episodes. The Barbara Stanwyck Show also featured more than its fair share of strong women, not surprising given Miss Stanwyck's film roles in the past. She even got to star in two Western episodes on the show, "Ironbark's Bride" and "Along the Barbary Coast". Unfortunately, The Barbara Stanwyck Show would not prove to be a success. It was cancelled after only one season.

It was with the failure of The Barbara Stanwyck Show that Lou Edelman, who had served as producer on the show,  set about developing another vehicle for the actress with A.I. Bezzerides (who had written several episodes of the show). For inspiration Messrs Edelman and  Bezzerides looked to the Hill Ranch, a historical ranch that had operated in  Calaveras County, California from 1855 to 1931. In 1861 Lawson Hill. owner and operator of the ranch, was murdered, after which his wife Euphemia took over running the ranch. The Hills had three sons, although only one lived to see old age. It was Euphemia Hill and the Hill Ranch, then, that provided the basis for what would become The Big Valley.

Unfortunately Lou Edelman was not able to interest the networks in his prospective new Western series. By 1961 the cycle towards Westerns had ended. At the same time the cycle towards shows starring former leading ladies that had lasted for much of the Fifties also appeared to be over. Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre ended its run in 1958.  Both The DuPont Show with June Allyson and  The Loretta Young Show had gone off the air at the end of the 1960-1961 season. In early 1964 Lou Edelman gave up trying to get the show on the air and sold the property to the production team of Levy-Gardner-Laven, who had produced both The Rifelman and The Detectives.

Fortunately for Barbara Stanwyck the landscape of television would change considerably from 1961 to 1965. One of the last Westerns to debut in the cycle that had lasted from 1955 to 1960, Bonanza, proved to be one of the most successful shows of the Sixties. Its success was followed in 1962 by The Virginian. These two Westerns would spark renewed interest in the genre on the part of the networks. As a result it was in early 1965 that Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions was able to strike a deal with ABC and Four Star Television for the prospective show. Quite naturally, Levy-Gardner-Laven asked Barbara Stanwyck if she was still interested in playing the lead on the series. As they probably expected, her answer was "Yes."

The Big Valley debuted on ABC on 15 September 1965. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley, the owner and operator of the Barkley Ranch and matriarch of the Barkley family. Among the regular cast were two of Victoria's sons. The eldest was Jarrod (played by Richard Long), an attorney who was the more refined of her children. The second eldest of her children was Nick (played by Peter Breck), who managed the day to day operations of the ranch and tended to be more hot tempered than Jarrod. Victoria also had a daughter, Audra (played by Linda Evans), who was gentle and caring, although a bit self-absorbed.

Also on the Barkley Ranch was Heath (played by Lee Majors), the illegitimate son of Victoria's late husband Thomas Barkley. The Barkleys' majordomo was Silas (played by  Napoleon Whiting). In the first season a younger son, Eugene Barkley (played by  Charles Briles), appeared on and off. Eugene was attending the medical school at Berkeley. Charles Briles was drafted into the U.S. Army before The Big Valley even debuted. As a result, Eugene did not appear after the first season.

The Big Valley would not be a smash hit during its run on ABC. It never ranked in the top 25 shows for the year. Despite receiving only moderate ratings, however, there was no real doubt that The Big Valley was popular. In a readers' poll conducted by the magazine TV Radio Mirror, The Big Valley was voted the favourite new show of the 1965-1966 season. The Big Valley was also nominated for its fair share of awards. Barbara Stanwyck won the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series in 1966 and was nominated again in 1967 and 1968. It also won awards for Best Edited Television Programme from the Cinema Editors, USA in 1966 (for the episode "40 Rifles") and 1968 ("Disappearance"). The Big Valley also received nominations in various categories from the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild of America.

Ultimately The Big Valley ran four seasons on ABC. The show faltered in the ratings in the 1968-1969 season. The cycle towards Westerns in the Sixties that had begun in 1964 was winding down by 1969, with the genre declining in popularity. In its final season the show also had the misfortune of airing opposite the popular Carol Burnett Show (which ranked 24th in the Nielsen ratings for the year) and the second half of NBC Monday Night at the Movies. It ended its network run on 19 May 1969. This was hardly the end for The Big Valley, as reruns of the show went immediately into syndication. There it proved to be even more popular than it had been in its original network run. In fact, it seems quite possible that there has been no point since The Big Valley that it has been off the air in the United States. Not only has it aired on local stations nationwide, but it has also aired on such cable channels as TBS, The Family Channel, and Inspiration, as well as the network ME-TV.

As to why The Big Valley has had such lasting success, there can be no doubt that much of it is due to the presence of Barbara Stanwyck. With The Big Valley Barbara Stanwyck achieved her goal of starring in a Western television show centred on a woman. What is more Victoria Barkley was a strong, independent woman who took an active role in running her ranch. She was not the sort to sit around in her crinolines and let the men do all the work. Shortly before The Big Valley debuted in September 1965, Barbara Stanwyck told reporters, "I wanted to resurrect the old gal we had before and not be born to the manor and the teacup."  While Victoria Barkley had two sons (as well as the illegitimate son of her husband) right there on the ranch, there was never any doubt that it was Victoria who was in charge. What is more, she knew how to do everything her sons could do and more.

Even as The Big Valley debuted there were comparisons to Bonanza, It was not unusual for critics in 1965 to describe The Big Valley as “Bonanza in petticoats". In many respects the comparisons were unfair. While the two were similar insofar as both were set on vast ranches run by families in the Old West, it was there where the similarities ended. The Barkleys had a much different family dynamic from the Cartwrights. The Barkleys fought among themselves much more than the Cartwrights ever did, and it was not unusual for Jarrod and Nick to get into very fierce arguments. Even Audra was known to quarrel with her older brothers from time to time. Indeed, for much of the first season a lot of the family did not particularly trust illegitimate son Heath, not that Heath trusted them very much either. What is more The Big Valley differed from Bonanza in the presence of women. In its entire run Bonanza had no female regular characters. Not only did The Big Valley have two regular female characters, but one of them was the lead.

Indeed, The Big Valley was the only primetime Western of the Fifties and Sixties centred upon a woman. What is more, it seems likely that there might have been none had it not been for Barbara Stanwyck. It was largely because of Barbara Stanwyck's desire to star in a Western television show centred upon a woman that led to the creation of The Big Valley. Had it not been for her it seems likely that Lou Edelman and A.I. Bezzerides would have never created The Big Valley. And had Barbara Stanwyck not accepted
Levy-Gardner-Laven's offer to play the lead in the show, it seems likely that The Big Valley would not have lasted four seasons on ABC and nearly fifty years in syndication.

It also seems likely that it was not the simple star power of Barbara Stanwyck that made The Big Valley a success, but the fact that she was once more playing a strong, female character of the sort for which she was known. Barbara Stanwyck would go on to appear in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and the television show The Colbys, but she would never again have as big a success on television as The Big Valley was.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Rooney Mara As Tiger Lily In Pan?

Today the cast for Joe Wright's next film, an origin story for Peter Pan simply called Pan, was announced. Such casting news generally would not be notable save for one thing: Rooney Mara was cast as the character of Tiger Lily, a character portrayed as Native American in J. M. Barrie's original works and all derivative works. As might be expected, the casting of Rooney Mara as a Native American character has resulted in a good deal of controversy. Already the hashtag #NotYourTigerLily has appeared on Twitter.

It should come as no surprise that people would be upset that the European American Rooney Mara has been cast as a Native American. After all, historically the film industry has not been kind to Native Americans. Over the years Native Americans on film have been portrayed as little more than stereotypes, from violent primitives to noble savages to drunken "Injuns". Worse yet, more often than not Native American characters were played by actors who were not Native Americans. From the Silent Era well into the Sixties it was not unusual for actors of European or Asian descent to play Natives. For many people (myself included), casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily seems nothing short of a revival of the practice of performing in redface.

Of course, matters are probably not helped by the fact that Tiger Lily has always been a problematic character at best. In J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up and the novel Peter and Wendy Tiger Lily is something of a stereotype, even described as an "Indian princess". Even Oliver Herford's illustration of Tiger Lily from 1907 was stereotypical in nature. Tiger Lily is dressed as a stereotypical Plains Indian, dressed in buckskins and wearing a headband with a feather in it. Worse yet, Tiger Lily and her father, Great Big Little Panther, were said to belong to the  Picaninny tribe. Here it must be noted that "Picaninny" appears to be a variant spelling of pickaninny, a derogatory term for African American children. While J. M. Barrie may have meant no harm, it would seem that Tiger Lily was essentially a racist caricature.

Not only was Tiger Lily in J. M. Barrie's works something of a stereotype, but over the years she would be played by a succession of actresses who were not Native American. Rooney Mara is not the first non-Native cast in the role by any stretch of the imagination.  Anna May Wong played her in the 1924 silent film Peter Pan. In the Fifties Sondra Lee played the role of Tiger Lily in three different television productions of Peter Pan (each starring Mary Martin as Peter). In a 1976 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Peter Pan Paula Kelly played Tiger Lily. It would not be until the 2003 film Peter Pan that Tiger Lily would be played by a Native American. In that film she was played by Haida actress Carsen Gray. The two part television movie Neverland from 2011 also saw a Native American play Tiger Lily. In that instance she was played by Q'orianka Kilcher, an actress of Quechua-Huachipaeri descent.

With Peter Pan (2003) and Neverland it would have appeared that progress had been made with regards to the casting of Tiger Lily in films and on television. Unfortunately, the casting of Rooney Mara in the role shows this may not be the case. The matter is only made worse by the fact that Native Americans are sorely under-represented when it comes to mainstream American media.  Currently I can think of no Native American characters on American television. I can only think of one major motion picture from last year featuring a Native American character: Tonto in The Lone Ranger (who was played by Johnny Depp, who may or may not be Native American in descent).  With Native American characters so rare in American film and television, it seems all the more offensive when an actor of non-Native descent is cast as one.

Indeed, it is not as if there are no young Native American actresses in the film industry. The Baker Twins (Shannon and Shauna), Crystle Lightning, and Q'orianka Kilcher (who played the role in Neverland all come to mind). For that matter, they could also cast an unknown in the role of Tiger Lily. I am sure that there are many young, Native American actresses who would jump at the chance to appear in a major motion picture.

 Of course, it is possible that in Pan Tiger Lily may not be a Native American character, in which case it would seem the film would be straying from J. M. Barrie's original works. It could also be possible that Pan will explain Tiger Lily as being someone of European descent who was adopted by a Native tribe. In those instances it would be acceptable for Rooney Mara to play the role. Otherwise it would seem that Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily is simply going to be another instance in the film industry's history of European American actors playing in redface. Speaking as someone who has some Cherokee ancestors, I was hoping we would be long past that sort of thing by now.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

When members of the general public think of hard boiled detectives in film, it is most likely Humphrey Bogart who comes to mind. After all, Mr. Bogart played Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946). While the general public probably identifies Humphrey Bogart with the hardboiled detective genre more than any other actor, however, classic film buffs know better. Other actors than Humphrey Bogart and other films than The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep have made important contributions to the genre. Indeed, the 1944 film Murder, My Sweet, featuring Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe,  is every big as important to the development of the hardboiled detective films as The Maltese Falcon and may be more important than The Big Sleep. Murder, My Sweet would also play an important role in the development of film noir.

Murder, My Sweet was based on Raymond Chandler's second novel, Farewell, My Lovely, published in 1940. It was  also the second novel to feature the world weary, cynical, and yet intellectual detective Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep, published in 1939, had been the first). While Farewell, My Lovely is now one of Raymond Chandler's best known works, it initially sold only a meagre 2,900 copies. RKO bought the film rights to the novel for only $2000 and with no intention of adapting it as a "Philip Marlowe" film. Instead RKO very loosely adapted Farewell, My Lovely as part of their "Falcon" series. The film, titled The Falcon Takes Over (1942), then featured The Falcon (played by George Sanders) rather than Philip Marlowe as the main character.

Fortunately events would unfold that would lead to a more faithful film adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely in the form of Murder, My Sweet. As World War II progressed the sales of Raymond Chanlder's novels began to improve. It was around this time that producer Adrian Scott ran upon the novel Farewell, My Lovely among RKO's various properties. Given that The Falcon Takes Over bore only a superficial resemblance to the actual novel (indeed, The Falcon himself resembled Ellery Queen or Philo Vance more than Philip Marlowe), Adrian Scott thought a more faithful adaptation of the novel could be a success. Adrian Scott brought screenwriter John Paxton on board to adapt Farewell, My Lovely as a screenplay. Edward Dmytryk, who had previously worked primarily on B movies, was hired as the film's director.

 The role of Philip Marlowe would be filled by an actor whose casting probably took both Hollywood and viewers by surprise. Dick Powell was best known as the romantic leading man in a series of musicals that spanned from the Thirties to the Forties. He had left Warner Brothers for Paramount in hope of getting more varied roles, only to find himself once more stuck in musicals. He even campaigned for the role of insurance investigator Walter Neff in 1944's Double Indemnity (ultimately played by comic actor Fred MacMurray) to no avail. When RKO's president Charles Koerner wanted to hire Dick Powell for a series of musicals, then, the actor signed with the studio on the condition that he played Philip Marlowe in the upcoming film adaptation of Farewell, My Loveliy. With Murder, My Sweet, then, Dick Powell made film history as the first actor to ever portray Philip Marlowe on the big screen.

While the casting of Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe may have been a surprise to the film industry and audiences at the time, the other characters would be played by actors one would expect to find in such roles. Claire Trevor, who had played an array of women of questionable morals over the year, was cast as the femme fatale Velma Valento. Anne Shirley, who had generally played a succession of "good girls", was cast as heiress Ann Grayle, a virtuous counterpoint to Velma. The somewhat slow witted thug Moose Mallory was played by Mike Mazurki. While he had only been acting since 1941, the towering Mr. Mazurki (he stood 6' 5") was already typecast in such roles.

Murder, My Sweet premiered on 18 December 1944 in Minneapolis under the title Farewell, My Lovely. Unfortunately it seemed audiences thought that Farewell, My Lovely was yet another Dick Powell musical and as a result they stayed away. RKO then changed the title to Murder, My Sweet, leaving no doubt that the film was not a musical. Ultimately Murder, My Sweet would prove to be very successful. What is more it would have an impact. Its most immediate impact may have been on Dick Powell's career. Once typecast as a star of light musicals, Dick Powell was cast in further "tough guy" roles in such films as Cornered (1945), Johnny O'Clock (1947), and Cry Danger (1951). On radio he played the lead on the show Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

Murder, My Sweet would also have a lasting impact on Raymond Chandler's popularity. While sales of his books had been growing during World War II, it was arguably the success of Murder, My Sweet that would turn Mr. Chandler into a best selling author and, short of Dashiell Hammett, the best known writer of hardboiled detective fiction. While The Big Sleep (1946) starring Humphrey Bogart was roughly in production at the same time as Murder, My Sweet (Warner Brothers delayed the release of The Big Sleep to 1946), there can be little doubt that the success of Murder, My Sweet would help it at the box office. The success of Murder, My Sweet would also lead to further Philip Marlowe films: Lady in the Lake starring Robert Montgomery as Marlowe and The Brasher Doubloon starring George Montgomery as Marlowe, both from 1947.

There would also be two radio shows featuring Philip Marlowe. The New Adventures Of Philip Marlowe, starring Van Helfin in the role, lasted only a few months on CBS in 1947. The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, starring Gerald Mohr in the role, proved more successful. It ran from 1948 to 1951 on NBC. Dick Powell, who had originated the role of Philip Marlowe on film, would also be the first actor to play the detective on television. On 7 October 1954 Climax aired an adaptation of The Long Goodbye starring Mr. Powell.

Of course, the most lasting impact of Murder, My Sweet may have been on the nascent genre of film noir. Indeed, Murder, My Sweet features a number of characteristics associated with the genre. Philip Marlowe and his cynical view of the world has provided the blueprint for film noir protagonists ever since. The milieu of Murder, My Sweet would also serve as a template for future films noirs. The world of Murder, My Sweet is a dangerous one, filled with corruption and betrayal. It is a world where it is difficult to know whom to trust. Even the photography of Murder, My Sweet would have a lasting impact on films noirs. Shot in stark black and white, maximum use was made of shadows on Murder, My Sweet, shadows that were in perfect keeping with the darker aspects of Philip Marlowe's world.

While Dick Powell was the first actor to ever portray Philip Marlowe on film, there has always been a small degree of debate over his performance in the role. There are those who argue that Mr. Powell's Marlowe is too light hearted. What many overlook is that Philip Marlowe was not simply a brute with a streak of cynicism. He was a thinking man who enjoyed nothing more than a game of chess and enjoys both whiskey and brandy. Even more than Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (who did very well in the role), Dick Powell brings out the intellectual side of Marlowe. Dick Powell's Philip Marlowe is a thoughtful, even idealistic man whose toughness is a shield against a world that has consistently let him down. Like the literary Marlowe, Dick Powell's Marlowe is a man whose wisecracks and drinking hide the more philosophical and even gentle man underneath.

Ultimately Murder, My Sweet must be considered one of the most pivotal films in the history of both hardboiled detectives and film noir. At the very least it marked the first appearance of Philip Marlowe on film. It would also entirely alter the course of Dick Powell's career, transforming him from a song and dance man to a star of films noirs. Murder, My Sweet would also help increase the popularity of Raymond Chandler to the point that he is the best known writer of hardboiled detective fiction besides Dashiell Hammett. Finally it would have a lasting impact on film noir, from its stark black and white photography to its convoluted plot to its potrrayal of a world filled with corruption.