Saturday, December 22, 2018

Why The Apartment (1960) is a Christmas Movie

Every December Turner Classic Movies shows several classic Christmas movies. One can be guaranteed to see The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), and many others on TCM's schedule come the holiday season. One can even be guaranteed to see some movies that many of us don't think of as Christmas movies, such as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and the various versions of Little Women (don't get me wrong, I love Meet Me in St. Louis--it is one of my all time favourite films, but I have never thought of it as a Christmas movie). That having been said, there is one Christmas movie that one very rarely sees on TCM, despite the fact that they show it at different times during the year. That movie is The Apartment (1960), which also happens to be my second favourite movie of all time and my favourite holiday movie of them all.

Of course, if one read a synopsis of The Apartment, it might not immediately be obvious to him or her that it is a holiday movie. The Apartment centres around C. C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon), an employee of an insurance company who allows some of his firm's executives to use his apartment for their romantic trysts. Complicating matters is the fact that Baxter is in love with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (played by Shirley MacLaine), who is having an affair with the head of the company, Mr. Sheldrake (played by Fred MacMurray). Certainly going by this synopsis The Apartment does not sound like a Christmas movie, even though it most certainly is.

First, it must be pointed out that the plot of The Apartment takes place over the entire holiday season. It begins on November 1 and ends on New Year's Eve. Indeed, the bulk of the movie's plot unfolds during the holidays. The office Christmas party plays an important role in the plot. Important events central to the plot take place on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The movie's famous climax takes place on New Year's Eve itself. The Apartment actually takes in more of the holiday season than many other films shown at Christmastime.

Second, not only does most of The Apartment unfold over the holidays, but it features a good deal of Christmas imagery. There are Christmas trees, garland, ornaments, snow, Santa Claus, and more to be seen in The Apartment. A few Christmas songs play in the background of various scenes as well. The Apartment features much more Christmas imagery than many films that TCM shows at this time of year.

Third, at the core of The Apartment are themes central to the holiday season. At one point in The Apartment, Baxter's neighbour Dr. Dreyfuss tells him, "Be a mensch!" And this is essentially the plot of The Apartment. It is about C. C. Baxter's path to becoming a mensch and finding love in doing so. Of course, The Apartment is also about Miss Kubelik finally finding love with someone nice like Baxter. Redemption and rebirth are central themes of the holiday season and as a result can be seen in many Christmas movies. Redemption and rebirth are the central themes of It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop's Wife, and It Happened on Fifth Avenue. They are also the central themes of The Apartment.

Ultimately, The Apartment is as much a Christmas movie as It's a Wonderful Life or The Bishop's Wife, and much more of one than Meet Me in St. Louis or any version of Little Women. It has then always puzzled me as to why TCM rarely shows it at least once during the holiday season. As far as I am concerned, The Apartment is as much of a Christmas classic as The Shop Around the Corner, Christmas in Connecticut, or It Happened on Fifth Avenue.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The 50th Birthday of My Dearest Vanessa Marquez

Vanessa on her 48th birthday
"...And though she be but little, she is fierce."
(William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream Act 3 Scene 2)

"Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own." (Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

"Well, there's many a change in the winter wind,
And a change in the cloud's design.
There's many a change in a young man's heart,
But never a change in mine."
("I Never Will Marry", traditional)

It was fifty years ago today that my dearest Vanessa Marquez was born. Many of you might know Vanessa for her roles as Ana Delgado in the classic movie Stand and Deliver (1988) and Nurse Wendy Goldman on the TV show ER. For me she was my best friend, my soul mate, the girl of my dreams, and the love of my life. I have never been closer to anyone else in my life, and I know that I never will again. She was Nora Charles to my Nick Charles, Miss Kubelik to my C. C. Baxter. She was very proud to be a solstice baby, and I would tease her about being my Christmas present for when I was five years old, even though I wouldn't know it until decades later.

Vanessa Rosalia Marquez was born on December 21 1968 in Los Angeles County, California. She grew up in Montebello, California and attended Schurr High School there. Vanessa wanted to be an actress from when she was very, very young. Vanessa sometimes said she wanted to be an actress from the moment she came out of the womb, but it was truly the case after she saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) when she was only three or four years old. She loved the movie and she would remain a fan of Judy Garland for the rest of her life. Like many in her generation (including myself), Vanessa grew up watching classic movies on television and would remain a classic film buff for the rest of her life. She also loved classic television shows, watching them in reruns as many people our age did. Her desire to become an actress would only increase after she first saw Star Wars (1977), another film she would love for the rest of her life. At eight years old Vanessa started writing letters to the various studios and important figures in the film industry (including George Lucas) expressing her desire to become an actress.

The cast of Stand and Deliver
Of course, it would be several years before Vanessa would realise her dream. She made her film debut in Stand and Deliver in 1988. Originally made for public television, Stand and Deliver was instead released theatrically on March 11 1988 (coincidentally the day after my 25th birthday). It aired on American Playhouse on PBS nearly a year later, on March 15 1989. Like many it was in Stand and Deliver that I first saw Vanessa Marquez. Along with Lou Diamond Phillips as Angel, it was Vanessa's performance as Ana Delgado that impressed me most of the young cast. Vanessa was always very proud of her work on Stand and Deliver, and over the years she would receive letters from high school students who had been inspired by the movie. She made her stage debut in Demon Wine at the Los Angeles Theatre Centre, which played from February 10 1989 to March 19 1989. She appeared alongside such luminaries as Tom Waits and Carol Kane in the play.

Over the next few years, Vanessa's acting career would begin to take off. She made guest appearances on such shows as Wiseguy, Seinfeld, Nurses, and Melrose Place. She appeared in four movies in 1993 alone, among them Twenty Bucks and Blood In, Blood Out. Even though I watched Wiseguy and Melrose Place religiously, I must confess I don't remember her guest appearances on those shows. I do remember her guest appearances on Seinfeld and Nurses quite well, thinking at the time that she was both very talented and remarkably pretty. In the years since her film debut as Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver, Vanessa had blossomed into a beautiful young woman.

Vanessa as Nurse Wendy in a promo photo
for ER
It was in 1994 that Vanessa started a three season run in the supporting role of Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER. Indeed, she appeared in the first few minutes of the very first episode, "24 Hours". It was on ER that many first took notice of Vanessa Marquez. As Nurse Wendy, she was frequently featured in humorous subplots in various episodes during the show's first three seasons. Nurse Wendy became one of the most popular characters on ER, and there were many who missed her when she was no longer on the show. Not a few young men even had crushes on Nurse Wendy, including my brother. I was among those young men who had a huge crush on Nurse Wendy and I stopped watching ER not long after Vanessa had left the show. It would be years after getting to know Vanessa before I would confess to her that I had a crush on Wendy back in the day. I was afraid it might creep her out. Fortunately, she was flattered instead.

Sadly, many of Vanessa's experiences on ER would not be happy ones. She was subjected to both sexual harassment and ethnic slurs on the set. Unfortunately, when she reported that harassment she was fired and subsequently blacklisted. Vanessa's acting career would never quite recover. Of course, this would be complicated when she developed refractory coeliac disease in the Naughts. Quite simply, her health prevented her from ever entirely resurrecting her acting career.

While Vanessa had lost her acting career, her love of classic films, classic TV shows, and Star Wars continued unabated. Like most American classic film buffs she was a huge fan of Turner Classic Movies. Like many of us, after she joined Twitter, she began live tweeting to the films aired on TCM. She also live tweeted to various shows she loved, such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey. Along with myself and others, she was one of the original members of #TCMParty, the group of TCM fans who live tweet movies on TCM using that hashtag. At first none of us were sure that it was really her. After all, we had experiences with people impersonating celebrities before. We soon learned that it was indeed the Vanessa Marquez who had played Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver and Nurse Wendy on ER. One would never have thought Vanessa was an actual movie and TV star. She was so down-to-earth and unassuming that she seemed like any other TCM fan. That having been said, she was also so sweet, kind, and gentle that she became one of the best loved among us. Our mutual friend and #TCMParty co-founder, Paula Guthat, referred to Vanessa as "the Sweetheart of #TCMParty." Many members of #TCMParty developed close personal friendships with Vanessa. I don't know if we met live tweeting Mad Men or through #TCMParty (both were going on at the same time), but either way, Vanessa and I bonded and became friends. Indeed, I fell in love with her. She would become my closest friend and confidant, and the one person I love more than any other in my life.

A head shot from 2010
Of course, to those who knew and love Vanessa Marquez, it should not seem unusual that someone would fall in love with her. She was an entirely wonderful woman, a remarkable woman, and very easy to love. The first thing one might have noticed about Vanessa was that she was very beautiful. Vanessa had dark, luxuriant hair, elfin ears, big dark eyes, and a smile that would illuminate any room. And she always possessed a slender but pleasing figure. It was among Vanessa's many charms that, while she was obviously lovely, she did not think of herself as such. One time she posted a head shot from 2010 to one of the social networks. As always, I told her that she was gorgeous. Vanessa said it was due to makeup and joked, "It takes a village." I told her, "Vanessa, you forget. I've seen you without makeup. You're still gorgeous." Then there was the time that she took a Facebook quiz to determine one's type of beauty. The result for her was "adorable". She complained that for once she would like to be considered hot, mysterious, or exotic. I told her that she was adorable and gorgeous and exotic and sexy. Vanessa protested that she was only cute. I disagreed with her, telling her that to me she was glamorous and gorgeous and sexy and exotic. All of our mutual friends thought Vanessa was stunning and over the years I have encountered many men on the internet who had crushes on her from her various movies and TV shows (particularly ER), but Vanessa refused to accept the fact that she was the extraordinarily beautiful woman that she was. Of course, to me she was the most beautiful woman to ever live.

In addition to being extraordinarily beautiful, Vanessa also had the most beautiful, sexiest voice I have ever heard. Her laugh was absolutely musical. And if you thought it was beautiful in the movies and TV shows in which she appeared, it was even more beautiful over the phone. My heart would always skip a beat when she said my name. What is more, Vanessa's voice was very versatile. She was a guest voice on the episode "Sleeping Beauty" of  HBO's animated children's show Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child in 1995. She voiced five different fairies on the episode. None of them sounded alike, and none of them sounded like Vanessa. She was also a gifted singer; her voice was a dulcet soprano. Vanessa got to sing in a take-off on West Side Story on Culture Clash, the first ever Latinx sketch comedy show. She also provided the voice of a singer in the movie Under Suspicion (2000). She would sing snatches of songs to me on the phone, and it was entirely wonderful.

A head shot from either 1996 or 1997
Vanessa was also very petite. She was only 5 foot 3 and the most she had ever weighed in her life was 115 pounds. She had a very high metabolism that made it difficult for her to gain weight and to maintain that weight. It was something we had in common. Like Vanessa, I have always had a very high metabolism and difficulty gaining weight. I am only 5 foot 5 and the most I have ever weighed in my life is 132 pounds. Vanessa used to joke about our "tiny, little bodies".

Of course, with her fragile beauty, slender but attractive figure, and sweet voice there was no mistaking Vanessa for a boy. A friend of mine who knew Vanessa only as an acquaintance said that she exuded femininity. He was certainly right about that. In many ways she was very much a "girly girl". She loved makeup, beauty tutorials, jewellery, shoes, and clothes. Her apartment was filled with candles, dainty teacups, teapots, pillows, and stuffed animals. She could do her own makeup for photo shoots, stage, or film. Her favourite colour was even pink. Aside from being a natural beauty with a mellifluous voice, I think much of Vanessa's appeal was that she was just so very feminine.

That is not to say that Vanessa conformed to every expectation of a stereotypical girl. She was the biggest Los Angeles Dodgers fan I ever knew. Indeed, she was not only familiar with the history of the Dodgers, but the history of baseball in Los Angeles. She could recite details about the minor league teams in Los Angeles prior to the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn, as well as the ballparks there. I daresay Vanessa knew more about baseball in Los Angeles than most men. She certainly knew more about baseball than I ever did (I have always been the most casual of Cardinals fans).

A screen cap of Vanessa on KTLA
Vanessa also defied expectations about women in that she was the biggest Star Wars fan I had ever known. It was not simply that she knew even the most arcane trivia about the movies; her apartment was filled with Star Wars memorabilia, including the original action figures, Pez dispensers, posters, and a variety of merchandise. Vanessa was well known and much loved in the Stars Wars fan community, so much so that KTLA interviewed her for Star Wars Day (May 4) in 2010. By her own admission Vanessa was a geek. In addition to being a huge Star Wars fan, she may well have been the biggest fan of The X-Files I ever knew. We spent literally hours discussing the show. She was also a huge fan of the Sixties TV show Batman, and she once said that Adam West was her first hero. As a fellow Gen-Xer, Vanessa had grown up on reruns of classic TV shows that aired before she was born or when she was very young. She loved the original Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Space: 1999, The Monkees, I Love Lucy, and The Andy Griffith Show. This gave us a good deal in common. Indeed, our tastes in television shows were very much alike. As I mentioned earlier, we bonded while live tweeting Mad Men and we were both huge fans of Downton Abbey as well.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Vanessa was a huge fan of classic films. The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars (1977) would number among her favourites for her entire life. Among her favourite films were The Apartment (1960), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946),  Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Casablanca (1942), Dark Victory (1939), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), West Side Story (1961), and many others. She was a huge fan of film noir and watched Noir Alley on TCM religiously. She was a fan of Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, Bette Davis, and many other classic film stars. Among her favourite recent films were Down with Love (2003) and Love Actually (2003).

Like her tastes in movies and TV shows, Vanessa's tastes in music were eclectic. Like me, she loved the crooners of old, such as Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. She loved the swing music of the Thirties and Forties and even knew how to swing dance. It should come as no surprise that she adored Judy Garland. Like me, she was a fan of The Beatles, The Monkees, and other classic rock bands. Our tastes in music rarely parted ways, but one instance in which they did is the fact that she liked Latin music.

Another photo from 1996 or 1997
Given her love of science fiction TV shows, period pieces, and classic films, it should come as no surprise that Vanessa was very intelligent. In fact, I am convinced that she was far smarter than I ever have been. When discussing various Mad Men episodes she would often offer insights into the characters that had never even occurred to me. On Facebook and elsewhere she often addressed political issues and other subjects in an informative fashion that is sadly beyond many today. She possessed a good deal of knowledge about the history of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Hollywood, and the surrounding towns. That intelligence made Vanessa all the more attractive.

That Vanessa addressed political issues should come as no surprise to those who knew her. Vanessa was something of an activist. On December 7 1989 she participated in a rally and then a march protesting the exposure of farmers to pesticides used on grapes. Also present at the protest were such people as Cesar Chavez and Martin Sheen. In 1994 she was one of a number of Latina actresses who appeared in a public service announcement encouraging Latinas to vote. She took an active interest in the Screen Actors Guild, and took part in campaigns for various political candidates.

In addition to being intelligent, Vanessa was also the sweetest, kindest, and most gentle person I have ever known. She was extremely loyal to her friends. During the making of Stand and Deliver, Vanessa became very close to Jaime Escalante, the real life teacher upon whom the film was based. When Mr. Escalante developed cancer, Vanessa helped raise funds to pay his medical bills. She was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Vanessa was extremely protective of her friends. If a troll on Facebook or Twitter ever attacked one of her friends, Vanessa was always the first to come to his or her defence. At least in my case, Vanessa could even recall the most trivial things about me. She remembered my favourite movies were Seven Samurai (1954) and The Apartment (1960), my favourite TV shows were The Avengers and The Monkees, and my favourite rock group was The Beatles. She remembered that Virginia Mayo and Ann Blyth numbered among my favourite actresses (and, to be honest, I think she might have been a little jealous of Ann).

Vanessa with Cheryl Ladd in a promo shot for
the TV movie Locked Up: A Mother's Rage
Indeed, so protective of her friends was Vanessa that she would not even let me use my usual self-deprecating sense of humour. As I have gotten older I have a throwaway line that I often use, "..when I was young and cute." If I used it on Vanessa, she would simply respond, "You're still cute, silly!" God forbid I ever referred to myself as stupid, as Vanessa would correct me right away, "You're not stupid!" In some respects, it was funny given Vanessa could be self-deprecating herself. The closest we ever came to an argument was over her hairstyle as Nurse Wendy on ER. The producers wanted her to get her hair cut and so she did. She had wanted the "Rachel" hairstyle from Friends that was so popular at the time, but unfortunately Vanessa's naturally curly hair would not cooperate. The hair stylists on ER had to style Vanessa's hair with a flip. Vanessa thought it looked awful. As usual I told her she was still gorgeous. She informed me that as a boy I didn't realise how important hair was to girls. Regardless, I still insisted that as Nurse Wendy she still had her beautiful eyes and beautiful smile and that her hair wasn't that bad. She was still gorgeous. Vanessa still insisted she looked awful as Nurse Wendy. Here I must point out that Vanessa always referred to me as a "boy" and herself as a "girl" and I did the same. We may have been two middle-aged people, but to us we were just "a boy and a girl".

Vanessa not only cared about other people, but she loved animals as well. She volunteered at her local animal shelter until she learned that she was allergic to dog and cat hair. From time to time she would post pictures of animals up for adoption to various social networks. She often asked about my cats and worried about them almost as much as I do.

Of course, our debate over Nurse Wendy's hair demonstrates that Vanessa could be stubborn at times. At times Vanessa experienced financial difficulties and I would tell her I could send her money. She always refused. Because of her health, two of our friends offered to move her in with them so that they could look after her, but she always refused. Vanessa did not like accepting help from others, even though she was always the first to offer help to others in need. Vanessa could not seem to accept that her friends wanted to help her partly out of selfish reasons. We wanted to keep her alive and with us for as long as possible.

Another head shot from 2010
I have to believe much of Vanessa's refusal of help offered to her sprang from the fact that she had always been self-reliant. When Vanessa was a little girl she wanted to take tap dancing lessons. Her mother told her that she could not afford them. Vanessa then set about baking cookies and cakes. Every Saturday and Sunday she would go to the local supermarket where she would have her own little bake sale. Vanessa was then able to pay for her tap dancing lessons herself and her mother consented to take her to them. It was that self-reliance that allowed her to survive so much sadness in her life, including being blacklisted as an actress and her various health problems.

While Vanessa could be stubborn and was very self-reliant, she was also very much a romantic. It was yet another thing we had in common. She loved romantic comedies, particularly the classics from the Thirties to the Sixties. She not only watched both Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding and Prince Harry and Megan Markle's wedding, but she posted about them to various social media outlets as well. While she sometimes espoused some cynicism about St. Valentine's Day, she celebrated it anyway and was very happy when I wished her a happy Valentine's Day. Among our many discussions about The X-Files was how we both wished Byers of The Lone Gunmen could have settled down with his true love Susanne Modeski and have a happy life. One of Vanessa's friends, who had known her before I did, told me that Vanessa had always wanted to fall in love. Sadly, Vanessa herself told me that she had never had a boyfriend or a serious relationship.

Of course, looking back I am not sure it can be said Vanessa never had a boyfriend, as I think I may well have filled that role. At the very least, she had a boy who was hopelessly, desperately in love with her and still is. Having known each other for years I have to believe that Vanessa knew I was in love with her. Sadly, I never told Vanessa that I love her, something that I have regretted ever since. That having been said, I used every synonymous phrase there is. I told her that I cared for her. I told her that she was my favourite person in the whole world. I told her she was the most wonderful woman in the world. I told her that to me she was perfect (which, if you are a fan of Love Actually, is pretty much the same as "I love you"). I told her that I adore her (which, if one is a fan of The Apartment, is pretty much the same as "I love you"). I have been referring to Vanessa as "dearest" for a long time. As might be expected, I was always and still am very protective of Vanessa. I worried about her and would go into a blind panic if she was sick. I once told her that her being in danger was my worst nightmare. I could also be a little jealous. Vanessa had a crush on CNN reporter Jim Acosta and I would react with mock jealousy any time she mentioned him. She also had crushes on Leonardo DiCaprio and R2-D2. I would evince mock jealousy at the mention of the former, but I figured the latter was a losing battle (I think R2 was my only serious rival). I now know that many of our mutual friends took for granted that I am in love with Vanessa.

Vanessa with R2-D2 from
the shooting of Return of Pink Five
While I am certain that Vanessa knew I was in love with her, I don't know if she was in love with me. We never talked much about how we felt about each other, each of us having been hurt repeatedly in our lives. Too, living nearly 2000 miles apart there didn't seem to be much point in talking about it. I know for certain that Vanessa loved me. During our "argument" over Nurse Wendy's hair on ER, she said, "I love you, but..." and went on to explain how as a boy I didn't understand how girls are about their hair. I think it is certainly possible that Vanessa was in love with me. She could recall minutiae about me. She always expressed admiration for my knowledge of popular culture and my talent as a writer.  When as a Fan Favourite on TCM I introduced A Hard Day's Night (1964) with Ben Mankiewicz, Vanessa made sure to tell me how good I was. As I mentioned earlier, she always corrected me when I insulted myself. Vanessa always remembered my birthday and did something special for it. Although it was rare, she could be jealous. While I wanted to move to California to be with her, I have to wonder that she didn't want me to move out there too. When talking about the Los Angeles area, she would often say, "If you ever move out here..." and once even "When you move out here..." She even thought I was cute and once insinuated that she even thought I was handsome. Given the way I look, that could be proof Vanessa was in love with me, as I can't see anyone thinking I am good looking otherwise (and right now in my head I am hearing her correcting me, "You are cute!").  Just as I doted upon Vanessa, she doted upon me. I suppose that since Vanessa probably knew with absolute certainty that I am in love with her and did not object to that fact, she could have been in love with me too.

Regardless, Vanessa and I were very, very close. The past several years we interacted every day, whether on various social media outlets, through texts, or on the phone. Vanessa was my best friend and my closest confidant, and I believe I was the same for her. We both knew secrets about each other that no one else knew. Vanessa told me things in confidence that I will take with me to the grave. We told each other the various details of our lives, both the successes and the failures. She was happy for me when I was a Fan Favourite on TCM and when I won the 50 States in 50 Movies contest for Missouri on TCM Backlot. I was happy when Vanessa got to visit the Batman exhibit at the Hollywood Museum, when the TV channel Pop started rerunning ER, and any time one of her movies was shown on television. We were each others' biggest fans. We each worried about the other when he or she was sick. Our lives were intertwined in a way that only the lives of relatives and significant others are.

Of course, I am not the only one who loves Vanessa. She had many friends who love her and a legion of fans around the world. Vanessa was an extremely talented actress. She did much more than play Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver and Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER. She had a career that included work in film, on television, and on stage. And Vanessa always received good notices for her work. Even when a particular movie or play wasn't especially good, Vanessa always received good reviews for her performances. Of course, Vanessa would have been special even if she had never been an actress, and not simply because she was remarkably beautiful and extremely intelligent. Vanessa was a kind, gentle, warm hearted woman who was loyal to her friends and genuinely cared about people and other living things. She always accepted people as they are. It is with good reason that she was "the Sweetheart of #TCMParty." Vanessa Marquez was not simply the most important person person in my life. She was the most remarkable one as well. While Vanessa is no longer with us, what would have been her 50th birthday is a time for those of us who love her to celebrate her life.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"White Christmas" by Bing Crosby

"White Christmas," written by Irving Berlin and originally performed by Bing Crosby, is arguably the most successful Christmas song of all time. It remains the best selling single of all time, with the possible exception of "Candle in the Wind" by Elton John. It also remains the most recorded Christmas song, with more than 500 versions in various languages existing. It might come as a surprise to many that originally it was not regarded as anything special, even after its debut in Holiday Inn (1942).

Stories vary as to precisely where and when Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas". the December 21 1954 issue of The Los Angeles Mirror states that Irving Berlin wrote the song's melody in August 1938 and then set it aside until later. In the December 14 1954 issue of The Los Angeles Examiner Irving Berlin said that he had written it for a revue he had planned on producing, then changed his mind about it and set it aside. One story about the writing of "White Christmas" is that Mr. Berlin wrote it in 1940 in La Quinta, California while he was staying at the La Quinta Hotel. Another version of this story is that he wrote it in 1940 at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.

It was in May 1940 that Irving Berlin signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to write songs for a film based around his idea of an inn that opened only on holidays. Holiday Inn (1942) would be shot from November 18 1941 to January 30 1942. While "White Christmas" was included prominently in the film, Bing Crosby would actually perform the song well before shooting began on Holiday Inn. It was on the Christmas edition of The Kraft Music Hall, December 25 1940, that Bing Crosby first performed "White Christmas". Bing Crosby would later record the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers for release in conjunction with the movie Holiday Inn. "White Christmas" was released, along with other songs from the movie, on July 30 1942, only a few weeks before the release of Holiday Inn on August 4 1942.

While "White Christmas" would go onto arguably be the most successful song of all time, Irving Berlin originally did not have high expectations for it. In fact, the consensus at the time was that the big hit from Holiday Inn would be "Be Careful, It's My Heart", the song used for St. Valentine's Day in the film. Even Bing Crosby didn't see anything special about "White Christmas." Initially "Be Careful, It's My Heart" did outsell "White Christmas" by a long shot, but the latter song eventually gained momentum. By October 31 1942 "White Christmas" was no. 1 on the Billboard Best Selling Retail Records chart. It would go onto be the best selling record of 1942. It would later win the the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The success of the song would lead to the movie White Christmas (1954), often regarded as a loose remake of Holiday Inn. While no exact sales figures exist for the song, it is estimated that it has sold at least 50 million copies. Versions of the song have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Perry Como, The Drifters, Andy Williams, Otis Redding, and many, many others.

In the end there is perhaps no other song more closely associated with Bing Crosby, certainly no other Christmas song. He would perform it many, many times over the years. Indeed, nearly every Christmas TV special made by Mr. Crosby ended with a performance of the song. Here from his final Christmas special (Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, which aired on November 30 1977), is Bing Crosby performing "White Christmas."

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Late Great Penny Marshall

Penny Marshall, the director who made such films as Big (1988), Awakenings (1990), and A League of Their Own (1992) and the actress who played Myrna on The Odd Couple and Laverne DeFazio on Laverne  & Shirley, died Monday, December 17 2018, at the age of 75.

Penny Marshall was born Carole Penny Marshall on October 15 1943 in the Bronx. Her father, Tony Marshall, was a director of industrial films and later became a producer. Her mother, Marjorie, was a tap dance teacher and ran the Marjorie Marshall Dance School. Her older brother was Garry Marshall, who would go on to become a successful director and producer. Miss Marshall started taking tap dancing lessons when she was only three years old. With her mother's troupe of tap dancers, she appeared on both Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour and The Jackie Gleason Show. Despite her parents' professions, when she was young Penny Marshall had no desire to go into show business. In fact, she was a tomboy who loved baseball.

Penny Marshall studied mathematics and psychology at the University of New Mexico for two and half years. She afterwards worked at a variety of jobs to support herself. It was in 1967 that Penny Marshall moved to Los Angeles where her older brother Garry Marshall was already an established television writer who had written for such shows as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Make Room for Daddy, and The Lucy Show, and was the creator and producer of the short-lived sitcom Hey Landlord.

Penny Marshall made her film debut in Savage Seven in 1968. That same year she appeared in the film How Sweet It Is! (1968). She made her television debut as an actress in a guest appearance on My Friend Tony in 1969. In the late Sixties she guest starred on such shows as Then Came Bronson; That Girl; Love, American Style; Barefoot in the Park; and The Wonderful World of Disney. She appeared in the movies The Grasshopper (1970) and Where's Poppa? (1970).

It was in 1972 that her brother Garry Marshall cast her in the role of Oscar Madison's secretary Myrna Turner on The Odd Couple. She continued to appear on the show for the rest of its run. She later played Jane Dreyfuss on the short lived sitcom Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers. It was in 1975 that her brother cast her in a guest appearance on Happy Days as Laverne DeFazio, who along with Shirley Feeney (played by Cindy Williams), were blind dates for Richie (played by Ron Howard) and Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler). The two characters proved popular and after two more guest appearances on Happy Days received their spin-off, Laverne & Shirley. The sitcom eventually became the number one show on television.

In the Seventies Penny Marshall also guest starred on such shows as Getting Together, The Super, The Bob Newhart Show, Banacek, Chico and The Man, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Heavens, Blansky's Beauties (as Laverne), and Mork & Mindy (as Laverne). She appeared in the films How Come Nobody's on Our Side? (1974) and 1941 (1979). She began her directorial career in the late Seventies. She directed the pilot for the short-lived sitcom Working Stiffs, as well as three episodes of Laverne & Shirley.

It was after Laverne & Shirley in 1983 ended its run that Penny Marshall directed her first feature film, Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986). Her next film, Big (1988), would become a major success. It was the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million. She closed the decade with Awakenings (1990), which earned nominations for the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (for Robert De Niro), and Best Adapted Screenplay. She provided the voice of Laverne in the Saturday morning cartoon Laverne & Shirley in the Army and subsequent cartoons. She guest starred on The New Show and The Simpsons. She directed an episode of The Tracey Ullman Show. She appeared in the film Movers & Shakers (1985) had a cameo in the film She's Having a Baby (1988).

In the Nineties Penny Marshall directed what might be her most successful film, A League of Their Own (1992). She also directed the movies Renaissance Man (1994) and The Preacher's Wife (1996). She directed an episode of the short-lived sitcom A League of Their Own, which was based on her movie of the same name. She appeared in the films The Hard Way (1991), Hocus Pocus (1993), Get Shorty (1995), and Special Delivery (1999). On television she reprised her role as Myrna in the reunion movie The Odd Couple: Together Again. She guest starred on the show Nash Bridges.

In the Naughts Miss Marshall directed her final film, Riding in Cars with Boys (2001). She directed episodes of the TV shows According to Jim and The United States of Tara, as well as the TV movie Women Without Men (2010). She guest starred on the shows Frasier, Bones, Entourage, Campus Ladies, and The Game. She appeared in the TV movie Women Without Men. She appeared in the films Stateside (2004), Everybody Wants to Be Italian (2007), Alice Upside Down (2007), and Blonde Ambition (2007).

In the Teens Penny Marshall was the voice of Sylvia Goldenberg on the animated TV series Murder Police. She guest starred on the shows The Life & Times of Tim, Mulaney, and the Teens version of The Odd Couple. She directed an episode of The United States of Tara. She appeared in the films New Year's Eve (2011) and Staten Island Summer (2011). She served as the narrator on the film Mother's Day (2016).

There can be no doubt that Penny Marshall was a major talent. I think it is safe to say that she will always be remembered as Laverne on Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Indeed, the character remains one of the most iconic television characters to emerge in the Seventies. That having said, I will remember her best as Myrna, Oscar Madison's much put-upon secretary, on The Odd Couple, as I am sure many others will as well. Penny Marshall had a gift for creating characters with which the average person could identify. These were women much like people one might know. If Laverne DeFalco and Myrna Turner remain beloved characters, it is because Penny Marshall's talent made them seem real.

Of course, while Penny Marshall was remarkable as an actress, she may have been even more talented as a director. She was a pioneer as a director, her career beginning at a time when very few women occupied the director's chair. Miss Marshall's gift as a director was in creating films with fully realised characters with whom audiences could identify. Even characters in her films that would seen at first glance as if they should be unlikeable, such as alcoholic manager Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) in A League of Their Own, emerge as sympathetic. Indeed, Penny Marshall's films are infused with a humanity that was rare in movies made in the Eighties and Nineties and remains rare today. In Big, Josh ultimately has to stop being an adult, a situation wrought with both sadness and happiness. While none of Penny Marshall's films were tragedies, it was rare that one had a perfectly happy ending. If Penny Marshall paved the way for female directors today, it is because she was so very good as a director herself.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

"The Christmas Song" by Nancy Wilson

Legendary jazz singer Nancy Wilson died on December 13 at the age of 81. Known as "Fancy Miss Nancy", "Sweet Nancy" and "The Girl with the Honey-Coated Voice", she released over sixty albums and numerous singles. She guest starred on nearly every major variety show and talk show on American television, as well a few game shows, and guest starred on such shows as I Spy, Room 222, Hawaii Five-O, Search, The F.B.I., Police Story, and The Parkers, among others. She won numerous awards through the years. Nancy Wilson was known for her warm, rich, sweet voice that was always evocative. Few singers possessed her talent.

In 2001 Nancy Wilson's Christmas album, A Nancy Wilson Christmas, was released. On the album Miss Wilson sang classic Christmas sons from "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to "Christmas Time is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. In honour of Miss Wilson and to kick the holiday season off here at A Shroud of Thoughts, here is her rendition of "The Christmas Song".

Monday, December 17, 2018

Sondra Locke R.I.P.

Sondra Locke, who appeared in such films as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968), Willard (1971), andThe Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), died on November 3 2018 at the age of 74. The cause was a heart attack related to brain and bone cancer.

Sondra Locke was born Sandra Louise Smith in Madison County, Alabama. Her father had left before she was even born. She grew up in Shelbyville, Tennessee. She took the surname "Locke" from her stepfather, Alfred Locke. She attended Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, although she did not graduate from there. Sondra Locke worked for WSM-TV in Nashville for a few years. Miss Locke also did some modelling and acted in community theatre. Eventually she changed the spelling of her name to "Sondra" as she disliked being called "Sandy".

It was in 1967 that she won a nationwide talent search for the role of Mick Kelly in the screen adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. For her role in the film she ultimately received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Her next film was Cover Me Babe (1970).

In the Seventies Sondra Locke appeared in the films Willard (1971), A Reflection of Fear (1972), The Second Coming of Suzanne (1974), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Death Game (1977), The Shadow of Chikara (1977), The Gauntlet (1977),  Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Bronco Billy (1978), and Any Which Way You Can (1980). She made her television debut in a segment of Night Gallery in 1972. She guest starred on the TV shows The F.B.I., Kung Fu, Planet of the Apes, Barnaby Jones, Cannon, and Joe Forrester. She played the title role in the TV movie Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story.

In the Eighties Sondra Locke made her directorial debut with the film Ratboy (1986). The same decade she directed the film Impulse (1990). She appeared in the films Sudden Impact (1983) and Ratoby (1986). She guest starred on the TV shows Tales of the Unexpected and Amazing Stories.

In the Nineties Miss Locke directed the film Trading Favours (1997). She also directed the TV movies Death in Small Doses, which aired in 1995. In 2000 she returned to acting in the films Clean and Narrow (2000) and The Prophet's Game (2000). Her last appearance on film was in the film Ray Meets Helen (2017).

Sondra Locke was certainly a very talented actress. This was obvious from her debut as the classic music-loving Mick in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Over the years she would play a variety of roles, from Willard's friend and assistant Joan in Willard to the mousey daughter of an elderly Kansas settler in The Outlaw Josey Wales to a female vigilante in Sudden Impact. It must be pointed out that Sondra Locke directed feature films at a time when there were even fewer female directors than there are now. While neither her acting nor her directorial careers were very long, she displayed a good deal of talent in those years.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Thelma Ritter, Queen of Wisecracks


When it came to delivering wisecracks, perhaps no one was better than Thelma Ritter. Throughout her career she played a variety of sharp-tongued characters. While Thelma Ritter played characters from maids to millionaires, all of them had one thing in common. Every character she played had an acidic wit that they were not afraid to use. While her film career was not as long as that of some well-known character actors, her talent for wisecracks has insured that she has remained one of the most popular.

Thelma Ritter was born on February 14 1902 in Brooklyn, New York. She started acting while she was only in her teens, appearing with various stock companies. After high school Miss Ritter received formal training in acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her career would not be an overnight success by any stretch of the imagination. She would not make her debut on Broadway until 1926 when she appeared in The Shelf. She would not appear on Broadway again until 1931, when she appeared in In Times Square

In 1927 she married actor Joe Moran. During the Depression they worked primarily in Vaudeville and small theatres. Unfortunately, as the Depression continued, it became harder and harder to find work. Eventually Miss Ritter left the stage to raise their two children. Joe Moran gave up acting entirely to become an agent. Still later he would go into advertising.

Fortunately for movie goers everywhere, Thelma Ritter eventually returned to acting. Initially this was in radio. In the late Thirties she appeared on such radio shows as Big Town, The Aldrich Family, and Mr. District Attorney. The Forties would see Thelma Ritter with a very busy career in radio. She appeared in several episodes of the radio shows Over Here, Treasury Star Parade, and The Theatre Guild of the Air. Her radio career would continue into the Fifties, when she appeared several times on Lux Radio Theatre.

Of course, like many radio actors, Thelma Ritter would make the transition to film. Director George Season was one of Thelma Ritter's old family friends. He asked her to play a small, uncredited part in his latest film, Miracle on 34th Street. The part was that of a mother who had been looking for a toy fire engine at the various department stores in New York City, who receives assistance from Kris Kringle as Macy's Santa. While the role was not a particularly big one, it was memorable. In fact, after seeing her in the film, 20 Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck placed Miss Ritter under contract. 

It would not be long before Thelma Ritter's film career would take off. In A Letter to Three Wives (1949) she once more appeared in an uncredited role, although one with more screen time. She played the Phipps' tart-tongued servant Sadie, whose favourite pastimes are drinking beer and playing cards. Miss Ritter made an impression on A Letter to Three Wives director Joseph Mankiewicz, who would cast her in his film All About Eve (1950).  In the film she played Birdie, the maid to Broadway star Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis). Like most of Thelma Ritter's characters, Birdie has a sharp tongue. Birdie is also sharp witted. Of the characters, it is Birdie who realises Eve's true nature from the very beginning. For the part Thelma Ritter would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

The Oscar nomination Thelma received for All About Eve would hardly be her last. In fact, she proved to be a favourite with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the early Fifties. Thelma Ritter followed All About Eve immediately with The Mating Season (1951). In the film Miss Ritter played Ellen McNulty, a former hamburger stand operator whose son has married a socialite. Due to some confusion on the part of daughter-in-law Maggie (played by Gene Tierney), Ellen finds herself masquerading as a servant in order to better get to know her in-laws. For her role in the film Thelma Ritter would receive a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. 

Thelma Ritter was  on a bit of a roll with regards to Oscar nominations in the early Fifties. After appearing in As Young as You Feel (1951) and The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951), Thelma Ritter appeared in With a Song in My Heart (1952), for which she received a third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. In the film Thelma Ritter played Clancy, a wisecracking nurse who cares for injured singer Jane Froman (played by Susan Hayward).

Thelma Ritter would receive a fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in as many years for Pickup on South Street (1953).  Both film noir and an espionage thriller, Pickup on South Street was somewhat different from many of the films in which Miss Ritter appeared. What is more, her role is somewhat different from many she had played before as well. She played Moe Williams, ex-pickpocket and police informant (who is not below selling her information to criminals as well). While most of Thelma Ritter's characters had soft hearts beneath their acid tongues, for the most part Moe is an opportunist who looks out primarily for herself. That having been said, even Moe had her limits. Thelma Ritter's performance as Moe numbers among her best, particularly as it is fairly different from most of the roles she played.

After Pickup on South Street, Thelma Ritter would not receive any more Oscar nominations for a few years, although she would play one of her best known roles during that period. In Rear Window (1954) she played the insurance company nurse Stella, who is assigned to take care of photographer "Jeff" Jefferies (played by Jimmy Stewart) as he recovers from a broken leg. Like most of Thelma Ritter's characters, Stella is down-to-earth, plain spoken, and sharp tongued. While she wouldn't receive an Oscar nomination for the role, Stella remains one of the best known and arguably the most quintessential roles Miss Ritter ever played.

It was also during this period that Thelma Ritter began appearing on television. Her television debut would be as a guest on Lux Video Theatre in 1954. Her first actual role on television would be in an episode of The Best of Broadway in 1955. Over the next few years Thelma Ritter guest appeared on such shows as Goodyear Television Playhouse, Philco Television Playhouse, The 20th Century Fox Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The United States Steel Hour. In 1957 she returned to Broadway in the musical New Girl in Town

Of course, Thelma Ritter continued to appear in films. In addition to Rear Window, she also appeared in the movies Daddy Long Legs (1955), Lucy Gallant (1955), The Proud and Profane (1956), and A Hole in the Head (1959). It was her movie following A Hole in the Head for which she would receive her next Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Thelma Ritter played Alma, the alcoholic housekeeper of interior decorator Jan Morrow. Not only does Alma hit the bottle a bit too much, but she is also earthy and possessed of a great deal of common sense. It seems quite possible that Alma is Thelma Ritter's most famous character, with the possible exceptions of Birdie in All About Eve and Stella in Rear Window.

Thelma Ritter would follow Pillow Talk with a very different role in a very different movie. She played Isabelle Steers in The Misfits (1960), best known as the final film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. As might be expected, Isabelle makes her share of wisecracks and has a wry sense of humour. She is also gutsy and possesses a bit of a self-destructive streak. Indeed, she has been married multiple times. 

Thelma Ritter's sixth and final Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role would be for Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). In the film Thelma Ritter played a very different sort of role from those she was best known for. She played Elizabeth McCartney Stroud, the mother of prisoner Robert Stroud (played by Burt Lancaster). Mrs. Stroud is fiercely devoted to her son, to the point that she is overprotective of him. To a large degree Mrs. Stroud is a one-note character until later in the film, which makes it surprising that Miss Ritter was nominated for the role when she had played much better ones for which she was not nominated (The Misfits being an example). Regardless, Thelma Ritter is always entertaining and she makes the most of the role.  Sadly, along with Deborah Kerr and Glenn Close, Thelma Ritter holds the record for being the most nominated actress for an award in an acting category without a win.

Over the next few years Thelma Ritter would appear in several more notable films. In How the West Was Won (1963) she played Agatha Clegg, a woman travelling on a wagon train and looking for a husband. In For Love or Money (1963) she played millionaire Chloe Brasher, who hires a matchmaker for her three daughters. In Move Over, Darling (1963), she played Grace Arden, the mother of Nick Arden (played by James Garner), who remarried after his first wife (played by Doris Day) has been lost at sea only to turn up alive. Boeing, Boeing (1965) saw Thelma Ritter playing another housekeeper, this time Bertha, who must help her employer, journalist Bernard Lawrence (played by Tony Curtis), juggle his various girlfriends. 

While Thelma Ritter continued to appear in movies throughout the Sixties and would even return one last time to Broadway in the production UTBU in 1966, she would only make two appearances in dramatic TV shows during the decade. She guest starred on the obscure Western Frontier Circus in 1961. Her last ever appearance in a dramatic television show was playing fortune teller Madame Delphine Sagittarius on an episode of Wagon Train in 1962.

Thelma Ritter's last appearance in a feature film would be a cameo in What's So Bad About Feeling Good in 1968. She made her last appearance on television on January 23 1968 on The Jerry Lewis Show. It was only a little over a year later, on February 5 1969, that Thelma Ritter died from a heart attack at age 66.

While Thelma Ritter continues to be known for wisecracking characters, it must be pointed out that there was still a good deal of variety in those characters. While most of Thelma Ritter's characters were very intelligent, in Perfect Strangers (1950) she played scatterbrained juror Lena Fassler. In The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951), she played matchmaker Mae Swasey who, unlike many of her characters, is primarily motivated by money. She played Maude Young (essentially a fictional version of Molly Brown) in Titanic (1953). Over the years Thelma Ritter played everything from secretaries to a rancher to a millionaire, and while they all uttered wisecracks, their personalities could vary. What is more, while Thelma Ritter is probably best known for her work in comedy, she was equally adept at drama. After all, two of her best performances are in Pickup on South Street and The Misfits. While at 21 years Thelma's Ritter's film career was much shorter than those of many character actors, she remains well remembered and beloved because she was so very good.