Thursday, July 7, 2011

Vivien Leigh's Last Stand: Ship of Fools (1965)

In most people's minds the career of Vivien Leigh was dominated by two roles: that of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and that of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). This is sad as it ignores the great performances she gave in other films, including Waterloo Bridge (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941). Among these often ignored performances is Vivien Leigh's swan song in the movie Ship of Fools (1965). Miss Leigh does not play the lead and, in fact, her character is just one of many in an ensemble cast, but it is notable for more than being her final appearance on film nonetheless.

Ship of Fools was based on the novel of the same name by Katherine Anne Porter. Although published in 1962 Miss Porter had actually began work on Ship of Fools in 1940. It was based on a journal she had kept while travelling aboard a ship from Vercruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany in 1931. The title itself stems from the medieval satire Das Narrenschif (literally "The Ship of Fools"), written by Sebastian Brant. The novel, much like the film which would be based upon it, dealt with passengers aboard a ship travelling from Mexico to Germany in 1933 and their disappointments in life.  While Ship of Fools received mixed reviews, it was a best selling novel in 1962.

Quite naturally the book's sales made Hollywood anxious to adapt it as a film. No less than David O. Selznick wanted the film rights to the novel. In the end it would be United Artists who would win the bidding war over the bestseller, purchasing the film rights for $400,000. Director Stanley Kramer and writer Abby Mann, who had worked together on Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) , were given the task of bringing Ship of Fools to the screen. The movie version of Ship of Fools left out a good deal of what was in the book, but at the same time it remained faithful to the spirit of the novel. Like the book, the movie Ship of Fools (1965) followed the stories of several characters, their disappointments in life, and their fears and hopes for the future. The central story in the film concerned the ship's physician, Dr, Schumann (Oskar Werner), who becomes involved with a Spanish countess (Simone Signoret) who is addicted to drugs and being transported to a German prison.

As to the role Vivien Leigh plays in Ship of Fools, it is that of Mary Treadwell, an ageing Southern belle and recent divorcee who refuses to let go of her youth. In some respects, given the similarities to both Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois, it would seem as if the part of Mrs. Treadwell was written for Vivien Leigh. Hard as it might be to believe, there are reports that it was Katharine Hepburn whom Stanley Kramer had originally wanted to cast as Mrs. Treadwell. Ultimately Miss Hepburn did not get the role because she insisted Mr. Kramer cast Spencer Tracy in the role of the ship's doctor, a role for which Mr. Kramer thought Mr. Tracy was much too old. This may have been for the best, as I have to wonder if Miss Hepburn could have convincingly played any Southern belle. She was unconvincing as Violet Venable in the movie version of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and even less convincing as Amanda in a television adaptation of The Glass Menagerie. While a great actress, playing Southerners may have been beyond Miss Hepburn.

This was certainly not the case with Vivien Leigh, whose two most notable roles to this day are Southern belles. Indeed, as stated above, there are similarities between the characters of Scarlett O'Hara, Blanche DuBois, and Mary Treadwell beyond being Southern belles. All three are women of extremes, capable of playing the coquette or the grand dame at will. Indeed, looking at the character superficially one might think Mrs. Treadwell was simply a combination of past characters played by Miss Leigh.  Like Scarlett O'Hara there is a haughtiness about Mary Treadwell.  Like Blanche DuBois she is nearly phobic about sex. Like Karen Stone in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), she is nearly desperate at the thought of losing her youth.

That having been said, Mary Treadwell is not a mere compilation of the various characters played by Vivien Leigh over the years. Indeed, in many ways Mrs. Treadwell is an even darker character than any Miss Leigh had ever played, except possibly for Blanche DuBois. Throughout most of the film Mrs. Treadwell is drunk and mourning her fading beauty. Even given her alcohol intake, she takes sleeping pills when she goes to bed.  In many respects Mrs. Treadwell is bundle of contradictions. Worried that she is already old, while in the ship's companionway she breaks into the Charleston. While still clinging to her fading youth, Mrs. Treadwell sits in her cabin and looks in the mirror, putting on heavy make in a mockery of her former youth. Unlike many of Vivien Leigh's past characters, there was a rage and even real violence within Mrs. Treadwell. The source of her rage may not simply have been the loss of her youth and beauty, but her marriage as well. Mrs. Treadwell had been married to a wealthy man with wandering eyes. Divorced, she has his money, but no one to spend it with, and the beauty with which she could once draw men is slowly fading.

Vivien Leigh's performance in Ship of Fools numbers among her best, an impressive feat given the state of her mental and physical health at the time. Miss Leigh suffered from what was then called manic depression and what would now be called biploar I disorder. While working on the film Miss Leigh's mental state worsened. She would hallucinate at times. Her behaviour worsened. She would even insult the other actors. Fortunately the experienced members of the cast understood Miss Leigh was ill and overlooked such sleights. In fact, both Simone Signoret and Lee Marvin would become friends with Vivien Leigh. Unfortunately one young actress whom Vivien Leigh insulted did not understand and continued to protest even after it was explained to her that Miss Leigh was ill. Here it must be pointed out that Vivien Leigh was physically frail as well as mentally. In 1944 she had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, the disease which would ultimately take her life in 1967. That Vivien Leigh could give a bravura performance even as her mental and physical health were failing is nothing short of impressive.

Of course, Miss Leigh's performance is simply one of many in an ensemble. And by no means was Miss Leigh's performance the only impressive one. Oskar Werner as the ship's doctor and Simone Signoret as La Condesa also gave great performances, and both were nominated for Oscars for their roles. Perhaps the best performance was given by Michael Dunn (best known as Dr. Loveless on The Wild Wild West) as Glocken, who acts as the film's narrator and Greek chorus. He would also be nominated for an Oscar.

Beyond its performances, Ship of Fools is perhaps best described as a flawed masterpiece. While on the surface it might seem to be "Grand Hotel on a ship," it is actually much more substantive than the old melodrama. Indeed, Ship of Fools is at it most basic an examination of the mounting threat of Nazism using the microcosm of a ship. Because of this the film manifests what may be its biggest flaw--the heavy handed approach seen in many of director Stanley Kramer's early films. While it is obvious that the primary thrust of Mr. Kramer with this film was an examination of ethnic, religious, and political issues. That having been said, Ship of Fools is at its best dealing with the "smaller" concerns of human beings: Mrs. Treadwell's refusal to let go of her youth; washed up baseball player Bill Tenny (Lee Marvin) and the mess that has become his life; Dr. Schumann and his romance with La Condesa; and so on. Buoyed by these stories of the more commonplace concerns of humanity and the great performances that come with them, Ship of Fools did what many of Stanley Kramer's movies could not--it overcame the heavy handiness to become an entertaining film of some depth.

Watching Ship of Fools today, it is hard to believe that it is Vivien Leigh's last film. Although the character of Miss Treadwell is lamenting her passing youth and the beauty that came with it, Vivien Leigh's beauty in this film is still very much intact. What is more, she gives one of her most powerful performances. As Mrs. Treadwell, Miss Leigh proved that even in a supporting role she could deliver great work. Indeed, I must confess that when I think of Vivien Leigh's best performances, it is not simply her roles as Scarlett and Blanche that come to mind. Her role as Mary Treadwell in Ship of Fools comes to mind as well.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Anna Massey Passes On

Anna Massey, who appeared in films from Peeping Tom (1960) to The Oxford Murders (2008), passed on 3 July 2011 at the age of 73. The cause was cancer.

Ann Massey was born on 11 August 1937 in Thakeham, West Sussex. Her father was famous, Canadian actor Raymond Massey. Her mother was British actress  Adrianne Allen. In 1955 Miss Massey made her début on stage at the Theatre Royal in Brighton in The Reluctant Débutante. She would make her début on the West End in the same role in the same play and received immediate acclaim. When she appeared on the play on Broadway in 1956, she received a Tony nomination.

Anna Massey made her film début in Gideon's Day in 1958. It was in 1960 that she would appear in what is now one of her most famous roles, as the innocent and naive Helen in Michael Powell's classic Peeping Tom (1960).  Sadly, although she gave one of the best performances of her career, Miss Massey would not receive any acclaim for her role in the film, which proved to be one of the most controversial in the history of British film. Her next film would not be until 1963, when she appeared in Le voyage à Biarritz (1963). For the remainder of the Sixties she appeared in such films as Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), De Sade (1969) and The Looking Glass War (1969). On television she was the storyteller on Jackanory and appeared on such shows as Armchair Theatre and W. Somerset Maugham.

The Seventies saw Anna Massey's career move primarily towards television. She was a regular on The Pallisers, Couples, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. She guest starred on the shows Love Story, Dead of Night, Hazell, and Tales of the Unexpected. With regards to film, she appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), as well as such films as The Vault of Horror (1973), A Doll's House (1973), A Little Romance (1979), and Sweet William (1980).  In teh Eighties Miss Massey was a regular on the mini-series Mansfield Park and Around the World in 80 Days. She appeared in several telefilms, including Anna Karenina, The Christmas Tree, and Season's Greetings. She appeared in such films as Five Days One Summer (1982), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), Another Country (1984), The Chain (1984), Sacred Hearts (1985), and Mountains of the Moon (1990).

In the Nineties Anna Massey appeared in such films as Impromptu (1991), Emily's Ghost (1992), Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets (1995), Driftwood (1997),  and Captain Jack (1999). She was a regular on the series The Diamond Brothers and Nice Day at the Office. She appeared on the shows Inspector Morse, Chillers, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and A Skirt Through History. In the Naughts she in the shows Nash Bridges, Dark Blue World, Inspector Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Poirot, and Moving On. She appeared in the movies Dark Blue World (2001), The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), Possession (2002), The Machinist (2004), Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (2005), and The Oxford Murders (2008).

Many actors have said "Acting is in my blood," but in the case of Anna Massey this was literally true. Her parents were both actors and her brother Daniel went into acting as well. Whether Miss Massey inherited her talent or came by some other way, she exhibited a great deal of talent early in her career. After all, Peeping Tom was only her second film, yet in it she gave an impressive performance of which more experienced actresses may not have been capable. What is more, Miss Massey was capable of playing a wide variety of roles. She played a barmaid in Frenzy, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the television mini-series Pinochet in Suburbia, and the comedic nanny Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, and did each role very well. Few actresses possessed the depth and breadth of talent which Anna Massey was able to bring to roles.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy July 4th 2011!

Happy 4th of July to my fellow Americans! Here, for your enjoyment are some vintage pinups fitting the day!

First up is actress Piper Laurie ringing in Independence Day!

Next up is gorgeous actress and dancer Ann Miler, who's ready with some fireworks.

Next is model and one time Paramount starlet Nancy Porter, who looks much better than Slim Pickens riding a rocket.

Finally here's the beautiful Ava Gardner. Don't worry about Ava. She won't be hurt. She's much hotter than that firecracker!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Television Show Marathons

Here in the United States tomorrow is the 4th of July, also known here as "Independence Day." For most of us this means fireworks and such foods as fried chicken, watermelon, and other summertime treats. It also means that various television stations and cable channels will air marathons of television shows. That is, they will show episodes of a series one after another.  Since the Eighties, television show marathons have become a tradition on American television, not only on the 4th of July, but on other holidays as well.

Indeed, it is difficult to say where and when the very first television show marathon took place, but it may have been on Thanksgiving Day in 1980 at Los Angeles television station KTLA. That day the station aired back to back episodes of the classic anthology series The Twilight Zone. KTLA's Twilight Zone marathon would meet with such success that they would air marathons not only of The Twilight Zone, but other shows as well. KTLA's success with television show marathons would not go unnoticed by other stations, who soon held marathons of their own. Among the early television show marathons would be a twenty six hour Star Trek marathon on Connecticut station WTXX in November 1982 and a Leave It to Beaver marathon on KXLI in Minnesota. With such television show marathons meeting with success on local stations around the country, it was not long before cable channels began holding their own marathons. In October 1985 TBS (then still called WTBS) held a small Andy Griffith Show marathon in celebration of that show's 25th anniversary. Premium channel Showtime held a marathon of The Honeymooners in August 1985.

Indeed, one early marathon on a cable channel would prove historic for the impact it would have on pop culture. Starting on 23 February 1986 MTV (which still showed music videos at the time....) aired 45 episodes of The Monkees back to back. Not only would MTV start airing The Monkees regularly, but the marathon sparked a fad which revived interest in both the sitcom and the rock group. The Monkees (except for Michael Nesmith reunited for a tour, while TV stations around the country picked up The Monkees.

In the Eighties television show marathons were relatively uncommon. Much like KTLA's early Twilight Zone marathon, they were generally held on holidays such as Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, or New Year's Eve. Television show marathons would come to be shown on other occasions as well. Often a TV station or cable channel would air a marathon of a series to celebrate its début on that station or channel. The historic MTV Monkees marathon is an example of this--it was held to celebrate The Monkees coming to MTV.  Marathons were also held to celebrate a special occasion or the passing of one of a show's cast members. WTBS' held its short Andy Griffith Show marathon in 1985 to celebrate the show's anniversary. In 2006 TV Land held an Andy Griffith Show marathon to honour Don Knotts, who had just passed. Marathons would also come to be used as a means of counter-programming against such events as the Super Bowl or the Oscars.

Television show marathons occurred with much more frequency in the Nineties than they had in the Eighties. By the Naughts they had become outright common place, particularly on cable channels such as TNT, the USA Network, BBC America, and documentary channels such as History International and Animal Planet. It is not unusual for these cable channels to schedule marathons of particular shows on Saturdays or Sundays (in fact, I swear the USA Network has a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit marathon every other weekend) that often last all day. What is more, the television show marathon has seen the an offshoot in what can only be called a marathon programming block. These are regularly scheduled blocks of a certain programme that run anywhere from three to even ten hours a day. TNT, the USA Network, TV Land, and several other cable channels have made a regular practice of marathon programming blocks (I addressed this phenomenon way back in 2007 with regards to the show Law and Order).

While television show marathons are now rather commonplace and marathon programming blocks can be seen on many cable channels, many television show marathons remain special events. Indeed, some have become traditions. Starting in 1995 the Sci-Fi Channel (since rebranded "SyFy"--yes, I think it's silly too) has aired a Twilight Zone marathon to coincide with the Fourth of July. Last year when SyFy did not air the marathon for some odd reason, fans were so outraged that they boycotted the channel with an event held on Facebook and other social networking sites called "Hold Your Own Twilight Zone marathon." Apparently enough fans watched their old Twilight Zone DVDs and Twilight Zone episodes on outlets from CBS to YouTube, that SyFy decided they should hold the marathon this year....

In the thirty years since they were first introduced, marathons have become a regular part of the broadcasting landscape. In fact they have become so common that in many ways they no longer feel like special events. Regardless, audiences do still look forward to marathons of their favourite shows at holidays. As pointed out above, last year when SyFy did not show a marathon of The Twilight Zone many viewers were outraged. There can be little doubt that they will continue to be a part of television programming for many years to come.