Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mel Stuart Passes On

Documentary and feature film director Mel Stuart died on 9 August 2012 at the age of 83. He is perhaps best known for the documentary The Making of the President (1963) and the feature film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Mel Stuart was born Stuart Solomon on 2 September 1928 in New York City. He studied music at New York University with the goal of becoming a composer. It was not long after graduation that he decided to become a documentary director. His first work in film was as an assistant to director Mary Ellen Bute in 1954. Later in the decade he went to work for CBS as a researcher for the network's documentary programme The 20th Century. It was in 1959 that he became part of David L. Wolper's  production company as a documentary director. He received his first directorial credit on the TV documentary The Rafer Johnson Story (1961), which centred on the Olympics star. Over the next few years he directed an episode of Biography and documentaries on D-Day and Willie Davis. It was in 1963 that The Making of the President was released, making Mel Stuart a name in the documentary field. The film won Emmys for both Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Documentary Programme and Programme of the Year.

For the remainder of the Sixties he would direct some of the most acclaimed documentaries in television and film. Among his documentaries were Four Days in November (1964), Wall Street: Where the Money Is (1966), A Nation of Immigrants (1967), and Sophia: A Self-Portrait (1968).  It was in 1969 that he broke into feature films with the comedy If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969).  Another feature film directed by Mel Stuart, the comedy I Love My Wife, was released in 1970.

It was in 1971 that the film for which he was best known, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, was released. A musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the film received good reviews from critics, but it did not do particularly well at the box office. It would eventually attain cult status after repeated broadcasts on television and is now regarded as a classic. For the remainder of the Seventies, Mel Stuart would direct the documentaries Wattstax (1973), Up From the Ape (1974), and Life Goes to the Movies (1976), as well as the feature films Two Is a Happy Number (1972) and Mean Dog Blues (1978), the TV movies Brenda Starr (1976) (TV), Ruby and Oswald (1978), The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal (1979), and episodes of Welcome Back Kotter and The Chisholms.

In the Eighties Mel Stuart directed the feature film The White Lions (1981), the documentaries Happy Anniversary 007: 25 Years of James Bond (1987),  and With Peter Beard in Africa: Last Word from Paradise (1988), as well as an episode of Casablanca. In the Nineties Mr. Stuart directed "Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant Garde" and "Billy Wilder: The Human Comedy" for the PBS documentary series American Masters. In the Naughts he directed the documentaries BBC: A Window on the World (2001), Anthony Hecht: The Poet's View (2001), Seeing Stars... with Hy Gardner (2001), Still Perfect: 20 Unforgettable Photographs (2002), John Ashbery: The Poet's View (2003), W. S. Merwin: The Poet's View (2003), Call of the Wild: Sex in the Animal Kingdom (2003), Louise Glück: The Poet's View (2004), and The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005).

Today Mel Stuart is best known as the director of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and it seems many of the headlines announcing his death described him as such, but in truth he should perhaps be remembered as a documentarian. Mr. Stuart's documentaries were always well made and very informative, relaying a good deal of information in a relatively small space of time. In fact, he may have made possibly the best documentary ever to deal with American presidential elections, The Making of the President, based on Theodore White's book of the same name. Of course, Mel Stuart did direct feature films and he was very good at those too. If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium remains one of my favourite comedies from the late Sixties and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is an unabashed classic, one of the best musicals ever made. Mel Stuart was the consummate filmmaker, a man who could make documentaries and features with equal skill.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Why Norma Shearer is Signficant

It was 110 years ago today, on 10 August 1902, that actress Norma Shearer was born. Today her name is probably recognisable only to classic film buffs and people over a certain age, but the fact is that in the long run Norma Shearer may have been more significant than many of her fellow actors of the Silent Era and the days of the early talkies.

Indeed, Norma Shearer was one of those stars whose career spanned the Silent Era and the Golden Age of the Hollywood Talkie. Her first film role came with a bit part in 1919 in The Star Boarder. With He Who Gets Slapped in 1924 she became one of MGM's biggest stars. While a few stars of the Silent Era saw their careers end with the advent of talkies, Norma Shearer continued to be a major box office attraction. In fact, throughout the Thirties she continued to be one of MGM's major stars. From 1932 to 1935 Miss Shearer ranked in the Quigley's poll of the top box office stars three years in a row. She retired in 1942 after the failure of We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover at the box office. We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover were perhaps the first Norma Sheaerer movies to fail in years, so that over all she had a much more successful career than many more well known actors today.

Now it is a myth that many stars saw their careers either end or go into decline with the advent of talkies. And some might argue that the fact that Norma Shearer maintained her stardom after sound came to the movies is not that important, especially as there were other actors who also maintained their stardom or even became bigger stars (a prime example is Joan Crawford). That having been said, there were a few stars of the Silent Era, some of whom are better known names than Norma Shearer is now, who did not maintain their stardom following the advent of sound. There is perhaps no better example than Mary Pickford, arguably the biggest star of the Silent Era. Mary Pickford spent much of her career playing ingénues--young women if not outright little girls. In 1929 she attempted a more mature role in Coquette. While the film would earn her a Best Actress Award at the Oscars, it was not accepted by the public. Her next film, The Taming of the Shrew, bombed at the box office. With her movie going public refusing to accept her in more sophisticated roles and not being particularly fond of sound in film, Mary Pickford retired from acting in 1933.

Like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow is a better known name today than Norma Shearer, yet her stardom did not last very long into the era of the talkies either. Contrary to popular belief, it was neither Miss Bow's voice nor her Brooklyn accent that ended her career. Neither her fans nor Paramount had any objections to the quality of her voice. In fact, as of 1931 the  "It" Girl was still a top box office star. Instead Clara Bow's career ended due to a combination of personal crisis and a dislike of sound films. In 1931 she was beset by various scandals, including a court trial in which her former secretary, Daisy Devoe, was charged with stealing personal records and then blackmailing her. These scandals nearly drove Miss Bow to a nervous breakdown. As it was, she was not particularly fond of the talkies. She said in an interview published in The Motion Picture Classic, September 1930, "I hate talkies, they're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me." Not particularly fond of talkies and with the stress of Hollywood stardom affecting her health, Clara Bow retired in 1933 after the success of her last two movies,  Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-La (1933).

While there were other actors who would maintain their stardom into the Talkie Era, then, there were those major stars who did not. The fact that Norma Shearer had a very successful career after the advent of sound film then makes her very significant. While she may not be a household name today, she maintained a career long after the advent of the talkies, something which neither Mary Pickford nor Clara Bow managed to do. In fact, it can be argued that Norma Shearer's career actually came into its own with the talkies.

Indeed, Norma Shearer accomplished something that Mary Pickford never did--she made dramatic shifts in the sort of roles she played throughout her career. During the Silent Era, Miss Shearer was generally cast as the "girl next door." Her breakthrough role in He Who Gets Slapped is to a large degree typical of her early roles. She played Consuelo, the beautiful horseback rider who becomes the love object of former scientist and circus clown Paul (Lon Chaney) and fellow horseback rider Bezano (John Gilbert). She played a similar role in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), that of Kathi, the love interest of Crown Prince Karl Heinrich (Ramón Novarro).  With the coming of the talkies and the advent of the Pre-Code Era, however, Norma Shearer's career would make a dramatic shift.

In most respects Miss Shearer's image in her early sound films was a continuation of her image during the Silent Era. In The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929) and Their Own Desire (1929) she played the same sort of "good girl" roles for which she was known. Even though all three movies were very successful, Norma Shearer worried that audiences might tire of her and thought perhaps she should change her image. Photographer George Hurrell took a number of photographs of Miss Shearer in a more erotic light that convinced producer and husband Irving Thalberg to cast her in The Divorcee (1930), one of the early, sexually suggestive, pre-Code films. Not only was The Divorcee a success, but Norma Shearer won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the film.

The Divorcee marked a complete turnaround in the sort of roles Norma Shearer played. No longer did Miss Shearer play the girl next door, but instead a modern, sexually liberated woman. She would play such roles in Let's Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul (1931), Private Lives (1931) and Riptide (1934). All of the films did very well at the box office, and she would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for A Free Soul. In the end Norma Shearer's pre-Code films would make her one of MGM's biggest stars, alongside Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. It would be a position she would maintain for the rest of the decade.

Norma Shearer's transformation from an actress who played the girl next door to an actress who played sexually liberated women is significant for more than its effect on her career. Norma Shearer was one of the very first actresses who played women who were in control of their own sex lives, who did not worry about what others might think of them, and who were largely in charge of their own destinies. Never mind that her pre-Code films were more sexually mature than many films released in the Silent Era, they were also among the earliest examples of independent women in American film. Indeed, it would seem that in many respects Norma Shearer should be a feminist icon.

Of course, during the Pre-Code Era, Norma Shearer did not only appear in racy comedies. In 1932 she appeared in the romantic drama Strange Interlude, set during World War I. The film would point to the next phase of Norma Shearer's career. In 1934 strict enforcement of the Production Code began, seriously restricting what could be said and shown on screen. This meant an end to the sort of racy comedies for which Norma Shearer had become known. It was then that Miss Shearer once more made a change in her career as she began appearing in "serious" films and period pieces. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), which centred on the romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) and Robert Browning (Fredric March), proved to be one of the most successful films of her career. Thereafter Miss Shearer appeared in several period pieces, including Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Marie Antoinette (1938). She was among the actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), although she was not interested in the role at all, going so far as to joke that she would rather play Rhett Butler. Miss Shearer would also appear in both classics The Women (1939) and Escape (1940).

In the end Norma Shearer was not only one of the most successful stars of the Twenties and Thirties, but she was also a pioneer, having played some of the earliest independent, sexually liberated women on screen. Some might attribute much of Norma Shearer's success to her marriage to Irving Thalberg, producer and vice president in charge of production at MGM. And there were those in the Thirties who certainly thought so. Joan Crawford, one of her rivals at MGM, once complained, "How can I compete with Norma when she's sleeping with the boss?" Certainly, her marriage to Irving Thalberg did have an impact on Norma Shearer's career. After all, it was due to Mr. Thalberg that she was cast in her breakthrough role in The Divorcee. That having been said, one should perhaps not overestimate the impact of Irving Thalberg on Norma Shearer's career. After all, Mary Pickford was not only married to a powerful film producer (Douglas Fairbanks), but was a powerful film producer and studio executive (at United Artists) herself, yet she failed to expand beyond the ingénue roles she had always played and did not last long in the Sound Era. If Irving Thalberg had not been a part of Norma Shearer's life, then it seems likely that she would have still had a sterling career.

Norma Shearer may not be a household name today, but there is every reason she should be. Her career spanned the Silent Era and the Sound Era, and she was a star during both. She successfully changed the sort of roles she played, not once but twice. Initially playing the girl next door, she switched to playing sexually liberated women and then to playing in period pieces and prestige pictures. She was a pioneer as an actress in that she was one of the first actresses to play sexually liberated women on screen. Her Pre-Code comedies were sophisticated and seem starkly modern in their honest approach to love and sex. While today Norma Shearer may not be as well known as Clara Bow or Joan Crawford, then, there is every reason she should be.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Please Please Me" by The Beatles

Tonight I am still exhausted from having done three eulogies all  at once (Marvin Hamlisch, R. G. Armstrong, and Norman Alden in yesterday's post), so tonight I will leave you with a song. It was tomorrow in 1964 that The Beatles re-released four singles in the United States: "Do You Want To Know A Secret," "Please, Please Me," "Love Me Do," and 'Twist And Shout." Needless to say, with Beatlemania at its height in the United States, these singles performed much better on the Billboard chart than they had when they were initially released.

Of these singles, I believe the most significant to be "Please Please Me." It was the second single ever released by The Beatles and their first huge hit in the United Kingdom ("Love Me Do" did well, but was not a megahit). I also believe it is also the earliest example of a power pop--electric guitar driven music combined with Everly Brothers style harmonies. "Please Please Me" is then historic on multiple levels. This is footage from their historic February 1964 convert in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Marvin Hamlisch, R. G. Armstrong, & Norman Alden R.I.P.

Marvin Hamlisch

Composer Marvin Hamlisch, who composed the scores for several movies and Broadway shows, died 6 August 2012 at the age of 68.

Marvin Hamlisch was born in New York City on 2 June 1944. His father was both an accordionist and a band leader. Marvin Hamlisch was a child prodigy, picking up music at a very early age. He was not quite seven years old when he was accepted into what is now called the Juilliard School Pre-College Division. He attended Queens College.

Mr. Hamlisch was only a teenager when he began selling songs he had written. It was in 1965, when he was 21, that he had his first hit--"Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows," performed by Leslie Gore. It was in 1967 that he first worked on Broadway, handling the vocal arrangements for the musical Funny Girl. Marvin Hamlisch would work frequently on Broadway. Over the years he composed music for such productions as Golden Rainbow (1968), Minnie's Boys (1970), They're Playing Our Song (1979), Smile (1986), Blithe Spirit (1987), The Goodbye Girl (1993), and Imaginary Friends (2002). By far the most successful Broadway production on which he worked was A Chorus Line. The original production debuted on Broadway in 1975 and ran for 6,137 performances. It has since seen several revivals as well as a motion picture adaptation.

Marvin Hamlisch also worked in motion pictures. In 1968 Mr. Hamlsich received credit for The Swimmer. He would go onto compose music for such movies as Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), The World's Greatest Athlete (1973), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Starting Over (1979), Chapter Two (1979), I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982), 3 Men and a Baby (1987), The January Man (1989), Frankie and Johnny (1991), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), and The Informant (2009). He adapted period music for The Sting (1973). He also worked in television, composing music for Calucci's Department, Doc Elliot, Beacon Hill, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

I have to say that with regards to Marvin Hamlisch's songs, there have been those I love and those I loathe. "Nobody Does It Better" is one of my favourite James Bond themes (it was used in The Spy Who Loved Me) and I liked the songs he wrote for Leslie Gore and the songs he wrote for A Chorus Line. On the other hand, I can not listen to anything he did with Barbara Streisand at all. That having been said, I do think he was a great composer of instrumental music. He composed some of my favourite film scores, including Starting Over. He was also a great arranger and I thought the work he did on The Sting with existing music was quite good. There can be no doubt that he was one of the most prolific and best composers of the late 20th Century and it is certainly sad that he died relatively young.

R. G. Armstrong

Character actor R. G. Amstrong died on 27 July 2012 at the age of 95. He was perhaps best known for his many roles in Westerns.

R. G. Armstrong was born on 7 April 1917 in Birmingham, Alabama. He enrolled at Howard College (now Samford University) in Homewood, Alabama, but later switched to the University of North Carolina. It was there that he became interested in acting. One of his classmates was the late Andy Griffith. He later moved to New York City where he studied acting at Actor's Studio. He made his Broadway debut in the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. He would go onto appear in on Broadway in Orpheus Descending (1957), The Miracle Worker (1959), and The Long Dream (1960).

Mr. Armstrong made his film debut in 1954 in Garden of Eden. He made his television debut in an episode of West Point in 1956. In the late Fifties he would go onto appear in such TV shows as Jefferson Drum, Have Gun--Will Travel, The Californians, Bronco, The Rifleman, Black Saddle, Sugarfoot, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Maverick, and Cheyenne. He appeared in the films A Face in the Crowd (1957), From Hell to Texas (1958), Never Love a Stranger (1958), No Name on the Bullet (1959), and The Fugitive Kind (1959).

In the Sixties R. G. Armstrong was a regular on the short lived series T.H.E Cat. He appeared on such shows as The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, The Andy Griffith Show, Frontier Circus, Tales of Wells Fargo, 87th Precinct, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, Laramie, Death Valley Days, The Twilight ZoneRawhide, The Big Valley, Run for Your Life, Bonanza, The Virginian, Daniel BooneGunsmoke, The Invaders, and The Doris Day Show. He appeared in the films Ride the High Country (1962), He Rides Tall (1964), Major Dundee (1965), El Dorado (1966), 80 Steps to Jonah (1969), Tiger by the Tail (1970), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Angels Die Hard (1970), The McMasters (1970), and The Great White Hope (1970). 

In the Seventies R. G. Armstrong appeared in the films J.W. Coop (1971), The Final Comedown (1972), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Cotter (1973), Gentle Savage (1973), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), White Lightning (1973), Running Wild (1973), My Name is Nobody (1973), The Legend of Hillbilly John (1974), Race with the Devil (1975), Stay Hungry (1976), Dixie Dynamite (1976), Mr. Billion (1977), The Car (1977), The Pack (1977), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Texas Detour (1978), Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1979), Fast Charlie... the Moonbeam Rider (1979), and Steel (1979). He appeared on such shows as Hawaii Five-O, Alias Smith and Jones, Hec Ramsey, The Sixth SenseCannon, Marcus Welby M.D., The Manhunter, Police Story, Ellery Queen, Switch, Baretta, Salvage 1, and Charlie's Angels.

In the Eighties Mr. Armstrong appeared in such movies as Evilspeak (1981), Raggedy Man (1981), The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper (1981), Reds (1981), The Beast Within (1982), Hammett (1982), Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Children of the Corn (1984), Red Headed Stranger (1986), Predator (1987), Bulletproof (1988), Trapper County War (1989), and Dick Tracy (1990). He appeared on such shows as Trapper John M.D., Dynasty, Matt Houston, Friday the 13th, Beauty and the Beast, and Matlock.

In the Nineties R. G. Armstrong appeared on such shows as Silk Stalkings, Quantum Leap, L. A. Law, Walker Texas Ranger, Cybill, and Millennium. He appeared in the films Dead Centre (1993), Warlock: The Armageddon (1993), Payback (1995), Invasion of Privacy (1996), and The Man in the Iron Mask (1998). His final appearance on film was in the 2001 movie The Waking

R. G. Armstrong was a prolific and versatile actor. While he is best known for his work in Western movies and TV shows, he played a wide array of roles within the genre. In the films he made with Sam Pekcinpah he appeared as everything from a minister in Major Dundee to a vicious sheriff in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In the many hours of television Westerns in which he appeared Mr. Armstrong played everything from town mayors to outlaws to marshals to military officers. Of course, Mr. Armstrong had a career outside Westerns, everything from horror movies to dramas, in which he also  played a wide array of roles. There can be no doubt that Mr. Armstrong's versatility was much of the reason he was so prolific. He was an actor who could play nearly anything, and as a result he was very much in demand. 

Norman Alden

Character actor and voice artist Norman Alden passed on 27 July 2012 at the age of 87. 

He was born in Fort Worth, Texas on 13 September 1924. During World War II he served in Europe. Following the war he attended Texas Christian University.  Later he began performing stand up comedy and appearing on such radio shows as Suspense and Gunsmoke. He also a DJ for KXOL (now KMNY) in the Dallas/Forth Worth area. He made his first of many guest appearances on television in 1957 in an episode of The Bob Cummings Show. For the remainder of the Fifties he guest starred on such programmes as The 20th Century Fox Hour, Leave It To Beaver, Circus Boy, Goodyear Theatre, Panic, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Yancy Derringer, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Perry Mason, and The Untouchables. From 1959 to 1960 he was a regular on the short lived series Not For Hire. He appeared in the films Hear Me Good (1957), The Power of the Resurrection (1958), and The Walking Target (1960).

In the Sixties Mr. Alden was a regular on both the short lived sitcom Rango and the long running series My Three Sons. He guest starred on such shows as Bronco, The Jack Benny Programme, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (on which he had the recurring role of Johnny Ringo), The Lawless Years, Lawman, Bonanza, Pete and Gladys, 77 Sunset Strip, Cheyenne, Dr.Kildare, The Rifleman, The Dakotas, Combat, My Favourite Martian, The Smothers Brothers Show, Honey West, Batman, The Andy Griffith Show, The Big Valley, Lassie, The Doris Day Show, and Hogan's Heroes. It was in the Sixties that he began providing his voice in animated features and TV shows. In The Sword in the Stone (1963) he provided the voice for Sir Kay. He also appeared in such movies as The Nutty Professor (1963), Bedtime Story (1964), The Patsy (1964), Andy (1965), Red Line 7000 (1965), The Wild Angels (1966), First to Fight (1967), Good Times (1967), The Devil's Brigade (1968), Killers Three (1968), The Great Bank Robbery (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

In the Seventies Norman Alden was a regular on both the Saturday morning show Electra Woman and Dyna Girl and the night time soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. He also provided the voice of Aquaman on Super Friends. He guest starred on such shows as The Mod Squad, Ironside, Kung Fu, Love American Style, Gunsmoke, Planet of the Apes, Mannix, Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco, McMillan & Wife, Quincy M.E., Alice, Welcome Back Kotter, The Rockford Files, and Charlie's Angels. He appeared in such films as Ben (1972), Kansas City Bomber (1972), Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), The Hindenburg (1975), I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977), Semi-Tough (1977), and Borderline (1980).

In the Eighties Mr. Alden guest starred on such shows as Nero Wolfe, Trapper John M.D., The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, Matt Houston, Hill Street Blues, Hunter, Cagney & Lacey, Sledge Hammer!, and Murder She Wrote. He appeared in such films as Victor Victoria (1982), Back to the Future (1985), They Live (1988), and  Cutting Class (1989).  In the Nineties He provided a guest voice for the TV show Rugrats. He appeared in the films Ed Wood (1994) and Patch Adams (1998). In the Naughts he guest starred on the TV shows JAG and Like Family. He appeared in the film K-PAX (2001).

Norman Alden played more than his share of tough guys ranging from cowboys to gangsters to detectives, but  in his long career he proved he was an actor of some range. He played diner owner Lou in Back to the Future and cameraman to the notorious director Ed Wood in the film of the same name. In his one leading role in a major motion picture, Andy, he portrayed the title character, a mentally disabled man who sets out on one last night of fun before his parents commit him to a mental hospital. Not only could Norman Alden play a good number of roles, but he also gave a good performance whether it was the voice of a Saturday morning cartoon, a bit part in a movie, or a major role in a film. He was as convincing as Professor Helfin on Electra Woman and Dyna Girl as he was in Tora! Tora! Tora!  Quite simply, Norman Alden was a consummate professional who never gave less than his all. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

TCM's Summer Under the Stars 2012

If there is one month that Turner Classic Movies' viewers look forward to the most, it is probably August. Quite simply, that is when TCM holds its month long event known as Summer Under the Stars. From 1 August to 31 August TCM devotes the whole of each day to a single star. For example, the entirety of today was devoted to the films of Sidney Poitier. Turner Classic Movies first held Summer Under the Stars in August 2003. It received such a good reception from viewers that it became an annual event.

Indeed, the only TCM event that comes close to rivalling Summer Under the Stars is the 31 Days of Oscar. That having been said, I know that a few viewers (myself included) are not particularly fond of the 31 Days of Oscar because it is the one time of year when TCM sometimes shows several films of more recent vintage and it is a sad fact that winning an Oscar does not necessarily mean a film is actually good (a prime example in my mind is The English Patient). This is not the case with Summer Under the Stars, when the vast majority of films are top notch. It seems to me that for Summer Under the Stars Turner Classic Movies does try to get the very best films any given actor has done for his or her particular day.

As my first example of this, I'll use today's star, Sidney Poitier. Today TCM showed The Blackboard Jungle (1955), A Patch of Blue (1965),  and To Sir With Love (1967), among other films. As another example on 23 August, when TCM honours Gene Kelly, they will show On the Town (1949), Cover Girl (1944), An American in Paris (1951), and Singin' in the Rain (1952). For the most part it is very difficult to argue with the choice of films TCM makes with which to show with regards to any given star.

Of course, there are those anomalies when TCM does not show the best films of any given actor or even those films most identified with an actor. One example of this occurs on 25 August, when TCM honours Tyrone Power. While they are showing such great films as The Razor's Edge (1946) and Captain from Castile (1947), they are not showing The Mark of Zorro (1940) or The Black Swan (1942), two swashbucklers very strongly identified with the star and two of his very best films. Another example of this occurs on 11 August, when TCM honours James Mason. They are showing Lolita (1962), perhaps his most famous film, but they are not showing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) or any of the films he made with Gainsborough Pictures (namely, The Wicked Lady from 1945 and The Man in Grey from 1943). Granted, A Star is Born (1954) is a fantastic film, but it is really more Judy Garland's movie than it is James Mason's film.

While TCM usually shows the very best films of any given actor on their day during Summer Under the Stars, then, there are those exceptions. I suspect that these are the result of the fact that while Time Warner (TCM's parent company) owns the Warner Brothers library, the MGM library prior to 1986,  much of the RKO library, and various other film properties. Time Warner does not own most of the Paramount library (much of which is now owned by Universal Studios), the 20th Century Fox library (most of which is still owned by 20th Century Fox), or the various films produced by the British studios. This might explain why they are not showing The Mark of Zorro or The Black Swan on Tyrone Power's day (both are owned by Fox) or The Wicked Lady or The Man in Grey on James Mason's day (they don't own the rights).

At any rate, that Turner Classic Movies cannot always show the very best movies of any given actor on his or her day during Summer Under the Stars is a minor quibble. They do a marvellous job with the many film libraries they do own. And this year is even more special as they are honouring many actors that have never been honoured during Summer Under the Stars. Toshiro Mifune, Anthony Quinn, Lillian Gish, and, believe it or not, Marilyn Monroe are among the 14 stars being honoured during this Summer of the Stars that have never been honoured before.

Regardless, I have enjoyed this year's Summer Under the Stars so far and it looks like this will be a very good month. Indeed, this month will see TCM show Seven Samurai (1954--my favourite film of all time), North by Northwest (1959--my favourite Hitchcock film), The Apartment (1960--my favourite Billy Wilder film), and several other of my favourite films. Sadly, I do believe my DVR will be working overtime until 31 August.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The 50th Anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's Death

When it comes to movie stars, they do not come much bigger than Marilyn Monroe. Fifty years after her death she still has one of the most recognisable names in the motion picture business. The sheer number of Marilyn Monroe merchandise is staggering, everything from posters to t-shirts to coffee cups to even purses. She is still referenced quite frequently in popular culture. Just last year a film, My Week with Marilyn (centred around the making of one of Marilyn's movies, The Prince and the Showgirl), was released to good box office and some critical buzz, particularly around Michelle Williams' portrayal of the actress. Next year another film about Marilyn Monroe, Blonde, starring Naomi Watts as the troubled star, will be released. Just this year a television series, Smash, debuted. The show centred around a musical based on Marilyn Monroe's life.  Last year she appeared, alongside Grace Kelly, in a commercial for Dior's J'Adore perfume. A Revlon commercial starring Olivia Wilde from this year visually referenced Marilyn Monroe's appearance in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Even high culture is not immune to the charms of Marilyn Monroe. Last year artist Maurice Bennett recreated her image in, of all things, bread. Also last year a new opera based on the star, Anyone Can See I Love You, debuted. The sheer number of books dealing with Marilyn Monroe published each year can be staggering.

It was fifty years ago today, 5 August 1962, that Marilyn Monroe died, and yet in some ways it is as if she never left us. Her name is still recognisable today when many of her contemporaries are known only to classic film buffs. Teenagers might not recognise a picture of Eva Marie Saint when they see one, but they will most certainly recognise Marilyn Monroe. Of course, this begs the question of why Marilyn Monroe has maintained such a high profile fifty years after her death, when many of the stars of the Fifties have been forgotten by the public at large. There is probably no simple answer to this question.

The cynical amongst us might chalk Marilyn's appeal up to her rather curvaceous figure. Marilyn Monroe was certainly blessed with a shape many women might envy, with nearly perfect breasts, rounded hips, and shapely legs. Marilyn Monroe was the definition of "curvy." That having been said, it seems insufficient to explain why she retains her appeal today. Other actresses of the Fifties had equally voluptuous shapes, but have been forgotten by the public at large. Elaine Stewart, Marilyn Maxwell, Mitzi Gaynor, and other actresses had equally fabulous shapes, but one would be hard pressed to find very many under the age of fifty who would recognise their names. Too, while Marilyn Monroe is often counted as a film sex symbol (often the film sex symbol), she is not often listed alongside the great beauties of the screen. It is a rare thing to see Marilyn Monroe listed alongside Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, or Vivien Leigh as among the most beautiful women in the movies. It would seem then that one cannot simply write off Marilyn Monroe's continued appeal as due to her figure.

Indeed, crediting Marilyn Monroe's figure as the source of her fame ignores one simple fact: some of her biggest fans are heterosexual women. Indeed, it seems to me that, unlike such sex symbols as Hedy Lamarr and Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe might boast more female fans than male fans. As an example, my mother's two favourite actresses of all time were Maureen O'Hara and Marilyn Monroe. Since heterosexual women would presumably have little interest in Marilyn's figure, then it must be assumed that the source of much of Marilyn Monroe's appeal must be found elsewhere.

I rather suspect much of the appeal of Marilyn Monroe for both women and men, regardless of their sexual orientation, is that she had a vulnerability about her that is found in only a few other actresses. While Marilyn played a variety of characters on screen, nearly all of them had a vulnerable side, a sensitive part of themselves. While The Girl in The Seven Year Itch served as fuel for Richard Sherman's (Tom Ewell) fantasies, one could not help but think she was as lonely as he was. Sugar Kane, in Some Like It Hot (1959) perhaps the archetypal Marilyn Monroe character, seemed a bit naive and innocent, wholly unaware of and often surprised of her effect on men. Of course, much of the vulnerability Marilyn Monroe projected on screen may have been the result of her many vulnerabilities in life. By her own admission Marilyn was shy and we know from those who knew her that she was insecure. While making The Misfits the woman many regarded as a sex goddess worried that the film's script supervisor, Angela Allen, was having an affair with Marilyn's then husband, playwright Arthur Miller (they weren't). According to photographer and director Lawrence Schiller, author of the book Marilyn and Me, Marilyn Monroe worried that her star may be eclipsed by fellow actress Elizabeth Taylor. On the screen and in real life Marilyn Monroe had a vulnerability about her that made both women and men care about her and perhaps even care for her.

Of course, Marilyn Monroe's vulnerability is probably only part of her appeal. Much of her appeal may be found in what could be her most famous character, Sugar Kane from Some Like It Hot. As noted above, Sugar seems wholly unaware of her sex appeal to men. This seemed to be true of many other of Marilyn Monroe's characters, and perhaps of Marilyn herself as well. The Girl in The Seven Year Itch seems wholly unaware that she is the object of Richard Sherman's fantasies. Beyond thinking (quite erroneously, I might add) that "Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses," Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) seems equally oblivious to her affect on men. It would seem that many of Marilyn Monroe's characters exhibited a sort of innocent sexuality, whereby they were not purposefully seductive and simply attracted men by the sheer power of their appearance and personality. While Marilyn Monroe might appear very sexy to men, then, at the same time she might not be threatening to other women in the way that actresses whose characters exhibited a more open or more aggressive sexuality (such as Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr, and Rita Hayworth) might be. Quite simply, Marilyn Monroe was sexy without being a threat to other women.

In keeping with her innocent sexuality, it must also be noted that many of Marilyn Monroe's characters had a playful side to them. It is little wonder that she was primarily a star of comedies. Marilyn had a gift for comedy and her characters often exhibited a child-like playfulness that many of us might well envy. It is a little wonder that the scene of The Girl standing on the subway grate, her skirt blowing in the air, in The Seven Year Itch remains one of Marilyn Monroe's most iconic images. It seems something that a child might do regardless of gender, something fun and uninhibited. Marilyn Monroe's characters often had a sense of fun and playfulness that those of us in the real world, burdened with the concerns of workaday life, can only envy. It is something with which both women and men can find to like in Marilyn's characters.

Of course, while Marilyn's combination of vulnerability and innocent sexuality might explain much of her lasting appeal, her untimely death has probably played a role in it as well. It is notable that many of the icons from the past whose popularity have persisted to this day died young. The most notable of these iconic figures may be James Dean, who was only 24 when he died, but there are many others. Jim Morrison of The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin have also continued to be popular despite or perhaps because of early deaths. While all of these figures, from James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, had achieved a good deal in their short lifetimes, one has to wonder that their fame would be quite so great had they not died young. In dying young they also remain etched in our mind as forever young. They will never grow old, never see their careers diminish.

Marilyn Monroe was only 36 years old when she died. We never had the chance to see her grow and her beauty possibly diminish. It is impossible to know what path her career might have taken had she lived, but, regardless, we never had the chance to see her career fade the way some of her contemporaries' careers did. Marilyn Monroe not only died young, but she died at a point when her career was still going fairly strong. She was still one of the most popular actresses of the day, one whose celebrity at the time may have only been matched by Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn (both icons in their own right). For us Marilyn Monroe then remains forever 36 years old and forever at the height of her career. Like James Dean before her and Jimi Hendrix after her, she remains at the peak of her vitality.

There are probably other factors that figure into Marilyn Monroe's lasting popularity. In fact, it may be impossible to fully assess her continued fame fifty years after her death. Certainly her combination of vulnerability, innocent sexuality, and playfulness, combined with her untimely death, have played a role in her continued status as an icon. Regardless, it seems that there will be no end to Marilyn Monroe's popularity. On social media sites from Twitter to Google+ "Marilyn Monroe" has trended today. There have literally been thousands of articles in newspapers, blogs, websites, and on television about the actress today. Yesterday Turner Classic Movies had a marathon of her movies as part of their month long "Summer Under the Stars" event, and I rather suspect TV stations around the United States and elsewhere will show at least one of her movies. Marilyn Monroe may have died at age 36 fifty years ago, but it would seem that her fame is effectively immortal.