Saturday, June 21, 2014

Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954)

Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder, and Humphrey
Bogart on the set of Sabrina

Today when most people think of Audrey Hepburn, they think of her as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). In fact, these days when one sees an image of Miss Hepburn more times than not it will be of her as the irrepressible Mrs. Golightly. As successful as Breakfast at Tiffany's remains and as large as it looms in Audrey Hepburn's legend, however, she had already been a major film star for many years before making the film. Audrey Hepburn had emerged as a star in Roman Holiday in 1953, but arguably it was Sabrina in 1954 that affirmed her stardom. The director and one of the writers on Sabrina was Billy Wilder, who had already established himself as a director with such classic films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Blvd. (1950). The film would not only prove to be an important one for Audrey Hepburn, but for Mr. Wilder as well.

Sabrina was based on the play Sabrina Fair by Samuel A. Taylor, with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman.  It starred Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina Fairchild, the daughter of the chauffeur of  the rich Larrabee family. Since childhood she has been infatuated with the youngest of the Larabee brothers, David (William Holden). When she returns from culinary school in Paris, now all grown up, and educated and sophisticated as well, David Larrabee finally takes notice of her. This does not make older Larrabee brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) happy, as a dalliance on the part of David with Sabrina could jeopardise his impending nuptials to Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer), which in turn could jeopardise an important deal between the Larrabees and Elizabeth's rich father.

As mentioned earlier, Billy Wilder was already an established director with a good number of successes to his credit when he made Sabrina. Sabrina was not even his first romantic comedy. With Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch he was one of the writers on Ernst Lubitsch's classic Ninotchka (1939).  As a director he had already made the romantic comedies The Major and the Minor (his directorial debut) in 1942, The Emperor Waltz in 1947, and A Foreign Affair in 1948. Despite this it was arguably Sabrina that would put Billy Wilder on the map as a director of romantic comedies.

Indeed, it was with Sabrina that what we think of today as the Billy Wilder style of romantic comedy fully emerged. Witty dialogue and clever lines had been a part of Billy Wilder's films ever since his days as a screenwriter, but with Sabrina they were taken to a whole new level. In fact, some of Mr. Wilder's funniest lines appear in Sabrina. What is more, as with most Billy Wilder films, it is not only the leads who have the great lines. Some of the best lines are uttered by Marcel Dalio as Baron St. Fontanel (my favourite being "A woman happily in love, she burns the soufflé. A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn on the oven."). More so than his earlier romantic comedies, Sabrina is to be noted for the wit of its dialogue.

Of course, as well known as Billy Wilder was for the witty dialogue in his films, the focus of his comedies were always firmly on the often tangled interpersonal relationships of his characters. This was certainly true of his earlier romantic comedies, and it is particularly true of Sabrina. While William Holden and Humphrey Bogart play brothers, their characters could not be any more different. David Larrabee is a playboy who prefers a life of pleasure to hard work. Linus Larrabee is a workaholic who long ago forgot how to have fun, if he ever really knew how. After her studies in Paris Sabrina is both educated and sophisticated, yet still naive about many aspects of life. The often convoluted interrelationships between characters would become a hallmark of Mr. Wilder's romantic comedies of the Fifties and Sixties, from Osgood Fielding III's courtship of "Daphne" in Some Like It Hot (1959) to the triangle between C. C. Baxter, Miss Kubelik, and Sheldrake in The Apartment (1960).

Casting against type is another hallmark of Billy Wilder's films, and it was certainly one that did not originate with Sabrina. In fact, it can be seen as early as the third film of his career, Double Indemnity, in which he cast Fred MacMurray, who had played "good guys" for most his career, in a less than sympathetic role (he would cast Mr. MacMurray in an even less sympathetic role in The Apartment). In the instance of Sabrina, it is Humprey Bogart who is cast against type. Now it is true that Cary Grant was originally considered for the role of Linus Larrabee (and the role would certainly be Mr. Grant's type), but it is interesting that Mr. Bogart was Billy Wilder' second choice at all. While Humphrey Bogart had played a romantic lead before (most notably in Casablanca), he was not known for his work in romantic comedies.
Sabrina would prove to be a turning point in Billy Wilder's career. While he had directed romantic comedies before, in the Forties he was arguably best known for such dramas as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Blvd. Sabrina would be the first in a number of romantic comedies in the Fifties and Sixties that would ultimately become among Billy Wilder's best known films. Had Sabrina not been well received it seems possible that we might not have The Seven Year Itch (1955), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), or The Apartment (1960).

While Sabrina would have an impact on Billy Wilder's career, it arguably had even more of an impact on the career of Audrey Hepburn. While Roman Holiday provided Miss Hepburn with her first lead role and propelled her to stardom, it was arguably Sabrina that confirmed her status as a major star. After all, the history of film is filled with actresses who achieved stardom on the basis of one huge hit film, only to find themselves in supporting roles a few years later. This would not be the case for Audrey Hepburn following Sabrina. From Sabrina she would go on to star in such films as Funny Face (1957), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Charade (1963), and so on. After Sabrina she never ceased being a star.

Indeed, it is arguably Sabrina that established what we think of as Audrey Hepburn's image. While such words as "sophistication" and "class" come to mind when Miss Hepburn's name is mentioned, it must be pointed out that most of the characters for which she is best known were not, in fact, upper class. This is certainly the case with Sabrina, who is a chauffeur's daughter who achieves sophistication and class only after studying in Paris. If anything Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's would have an even lower class background. She was a poor girl from the hills of Texas. Arguably Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was of yet lower status, that of a Cockney flower girl. Audrey Hepburn may have played a princess in Roman Holiday, but her best known roles tended to be that of women from middle or working classes who achieve sophistication and an education regardless.

What is more, it is in Sabrina that Audrey Hepburn first appeared in the little black dress with which she would become forever identified. Although Edith Head was credited for the costumes for Sabrina, it was Hubert de Givenchy who designed most of Audrey Hepburn's clothing for the film, including the little black dress. Mr. Givenchy would remain Audrey Hepburn's designer of choice for the rest of her life, and the little black dress would be forever linked to her. Miss Hepburn again wore a little black dress in Love in the Afternoon, Funny Face, Charade, and several other films. While the little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's may be the best known, it was hardly the first or only one Audrey Hepburn ever wore.
Sabrina was both critically acclaimed and it received a good number of Oscar nominations (it won one--for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White). It was also a hit at the box office. To this day it remains one of the best loved films of both Billy Wilder and Audrey Hepburn's careers. It should then be little wonder that it would have a huge impact on the careers of both Billy Wilder and Audrey Hepburn. It established Billy Wilder as a director of romantic comedies of the first rank and it confirmed Audrey Hepburn's status as a star.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Casey Kasem R.I.P.

Disc jockey and voice artist Casey Kasem died on 15 June 2014 at the age of 82. He had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in 2007. He had been in hospital for two weeks prior to his death. He was perhaps best known for his radio show American Top 40, which debuted in 1970, as well as being the voice of cartoon characters from Shaggy on Scooby Doo, Where Are You! to Robin on The Batman/Superman Hour and Super Friends.

Casey Kasem was born Kemal Amin Kasem on 27 April 1932 in Detroit into a Lebanese Druze immigrant family. He first worked in radio while attending Northwestern High School in Detroit as a sportscaster for the school radio station. At Wayne State University in Detroit he performed in various radio shows. In 1952 he was drafted into the United States Army where he served as a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Network in Korea.

Following the Korea War he began his career in radio in Flint, Michigan. Over the years he worked in such markets as Detroit; Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, New York;  and Oakland, California. It was while he was in Oakland that he created a show that included short, biographical bits about musical artists before their songs. It would eventually lead to the radio show American Top 40..

It was in 1963 that Mr. Kasem moved to KRLA in Los Angeles. It was there that his career really began to take off. In 1964 he did his first voice work for cartoons, providing various voices for the prime time animated series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo. In 1965 he became the host of Shebang, a syndicated music show that ran until 1968. He made his film debut in The Glory Stompers (1967) and appeared in the films 2000 Years Later (1969), Wild Wheels (1969), The Cycle Savages (1969),  Scream Free! (1969), and The Girls from Thunder Strip (1970). He guest starred in the television show Garrison's Gorillas. He provided voices for the cartoons The Batman/Superman Hour (on which he was Robin), Cattanooga Cats; Scooby Doo, Where Are You! (on which he was Shaggy), Hot Wheels, Skyhawks, and Josie and the Pussycats (on which he was Alexander).

It was in 1970 that the radio show American Top 40 debuted. The show was essentially a countdown of the top 40 songs according to the Billboard singles chart, with biographical trivia about the artists before each song. The show proved to be a hit and Casey Kasem remained with it until 1988

In the Seventies Casey Kasem appeared in such films as The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971), Doomsday Machine (1972), Soul Hustler (1973), New York, New York (1977), Disco Fever (1978), and The Dark (1979). On television he was the voice of Peter Cottontail in the animated special Here Comes Peter Cottontail. He guest starred on such shows as The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, Hawaii Five-O, Ironside, Police Story, Quincy M.E., Switch, and Charlie's Angels. He provided voices for such cartoons as The New Scooby-Doo Movies, Super Friends, Hong Kong Phooey, Jana of the Jungle, and Battle of the Planets. Beginning in 1980 Mr. Kasem was the host of America's Top 10, essentially a television version of American Top 40. It ran until 1992, with Mr. Kasem as its host until 1989.

In the Eighties Casey Kasem continued to provide voices for the "Scooby-Doo" and "Super Friends" franchises, as well as the animated show The Transformers. He guest starred on such shows as Matt Houston, Fantasy Island, Mike Hammer, and My Two Dads. He appeared in the films Ghostbusters (1984). In 1988 he left American Top 40 in a contract dispute with ABC Radio. He launched another show Casey's Top 40.

In the Nineties he continued to voice Shaggy in various "Scooby-Doo" projects. He also provided voices for the animated TV series 2 Stupid Dogs and Captain Planet and the Planeteers. In 1998 he gained the rights to the American Top 40 name and relaunched the show. This incarnation lasted until 2009, with Mr. Kasem retiring in 2004. Into the Naughts he continued to voice Shaggy for various "Scooby-Doo" projects.

I have always thought Casey Kasem's success as a DJ stemmed from his sheer enthusiasm. Week after week, year after year, Mr. Kasem still conveyed that enthusiasm when announcing the latest top forty hits. That enthusiasm was not lost on listeners. Of course, there can be no doubt that much of his success was also due to his voice, a voice that was flexible enough to be that of Shaggy, Robin the Boy Wonder, or Alexander Cabot. For generations of Americans Casey Kasem was the voice that let them know what the latest hits were, and always did so with a sense of excitement and exuberance. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Pictorial Tribute to Ralph Bellamy on His 110th Birthday

Many people might remember Ralph Bellamy best as the guy that lost the girl to Cary Grant not once, but twice. He was Mr. Grant's romantic rival in both The Awful Truth (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940) and both times he loved and lost.  Despite this, Ralph Bellamy was a leading man in his own right, and I rather suspect that quite a few women who might well have chosen Mr. Bellamy instead of Mr. Grant. Ralph Bellamy's film career spanned nearly 60 years, with his first film being The Secret Six in 1931 and his final film being Pretty Woman in 1990. Ralph Bellamy was born on this day 110 years ago, on 17 June 1904, in Chicago, Illinois. Following is a pictorial tribute to an actor who was as comfortable in lead roles as he was supporting roles and even character parts.

A still from Ralph Bellamy's second film and his first as the male lead, The Magnificent Lie (1931). He's pictured with the female lead from the movie, Ruth Chatterton.

A still from John Ford's Air Mail (1932) on which Ralph Bellamy was the lead actor. Here he is with Gloria Stuart.

A rather uncomfortable scene from The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.

In the late Thirties and early Forties Ralph Bellamy played mystery writer/amateur sleuth Ellery Queen in a series of films. Here is a publicity still for Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery with Margaret Lindsay and Anna May Wong.

By the Forties Ralph Bellamy's film career had slowed, so he moved into television. He played private eye Mike Barnett on the TV show Man Against Crime from 1949 to 1954. This is a photo from 1953 with his co-star Gloria McGhee.

Ralph Bellamy appeared on television frequently from the Fifties to the Eighties, both as a guest star and the star of his own shows. He starred in such shows as The Eleventh Hour, The Survivors, and Hunter. Here is a publicity shot with George Maharis and Yvette Mimieux from the short lived show The Most Deadly Game.

Among the roles Ralph Bellamy played on television was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1983 mini-series The Winds of War.

A picture of Ralph Bellamy in his last role, James Morse in Pretty Woman, with Richard Gere.

Monday, June 16, 2014

1954: Film's Other Great Year

It has been 75 years since 1939, widely regarded as the greatest year for movies in history, and there has been a great deal of hullabaloo over the anniversary. Despite this there are those who would argue that 1939 was not the greatest year in film history, almost always offering up another year for that title instead. As for myself, I find it hard to argue that 1939 was not the greatest year for movies ever, especially given Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Destry Rides Again, and many other incredibly great films were released in that year. That is not to say I do not believe there are some other years that come very, very close to 1939 in terms of the sheer quantity of great films released. One of those years is 1954.

Indeed, given the number of genuine classics released in 1954, it seems curious that there has not been a large amount of hubbub over its 60th anniversary. To get an idea of how great 1954 was, one need only look at the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture that year: The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On the Waterfront, Three Coins in the Fountain, and The Country Girl. Of these, The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and On the Waterfront rank among the greatest films of all time in my humble opinion. Indeed, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is my favourite musical.

In fact, there were so many great films released in 1954 that I have always had a problem with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences's nominees for Best Picture. Obviously I would have nominated The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and On the Waterfront, but I would have given the other nominations to Rear Window and A Star is Born. What is more, I would have given the Oscar for Best Picture to The Caine Mutiny. That having been said, it is hard to fault the Academy for their choices of Best Picture nominees that year. With so many great pictures released it must have been hard to narrow it down to five.

Consider this, not only were The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and On the Waterfront all released in 1954, but so were Rear Window, A Star is Born, Sabrina, 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaThe Bridges at Toko-Ri, and Carmen Jones, among many, many others. The fact is that if I listed every single great film released by Hollywood in 1954 this would be a very long, long blog post.

Of course, while both 1939 and 1954 were truly great years, there is one thing that sets 1954 apart from 1939. The films considered among the greatest classics of all time released in 1939 were by and large released by the Hollywood studios. In contrast a number of the films considered among the greatest classics of all time released in 1954 come from countries besides the United States. In fact, what I consider the best film released in 1954 (indeed, the greatest film ever made) came out of Japan. It was Shichinin no Samurai, known in English as Seven Samurai. I don't think any other film released in 1954 comes to being as influential as Seven Samurai was. Its impact can be seen in many action films that came out of Hollywood in the Sixties, from The Magnificent Seven (a direct remake of the film) to The Dirty Dozen, and its impact is still being seen today.

Seven Samurai was not the only great film released in Japan in 1954. It was also in 1954 that Gojira was released. Those who have seen the American version, Godzilla, might scoff at this, but Gojira is a truly great film. And like its contemporary, Seven Samurai, Gojira would also have a lasting impact. Not only would the monster Gojira/Godzilla enter international pop culture, but the film itself would launch an entire series of Gojira/Godzilla films, not to mention create the entire genre of "giant monster" or kaiju films. Of course, here I have to point out that not only were Seven Samurai  and Gojira released in 1954, but so too was Sansho Dayu, also known as Sansho the Bailiff. Kenji Mizoguchi's epic masterpiece brought him to the attention of Western filmmakers, critics, and cinema goers, and it would have a lasting impact on Japanese, American, British, and European film.

Nineteen fifty four would also be a good  year for film in the United Kingdom, particularly with regards to comedy. David Lean's version of Hobson's Choice was released in 1954. Not only was it arguably the best adaptation of  Harold Brighouse's play of the same name (it was filmed before in 1920 and 1931), but it is arguably one of the best British comedies of all time. Doctor in the House, starring Sir Dirk Bogarde, was also released in 1954. The comedy was the most successful British film at the box office in the United Kingdom for 1954. It also sparked an entire series of "Doctor" films, the first three films and the fifth one starring Dirk Bogarde as Dr. Sparrow. Although some might question whether it is a truly great film, The Belles of St Trinian's was also released in 1954. The movie would prove to be a hit and would be followed by three more films centred around St. Trinian's School, as well as a 1980 film and a new series of films in the Naughts. Personally, I've always thought the original The Belles of St Trinian's was one of the funniest films of the Fifties. Of course, comedies weren't the only great films released in the United Kingdom in 1954.  The classic animated version of Animal Farm was also released that year, as was the drama The Divided Heart.

The year 1954 would also be a good year for movies for Italy. It was that year that Federico Fellini's La strada was released. Not only is it arguable that La strada is the film that placed Federico Felllini on the map, but it is also one of his very best films and a film that would prove influential as well. The year 1954 would also see the release of Luchino Visconti's Senso, an adaptation of  Camillo Boito's novella of the same name, and Vittorio De Sica's L'oro di Napol.

Given the number of great films released in Hollywood and around the world, it seems to me that 1954 was truly one of the greatest years for film ever. Indeed, 1954 was such a great year that this post has barely even scratched the surface. It would take a rather large book to cover every single great film released during the year in any sort of depth. While 1939 may well be the greatest year in film history, it seems to me that 1954 could easily be a very close second.