Saturday, July 2, 2016

Olivia de Havilland In It's Love I'm After (1937)

 (This blog post is part of the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Old Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies)

Today Olivia de Havilland is best known as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939) or the female lead in the eight movies she made with Errol Flynn. When people think of other movies she made, it is often apt to be one of her dramas. That having been said, from the start of her career Olivia de Havilland made her fair share of comedies. In fact, one of my all time favourite Olivia de Havilland movies is a comedy: It's Love I'm After from 1937.

It's Love I'm After (1937) came about because British film star Leslie Howard wanted a change of pace. In the early to mid-Thirties Leslie Howard starred in a number of very serious dramas, including Of Human Bondage (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936), and Romeo and Juliet (1936).  He then decided that it was time for him to appear in a comedy. He suggested to producer Hal Wallis that they do a film adaptation of the story "Gentlemen After Midnight" by Maurice Hanline. "Gentlemen After Midnight" centred on a star of the stage who is constantly getting into spats with his leading lady (his on-again/off-again fiancée) and then finds his life is complicated even more when he agrees to get a starstruck fan over her infatuation with him.  Leslie Howard took the lead role of actor Basil Underwood, while Olivia de Havilland was cast in the role of starstruck debutante Marcia West.

The role of Basil Underwood's leading lady (and technically the female lead in It's Love I'm After) Joyce Arden proved more difficult to cast than the other two roles. Leslie Howard thought a stage actress with experience in comedy would be best in the role, and campaigned for either Gertrude Lawrence or Ina Claire. Unfortunately neither of them were well known for their work in movies. Producer Hal Wallis set up a meeting between director Archie Mayo and Miss Lawrence, and Mr. Mayo was convinced that Miss Lawrence could succeed in the role. Unfortunately Archie Mayo and Hal Wallis then watched the movie Men Are Not Gods (1936), in which Gertrude Lawrence starred. They both agreed that she didn't photograph well. Ultimately It's Love I'm After started shooting without the role of Joyce Arden even cast.

Eventually Hal Wallis decided that, like Leslie Howard, Warner Bros. star Bette Davis also needed a change of pace. Bette Davis had also played in several very serious dramas recently, including Dangerous (1935), The Petrified Forest (1936), and Marked Woman (1937).  As to Miss Davis, she was not particularly anxious to appear in It's Love I'm After. First, she had appeared in several films in a row without a break. Instead of taking on another film role, what she really wanted was some time off. Second, she thought the better female role was actually that of lovesick fan and heiress Marcia West, who was already being played by Olivia de Havilland. Third, she really did not like the fact that Leslie Howard would receive top billing over her. Fourth, she had already appeared with Mr. Howard in two films (Of Human Bondage and The Petrified Forest) and their relationship was not particularly smooth. Fortunately Hal Wallis was finally able to convince Bette Davis to take the role.

The rest of the cast of It's Love I'm After was filled with established comic actors, including Eric Blore as Underwood's valet Digges, Spring Byington as Marcia West's dizzy Aunt Ella, and George Barbier as Marcia's father William. Patric Knowles played Marcia's fiancé Henry Grant, who turns to Basil Underwood to take care of her obsession with him. Soon to be known for playing Nancy Drew, Bonita Granville played the rather clever Gracie Kane.

Despite difficulties in casting its leading lady, It's Love I'm After would prove to be a success on all levels. Casey Robison's script took the story "Gentlemen After Midnight" and transformed it into a top notch, Hollywood screwball comedy. Starting with the simple premise of a man asking a Shakespearean actor to cure his fiancée of her obsession with him, complications pile upon complications throughout the film. What is more, witty lines come almost one after another. The entire cast acquits themselves quite well. Leslie Howard shines as the egoistical, swaggering Basil Underwood, as does Bette Davis as the sharp tongued, often exasperated Joyce Arden. They are very convincing as two people who are in love, but whose personal failings really won't let them do anything about it. Eric Blore must also be commended for his role as Underwood's valet Digges. He successfully portrays a man who is often exasperated by this employer's misbehaviour, but at the same remains intensely loyal to him.

As to Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis may well have been right in assuming that the better female role was that of starstruck debutante Marcia West. The script not only makes Marcia a more interesting character than actress Joyce Arden, giving her much more to do and some of the film's best lines, but Olivia de Havilland excelled in the role. She is very convincing as Marcia, who is so obsessed with Underwood that she ignores his misbehaviour and his all too high opinion of himself. She has a number of great lines, which she delivers with precision. What is more, Miss de Havilland was arguably at her most beautiful, which makes Joyce Arden's jealousy of Marcia all the more convincing. Although she was only 21 Olivia de Havilland had already played more mature roles in such films as Captain Blood (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936), and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), so it is refreshing to see her play a character her own age.

It's Love I'm After received largely positive reviews. In The New York Times it was written of the film, "It is a rippling farce, brightly written and deftly directed, and it has been played to the limit by an ingratiating cast." Time magazine referred to It's Love I'm After as "..refreshing, impudent fun: a buoyant cinema making faces at its precise old aunt, the theatre." The film also did moderate business at the box office.

Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard would appear in only one other movie together, a rather famous one called Gone with the Wind (1939). They would never have a chance to play opposite each other again. Leslie Howard was returning from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol when the BOAC plane in which he was travelling was shot down by the Luftwaffe in 1943.

Today It's Love I'm After is not nearly as well known as other screwball comedies of the era, such as It Happened One Night (1934),  My Man Godfrey (1936), and Bringing Up Baby (1938). This is unfortunate, as it is truly one of the classics of  the era. It benefits from Archie Mayo's skilled direction as well as Casey Robinson's witty and at times biting screenplay. It has one of the best casts of any of the screwball comedies and that cast performs remarkably well. It's Love I'm After really deserves to be better known than it is. It also serves as a reminder of just how good Olivia de Havilland, better known for films in other genres, was at a comedy.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Happy 100th Brithday, Olivia de Havilland!

Sadly most of the stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood are gone now. In some cases, such as Vivien Leigh and Judy Garland, they have been dead for literally decades. That having been said, there is one who is still with us. Today one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age celebrates her 100th birthday. It was on July 1 1916 that the legendary Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo.

Today Olivia de Havilland is best known for two things. The first is her role as Melanie Wilkes in what is still the highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind (1939). The second is playing opposite Errol Flynn in eight films, particularly such classic swashbucklers as Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Although it is not often acknowledged, both Gone with the Wind and the films Miss de Havilland made with Errol Flynn demonstrate her talent as an actress. In particular, Melanie Wilkes was a more complicated role than many seem to believe. Today when people think of Melanie, they tend to think of her sweetness, her kindness, and her humanity. What is not often acknowledged is that Melanie had a will of iron.  While other ladies of the gentry turned down  madam Belle Watling's offer of some of her earnings to help with the hospital, Melanie Hamilton accepted, even though she knew it could damage her reputation. When a Yankee soldier invaded Tara, it may have been Scarlett who shot him, but it was Melanie, weakened from childbirth, who dragged herself from her sickbed wielding a sword. Melanie Wilkes was no pushover. She may have been sweet, kind, and non-judgemental, but she had courage of the sort no other character in Gone with the Wind possessed. It is Olivia de Havilland's sheer talent that made Melanie one of the most complex characters in the film.

While her characters in the films she made with Errol Flynn are not nearly as complex as Melanie Wilkes, they were also more sophisticated than they might appear on the surface. After all, in The Adventures of Robin Hood it was Maid Marian who helped Robin Hood's men rescue the outlaw when he was captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham. In Dodge City (1939) Miss de Havilland played a character about as far from sweet, forgiving Melanie Wilkes as one could get: Abbie Irving, who resents Wade Hatton (played by Errol Flynn) after Hatton shoots her drunken brother for having caused a cattle stampede. Although they are sometimes characterised as such, Olivia de Havilland's characters in the films she made with Errol Flynn were much more than window dressing or mere romantic interests.

Although today best known for action movies and dramas, early in her carer Olivia de Havilland actually starred in light romantic comedies. It should come as no surprise that Miss de Havilland is as good at playing comedy as she is drama. She played the female lead in The Great Garrick (1937), a countess mistaken for an actress. In It's Love I am After (1937) she played a dizzy heiress who also happens to be the number one fan of actor Basil Underwood (played by Leslie Howard). She later starred opposite Henry Fonda in The Male Animal (1942).  Olivia de Havilland had a real knack for playing comedy. Her timing and her delivery of lines were perfect, and she could make even the most outlandish comic character seem convincing. I have always thought that had Miss de Havilland not become a star of action films and dramas, she could have been very successful making comedies alone.

Of course, Olivia de Havilland's career goes far beyond Gone with the Wind, the action movies she made with Errol Flynn, and comedies. Miss de Havilland is extremely talented as an actress and can take on complex roles in the most serious of dramas. In fact, what may be her greatest role is that of Virginia Cunningham in The Snake Pit (1948). The Snake Pit is an extremely realistic, harrowing drama portraying the conditions in the mental hospitals of the time. Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Through the course of the film we witness Virginia's descent into madness, her ordeal in the mental hospital, and her eventual recovery. Olivia de Havilland gave an incredible performance as Virginia. She was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. It still shocks me that she lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda (1948)!

Over the years Olivia de Havilland appeared in virtually every genre of film out there. She starred in comedies (It's Love I'm After), swashbucklers (Charge of the Light Brigade), Westerns (Santa Fe Trail), period dramas (My Cousin Rachel), and even horror movies (Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte). Fittingly given her fame for appearing in some of the greatest films of the genre, her last appearance in a feature film would be in a swashbuckler. She played the Queen Mother in The Fifth Musketeer (1979).

Olivia de Havilland is in many respects as strong as many of the characters she played. When she was under contract to Warner Bros. she sometimes refused to play roles the studio wanted her to play, which would result in her being suspended for time. In 1943 when her seven year contract with Warner Bros. ended, the studio told her that six months had been added to her contract to make up for the times she had been suspended. Miss de Havilland maintained that she was under contract for a set number of years and that when that number of years was over she was under no further obligation to the studio. Miss de Havilland sued Warner Bros. and on December 8 1944, the California Court of Appeals for the Second District ruled in her favour. Labour Code Section 2855, the rule Olivia de Havilland used in her suit (first enacted in 1937), has been known as the "De Havilland Law" ever since.

During World War II Olivia de Havilland helped sell war bonds. She also helped out at the Hollywood Canteen and went on a  USO tour that took her throughout the United States, Alaska, and the South Pacific. The conditions when travelling to remote areas of the South Pacific were often less than ideal, but Miss de Havilland endured without complaint. She even survived  viral pneumonia while on a USO tour. 

In real life Olivia de Havilland seems to have a good deal with the character of Melanie Wilkes that she played so well. I have friends who have corresponded with her and from them I have to say that Miss de Havilland is sweet, considerate, thoughtful, and always helpful. One would not realise that she is one of the biggest stars to emerge from the 20th Century!

Ultimately it must be said that Olivia de Havilland is a most remarkable woman, and not simply for having reached the century mark. She is an immensely talented actress who could play everything from comedy to dramas, and who could play a wide variety of roles. She is also a strong willed woman who actually took on a major studio and won. Finally she is truly a good person, one who appreciates her fans and is always eager with a kind word or thoughtful gesture. We are truly lucky to still have Olivia de Havilland on her 100th birthday. I do hope that she has a very happy one.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Atomic" by Blondie

Since tomorrow is Deborah Harry's 71st birthday, I thought tonight I would post my favourite Blondie song, "Atomic". While the song only reached no. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100, it proved to be the band's third no. 1 single in the United Kingdom.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The 50th Anniversary of Dark Shadows

When I was little I thought that daytime soap operas looked creepy. The lighting always seemed to be rather dark. The resolution of the picture was always low. And the sets, well, looked obviously like sets. What I didn't know at the time is that daytime soap operas were generally shot on videotape and with budgets that would make the average Roger Corman movie look like Gone with the Wind. Of course, while as a kid I thought that soap operas looked creepy, their story arcs generally weren't, even if they weren't the sort of thing that would interest a little boy. An exception to this rule was Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows was a soap opera that more than looked creepy; it was creepy. Quite simply, Dark Shadows was a Gothic horror soap opera that in the course of its run featured vampires, ghosts, werewolves, Frankensteinian creations, diabolists, and even time travel. And unlike other soap operas I was always eager to see it. I always turned on Dark Shadows when I got home from school. It was fifty years ago today that Dark Shadows debuted on ABC.

Of course, Dark Shadows did not start out as a Gothic horror soap opera. In the mid-Sixties Gothic romance paperback books were exceedingly popular in book stores and drug stores. It then occurred to producer Dan Curtis that a soap opera inspired by the then popular Gothic romances could be a winner in the ratings. Dan Curtis had previously produced Challenge Golf for ABC and The CBS Match Play Golf Classic for CBS. Dan Curtis turned to writer Art Wallace to further develop his Gothic romance soap opera. Mr. Wallace drew upon one of his teleplays which had aired on Goodyear Theatre in 1957, "The House," for some of the characters and storylines. "The House" centred on a New England fishing village in which a middle aged woman whose husband is at sea feels isolated from the rest of society.

Dark Shadows was then very much a Gothic romance when it debuted on June 27 1966. Its first story arc simply dealt with the arrival of new governess Victoria Winters at Collinwood (the mansion of the wealthy Collins family) in the small town of Collinsport, Maine. The first reference to anything supernatural on the show is to the ghosts of the widows (later named  Rachel Comstock, Abigail Tolliver, and Margaret Findley) rumoured to haunt Widows Hill (a cliff near Collinwood) in episode 5. While there would be occasional signs of what could be ghostly activity (a mysterious knock at the door, a door seeming to close by itself, et. al.), it would be some time before any ghosts would actually appear on Dark Shadows.

It would not be until December 12 1966 that Dark Shadows left the confines of Gothic romance and ventured into the realm of Gothic horror.  On that day began a story arc that concerned the return of the estranged wife of Roger Collins, Laura. Laura, as it turns out, was an entity referred to as a phoenix. Every 100 years she would be reborn in fire. And, unfortunately for the Collins family, she was not at all benign.

Dark Shadows would venture even further into Gothic horror territory with a storyline that began on March 22 1967. It was that day that Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), claiming to be the descendent of a Barnabas Collins who lived in the 18th Century, arrived at Collinwood. As it turned out, this Barnabas Collins was actually the original Barnabas Collins, cursed with vampirism (and, as a result, immortality). Barnabas Collins was originally meant to appear only for that storyline and, what is more, was originally played as a villain. As it turned out, however, the character of Barnabas Collins proved extremely popular. As a result he not only became a regular character on the show, but arguably the show's primary hero.

With Barnabas Collins easily being the most popular character on Dark Shadows, many of the show's storylines would centre upon him. It was soon revealed precisely how Barnabas became a vampire. Barnabas had planned to marry Josette du Pres (played by Kathryn Leigh Scott), but unfortunately Josette's maid Angelique (played by Parker) wanted him for herself (they had conducted an affair earlier). Angelique,who was skilled in witchcraft, then took measures to win Barnabas's love. Barnabas caught onto what Angelique was doing and shot her, only to have Angelique curse him with her dying words. Bitten by a vampire bat, Barnabas died and then rose from the grave as a vampire. Eventually Barnabas would befriend Dr. Julia Hoffman (played by Grayson Hall), who would seek a cure for his condition.

Of course, not every single storyline on Dark Shadows centred on Barnabas Collins, and eventually the show would touch upon nearly every single cliche in Gothic horror. Adam (played first by Duane Morris and later by Robert Roden) was a Frakensteinian creature made by Eric Lang (played by Addison Powell). Angelique would return with more schemes centred on Barnabas, this time aided by a warlock named Nicholas Blair (played by Humbert Allen Astredo). Chris Jennings (played by Don Briscoe) was afflicted with lycanthropy, becoming a werewolf at the full of the moon. In 1968 a character was introduced that nearly rivalled Barnabas in popularity. Quentin Collins (played by David Selby) was a ghost intent on destroying the present day Collins family. During its run Dark Shadows touched upon such tropes as time travel, Lovecraftian entities (the Leviathans), and even alternate realities.

Following the first appearance of Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows soon became a cult phenomenon, particularly popular with young people. Given its popularity, Dark Shadows produced merchandise in a way that no other soap opera before it ever had. In December 1966 the first novel based on the show, simply titled Dark Shadows, was published. It was followed by 31 more during the show's run. Milton Bradley manufactured a Dark Shadows board game. In 1969 Gold Key began publishing a regularly scheduled Dark Shadows comic book. It actually ran well beyond the show's run, ending in 1976. From March 14 1971 to March 11 1972 the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicated a daily Dark Shadows comic strip. There were also Viewmaster reels, colouring books, model kits, and much, much more.

In fact, Dark Shadows proved so popular that it produced two feature films during its run. The first, House of Dark Shadows, was released in 1970. The second, Night of Dark Shadows, was released in 1971. In both films cast from the soap opera reprised their roles on the show.

Despite its popularity, Dark Shadows did generate its share of controversy due to its supernatural themes. This was particularly true of a storyline in the autumn of 1968 involving Angelique and Nicholas Blair, who were pretty clearly devil worshippers. Not only did Angelique travel to Hell, but Nicholas Blair met with Diabolos, who was pretty clearly a thinly veiled version of the Devil.  It was around Halloween of that year that Fundamentalist Christians distributed a pamphlet attacking Dark Shadows, complete with a cartoon with the Devil watching the soap opera and the caption "Satan's Favourite Show".

Sadly, while Dark Shadows was incredibly popular from the years 1967 to 1969, its popularity eventually declined. A story arc began in November 1969 centred around the Leviathans did not prove particularly popular with viewers. Another factor in the decline of the popularity of Dark Shadows was that it was, quite simply, a fad.  In the book Fads, Follies, and Delusions of the American People by Paul Sann, it is noted that often the more intensely a fad is adopted, the shorter its duration will be. Dark Shadows was certainly a show that was intensely adopted by young people, so it was only a matter of time before it would see a decline in popularity.

It was on April 2 1971 that Dark Shadows ended its run. In part its cancellation was due to declining ratings. In the 1968-1969 season Dark Shadows peaked with an overall rating of 8.4. By the 1970-1971 season it had fallen to an overall rating of 5.3. This was complicated by the fact that much of the show's audience was under 18. Since children generally are not responsible for buying the goods advertised on daytime television at the time (primarily food and household products), Dark Shadows' audience was not particularly attractive to advertisers. Another factor in the cancellation of Dark Shadows may have been the controversy it had generated. Quite simply, the controversy Dark Shadows created may have made it a more likely candidate for cancellation than another low rated show on ABC.

While Dark Shadows ended its run in 1971, it continued to be popular well after its run. With nearly its entire run intact except for one episode (although some early episodes survived only as kinescopes), Dark Shadows became one of the few daytime soap operas to have its reruns syndicated.  That having been said, the entire series was not made available during its original run in syndication. The first 209 episodes and about the last year of the show were not made available. Eventually the Sci-Fi Channel would run all 1225 episodes. Every single surviving episode of Dark Shadows has been released on VHS and DVD, something that is nearly unknown for daytime soap operas (here it must be noted that many soap operas lost entire chucks of their runs to wiping, the practice of erasing or reusing old videotapes).

The continued popularity of Dark Shadows would also see attempted revivals of the show. In 1991  a short lived night time version of the soap opera aired on NBC. Sadly, it only lasted two months. In 2004 a pilot for a new Dark Shadows series was produced for the WB, but it wasn't picked up. In 2012 a film based on the show, directed by Tim Burton was released. Unfortunately, the film was played for comedy, leaving many fans of the original series disappointed (to say the least).  The 2012 Dark Shadows film also performed poorly at the box office. Perhaps the most successful revival of Dark Shadows are the audio dramas produced by Big Finish Productions since 2006. There have been three series: the first two consisting of four episodes each and the third being the 13 episode serial "Bloodlust".

Not only has Dark Shadows continued to be popular, but it has also had a lasting impact on American television. Dark Shadows was among the earliest horror TV series to have continuing characters. Earlier shows had primarily been anthology series. Dark Shadows is then in some ways the forerunner of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, and other horror series. Over time it would even have an impact on other daytime soap operas. Starting in the Nineties Days of Our Lives featured plot lines which delved into the supernatural. The soap opera Passions went one step further. It was the first American daytime soap opera since Dark Shadows in which the supernatural played an integral role in the series, although it was largely played for camp. Guiding Light, Another World, and Port Charles were other daytime soap operas that delved a little into the supernatural.

After fifty years Dark Shadows remains as popular as ever. It currently airs on Decades and it can be streamed on Hulu. It would seem that even Tim Burton's 2012 feature film cannot kill Dark Shadows. I have to suspect that it will still be around for another fifty years.