Saturday, July 3, 2021

TCM Spotlight: Star Signs with Susan Miller

Astrology is one of those subjects with equal numbers of adherents and detractors. Regardless of how one feels about astrology, I have to admit it is as good an excuse as any to show some good movies. Every Tuesday this month TCM Spotlight is on Star Signs with Susan Miller. Susan Miller is an astrologer who has written eleven books on the subject and a regular columnist for Vogue and InStyle. She will co-host with Alicia Malone, talking about the qualities of each sign and how they apply to particular stars. Of course, this means we get to see some fine movies as well.

Indeed, over the course of the month Turner Classic Movie will show such films as The Long, Long Trailer (1954), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Love in the Afternoon (1957), To Have and Have Not (1944), Rebel without a Cause (1955), and Gilda (1946). Among the stars who will be discussed are Lucille Ball, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and Rita Hayworth.

If I have one caveat about Star Signs with Susan Miller, it is their choice of Elizabeth Taylor for Pisceans and the characterization of Pisceans as "highly sociable." I must admit that I have my doubts about astrology, at the same time I feel that my Piscean friends and I have a great deal in common. Among those things most of us have in common is that we are not "highly sociable" and tend towards introversion. In that regard, I think Elizabeth Taylor may be atypical of Pisceans, so that Sidney Poitier or Jean Harlow or another more introverted actor may have been a better choice for the sign. I do have to agree that Pisceans tend to be romantic (although not all of my Piscean friends are), intuitive, and loyal and generous as well. Of course, then again, there could be nothing to astrology and any similarities between my Piscean friends and I may just be because, well, thet're my friends ("birds of a feather..." and all that).

Below are my choices of movies to watch during TCM Spotlight: Star Signs with Susan Miller

Tuesday, July 6
7:00 PM The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
11:00 PM The Bad and the Beautiful (1953)

Tuesday, July 13
7:00 PM Love in the Afternoon (1957)
9:30 PM Grand Hotel (1932)
11:30 PM To Have and Have Not (1944)

Tuesday, July 20
7:00 PM Rebel without a Cause (1955) 
11:15 PM Gilda (1946)

Tuesday, July 27
11:00 PM The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Friday, July 2, 2021

Special Theme on TCM: From Hollywood to the Heartland

Shirley Jones & Robet Preston
in The Music Man
On Wednesdays in the month of July, Turner Classic Movies is showing movies with the special theme of "From Hollywood to the Heartland." The Heartland is often equated with the Midwest, which the United States Census Bureau defines as the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. That having been said, I don't think the Heartland is necessarily the same as the Midwest, as here in Mid-Missouri one almost never hears of the area called "the Heartland." In fact one will not hear the phrase "Heartland"" in Missouri until one gets as far north as Kirksville, which isn't far from the Iowa border.

Regardless, TCM is using the word "Heartland" metaphorically, so that they are showing movies set in New England, California, and Texas as well as the Midwest. They are using it, in the words of the article on TCM's website on the special theme, of "..the heart and soul of America, those places associated with small-town life and old-fashioned values." To this end, Turner Classic Movies' special theme From Hollywood to the Heartland features such classic movies as Peyton Place (1957), Picnic (1955), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), and The Music Man (1962). It is showing two movies with close ties to Missouri. One is Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), based on the novel by St. Louis native Sally Besson. Another is King's Row (1942), based on the novel by Henry Bellamann. Mr. Bellamann's novel was in turn based very thinly on his hometown of Fulton, Missouri.

From Hollywood to the Heartland features a sterling line-up of movies, so much so that I only have two complaints. The first is in the scheduling of some of the movies. I wish they hadn't scheduled Knig's Row so late. It is airing at 2:00 AM! I also wish they would show The Music Man and Meet Me in St. Louis earlier. As much as I love Bye, Bye Birdie, both The Music Man and Meet Me in St. Louis number among my favourite movies of all time. My second complaint is that curiously To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) isn't on the schdule as part of the special theme. The movie is a much about small town life as it is its racially charged trial. In some respects it might be more fitting to show To Kill a Mockingbird during From Hollywood to the Heartland than Meet Me in St. Louis, given Maycomb, Alabama is a small town and St. Louis most certainly isn't.

Regardless, many will find From Hollywood to the Heartland very enjoyable, including myself. Below is the schedule of movies being shown. All times are central.

Wednesday, July 7
7:00 PM Peyton Place (1957)
9:45 PM Picnic (1955)
11:45 PM East of Eden (1955)
2:00 AM King's Row (1942)
4:15 AM Our Town (1940)

Wednesday, July 14
7:00 PM The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
8:45 PM Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
11:00 PM Theordora Goes Wild (1936)
12:45 AM A Stranger in Town (1943)
2:00 AM Small Town Girl(1936)
4:00 AM Love Finds Andy Hardy (1936)

Wednesday, July 21
7:00 PM Bye, Bye Birdie (1963)
9:00 PM The Music Man (1962)
11:45 PM Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
1:45 AM Janie (1944)
3:45 AM Four Daughters (1938)

Wednesday, July 28
7:00 PM Some Came Running (1958)
9:30 PM Paper Moon (1973)
11:30 PM The Last Picture Show (1971)
1:45 AM Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
3:45 AM Badlands (1973)

Thursday, July 1, 2021

The 50th Anniversary of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Yesterday, June 30 2021, marked fifty years since the release of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Since then it has come to be regarded as a classic family film. It might surprise some that the movie was not a huge success upon its initial release.

The origins of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory go back to the children's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, published in 1964. Among the novel's fans was director Mel Stuart's daughter Melanie. It was in 1969 that then twelve year old Melanie Stuart approached her father and told her that he wanted him to make the book into a movie and "have Uncle Dave sell it." 'Uncle Dave" was Mel Stuart's friend, producer David L. Wolper. Although he was no relation to Mel Stuart or his daughter, they were close enough that he was called "Uncle Dave."

Mel Stuart read the novel himself and then took it to David L. Wolper. Mr. Wolper agreed that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would make a good movie. It was only a few weeks later that David L. Wolper announced that he had made a deal with the Quaker Oats Company to buy the rights to the book and finance the film. David L. Wolper had recently produced a television special titled Say Goodbye that was sponsored by Quaker Oats. The ad man who handled the Quaker Oats account, Ken Mason, asked David L. Wolper if he had any other projects with which they could promote a new candy bar, at which point Mr. Wolper told him about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Ken Mason took the idea for a film based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the Quaker Oats Factory. In the meantime, David L. Wolper called Roald Dahl's agent who indicated that they could buy the film rights for $200,000. Fortunately, the Quaker Oats Company indicated that they were indeed interested in financing the film. Quaker Oats Company then began work on a Wonka Bar, and hence the title of the project went from being Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Difficulties in coming up with the formula for the Wonka Bar would result in the Quaker Oats Company giving up on bringing the new candy bar to the market, although they would have success manufacturing other products under the "Willy Wonka" name.

Director Mel Stuart had initially conceived of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as a straight-forward drama. The poems sang by the Oompa-Loompas in the novel would have simply been recited in the film. It was producer David L. Wolper who encouraged Mel Stuart to make the movie a musical. The score and songs would be composed by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, who had earlier written the stage musicals The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.

Roald Dahl was meant to write the screenplay for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but had difficulty meeting deadlines. As a result David Seltzer did uncredited work on the screenplay, and made some major changes to it. Among the changes Mr. Seltzer made to the screenplay (which were not in the book) were the addition of the character of Slugworth and a scene dealing with fizzy drinks that made one float in the air.vFor the all important role of Willy Wonka, author Roald Dahl's choice was British comedian Spike Milligan. Director Mel Stuart and producers David L. Wolper and Stan Margulies first considered Joel Grey for the role. Of course, the role of Willy Wonka would eventually go to Gene Wilder. At that point Gene Wilder's career was still on the rise. He had a supporting role in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), played a co-lead in The Producers, a co-lead in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), and a lead in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1971).

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was filmed from August 31 1970 to November 19 1970, largely in Munich, West Germany. While today the film is a beloved family classic, author Roald Dahl disliked the movie and disowned it. He was angered by the fact that much of his script was rewritten by David Seltzer and angered with the changes that were made. He was even angry that music had been added beyond the Oompa-Loompa songs (which differ from the Oompa-Loompa songs in the book). He thought the movie centred too much on Willy Wonka and not enough on Charlie.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was not a success upon its initial release, despite receiving good reviews from critics. It only earned $2.1 million on its opening weekend and ultimately it was the 53rd highest grossing film for 1971 in the United States. It would receive some attention the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in the form of an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score. 

Fortunately, in the years following its release Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory would become a favourite at children's matinees. In 1974 Gene Wilder would have two hit movies in the form of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. The network television premiere of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on NBC on November 23 1975 was then highly anticipated. Unfortunately, in the Eastern and Central time zones the first 45 minutes of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on NBC was pre-empted by an NFL game between the Oakland Raiders and the Washington Redskins that had gone into over time. As a result NBC received over 1000 irate calls from viewers angry that they had missed the 45 minutes of the movie due to a football game.

Fortunately, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory would air many more times on television. In the process it has become one of the most beloved family films of all time. The movie boasts a 90% rating on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. In 2014 it was included in the National Film Registry for being "...culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Over the years Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has regularly been included in lists of the best family movies ever made. While it might not have done well on its initial release, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has since become a beloved classic.

( a lot of the information in this post came from the book Pure Imagination: The Making of Wily Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by Mel Stuart and Joel Young. I highly recommend it!)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Stuart Damon Passes On

Stuart Damon, who played Craig Stirling on The Champions and Alan Quartermaine on the soap opera General Hospital, died on June 29 2021 at the age of 84. He had been suffering from renal failure for years.

Stuart Damon was born Stuart Michael Zonis on February 5 1937 in Brooklyn, New York. He made his debut on Broadway in First Impressions  in 1959. He appeared several more times on Broadway in the Sixties. He appeared in the productions From A to Z, Irma La Douce, and Do I Hear a Waltz. He made his television debut in 1962 in an episode of Naked City. He appeared as the Prince in the television revival of Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella in 1965. He moved to Britain in the mid-Sixties where he appeared on the West End in the plays Charlie Girl and Man of Magic. In Britain he guest starred on episodes of ITV Play of the Week, The Bed-Sit Girl, The Saint, Brian Rix Presents, Department S, and Steptoe and Son. From 1968 to 1969 he starred on the British television series The Champions. He also appeared in the mini-series The £1,000,000 Bank Note.

In the Seventies, Stuart Damon starred on the show Yanks Go Home. He guest starred on UFO, Shirley's World, The Adventurer, The Adventures of Black Beauty, The Main Chance, Thriller, Space: 1999, and The New Avengers. He appeared in the movie A Touch of Class (1973).  He first appeared on General Hospital as Alan Quartermaine in 1977. He would continue on the show for decades.

In the Eighties Mr. Damon returned to the United States. He guest starred on Fantasy Island, Hotel, and Mike Hammer. He appeared in the movies Young Doctors in Love (1982), Star 80 (1983), and Silent Assassins (1988).  In the Nineties, in addition to appearing as Alan Quartermaine on General Hospital, he also appeared in the role on the soap opera's spin-off Port Charles.He guest starred on On Our Own and Diagnosis Murder.  He appeared in the movie Chairman of the Board (1998).

In 2010 Stuart Damon began appeared on the soap operas Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns. In 2004 he guest starred on the show Strong Medicine. He made his last appearance as Stuart Damon on General Hospital in 2014. He appeared in the movie Rain from Stars (2013).

I am not a soap opera fan, but I know Stuart Damon was well-loved by fans of General Hospital. I know I enjoyed seeing him on The Champions and his many guest appearances. Anyone who has seen the 1965 version of Cinderella knows he had an amazing singing voice. He was certainly an actor of multiple talents.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Dorothy Arzner, the First Female DGA Member

Dorothy Arzner occupies an important position in film history. She was the only female director to work within the studio system and one of the few to make a career for herself directing. She was also the first woman to ever direct a talkie. Dorothy Arzner was also the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America. What makes Dorothy Arzner even more unique is that she was an open lesbian at a time when homosexuality was frowned upon.

Dorothy Arzner was born in San Francisco, but she grew up in Los Angeles. Her father, Louis Arzner, operated a restaurant that frequented by many of the early Hollywood and theatre elite, including Maude Adams, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Mack Sennett. She attended the University of Southern California, majoring in medicine, but ultimately decided she did not want to be a doctor. She began her film career in the script department of the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (which would evolve into Paramount). She moved from the script department to working as a cutter and editor at Realart Studio, a division of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. She received her big break when she served as the editor on Blood and Sand (1922).

Dorothy Arzner became respected enough for her work as both an editor and screenwriter that eventually Columbia Pictures made an offer to her to write and direct a movie. Ms. Arzner used Columbia's offer as leverage with Paramount so that she could direct a major feature film. Fashions for Women (1927) would be the first feature film ever directed by Dorothy Arzner. Sadly, it is also lost.

Dorothy Arzner directed the silent movies Fashions for Women, Ten Modern Commandments (1927), Get Your Man (1927), and Manhattan Cocktail (1928) before directing the Clara Bow vehicle The Wild Party (1929). The Wild Party would be historic for a number of reasons. It is not only the first talkie to star Clara Bow, but the first talkie directed by a woman and the first talkie ever produced by Paramount. On The Wild Party Dorothy Arzner also made an innovation to filmmaking. Clara Bow was not particularly comfortable with microphones, so Ms. Arzner attached a microphone to the end of a fishing pole so Clara Bow could move around. Quite simply, it was one of the earliest boom mics (previously, for Beggars of Life William Wellman had attached a microphone to the end of a broom).

The Wild Party was the beginning of the peak of Dorothy Arzner's career. For Paramount she directed such popular films as Sarah and Son (1929), Honor Among Lovers (1931), and Merrily We Go to Hell (1932). She went freelance in 1932 and continued to make several popular films, including Christopher Strong (1933), Craig's Wife (1936), Dance, Girl Dance (1940). She worked with some legendary leading ladies, including Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Lucille Ball, and Maureen O'Hara. As a freelancer she made films for such studios as RKO, United Artists, Columbia, and MGM.

Dorothy Arzner retired from Hollywood in 1943, although she made training films for the Women's Army Corps during World War II and later produced the radio show You Were Meant to Be a Star. She worked with the Pasadena Playhouse and taught film at UCLA.

While Dorothy Arzner was not a particularly public person, she was openly a lesbian, as mentioned earlier. She had a relationship with dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan that lasted forty years. It also been claimed that she had relationships with various actresses, including Alla Nazimova and Billie Burke. Ms. Arzner was never in the closet and she never hid the fact that she was a lesbian.

A good deal has been written about Dorothy Arzner, from both feminist and queer perspectives, but even after casually viewing her films it is clear that Ms. Arzner's movies differed a good deal from her contemporaries. More so than movies made by her male contemporaries, Dorothy Arzner's films place an emphasis on relationships between women. This can be seen in The Wild Party, in which the relationships between students at an all-female college are explored. Dance, Girl, Dance centred upon the relationships between various dancers. Ms. Arzner's portrayal of female camaraderie was made all the more realistic in that her female characters were all four-dimensional. These were women who could actually exist rather than the usual Hollywood caricatures.

Dorothy Arzner's portrayal of romances and marriages also differed from those of other filmmakers of her period. This can be seen in Merrily We Go to Hell, in which Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) and Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sydney) have what would today be called an "open marriage." Honor Among Lovers features a romance that does not go quite as viewers might expect it to. Craig's Wife portrays a traditional marriage as outright repressive. Even in the Pre-Code Era, heteronormative marriage was often held to be sacrosanct. Dorothy Arzner's movies often took another view.

Dorothy Arzner was a true pioneer. She was the only female director working in Hollywood throughout the Thirties.Her films were strikingly different from other films made at the time. There is little way one can mistake a movie made by Dorothy Arzner for a movie by another director. She was also very successful. Dorothy Arzner was ultimately a extremely talented woman with real insight into human nature.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Neo-Noir on TCM Friday Nights in July

In July Turner Classic Movies viewers will get a double dose of noir each week. In addition to Noir Alley, Friday nights in July 2021 are dedicated to neo-noir. The Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller, and Ben Mankiewicz are hosting a line-up of the finest neo-noir movies ever made. It begins on Friday, July 2.

Below I have listed my favourites, but I encourage you to watch as many of the films as you can. All of them are highly recommended and are fine examples of neo-noir. All times are Central.

Friday, July 2

7:00 PM Harper (1966)
9:16 PM Point Blank (1967)

Friday, July 9

7:00 PM Get Carter (1971)
11:00 PM Chinatown (1974)

Friday, July 16

8:45 PM Body Heat (1981)
11:00 PM To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Friday, July 23

7:00 PM Blood Simple (1984)

Friday, July 30

7:00 PM Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982)