Friday, January 30, 2015

Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance by Brent Phillips

Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance
by Brent Phillips
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN: 9780813147215
November 2014
University Press of Kentucky

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“He was born to dance.” – Brent Phillips on Chuck Walters

When I started my classic film education I spent very little time learning about the people behind-the-scenes: the directors, producers, costume designers, make-up artists, etc. It left a gaping hole in my film knowledge, one I’ve been trying to fill up ever since. I had never heard of director Charles Walters until I acquired Brent Phillip’s biography. This is an utter shame because Walters directed and choreographed my favorite musical of all time: Good News (1947). I was happy to have an opportunity to correct this egregious error and I dived right into the book.

Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance is an honest yet celebratory look at the life and career of a lesser known yet very important figure from film history. Walters was a born dancer and although he wasn’t classically trained, he came to the film industry with years of experience performing on stage. His background in dance and choreography made him the perfect director for musicals. He also directed numerous non-musical films and choreographed the movement of the camera and the actors. Walters’ had varied style. He was a veritable chameleon and could adapt himself to different scenarios.

“These prized celluloid moments, capturing nonpareil performers at their unqualified best, possess one thing in common each spring from the imaginative mind of Charles “Chuck “ Walters – dancer, choreographer, director.” – Brent Phillips (preface)

Charles Walters & Lena Horne - Photo Source Brent Phillips & WSJ

I was particularly struck by how Walters was a “teach-by-example” type of director. He would demonstrate the movements to the actor or actress right before they filmed a scene or sometimes even during the scenes as it was being shot. This fascinates me! There is a wonderful photo in the book of Charles Walters and Tony Martin filming a scene for Easy to Love (1953). Mirroring each other, Walters and Martin simultaneously do an open armed gesture as Martin sings and performs for the camera. This style of directing was definitely influenced by Walters’ background as a dancer. He was also a master of pacing and clever camera shots.

“Timing and pace are important in any film, whether it be comedy or drama. And how better to learn the fundamentals of these show show business ingredients than by dancing?” – Charles Walters

I very much admired Charles Walters’ work ethic. He was a very efficient filmmaker, often finishing a film on time and under budget. I was particularly inspired by this quote:

“I had to work harder. I couldn’t do the social thing, and play the game the others were playing. I had to work that much harder and handle the ‘evils’ by doing good work.” – Charles Walters

Walters was gay and while he didn't try to hide it he was discreet about it. He had a long romantic relationship with John Darrow, actor-turned-agent whose greatest success was Gene Kelly.

Relationships, both personal ones and working ones, really drove Walters' career. He collaborated with Helen Deutsch, Busby Berkeley, Vilma Ebsen (Buddy Ebsen’s sister) and Arthur Freed. If he worked well with someone he always tried to make sure he worked with them again in the near future. For example, Walters got along so well with assistant director Al Jennings that they worked on a total of 11 films together.

Many actresses found Walters a delight to work with. He had a long and fruitful creative partnership with troubled actress Judy Garland and had a good rapport with her. One could say he brought the best out of her performances. He worked with and became close friends with Gloria Swanson. Walters’ leading ladies included Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, June Allyson, Doris Day, Leslie Caron, Esther Williams and Debbie Reynolds.

Phillips includes several quotes from different actresses praising Walters:

“For me Chuck was – besides Astaire – the best dancer in the world world. He was fantastic [and] knew exactly what to do with young people. He knew how to put them together and work with them, because he was so kind.” – June Allyson

“He was the greatest male dancer I had seen since Fred Astaire.” – Gloria Swanson

“He’s the first director who has ever helped me with my acting. It’s a whole new world. We rehearse, and then I do it in one take. Working with him is like going to drama school. It’s wonderful!” – Esther Williams

The book is filled with on-the-set anecdotes. Films discussed include:

Good News (1947) , his directorial debut
Easter Parade (1948)
Summer Stock (1950)
Torch Song (1953)
Lili (1953) , nominated for Best Director Oscar
Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Easy to Love (1953)
The Tender Trap (1955)
High Society (1956)
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)
Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962)
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) , last film for MGM
Walk Don’t Run (1966)

This biography is full of fun facts. Did you know Charles Walters taught Ingrid Bergman how to waltz for Gaslight? He also directed the famous trolley scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. About the scene John Fricke said “everything seems simple, but it’s constant, pure storytelling – and an audience gets caught up in that.” Walters was good friends with Tyrone Power. They both got their start in Hollywood around the same time and were even roommates.


Worked with MGM for many years and Phillips noted that “he was a genuine company man” (p 76). His career at MGM was very successful and he made numerous box office hits. His track record wouldn't last for long.

“It’s an awful burden. You want the fame and fortune and you have this awful load to carry.” – Charles Walters

The end of his career is rather sad. His last films for MGM were flops and he missed an important resurgence of musicals in the mid 1960s. However in his last years he was appreciated and had a chance to teach and give lectures at a university.
It is clear that author Brent Phillips, a dancer himself, has a lot of admiration and appreciation for the life, work and legacy of Charles Walters. The book is beautifully assembled, filled with interesting facts and stories and is clear and concise in a way that makes the book approachable and informative. I really appreciated the book's structure, Phillips sticks to a strict chronological narrative. There is an insert of black-and-white photos in the center, many of the pictures are from the author's personal collection.

I used to dance so I have much appreciation for the art form and how Walters applied his skills as a dancer to his work as a director. I really enjoyed learning about Charles Walters and am glad to know a lot more about his work.

Classic film buffs, dancers and musical enthusiasts alike will enjoy this book! If you enjoyed the recent TCM Friday Night Spotlight series with the author introducing Walters films, then this book will be a must-read for you if you haven't checked it out already.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of this book for review. I had so much fun reading it. It was a wonderful learning experience.


Monday, January 19, 2015

On Borrowed Time (1939)

Sometimes a film comes into your life at the exact moment you need it. And other times it's inconvenient or painful. My grandfather passed away Friday night. When I woke up Saturday morning I turned on the TV to watch TCM. Classic film as emotional therapy has always been a way for me to cope with what life throws at me, both good and bad. What I didn’t expect to see on TCM is exactly what appeared: a movie about a dying grandfather. It was the last 30 minutes of the movie and I wasn’t sure if I should watch it. In fact, I was pretty sure watching it was a bad idea. I watched it nonetheless and found a new set of tears streaming down my face. It helped me work through some more of my emotions and appreciate the meaning of “family”. After watching the ending, I went to Watch TCM to watch the whole thing. And I'm very glad I did.

On Borrowed Time (1939) stars Lionel Barrymore as Gramps (Julian Northrup). He's a lovable old curmudgeon who is taking care of his newly orphaned grandson Pud (Bobs Watson). What he doesn't know is that Mr. Brink (Cedric Hardwicke) is coming for the Northrup family. First he took Gramps' son and his daughter-in-law and Gramps is next on his list. Mr. Brink's name is a play on the term "brink of death". He's the personification of death and only people who are close to death or whose time to die has come can see him and hear him. You might ask, what's the difference? Some folks who are very ill can see Mr. Brink even though it's not their time to go. An example is given very early on when a coughing man stops to give Mr. Brink a ride in his car. He thought Mr. Brink was waving to him. This encounter is the personification of a near-death experience.

Mr. Brink's arrival is incredibly inconvenient for Gramps who is in the middle of sorting out things for his grandson Pud. Pud and Gramps are as thick as thieves. Despite the age difference, they both have youthful spirits and find much in common. Pud idolizes Gramps and his devotion to Gramps and Gramps' undying love for his grandson heightens the emotional drama of the story.  Things become even more painful when Aunt Demetria (Eily Malyon) threatens to take Pud away from invalid Gramps and Mr. Brink threatens to take Gramps away from them all.

Gramps recently made a magical wish that comes true: anyone who climbs up Gramps' apple tree won't be able to come down until he gives them permission to do so. This scenario adds a bit of magical realism to the story and a way for Gramps' to fend off death. He tricks Mr. Brink into climbing the tree. Anyone who touches the tree will die instantly however as long as Mr. Brink is stuck there he can't come for Gramps. This gives Gramps an opportunity to spend more time with Pud and to settle some issues.




Bobs Watson and Lionel Barrymore in a promotional photo for On Borrowed Time (1939)

A death always shakes up family dynamics. The true nature of certain family members comes to light and their actions betray underlying motivations. The best example of this is Aunt Demetria as played by Eily Malyon. She's Pud's aunt and the Northrup's in-law. Her motivations for taking Pud away from Gramps are selfish and dishonest. It's clear she's after her brother-in-law's inheritance. Gramps couldn't care less about money and only wants to protect young Pud. Demetria and Gramps are polar opposite and she serves to highlight Gramps' good character and genuine motivations.

Lionel Barrymore's performance is the best part of this film. Barrymore was quite ill at the time and confined to his wheelchair. Yet his physical hindrances did not affect his performance. Barrymore is simply charming and the Gramps character is the grandfather we all wish we could have.



Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Barrymore and Bobs Watson in On Borrowed Time (1939)

Spoiler alert

In the end, Gramps can only keep death away for so long. Dr. Evans (Henry Travers) becomes the voice of reason and convinces Gramps that death is necessary for life to go on. It takes Gramps quite a while to convince others that he death is really stuck up in his apple tree. They think he's crazy and plan to take him away to the loony bin and put Pud into the care of Aunt Demetria. The film suffers at this point. Three-quarters of the way in, the plot line loses steam and doesn't pick up until events escalate in the last 20 minutes or so.

What's the solution to keep Pud and Gramps together forever? To have them both die. Mr. Brink tricks Pud into climbing the fence that protects the now poisonous apple tree. Pud suffers a fall and a near-death experience. He's paralyzed and in a lot of pain. Gramps takes Pud out to the tree and asks Mr. Brink to bring both of them to heaven. We see both Gramps and Pud come out of their paralysis and walk with Mr. Brink. A double was used for some of the shots of Gramps walking since Barrymore couldn't in real life. In one side shot of Barrymore, he seems to be walking but he's really just standing, propped up by something hidden his jacket with a moving background simulating motion.

In this story, death is seen as the reliever of pain. Mr. Brink is feared because he separates people from their loved ones. However, he's also seen as merciful, only after death though, because he relieves their physical and emotional pain and reunites them with lost loved ones. It's a tricky topic to cover. For those of us, like myself, who don't believe in an afterlife, the thought of death is especially grim. Why take Pud with Gramps? No matter what Gramps did in life, it was inevitable that Pud and Gramps would be separated. By dying together and going off to heaven, they'll be together for ever. This is a rather satisfying ending even though Pud is so young and hasn't experienced life yet. However, the accident he has qualifies the ending because we know if he had lived on it would have been a life filled with pain, suffering and lost opportunities.

Spoiler ends

On Borrowed Time was based on a novel and successful Broadway play by the same name. The opening credits refers to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The Pardoner's Tale, a story about the battle with death, is most likely the inspiration for the story.

Even with the main theme of death, the film is filled with funny and heart-warming moments. Gramps has some great lines, my favorite one is:

 "Well, I'll be dipped in gravy."

The film has a wonderful supporting cast including Beulah Bondi as Nellie (Granny), Una Merkel as Marcia Giles (the local girl they hire to help around the house), Nat Pendleton (Mr. Grimes, a representative from the state insane asylum) and Henry Travers, of It's a Wonderful Life fame, as Dr. Evans. However, none of these actors are given roles sufficient enough for their talents. For example, the normally spunky Una Merkel plays a quiet and meek character. She has one glorious moment in the film when she stands up for Gramps, however her talents are mostly wasted in the film. Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Brink and Eily Malyon as Aunt Demetria are the only characters who have significant screen time, interesting story lines and several moments to shine.

On Borrowed Time is truly a Barrymore-Watson vehicle. You can tell there is a great bond between the Pud and Gramps characters. The more curmudgeonly Barrymore's representation of Gramps is, the more we know much Pud means to him because the child is truly his soft spot. Also, Bobs Watson, a child actor known for effectively turning on the water works, was meant for the role of Pud. He has all the enthusiasm and emotion necessary for such a role.


Beulah Bondi, Eily Maylon, Lionel Barrymore and Bobs Watson in On Borrowed Time (1939)

I really enjoyed watching On Borrowed Time. It was difficult at first because of what had happened in my life. My relationship with my grandfather wasn't as close or endearing as the one Gramps and Pud have with each other but it was still very painful to lose him.

The film reminded me of two similar stories: Make Way For Tomorrow and Punky Brewster. In Make Way for Tomorrow, an aging couple is forced apart because of family dynamics and in Punky Brewster, Punky is abandoned by her parents and taken in by an elderly man, Henry Warnimont. Both stories meant a lot to me. Punky Brewster was an important part of my childhood. Make Way For Tomorrow traumatized me. I've always thought one of the greatest injustices in life is when two people who love each other are kept apart; whether it be a familial love like Gramps and Pud, or a platonic love or a romantic love. All of these stories remind me of that injustice and the importance of valuing relationships.

On Borrowed Time is a new treasure for me and I'm so glad I gave it a chance. It's a delightful film which imparts to viewers the importance of family, to treasure your loved ones and the time you have on earth.

I watched On Borrowed Time on TCM and Watch TCM. It's also available on DVD-MOD through Warner Archive.

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