Monday, July 31, 2017

On the Making of River of No Return (1954)

Tommy Rettig and Robert Mitchum in River of No Return (1954)

River of No Return (1954) was supposed to be a small picture; a simple B Western shot on the cheap in Idaho with a small cast and a skeleton crew. Writer Louis Lantz had the idea of taking Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and turning it into a Western. Producer Stanley Rubin worked with Lantz and writer Frank Fenton on developing the story for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Production was moving forward until Zanuck decided to up the ante and add Fox's biggest star Marilyn Monroe to the mix. Everything had to be brought up a notch. Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun were added to the cast as was child actor Tommy Rettig. It would be shot in color with Cinemascope, a new technology Fox had invested a lot of money in. And Otto Preminger, who was under contract to the studio, would be directing the film whether he liked it or not.

Preminger was an interesting choice for the film. He had enjoyed some artistic freedom and independence with previous projects. In this case the script was ready to go when Preminger got on board. Producer Stanley Rubin didn't like Zanuck's choice of director. According to Preminger biography Chris Fujiwara, Stanley Rubin said "I thought of River of No Return as a piece of Americana, and I thought it needed a director who had worked in that area, which Preminger had not done... I was thinking of somebody like Raoul Walsh."

The production moved from Idaho up into Canada. The film got an upgrade with on-location shooting in Jasper and Banff, Alberta. There were the Banff Springs, Bow River, Lake Louise and the Rocky Mountains. This region of the world is simply stunning as anyone who's ever been there, myself included, will tell you.

The setting was perfect for visuals but treacherous for filming. Monroe, Mitchum and Rettig had stunt doubles and stand-ins. Three of the stunt actors almost lost their lives on the Bow River during the shooting of the escape scene on a raft. Monroe injured her leg on set and had to take it easy at the Banff Springs Hotel. Her publicist made a big spectacle of the event. Monroe was photographed around Banff limping around with a wrapped ankle. Her soon-to-be husband Joe DiMaggio came to visit. (Check out this collection of photos from the shoot.) Monroe's good friend Shelley Winters claims Monroe faked the whole thing. Producer Stanley Rubin claims the injury was real but that it might have been exaggerated.

Stanley Rubin, Marilyn Monroe, Otto Preminger and the crew on the set of River of No Return (1954)


The cast of characters Zanuck threw together proved to be a volatile mix. Otto Preminger and Robert Mitchum butted heads on their previous film together Angel Face (1952). Mitchum joked that he thought Preminger was a funny guy and a great producer but "not a very good director". According to producer Stanley Rubin, Mitchum played it cool but behind-the-scenes did a lot of digging into the production and was invested in making the film turn out well. Preminger and Monroe clashed almost instantly. He was an overbearing director and Monroe was sensitive to this sort of treatment. Her acting coach Natasha Lytess proved to be a thorn in the side of the cast and crew. Her coaching style included teaching Monroe how to over-enunciate her words. When Monroe put this into practice it drove Preminger mad. Lytess convinced Tommy Rettig that he'd reached the age when child actors lose their natural talents. The otherwise self-assured and prepared Rettig was now a blubbering mess and couldn't remember his lines. Preminger had enough and barred Lytess. Zanuck had to step in because without Lytess there was no Monroe and with no Monroe there would be no big box office draw. Everyone would just have to put up with each other.

Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum on the set of River of No Return (1954)
Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum on the set of River of No Return (1954)


Let's quickly dispel the myth that Mitchum and Monroe did not get along while making this film. This couldn't be further from the truth. Mitchum took pity on Monroe and tried to help her on more than one occasion. Mitchum biographer Lee Server says, "Monroe's peccadilloes seemed never to bother Mitchum. He thought she was an essentially sweet and funny but often sad and confused person." He enjoyed her "sly humor". After filming Monroe said to the press, "Mitch is one of the most interesting, fascinating men I have ever known."

The cast was quite a draw for locals. Lee Server says, "a special train brought the cast and Preminger the eighty miles were from Calgary to Banff, a publicized event that brought out curious ogling Canadians all along the route." Due to the province's liquor laws, the only place for the actors to drink was the Banff Springs Hotel. Mitchum especially spent most of his free time there.

Marilyn Monroe, Tommy Rettig and Robert Mitchum get hosed in preparation for their studio scenes. River of No Return (1954)

The crew returned to Los Angeles to film the remaining scenes at the studio. According to Lee Server, this is "where Mitchum and Monroe would do their white-water rafting indoors on a hydraulic platform in front of a giant process screen, while men stood to the sides and splashed them with buckets of water and shot steel-headed arrows into the solid oak logs at their feet." At one point Otto Preminger abandoned the project and left for Europe. Director Jean Negulescu was recruited to pick up where Preminger left off. He did not receive a credit for his work.

River of No Return was a box office hit and earned Fox $2 million in profits. Zanuck was right. Marilyn Monroe was the film's biggest draw and the reason for it's success. The reason why River of No Return has enjoyed decades worth of screenings, home video releases, interviews, discussions and even Tumblr fandom is mostly because of Marilyn Monroe. If another actress had starred in the film it might have been another Western relegated to the vaults.

August 6th is the 100th anniversary of Robert Mitchum's birth. River of No Return is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. TCM will be screening this movie as part of the Marilyn Monroe day for their Summer Under the Stars series starting tomorrow.

Sources:
Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server
Robert Mitchum: In His Own Words edited by Jerry Roberts
The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger by Chris Fujiwara
Leonard Maltin's interview with Stanley Rubin, TCM Classic Film Festival 2013

Saturday, July 29, 2017

National Dance Day: Interview with Norma Miller and Susan Glatzer


Norma Miller and Susan Glatzer on media day in April 2017

Today is National Dance Day and I’d like to share with you two interviews I did with dancer Norma Miller, the Queen of Swing, and Susan Glatzer, director of the swing dancing documentary Alive and Kicking which I reviewed back in April.


Norma Miller with other members of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. Photo source: Norma Miller's official website

"Give me a beat!" - Norma Miller

At 97 years old, Norma Miller is still as feisty as ever. The legendary swing dancer is the last surviving member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers which also included the late great Frankie Manning. She started dancing at the age of 5 and quickly became an attraction whether it was on the sidewalks of Harlem or in the Savoy Ballroom. In my phone conversation with Norma Miller she explained, "the Savoy Ballroom was the first integrated place in America. And it was a place where we could go in every night and dance and we didn't have to pay to come in."At the tender age of twelve, she and her mother lived across from the Savoy Ballroom and Miller could often be found dancing just outside it. She was invited in and soon started enchanting eager audiences with her moves.

Miller then caught the eye of Herbert White, also known as "Whitey" and he invited her to become one of his dancers. On becoming one of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers Miller told me, "that became the professional act that came out of the Savoy Ballroom. We were traveling for [the] Whitey's Lindy Hoppers [in] 1937." Whitey's troupe of talented swing dancers traveled the world and it wasn't long before she got to Hollywood. Miller remembers:

"We went all the way. We crossed the country. We played every Paramount theater. From New York City all the way out to the West Coast. And it was at the West Coast that the people that was making a movie called A Day at the Races saw us at the theater and called back the cast so they could put the Lindy Hop in there. And that was the first time America saw the Lindy Hop."




When I asked her if she had fun making A Day at the Races (1937) Miller enthusiastically replied "of course!". 

In a few years time she'd be back in Hollywood. Norma Miller told me "that was 1941 that was a different act. We were at the time traveling with [Ole] Olsen and [Chic] Johnson. We were part of their package." She was in a fantastic swing dancing seen in the otherwise odd little movie Hellzapoppin' (1941). In it she dances with Frankie Manning. I told Miller that the scene was the best part of the movie. She replied, "Did you see the whole movie?" When I told her yes she said, 'now you know why it was the best thing!"

It IS rather a strange film!


The Lindy Hop of Norma Miller's generation was different from swing dancing today. Miller said, "The Lindy Hop is a professional dance. What you do today is social dancing. It's the greatest means of people communicating. There's nothing better than swing dancing because everybody can do it." Miller hopes people will watch the documentary Alive and Kicking, she's one of three swing dancing legends interviewed in the film. Miller told me, "if they like it, it'll give them a jump start so that people can get out and dance again."


Alive and Kicking (2016)

Stream/Digital Download: iTunes - Fandango - Vudu - and elsewhere

Susan Glatzer's documentary was five years in the making and originally she wasn't supposed to direct it. In my conversation with Glatzer,  she told me:
 "I've been a swing dancer for 19 years... At first I wasn't going to be directing it. I wanted to have somebody else direct it. And they were always busy. So I started and that's how it happened. As I started filming I realized that there were things I wanted to say about our society today. I really did feel like dancing was such a good way of expressing it. Of coming together and how the dance brings people together. We get to relate on a human level. I think that we isolate a lot and I do think that the internet has turned it into us and them a lot more than we naturally are."

In the documentary, Glatzer interviews legends like the aforementioned Norma Miller and Frankie Manning as well as Dawn Hampton who passed away late last year. When I asked her what she learned from interviewing these rock stars of swing dancing, she one word for me: "humility". She went on to say,

"Dawn, she knew how to live life. She knew how see the grace and the beauty in every situation. She saw gratitude in so many things. That's way beyond the dance. Frankie [Manning] was the same way. There's the Frankie Manning Foundation and part of their mission is to grow the swing community and introduce the dance to people. A big part of it is to carry on his outlook on his life which was about kindness and everyone is welcome to swing dance. I don't care how young, old, what size, shape, race. It doesn't matter. Everyone is welcome. Carrying on that kind of way of looking at other individuals. In a way that we do not do much of these days. Where we see other people as human beings who are potential friends as opposed to the other faction."

Also in the documentary are the young professional swing dancers who make this dance not only their profession but their lifestyle. Many of them got hooked on swing dancing from seeing clips from classic films. On how old movies influenced the swing dancing revival in the home video era, Glatzer says,

"they saw all these old movies and they were like who are these people and how do we find them? They started researching and they found the original dancers. But my generation when I started dancing in the '90s. If you got your hands on a fourth generation VHS copy of Groovy Movie or Hellzapoppin' that was considered so amazing. You would watch it and re-watch it again and try to learn the moves. And now everything is out there on YouTube. You had to work hard for it back in the day. It really did come with seeing those old movies again."

Alive and Kicking is an amazing documentary that captures the spirit of not only swing dancing but a lively and thriving community. My last question for Glatzer was what she hoped people would take away from watching this documentary. She responded, "if they are just discovering this music and this dance and they want to explore that, that would be amazing. I do think that we live lives of quiet desperation. So few of us have a source of joy in our lives. I hope that it encourages people to find whatever is the source of joy for themselves."

Thank you to Norma Miller and Susan Glatzer for taking the time out to talk to me and to Caitlin Rose for coordinating.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Undercurrent (1946)


Undercurrent (1946)

In 1946 Robert Mitchum was under contract to RKO. They had loaned him out to MGM for two pictures Undercurrent (1946) and Desire Me (1947) which were filmed back-to-back. He had relatively small roles in both as the third person in a romantic melodrama. Both films turned out to be box office failures. Not that this hurt Mitchum's career trajectory at all. In fact, placing Mitchum in movies with the type of high-caliber stars that were missing from RKO's line-up, in this case MGM heavyweights Greer Garson in Desire Me and Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor in Undercurrent, was incredible exposure for Mitchum. And the following year he'd make Out of the Past (1947) which would help secure him a spot as a popular leading man in Hollywood.


Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)
Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum's shadow in a publicity shot for MGM

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Undercurrent (1946) is part film noir, part neurotic melodrama. Katharine Hepburn stars as Ann, a scientist and 30-something daughter of well-respected Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn) whom she lovingly refers to as Dink. She's a tomboy, wears pants, loves chemistry, and doesn't fuss too much over her appearance. But in the world she lives in she's really just a dowdy woman on the verge of spinsterhood. When charming young inventor Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) comes to visit Professor Hamilton, Ann is soon swept away by his romantic gestures. Garroway is attracted to Ann much in the same way he would be to a new idea for an invention. He sees possibility to transform her into a glamorous socialite. All seems well in their marriage until it becomes apparent that Garroway harbors dark secrets. He's severed his relationship with his brother Michael Garroway (Robert Mitchum) and in conversation with Ann he paints the picture of unforgivable sibling betrayal. Ann believes him until she discovers Alan's first lie and things begins to unfold. Ann suffers the internal battle between her love for Alan and her desire for the truth. Is Alan really the man she fell in love with? And where is Michael?

Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)
Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)

 "Is there good swimming?" - Ann
"No, riptide." - Michael
"Looks very calm." - Ann
"You can't always see that undercurrent." - Michael
"Like life." - Ann

Clearly I watched this movie for one reason: Robert Mitchum. While his character Michael is central to the story, Mitchum himself doesn't appear until 62 minute mark of a 2 hour movie and his total screen time is probably less than 10 minutes. Needless to say this was a disappointment for me but I was grateful for to check off another Mitchum movie off my to-be-watched list.

While it's categorized as a film noir, I like the term "neurotic melodrama" a lot better. It really captures the overall theme of the movie. The build up of tension is slow and methodical. None of the roles suited the main players. Ann was a weak role for Katharine Hepburn whom we all know shines when she has strong characters to play. Mitchum as the mysterious brother was also a weak character for him. Robert Taylor's performance was decent. I grew more fearful of his character as the story progressed so I thought that was an effective part of the movie. I think this film is worth watching for the main players, the melodrama and the build up of tension. This was Jayne Meadows film debut. She plays Sylvia Benton, a no-nonsense socialite who was unwillingly caught in a love triangle with the two brothers. She has a small but fantastic part as the tough woman who opens Ann's eyes to what's happening around her. Clinton Sundberg plays Taylor's right-hand man. Marjorie Main has a small role in the beginning of the film as the Hamilton's maid and mother figure to Ann.

This movie was a departure for Minnelli so he wasn't the only one on set who out of his element. From what I've read, Hepburn and Mitchum didn't get along which could be why there is very little to no tenderness between them in what should be tender scenes in the film. In an interview with Dick Lochte, Mitchum remembered overhearing Hepburn refer to him as a "cheap flash actor." This was the only time they worked together which was probably for the best.

The film didn't perform well in theaters. In 1947 playwright Fay Elhert sued MGM for using the title of his play, one he submitted to MGM for consideration, for this movie. Laraine Day had been promised the title role of Ann in exchange for her appearing in Keep Your Powder Dry (1945). MGM didn't hold up their end of the bargain and Day severed her contract with them.

I'm conflicted about this movie. I want to like it but something pulls me back. I can't quite put my finger on it. It could be shorter with even more tension. Maybe other actors better suited to the roles would have improved the film for me. But otherwise it's just an ordinary movie that I just happened to enjoy but not too much.

If you've seen this film I would love to know what you think!

I watched this film on iTunes. I missed an opportunity to see it at the Brattle Theatre as part of their Robert Mitchum centennial repertory series but hope to catch another screening soon.

Sources:
TCMDB
Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server
Mitchum in His Own Words edited by Jerry Roberts


Monday, July 24, 2017

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016)

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016) movie poster
"Obits have next to nothing to do with the death and absolutely everything to do with the life." - Margalit Fox
 
Classic film enthusiasts are well-acquainted with obituaries. The deaths of our beloved stars are a common occurrence. When someone dies we take the time to reflect on their life. Reading obits on and offline is one of the ways we celebrate the life and mourn the loss. When I first started this blog I always knew that I didn't want to write obits. At first I would post little tributes instead with just a few words and a picture or two. Even then it became too much and I abandoned the practice. I have the utmost respect for those who regularly write obits even more so now that I watched the new documentary Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016).


Directed by Vanessa Gould, Obit. takes a deep dive into the work by the obit team at The New York Times. Talking heads include current and former obit writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, Paul Vitello, their boss William McDonald as well archivist Jeff Roth and various others who contribute to the The New York Times obits.

Newspaper obit writers are a dying breed. Once considered to be the most boring section of a newspaper, today's writers have breathed new life into this form of journalism. The New York Times obit team focuses on writing pieces that educate, illuminate and entertain. They capture the essence of a life while also telling the reader an enthralling story. While they try to do justice to a life there is also the need for impartiality. These writers are not afraid to explore the negatives along with the positives. There is a keen eye on research. Obit writers race against the clock to pull together as much information as they can in a short amount of time. This means calling family members of the deceased, speed reading clips that are pulled from The New York Times' "Morgue" and using other resources to build the skeleton of the obit. Then there are the creative minds of these writers whose talent for the written word weave the tales of lives well-lived or not at all.

Scene from Obit. Photo source: Kino Lorber


One minute into Obit. and I was hooked. I was utterly fascinated by the process of researching and writing an obit. Viewers follow the writers on a typical day at the office but we also get to hear about some of their previous work too. The position of an obit writer used to be the lowest rung on the totem pole of a newspaper; a job relegated to someone on their way out. I get the sense that while The New York Times obit team isn't one of the top departments it is still respected.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure to be as prepared as you can, knowing that you'll never be prepared." - William McDonald


We get a peak at how the obit team pitches for a page one piece (either a top story or a "refer", a call out to the obit section on the bottom of the front page). Viewers get to see the "Morgue" where decades worth of news clippings arranged by subject and subject matter. There are insights on how photographs are selected, how the length of obits are decided on and how they approach advances, obits written ahead of a person's death. There is also a spotlight on individual obits for figures like adventurer John Fairfax, author David Foster Wallace, Marshall Lytle of Bill Haley and the Comets, stunt pilot Elinor Smith, actress Farrah Fawcett and singer Michael Jackson. These were fascinating and we learn quite a bit about the process.

Archivist Jeff Roth in the "Morgue" - Photo source: Kino Lorber


I was hoping this documentary had more classic film related figures but alas it did not. The only person mentioned was Elizabeth Taylor who's obit was a big deal for the team. There are some clips of movie stars like Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe but none are focused on. I think it's still worth the time of classic film fans to watch this documentary especially if you're like me and read obituaries on a regular basis.

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016) is an illuminating and informative documentary on the writers who give the recently deceased one final send-off. This is a must-see!





Obit. (2016) will be available from Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 1st. You can pre-order the movie by using the buy links below.


Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me the Blu-Ray to review!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Betrayed (1944)


Betrayed (1944) poster
In 1949, Robert Mitchum was a household name. By that time he had made a splash in the genre that was later dubbed film noir with movies such as The Locket (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Crossfire (1947) and the noir we all know and love Out of the Past (1947). That last film made him famous and his arrest in 1948 for the possession of marijuana made him notorious. The King brothers, Frank and Maurice King, must have been following the trajectory of Mitchum's career very closely. Five years earlier, Mitchum made two films for the King brothers and poverty row studio Monogram Pictures. The first one was Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944) (you can read my review here), a WWII housing shortage comedy starring Simone Simon. Mitchum had a very minor role in that film. He got a juicier part in When Strangers Marry (1944) which also produced by the King brothers and distributed by Monogram. In that film Mitchum didn't have the lead role but he was third billed with his name truncated to Bob Mitchum so it would fit the poster. Fast forward five years and Mitchum was now making movies for Howard Hughes at RKO. And he was doing well. If you know anything about the King brothers you'd know that when they saw a money-making opportunity they pounced. With Mitchum's fame and notoriety firmly established in Hollywood, Maurice and Frank King re-released their two Mitchum movies. They bumped up his name to top billing, altered the posters to more prominently display the star and changed Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore to And So They Were Married and When Strangers Marry to the more ominous Betrayed.



When Strangers Marry (1944) poster. Compare with the Betrayed poster and how Mitchum's name is positioned.


Betrayed (1944), aka When Strangers Marry, is a film noir directed by William Castle and based on a story by George Moskov. The movie starts with the murder of wealthy drunk Charlie (Milton Kibee). He was last seen with traveling salesman Paul Baxter (Dean Jagger) who helped Charlie to his home. The police discover Charlie had been strangled with a pair of silk stockings. Baxter recently wed Mildred (Kim Hunter). The two have barely known each other, meeting only three times before they married and haven't seen each other since the wedding. Mildred can't find her husband and enlists the help of her former beau Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum) and the police. Everyone begins to suspect Paul Baxter has been up to something. He doesn't want to be seen in public and has been acting very shady. Police begin to investigate with some help from Fred. Does Mildred really know the man she married? The story takes twists and turns in the way a good mystery should.

Kim Hunter and Dean Jagger in Betrayed (1944)


This was a new-to-me noir and I quite enjoyed it. The movie can be melodramatic at times especially when things heat up towards the end. But overall its an enjoyable 67 minute poverty row noir. Dean Jagger effectively plays the paranoid salesman on the run. Kim Hunter is charming as Mildred and I like that her character grows from befuddled to more independently minded. Milton Kibbee adds a bit of dark humor at the beginning of the film. Neil Hamilton, a familiar face in the 1930s and 1940s, plays Lieutenant Blake. Rhonda Fleming has a bit part in the last scene of the movie which effectively closes the loop on the entire plot.

Mitchum and a dog. Enough said?


Then there is Robert Mitchum. I might be biased considering the fact that he's my favorite actor but Mitchum is an absolute charmer in this movie. There were a few glorious moments for swooning. He's shirtless in the Turkish bath scene. Mitchum is at the peak of his handsomeness and the camera lingers long enough on his beautiful face for viewers to take in some of his gorgeous features. And he's often seen with an adorable Boston Terrier. My husband said "Robert Mitchum chillin' with a dog, that's all you need in your life." Too true. Too true. There's one important scene at the height of the film's drama that Mitchum may have overacted. He was still relatively knew to acting and this was before subtlety became his strong suit.

Betrayed (1944) is a good noir with a fine cast, decent tension and a fun plot twist. TCM will be showing it as When Strangers Marry (1944) on Robert Mitchum day August 6th during Summer Under the Stars. That day also happens to be the 100th anniversary of Mitchum's birth.

http://www.jdoqocy.com/click-6581483-10280984?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.wbshop.com%2Fproduct%2Fbetrayed%2B%25281944%2529%2B1000180179.do%3Fref%3DCJP&cjsku=1000180179


Betrayed (1944) is available from the Warner Archive Instant Streaming. This movie is also available on DVD-MOD from Warner Archive's shop. You can buy the DVD-R by using this link. Shopping through my buy links and banners helps support this site. Thank you!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive Instant for the opportunity to review this film!


Monday, July 17, 2017

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic

The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic
by Richard Sandomir
Hachette Books
304 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780316355056
June 2017

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

The Pride of the Yankees (1942) is considered one of the greatest sports films of all time. It served as the template for how movies about inspirational athletes would be made. It cemented Lou Gehrig as not only a legend of baseball but an important figure in American history. And Gehrig's final speech, one that demonstrated gratefulness in spite of his dire circumstances, would inspire generations to come. 75 years after it's initial release the film still has the power to move audiences to tears.

“Its greatest achievement was to establish a formidable, continuing physical legacy for Gehrig, almost like an annuity that renews itself with each showing.” - Richard Sandomir

Lou Gehrig had a fantastic career throughout the 1920s and 1930s as the Yankee's first baseman. His records for home runs and consecutive games played are still impressive many years later. Gehrig's life was cut short at the tender age of 37 when he died from ALS. His name would become synonymous with ALS and up until recently it was generally referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. It wasn't long after he died when Hollywood realized that Gehrig's story would make for a great movie. But it took Gehrig's widow Eleanor to lead the charge.

Richard Sandomir's new book The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic profiles the making of the movie in great detail. Gehrig died in June 1941 and the movie was released in July 1942. He was still in the public consciousness and with the start of WWII, audiences were ripe for a good story about a homegrown hero. Eleanor Gehrig was instrumental in getting Gehrig's story in front of Hollywood moguls. She was driven both by a desire to support herself and to honor her husband's legacy.

Producer Sam Goldwyn saw more potential in the love story between Gehrig and Eleanor than he did in Gehrig’s baseball career. The problem was Goldwyn knew nothing about baseball. In fact most of the people who worked on the film knew little to nothing about America’s greatest pastime. But what they did know is that Gehrig's story was special and if they played their cards right it would make for a blockbuster film.

The first step in making the film was to find the man who would play Gehrig. An open audition was conducted but it became clear early on that Gary Cooper would be a great fit. There were problems at first. Cooper was older, not very familiar with baseball and was a righty to Gehrig's lefty. But, as Sandomir points out, Cooper playing Gehrig was "a near-perfect marriage of modest, heroic subject and an actor who specialized in modest, heroic characters." The role of Eleanor was important too. Actress Teresa Wright was new to Hollywood but her career was already skyrocketing. She had an Academy Award nomination under her belt and this film would be her first opportunity to shine as a leading lady. With the real-life Eleanor full involved in overseeing the making of the film, there was a lot of pressure on Wright to capture the spirit of Eleanor and to do the film justice.

Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Photo source: Doctor Macro

As is the case with many biopics of the golden age of Hollywood, The Pride of the Yankees plays fast and loose with the facts. However, Eleanor Gehrig made sure that her husband and his sport were portrayed as accurately as possible. Author Sandomir goes into detail about all of the preparation for both the fictional and biographical aspects of the film. There was both the care and neglect to accurately portray baseball. There was an effort to make Cooper look like a real left-handed baseball player (the author adeptly debunks the myth that the scenes were flipped for the camera). I was particularly fascinated with the scenes that didn't make it into the final film. For example, after Gehrig's baseball career ended he had a short stint as a parole commissioner, a part of his life I'm very eager to read more about. A scene in which he is checking in on a parolee dying of cancer was written for the film. However, the film ends with the rousing final speech which suited the movie and made for a more dramatic ending.

I loved reading about Gehrig’s famous “The luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. According to Sandomir, it doesn’t exist in its entirety. There are only snippets from news clips and a bunch of transcriptions that vary greatly. It was never fully transcribed and its very possible that Gehrig had written some of it down but also spoke some lines that just came to him. The film alters the speech and includes the famous line at the very end. "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." is #38 on the AFI's top 100 list of the greatest movie quotes of all time.

Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper - The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There's so much more in this book too. We learn about Babe Ruth's involvement in the movie and his connections to Hollywood. Then there was Lou Gehrig's own, brief and failed attempt at an acting career. There is a wealth of information about the actors, the shooting, the editing, the screenwriting, the film's reception and what happened to the key players years after the movie was released. At the heart of the book is the story of a fallen man who lived the American dream and who's story was shared in a way that ensured his legacy for the rest of the century and beyond.

If you enjoyed The Pride of the Yankees (1942) I implore you to read this book. It's a fantastic deep dive into the making of a classic. My only small complaint about the book is that it does lapse into repetition as well some unnecessary plot description. In some circumstances including the plot makes sense in context but at other points it felt like filler. However, if it's been a while since you've seen the movie the plot points included might serve as a refresher. Sandomir's book is well-rounded and well-researched. It's the story of a movie but it's also so much more than that. It makes for great summer reading. I took this book to the beach with me and lounged with it on my front porch.


This is my second review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Thank you to the good folks at Hachette books for the opportunity to review this book. As a treat for my readers they are generously offering 10 copies of the book for giveaway! The contest runs from now until Sunday. Good luck!

CONTEST IS NOW OVER. Congrats to the winners: Vanessa, Keisha, Lindsay, Meg, John, Noelle, Christopher, Christian, Moshe & JT!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)


Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

It's a cinephile's dream to unearth a trove of silent gems. Films unseen for many decades, written off as lost forever are brought to life again. When this event occurs usually one or two films are found in someone's attic or shed. Sometimes these discoveries happen in lands many miles away from birthplace of the film. We hear about newly discovered silents, sometimes entire films, sometimes just fragments, coming from South America or Australia.

"Dawson had an idle, captive audience ready to be entertained." - Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada is over three thousand miles away from Hollywood. It's an isolated city in the heart of the gold rush territory of the north. Once a gambling town that suffered from countless fires, it eventually became the home of a small community of just under 1,000 people. In the 1910s and 1920s, Dawson City residents were captivated by the silent films shown at their local athletic center's family theater. Dawson was the end of the line for film distribution. Back in those days, film distributors would send out nitrate prints for rental periods. After the rental period was over, the theaters would send back the prints. Because Dawson was so far away, it would sometimes take 2-3 years to arrive in Dawson. Not only was it cost-prohibitive to pay to get the prints back, by then the distributors were no longer interested in them. The local Dawson bank was in charge of making sure the films were only screened during that rental period before locking them up. As the years passed they ran out of room. Crates of nitrates were set ablaze, dumped in the Yukon river and just over 500 reels were used to fill a pool in the local athletic center.  Over 50 years later, those reels, buried in permafrost and forgotten were unearthed.

A nitrate reel unearthed from the permafrost. Dawson City: Frozen Time.
A nitrate reel unearthed from the permafrost. Dawson City: Frozen Time. Photo source: Kino Lorber


"The world outside of Yukon flickered through their screens."  - Dawson City: Frozen Time

Director Bill Morrison's new documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), explores the discovery of those 500 reels but also the history of Dawson City and it's long connection with Hollywood. The documentary has no narration and only a couple of interviews at the beginning and the end of the film. Most of it watches like a silent movie. It's made of photographic images shot in the Ken Burns style as well as a plethora of film clips, many of which are Dawson City film finds. Morrison and his team expertly weave together photographs, film clips, captions and ethereal music. Audiences will learn about the early days of Dawson City, time spent there and in the Yukon by known Hollywood figures such as Sid Grauman, Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor. We learn about volatile medium of nitrate film and the neglect of silent film in the talkie era.

When you watch this documentary, you get a sense of how movies made the world seem smaller and more accessible. I'm fascinated by how the filmmakers were able to incorporate so much relevant footage. For example, director Alice Guy-Blache is briefly profiled and not only do we see film footage of the Solax Film Laboratories fire (she was co-founder and director of that laboratory) but also a clip from one of her silent films that was uncovered in the Dawson City find. Some might find this film a bit quirky with its lack of talking heads and narration. The music at times is surreal and ominous. I enjoyed all these elements but for some who are used to traditionally styled documentaries it would be important to know this before diving head first into the film.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is an expertly crafted documentary and a fascinating story of one small town and their extraordinary find. It's well worth the time of any hardcore cinephile.



Dawson City: Frozen Time screened earlier this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival and I unfortunately wasn't able to attend that screening. I put it high on my wish list of new documentaries to watch and it did not disappoint. The film is currently on theater tour across the country with screenings books from now until early September. You can find future screening dates here. Kino Lorber will be releasing Dawson City: Frozen Time on DVD in the near future.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a screener for this film!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sadie McKee (1934)

Franchot Tone, Akim Tamiroff, Joan Crawford and Edward Arnold in Sadie McKee (1934)
Franchot Tone, Akim Tamiroff, Joan Crawford and Edward Arnold in Sadie McKee (1934)

On the heels of Dancing Lady (1933), MGM teamed up off screen couple Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone for another on screen romance in Sadie McKee (1944). But it seems like Hollywood wouldn't let Crawford be the apple of one eye. She has to be desired by several. Crawford stars as Sadie McKee, a maid working for the wealthy Alderson family. Michael Alderson (Franchot Tone) has returned home to discover that Sadie has blossomed into a beauty. But Sadie is in love with the formerly employed Tommy (Gene Raymond). The two run off to New York together and plan to marry. Sadie befriends Opal (Jean Dixon), a street-wise dame with a penchant for a good time. While the two are waiting for Tommy to show up at the courthouse for the wedding, he runs off with show girl Dolly (Esther Ralston). Sadie is destitute of both money and love. She starts a new life as a show girl (plus a little more) to make ends meet. That's when she meets the incredibly wealthy and incredibly drunk Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold). Brennan is smitten with her and through marriage offers her an opportunity to get ahead. Sadie takes advantage of this even though it puts her in the precarious situation of taking care of an alcoholic. She also suffers the disdain of Brennan's friend and her old acquaintance Alderson and Brennan's staff including his butler Finnegan (Leo G. Carroll). Sadie takes on the task of saving Brennan from himself, closing one chapter in her life and starting a new one.

From the very beginning it's established that Sadie McKee is the ideal physical specimen of womanhood. She has enough sass and sex appeal to keep men interested. And the three men she lures are all grossly inadequate. Tommy can't be held down, Brennan suffers from advanced alcoholism and Alderson is a spoiled rich playboy. Although Sadie is swayed by her emotions. she's the only one of the four who seems to have her shit together. She also has the support of her best friend and frequent voice of reason, Opal. The role of Sadie McKee fits Joan Crawford's persona perfectly. She embodied the spirit of the working girl who moves up the ranks and proves her worth. It's satisfying to watch her in parts like this. One could say that Sadie McKee is the pre-code precursor to Mildred Pierce (1945).

1934 brought on a tougher enforcement of the Hays Production Code. Sadie McKee slips in just in time and there are a few elements that classify it as a pre-code film. For example, the unmarried Sadie and Tommy sleep in the same bedroom together, albeit with her in the bed and him on the chair. Sexpot neighbor Dolly, played by Esther Ralston, channels Mae West and lures Tommy away from Sadie. When Dolly and Sadie have a showdown later in the film Dolly suggests that Sadie is a glorified prostitute. Pre-Code expert Danny Reid also points out that when Opal and Sadie are at city hall waiting for Tommy, a police officer approaches them and asks if they're getting married. He says it in a way that both suggests they might be marrying each other but also that they're waiting for their fiancees. I'd also like to point out the scene in which Finnegan the butler, played by Leo G. Carroll in his first on screen role, undresses a drunk Brennan (Edward Arnold), preparing him for bed. It's an oddly intimate scene that lingers just enough to give time for the audience to wonder.

Sadie McKee is based on a story by Vina Delmar who wrote many novels, short stories and screenplays including The Awful Truth (1937). She appears in the trailer for Sadie McKee as you can see below. The story suffers from trying to do too much. It starts off as a sweet romance between two people who escape the upstairs-downstairs life for a fresh start in New York City. Then it takes a twist when it becomes a story of a poor show girl who marries a rich alcoholic. Then it takes a somber tone when the first couple are reunited. And then of course Franchot Tone's continual attraction and momentary disgust for Sadie/Crawford adds several more plot points. One could say that Sadie McKee is an epic that didn't quite reach it's potential.




Even with its many flaws this is a gem of a film. Its such a joy to see cast members like Crawford, Tone, Arnold, Carroll, Raymond, Ralston and Dixon in action. Not to mention one of my personal favorites, Akim Tamiroff who plays night club owner Riccorri. I'll watch him in anything. Also in the movie are singer Gene Austin and the jazz duo Candy and Coco who all make their screen debut and play a couple of numbers in the movie.

Sadie McKee ad from The Film Daily April-June 1934
Sadie McKee ad from The Film Daily April-June 1934

Sadie McKee got mixed reviews but still proved profitable enough for MGM that after a batch of successful films Crawford was able to renegotiate her contract. According to Joan Crawford biographer Donald Spoto, Crawford said, "I was pretty unhappy with the way the picture was cut. Perhaps it will make sense, but I doubt it."

Interesting fact: The Library Hotel in New York City plays Sadie McKee on a loop on a TV in their rooftop lounge. I've attended a few parties in that space and that movie is always on. I couldn't find any information why that film in particular was selected for the loop. It's a curious choice especially considering their rooftop bar is just around the corner. Maybe they thought a sobering film about alcoholism might encourage patrons to drink less.


Sadie McKee (1934) DVD


Sadie McKee (1934) is available from the Warner Archive Collection. You can buy the DVD-R from the WB Shop by using this link.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Sadie McKee (1934) for review!

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook     Google+