Archive | June, 2018

Welcome to Jerry’s Dollhouse

30 Jun

In 1954, a production design team comprised of Joseph MacMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira (Art Direction), along with Sam Comer and Ray Moyer (Set Decoration) worked movie magic with the completion of the magnificent set that anchors Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classic Rear Window.  Hitchcock tasked the group with creating a series of apartment buildings clustered around a courtyard in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, effectively a mostly exterior set built on a soundstage with extraordinary attention to detail.  The specifics include structures of varying sizes  (two-to-four storeys), colors, and surfaces marked, per verisimilitude,  by a lack of uniformity among awnings, windows, flowerbeds, fire escapes, and balconies; moreover, Hitchcock’s camera, parked a safe distance away in the interior set of lead Jimmy Stewart’s compact apartment, affords both its spying protagonist and the audience more than a mere peek into at least four of the apartments, all of which are sufficiently furnished and reflect the sensibilities and economic statuses of their respective tenants, among them a buxom dancer, a lonely middle-aged woman, a struggling composer who knows how to throw a great party, and the bickering couple at the center of a developing mystery.

Nothing cookie-cutter, nothing generic.

The work doesn’t stop there. Besides Stewart’s aforementioned apartment, the totality of the Rear Window set extends beyond the courtyard to the busy “street” across the far side of the courtyard, complete with moving vehicles and even what appears to be a bustling bar and grill which the lonely middle aged woman (“Miss Lonelyheart”) frequents out of desperation. Oh, and don’t forget the rainstorm.

The full effect is complete immersion in this community, meaning total suspension of disbelief. At first, it’s hard not to be impressed by the size and scope of the team’s achievement, which can be problematic if viewers care more about the set than the story unfolding within it. No worries. By the end of the film, audiences are caught up in the characters’ crisscrossing storylines, looking past the artifice of Hitchcock and company’s contraption–and into danger unfolding in real-time.

A well-reviewed audience favorite in its day, Rear Window barely rated a blip on the Academy’s radar. Oh sure, as the architect, so to speak, of the ingenious flick, Hitchcock rated a Best Director nod as did screenwriter John Michael Hayes, cinematographer Robert Burks, and sound mixer Loren L. Ryder, none of whom emerged victorious. More disheartening is how the Academy shunned the design crew, not even a nomination. Inconceivable.

In that year’s race for the Academy’s art direction/set decoration trophy among color films, Walt Disney’s 20, 000 Leagues under the Sea, adapted from Jules Verne’s early science-fiction classic, bested all comers. Okay, I get it. Disney’s mammoth underwater hit took audiences to, well, a whole new world, uncharted territory as it were, and apparently spared no expense in the creation of Captain Nemo’s  fantastic submarine, the Nautilus, with its ornate flourishes–the precursor to what we now refer to as “Steam punk.”  Full-tilt everything. The competition also included A Star is Born with its extravagant “Born in a Trunk” movie within a movie production number. Good enough. Historical epic Desiree? Okay, sure. But who can explain the inclusion of Brigadoon, the curiously flat rendition of Lerner and Lowe’s musical, set in the Scottish highlands, filmed on tacky sets–that look like tacky sets–on MGM soundstages? Or what about the musical western spoof Red Garters? I’ve never seen it, but I’m petty certain that it lacked the allure of a Hitchcock film. On the other hand, Red Garters was a Paramount Picture, like Rear Window, which means the nominated team included three of the four Rear Window team members: Pereira, Comer, and Moyer. I guess that’s better than nothing.

Imagine my surprise when I began utilizing the wonders of the Internet Movie Database, back around 2000, researching some of my favorite movies and learning that two individuals from the Rear Window bunch also collaborated on one of my favorite movies, Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man, from 1961.  Of course.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The Ladies Man stands as Lewis’s second directorial effort, after The Bellboy. The story begins on college graduation day for Lewis’s “nervous” Herbert Hebert. Diploma freshly in hand, he suffers rejection from the woman of his dreams. He then sets out to remove himself from the situation or anything resembling love and romance by catching a bus to the big city where he immediately encounters one babe after another, each one seemingly more terrifying than the last. In short order, he finds both shelter and a job as a handyman at a rooming hotel; however, he is initially ignorant to the-all female clientele, mostly showbiz hopefuls. That’s it: nervous Herbert reconciling his fear of females in a place wherein women pop-up around every corner, 24/7.  Let the laughs–and the slapstick–begin. [To clarify, Lewis’ film is in no way connected to SNL alum Tim Meadows’ 2000 flick of the same name in spite of the Paramount connection.]

Besides sharing the talents of Hal Pereira and Sam Comer, as well as costumer Edith Head, The Ladies Man and Rear Window both carry the Paramount Pictures’ stamp of approval. This explains the overlap among crew members, provided, of course, that the likes of Pereira and Comer were under-contact at the studio during that period, the waning days of such a system.  Of course, moneymaking machine Lewis had a sweet production deal with the studio, even claiming his own soundstage. That’s not all. There’s more.

I first saw The Ladies Man, oh, way back when, probably around 6th, 7th, or 8th grade, on the channel 8 Dialing for Dollars afternoon movie. It was a seminal experience in my growth as a movie aficionado.  See, fairly early in the film, the women in the house rise, shine, and begin their various morning rituals, a highly intricate routine set to music and choreographed by no less than fabled song and dance man Bobby Van [1]. Lewis and his crew, aided by an elaborate camera rig, glide viewers from one pastel room to the next, ultimately pulling back to reveal a massive structure that for all practical purposes resembles, no, functions, as, well, a gi-normous doll house.  As a child, I could scarcely believe my own eyes as I took in the full-effect of the colossal, luxuriously appointed, set. How did they do that?

How, indeed?

Ever since, I have pined for the opportunity to see The Ladies Man in all its glory on a big movie screen as Lewis intended.

Between my the DVD commentary provided by Lewis himself, with likeable sidekick Steve Lawrence of all people, and other sources, I learned that the totality of the set occupied not one but two full soundstages on the Paramount lot, one of which gave Lewis the home base he needed to house the crane that could steer the camera to one of a few dozen fully furnished rooms at all points among the sprawling four storey contraption, occupying the entire adjacent stage. Kinda-sorta Rear Window-ish. With virtually all the action contained to the central, multi-purpose set, Lewis minimized time between setups as lighting/lighting cues could be set in the evening before the next day’s shoot. Furthermore, each individual room was conveniently miked for sound. Efficient but also visually thrilling since, after all, Lewis enjoys the freedom to attempt all kinds of camera angles, delighting audiences at every turn.

Don’t believe me? Just watch:

 

I will not argue that The Ladies Man is an all-time comedy classic, but it is consistently entertaining. What it’s not is seamless. No, the plot, such that it is, is barely more than a framework for Lewis and co-scripter Bill Richmond to hang various gags and set pieces, not so much to advance a story but to treat audiences to a good time at the movies. As long as viewers understand up front, a good time may be had by all. For example, one recurring bit involves Lewis’s daily mail deliveries, going from one woman’s room to the next, always encountering a surprise.  One visit brings a modern Southern belle (Caroline Richter) whose drippingly sweet and saucy accent renders her unintelligible, reducing Lewis to a series of double-takes before a translator intervenes. Elsewhere, Lewis encounters a sultry Marilyn Monroe-alike, keeping in mind that MM was still very much with us at the time of the film’s release. Perky Hope Holliday scores big laughs of her own as an aspiring actress, eager for Lewis’s assist as she runs her lines, running a gamut of big emotions and bigger zingers. In another vignette, Lewis and various women stage a talent show as part of a TV broadcast, two highlights of which include a tap dance duo [2] and a chanteuse named Vicki Benet performing a piffle about Paris. The number is pleasant enough, and Benet certainly looks smashing in her Edith Head designed black cocktail dress; however, nothing compares to the elaborate fantasy sequence featuring trumpeter Harry James and his band along with leggy Sylvia Lewis–no relation–a black clad hoofer whose fluid moves easily rival those of Cyd Charisse, legendary for her work in such classic MGM musicals as Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Silk Stockings. Ms. Lewis, head-to-toe, is more than a match for Charisse.  Also, this same sequence, a snippet of which is seen in the video clip, may very well surprise moviegoers who fondly remember that moment in 2002’s Spiderman in which Tobey Maguire descends upside down into the frame, replete with Spidey regalia, and enjoys a wet kiss, literally, with Kirsten Dunst. Lewis and Lewis share a similar moment way ahead of its time.  To his credit, director Lewis seems quite generous when sharing the screen with his co-stars, despite reports to the contrary.

Two more big name talents appear in extended cameos, both of them smartly executed. In the first, comedian Buddy Lester plays straight man as a tough guy who remains scarily stoic as Lewis’s bumbling Herbert annihilates the gentleman caller’s hat. A hilarious coda ensues. Also, no less than silver screen gangster George Raft appears as himself  and sweet talks Herbert into dancing with him. Must be seen to be believed though the Raft sequence once again provides Lewis the director an opportunity to make stunning use of the set via exquisite lighting cues–with assist, of course, from W. Wallace Kelley (director of photography) and Carl Manoogian (crane operator).

Special shout-out to the late great Kathleen Freeman who plays a formidable housekeeper named Katie, only slightly dotty around the edges. If Freeman’s name doesn’t ring a bell, the face and the voice surely will–especially to anyone who has ever seen Singin’ in the Rain, in which she portrays–unbilled–a simply mahvelous dialect coach hired to help squeaky voiced silent screen star Lina Lamont (Oscar nominee Jean Hagen) make the transition to talkies. During the course of her lengthy career, Freeman was one of the most in-demand second and third banana character players in the biz (gruff here, zany there), with nearly 300 TV and movie credits (not to mention who knows how many commercials) [3], and she and Lewis play off each other like troupers.  Years ago, maybe early 2000s, Lewis incited quite a controversy when he claimed that women were not as well suited to comedy as are men, ignoring the contributions of such luminaries as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and, yes, Freeman. He then spent years trying to qualify his comments, but actions speak louder than words. Freeman appeared in 11 films with Lewis  [4], so, clearly, he recognized comic gold when he saw it despite his misspoken words.

The other major roles are enacted by Helen Traubel and Pat Stanley. The former, a well known singer with a background in opera, and occasional mystery novelist, plays Lewis’s put upon employer, Miss Wellenmellon (quite funny in her own right) while Pat Stanley, fresh from winning a Best Featured Actress Tony (the musical, Goldilocks) plays a young woman who grows fond of Herbert and comes to value him for who he is rather than what he does as handyman. It’s not much of a role, but Stanley has a lovely presence.

So, there it is.  When Alfred Hitchcock developed Rear Window, he and his team crafted the big screen equivalent of, for all practical purposes, a massive dollhouse mostly viewed from the back, something akin to peering through to the inside from the outside. In The Ladies Man, Lewis and his team go one step further, not quite looking from the inside out, more like inside looking even further inside. Even in his DVD commentary, Lewis never pushes the dollhouse metaphor (not that I can recall after dozens of viewing),  but the effect is apropos. Welcome to the dollhouse, and all its living dolls, indeed.

I once read a comment from an industry insider that, regarding, say, the Oscar for Best Costumes, if a moviegoer, or potential Academy voter, notices the work involved, then the effect is too much. In other words, the work shouldn’t draw so much attention to itself and should exist only to advance the story or comment on the characters in some way. I have wondered many times if the obviousness of the sprawling sets in both Rear Window and The Ladies Man were indeed big turn-offs to Academy members. Previously, I explained why I think that should not have been a concern per Rear Window, but it’s harder to argue in defense of The Ladies Man in that regard because, clearly, Lewis is fond of his team’s creation and wants to show it off to audiences. But should that really be a concern since the set does indeed serve Lewis’s concept?  Maybe, regarding both films, Academy members were jealous–or maybe they held prejudices against both filmmakers, especially Lewis. I can imagine that.  I also think that’s stupid, but I’ll also consider the times.

With all that in mind, please note that Hal Pereira and Sam Comer were hardly Academy wallflowers. In his career, Pereira garnered 23 nominations, including Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and Vertigo, winning for 1955’s The Rose Tattoo (in the B&W category), while Comer’s accolades include 26 nominations and two wins (the aforementioned Rose Tattoo and the color production Frenchman’s Creek in the 1940s). Furthermore, the rest of The Ladies Man team fared well with the Academy over the long haul. Ross Bellah scored a mention for 1956’s The Solid Gold Cadillac, and James W. Payne shared honors for 1973’s Best Picture winner The Sting, his third nod, btw. Backing up even further, to the remaining members of the Rear Window quartet, J. McMillan Johnson and Ray Moyer, they also were no strangers to the Academy. For example, Johnson was a six-time nominee who’d actually won as part of the special effects team for 1948’s Portrait of Jennie; meanwhile, Moyer reaped a dozen nods and actually won twice during the 1950/51 ceremonies, for B&W (Sunset Boulevard) AND color (Samson and Delilah). So, no, these artisans were no lightweights, nor were they forgotten geniuses, and I don’t know if any of them even considered Rear Window and/or The Ladies Man among their best works though I surely cannot imagine otherwise, and I do not think any of them would have scoffed at Academy recognition.

This is Amazon’s default image for Lewis’s much valued, highly collectible,  book The Total Film-Maker, spotlighting the superb achievement of a production design team consisting of Hal Pereira and Sam Comer. Yes, in many ways Lewis was, indeed, the total filmmaker even if members of the Academy failed to take notice. He passed away last August at the quite ripe age of 91. IMAGE: https://www.amazon.com/Total-Film-Maker-Jerry-Lewis/dp/039446236X

I know Lewis would not have scoffed at Academy recognition. Late in life, into his 70s, Lewis earned Academy recognition in the form of a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award for his decades long commitment to hosting annual telethons and raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. While that is an incredible honor, it doesn’t acknowledge Lewis’s contributions as a first-rate filmmaker. Of course, I know scads of people (my own late mother included) who despise the actor’s brand of juvenile slapstick, many of whom also sneer at the notion of the French pronouncing reverence for him as though they were easily enthralled by pratfalls, funny voices, and rubber-faced goofiness. Not quite. It’s not that simple. My take is that the French appreciated Lewis not so much for his onscreen antics, but for his work behind–and with–the camera as demonstrated in this movie and even The Bellboy, his directorial effort. In that one he cameos as himself, more or less,  while enacting the title character, a silent role in an otherwise talking picture. Lewis shot the black and white film on a shoestring during the day while appearing at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel at night. He then completed the production in the midst of his subsequent gig at the Sands in Las Vegas. Of course, such esteemed filmmakers as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese revere Lewis for his book The Total Film-Maker (culled from his stint as a lecturer at USC in the early 1970s, one edition of which features a shot from The Ladies Man set on the cover) as well as innovative use of video assisted technology, which in the era before digital everything gave filmmakers a chance to see a scene exactly as it was captured on film–only sooner rather than later.  Lewis was already perfecting video assist by the time he directed The Ladies Man, btw, in 1961.  Elsewhere, lest not forget his superb skills as mime in the typewriter scene in Who’s Minding the Store, or his comparable routine to a Count Basie tune in Cinderfella–both, to clarify, along with one of my other faves, The Geisha Boy, are directed by Frank Taleshin rather than Lewis.

Then, of course, there’s Lewis’s classic performance, self-directed,  in The Nutty Professor (1963), a modernized comedic riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which he ostensibly plays two roles and which legions, beginning with Cult Movies author Danny Peary, believe to be Oscar worthy. Oh, and, speaking of Scorsese, Lewis earned high-praise indeed for his startling turn as a comedian-TV talk show host (not unlike Johnny Carson, or, well, Lewis himself) in the director’s satirical The King of Comedy (1983).

Oh, backing up to Pereira and Comer, which is where we began, they were, not, as mentioned, strangers to the Academy. Indeed, both men earned double nominations in the color category for their work in two other 1961 productions, both Paramount: Breakfast at Tiffany’s AND Summer and Smoke. They lost to the team from West Side Story, and now  I get it. The members of the production design branch simply could not reconcile nominating the same team three times in one season. Make sense. I forgive you, Academy, for holding back on anointing The Ladies Man, but what about Rear Window?

Plus, I still cling to the idea of seeing The Ladies Man up on the big screen one day.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] For the uninitiated, Van first made a name for himself as a young enthusiastic MGM star in the likes of The Adventures of Dobie Gillis, Kiss Me Kate and, perhaps most famously, Small Town Girl in which he hopped his way through an entire musical sequence a la a small-town Pied Piper (“Take Me to Broadway”), a bit that was replicated by Hugh Jackman during a gig hosting the Tony awards a few years ago.  Van, who passed away from brain cancer in 1980 at the relatively young age of 51, earned a Tony nom for his role in the early 1970s Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette, and frequently appeared on many of the biggest TV variety, talk, and game shows in  the 60s and 70s, often with Elaine Joyce,  his wife, famous in her own right for, among others, starring in the title role of the Broadway musical Sugar (based on Some Like it Hot, meaning Joyce starred in the role made famous by Marilyn Monroe). I loved watching Van on all those old shows.

[2] That would be Lewis, a showbiz jack of all trades born into a family of vaudevillians who hit the boards early, and a less easily identified co-star as all of the following are identified as “Dancer” per the IMDb: Francesca Bellini, Bonnie Evans, and Gretchen Houser. Furthermore, the actress who translates Miss Southern Belle’s dialogue is not clearly identified in the credits, nor is the Marilyn Monroe lookalike; others are easier to figure per the IMDb credits and Lewis’s own DVD audio-commentary.

[3] Ever the showbiz trouper, Freeman scored a Broadway triumph as the rehearsal hall pianist in the musical version of 1997’s indie smash The Full Monty. She earned a featured actress Tony nod in the spring of 2001, but left the production during the summer due to health complications, specifically lung cancer. She died only a few days later at the age of 82.

[4] Sources vary regarding the number of times Freeman and Lewis collaborated partially because, per the IMDb, Freeman sometimes appeared uncredited, likely in smallish walk-ons or cameos. Those credits include the early films in which Lewis successfully co-starred with Dean Martin, such a Three Ring Circus and Artists and Models, in the 1950s before the famous duo split.

 

 

 

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Grace Perfected

3 Jun

Hello, again. Breaks happen. Where were we? Oh, yes. The Oscars had just happened when I wrote my last post. I followed my awards coverage with a piece about Joanne Woodward, the beneficiary of Best Supporting Actress winner Allison Janney’s gratitude.

When Grace Kelly won the 1954 Best Actress Oscar for The Country Girl, she didn’t just triumph over Judy Garland for A Star is Born, she also beat Dorothy Dandridge’s historic turn in Carmen Jones, along with previous winners Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina) and Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession). Coincidentally, Kelly turned down a strong role in On the Waterfront, the year’s Best Picture winner, in order to continue working with Hitchcock on Rear Window (Humphries 119). That role eventually went to Eva Marie Saint, who won that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. A few years later, Saint would assume what was clearly intended as a Grace Kelly type role in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. (IMAGE: https://people.com/celebrity/top-10-oscar-looks/)

Okay, now back to business. I want to revisit one of the Academy’s most, well, infamous picks. Allegedly. I’m referring to the time when the Academy lavished Best Actress honors on Grace Kelly (The Country Girl), bypassing Judy Garland, whom many believe was the presumed frontrunner, giving her all in the spectacular, big-budget musical reincarnation of venerable Hollywood tearjerker, A Star is Born. The second official, and third unofficial, incarnation–in blazing Technicolor, no less [1]. Dynamo Garland, long a fan favorite, had not made a movie in a few years, following a period of emotional upheavals and a painful dismissal from MGM where she had toiled in one picture after another since her teens. In the interim between her last and most recent film, she re-established herself as a top concert draw. With her luster restored, she and then husband-manager Sid Luft used their new found clout to set-up shop at Warner Bros where they produced, through the auspices of their Transcona Enterprises, what was heralded as a stellar triumph, the comeback of all comebacks: the story of a Hollywood ingénue who rises to the peak of stardom while her husband (in this case, played by James Mason), already well established in the biz, suffers a downward spiral brought on by his own self-destructive tendencies, chiefly alcoholism (Peary 126; Wiley and Bona 246).  The star-studded premiere was, in a TV first, broadcast live–coast to coast with studio honcho Jack Warner famously boasting, “It’s the greatest night in the history of the movies,” to which the Hollywood Reporter‘s  Mike Connolly enthusiastically concurred (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 246).  So far, so good. Furthermore,  as Scott Schechter reports in his book Judy Garland: The Day by Day Chronicle of a Legend (2002), a reviewer for Time proclaimed that with A Star is Born, Garland had effectively nailed “the greatest one-woman show” in all of Hollywood moviedom (qtd 197), but that statement can be read more than one way, meaning it might not be a compliment, considering A Star is Born, or almost any movie, really, is hardly a solo enterprise.

When Garland lost the Oscar, no less than Groucho Marx famously harrumphed that it was the biggest robbery since the Brinks job (qtd in Wiley and Bona 254). Whoa. That’s some kind of heavy-duty robbery, Mr. Marx. To this day, cinephiles, Oscar enthusiasts, and Garland fans still harrumph.

I’m not sure I agree with Marx and the other harrumph-ers. Call me a heretic if you wish, but I actually think the right actress won the Oscar that year.

Backing up a bit, in 1953 Grace Kelly was still a relative acting novice with a smattering of stage, TV, and film credits, including the high profile role of young bride to marked lawman Gary Cooper in 1952’s taut Western drama High Noon (for which Cooper won his second Oscar). Not much of a role, but Kelly proved her mettle and moved on to Mogambo, alongside luminaries Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. Incredibly, Mogambo was actually a remake of Gable’s own Red Dust (1932), in which “the King” shared the screen with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor. Stepping into the role originally played by Astor, Kelly caught the attention of the Academy, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination–in addition to a Golden Globe. She lost that first Oscar race, btw, to Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity. Fair enough, but Kelly was only getting started.

1954 was the year in which Kelly proved her star wattage. In The Country Girl she held her own against the likes of previous Best Actor winners Bing Crosby and William Holden. In a scenario somewhat similar to that of A Star is Born, Kelly plays the dutiful, deceptively mousey wife of an alcoholic, has-been actor (Crosby) attempting a comeback in a play directed by Holden’s character. The whole enterprise soon becomes a contest of wills for all three leads with Crosby, as is likely for a chronic substance abuser, playing one side (Kelly) against the other (Holden); moreover, The Country Girl was only one of Kelly’s three hit films in 1954 [2]. The remaining two were both directed by the then highly popular “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock: first-up was Dial M for Murder, effectively filmed in 3-D, and then came the enduring undeniably classic Rear Window.

The Country Girl garnered a total of 7 Oscar nominations during the 54/55 awards season, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Kelly, natch), and Best Actor (Bing Crosby). George Seaton was nominated for both directing the picture and adapting Clifford Odet’s play. Seaton won for his screenplay while Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront took Best Picture and Best Director honors. For context, consider that the same year Crosby played against type in The Country Girl (and lost to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront), he also enjoyed  what used to be known as boffo box-office in the now holiday perennial White Christmas (a revamp of his own Holiday Inn), which duked it out for top box-office status with Rear Window and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea  (starring no less than James Mason). Finally, William Holden famously plugged The Country Girl when he guest-starred on a memorable episode of I Love Lucy. (IMAGE: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/115897390388276376/)

Those in the pro-Judy/Anti-Grace contingent regarding the 1954 Oscars  often carp that Kelly won not so much for acting, per se, but for, again, playing against type, going mousey, playing down her glam looks in favor of a drab hair do, shapeless sweaters, and little or no makeup. Sometimes wearing less than flattering glasses; sometimes not (Matthews 189; Peary 126) [3]. All in Black and White, btw. Throw in a calculated emotional outburst or two, a few tears, and Kelly wins an Oscar, right?  I don’t think so. That’s almost too easy, and it ignores the powerful dynamics at play in The Country Girl, which, per this viewer (and keep in mind, I grew up around addiction), includes possibly the truest portrait of a substance abuser I can recall. Crosby, in an Oscar nominated turn (same as Mr. Mason in the Garland film) is eerily convincing as someone who uses passive-aggression to serve his own interests. In his own way, Crosby is so good that he’s downright ghastly. And Kelly has to keep up with that. I tend to think of Kelly in The Country Girl (which I first saw on TV, maybe PBS, back in the early 90s), in the same way I think of Helen Hunt and her Oscar winning turn in 1997’s As Good as it Gets, opposite hammy Jack Nicholson. Basically, the success of both actresses is that they give as good as they get, so to speak, in the presence of co-stars who might have easily devoured them.

Again, The Country Girl is only part of the story as Kelly worked in back-to-back productions for Hitchcock. In Dial M for Murder, she portrayed a woman on trial for a crime that both she and the audience know was self-defense. What she and the authorities don’t know is that her attacker was hired by Kelly’s jealous, fortune seeking husband, but his plans for a so-called “perfect murder” go horribly wrong. A frame-up seems the next best thing. In Rear Window, she scored as James Stewart’s fashionable steady turned would-be sleuth. As with Dial M for Murder, Rear Window was an instant hit that thrilled audiences and took its place as one of the year’s top box office earners. As well, please note that in the weeks and months leading up to the Oscars, Kelly nabbed honors for all three films (The Country Girl and the two Hitchcock offerings) from both the National Board of Review as well as the New York Film Critics Circle. Furthermore, Kelly also claimed a Golden Globe–for Best Actress in a Drama. With that in mind, please remember that the Academy–whether explicitly stated–aims to honor achievement when handing out its annual awards, and Kelly provided that opportunity, all wrapped in quite a pretty package.

Back to Garland. While reviews for her performance in A Star is Born brimmed with praise galore, and she also nabbed the Globe in her category, the project while stunning in many regards serves more as a personal triumph for its star rather than as an across-the-board achievement.  Consider that the film’s production was fraught with delays and cost overruns, partially due to interference from Warner execs but an echo, as well, of Garland’s MGM travails (Eastman 325; Matthews 813). Such woes don’t escape the Hollywood grapevine, rest assured. Next, the finished film originally ran a hefty three hours, presenting a marketing challenge. Sure there are always exceptions, most notably at that time Gone with the Wind (clocking in at close to 4 hours), but movies with lengthy running times can only be shown easily 2-3 times a day rather than 5-6, especially in single screen theatres–the norm in the 1950s. Still, Hollywood has always been an industry town, and as is so often the case with many businesses, all is mostly forgiven if and when the coffers fill.  Therein lies the problem with A Star is Born. Simply, the film was hardly a roaring success at the box office. As oft reported, the story goes something like this. When the returns failed to match all sky-high expectations, the first move was to re-edit the film to a more manageable length though that only made the movie shorter without necessarily improving its performance. The effects of all this Scissorhands-ing, if you buy into the myth, is that given the film’s disappointing performance Warner nixed the idea of sinking money, that is, more money, into an Oscar campaign. Furthermore, the frequent charge is that those Academy members who bothered paying any attention to A Star is Born made their judgment based on the re-edited version, with as many as 30 minutes worth of Garland’s best scenes scrapped, abandoned on the cutting room floor; thus, the race is thrown in Kelly’s favor (Peary 126-127).

If one buys the myth.

Therein lies the problem. 30 minutes more of Garland would have only made her movie longer–as Ronald Haver’s famously cobbled together restoration (dating back to 1983) attests. Here is where the whole proposition gets tricky. I do not want to go so far as to suggest that Garland merely plays herself in A Star is Born. No, I believe she is fully invested, fully believable each and every second, and that she hits all the right notes, emotionally, that is, but the concern is that Garland is doing nothing in A Star is Born that she hasn’t–hadn’t–already done in her previous films. The difference is that she does so on a much grander scale For example, is Garland in drag as a tattered newsboy singing “Lose that Long Face” such a big stretch from her and Fred Astaire’s “A Couple of Swells” hobo routine in Easter Parade?  For all Garland’s big powerful moments, of which A Star is Born–at any length–is jam-packed, the performance isn’t as shaped, as nuanced, as her splendid turn in The Wizard of Oz, in which the audience falls in love with her Dorothy without being beaten over the head with cues about how worthy she is of being loved.  Again, Garland is always well-worth watching, but the shortcomings, the limitations, of her performance might be forgiven if, well, if A Star is Born were a better–more balanced–picture, but it is too singularly conceived as a testament to Garland’s gosh-darn, misty-eyed exuberance as a performer, per the overblown “Born in a Trunk” number (directed by choreographer Richard Barstow, as sources indicate, well after director George Cukor wrapped production [4]) rather than as a love story equally weighted between its two leads but as has often been noted, the material is weighted such that the audience is cued to react to Garland’s suffering as she watches helplessly while Mason unravels. In other words, the emphasis is on how she suffers because of him rather than how his demons affect him and how he suffers accordingly (Kael 240-241) [5]. Garland ripping into “The Man Who Got Away” is magic. If only the film had ended there. Garland enacting a scene in which her character wins an Oscar, only to be humiliated in the process by Mason, is overkill. Since she played a role in developing the project, she shoulders some responsibility for a nagging sense of self-indulgence. [To clarify, yes, “Lose that Long Face” was one of the items cut in the re-edit, but even in the shortened version Garland is still seen having a moment in the tattered newsboy garb, and it still registers as familiar, per the earlier bit with Astaire in Easter Parade.]

Back to Kelly. No, her performance in The Country Girl, isn’t as big and colorful–literally–as Garland’s, but does it represent a more significant achievement, all things considered? How about this? How about that Kelly’s achievement is the triumph of versatility in a year of one success after the next? Remember: two high profile organizations honored her for work in multiple films. Furthermore, per Tom O’Neil, in its final week Variety‘s straw poll clearly favored Kelly over Garland (174). And The Country Girl, tellingly, was a Best Picture contender. Okay, but maybe you believe it shouldn’t work that way? That the award should go to the nominated performance, per se, rather than special consideration for “body of work” stuff. Okay, so let me amend my original claim by specifying that the right actress won the 1954 Oscar, but for the wrong film.

If Kelly had won for Rear Window, I don’t think we’d even be talking about any of this anymore. As a friend of mine recently noted, Grace Kelly achieves perfection in Rear Window. How so? Without actually playing a movie star, she gets to be both a star and a consummate actress. That’s quite a feat. Hitchcock became so enamored of Kelly during production of Dial M for Murder, that he decided to feature her prominently in his follow-up, based on the story “It had to be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich (writing under the pseudonym “William Irish”). As the scenario unfolds, a temporarily laid-up photographer (James Stewart) becomes suspicious of activity he spies in the apartment across the courtyard from his own. Kelly, in a role created especially for the film, plays his glamorous, devoted, and socially well-connected girlfriend.  She’s head over heels, but Stewart has doubts. His occupation as a globe trotting photojournalist dictates that his assignments often come without much warning and require him to live by his wits under extreme conditions in far-flung locales for weeks and months at a time. He can’t imagine that Kelly’s elegant “Lisa Freemont” could keep up with his demanding lifestyle. To Jeffries, Lisa is far too preoccupied with her career in fashion and hobnobbing with newspaper columnists and assorted Manhattan swells, but Lisa is made of sterner, and far more adventurous, stuff than her cool exterior suggests.

Grace Kelly makes her stunning Rear Window entrance in this much adored Edith Head creation, a frock that has been copied endlessly for proms and even weddings. Google it. Head designed exactly six costumes for Kelly in Rear Window, including a much more understated little black dress,  a sophisticated suit, a floral print, and, most scandalously, a cream colored gown and negligee set which Kelly’s Freemont brings with her for an overnight stay in Jefferies’ apartment. Quite a forward move for a young woman in 1954. The Academy was not inclined to nominate Head for her work in this particular film though she rebounded for her even more fabulous contributions to Hitchcock’s next offering, also starring Kelly, To Catch a Thief–though she lost that race (to Charles LeMaire of Love is a Many Splendored Thing) and remained sore about it for a good long while. (IMAGE: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Grace_Kelly_Promotional_Photograph_Rear_Window.jpg)

In his directive to Rear Window costumer Edith Head, Hitchcock stressed that Kelly should be presented as though she were a fine piece of Dresden china (qtd. in Humphries 120; McGilligan 488). But that’s a bit of an illusion. Yes, Kelly makes one heck of a stunning entrance in Rear Window, outfitted in black and white, cinched at the waist, dripping with black beaded vines atop layers and layers of  white chiffon and tulle. And , yes, Hitchcock frames her in ravishing close-up, replete with silken blonde hair, irresistible gaze, and ruby lips. Let the fun begin. Over the course of the film, however, Lisa demonstrates that she is much more than a delicate fixture as she matches wits with Stewart’s “L.B. Jefferies,” his detective friend (Wendell Corey), a police squad, and, yes, a cold-blooded murderer (Raymond Burr).  She scales the courtyard and places herself in danger in order to retrieve evidence that will convince the police that a crime has indeed occurred when the initial investigation proves inconclusive.

Stewart’s character may very well serve as the audience surrogate in Rear Window as we see the story unspool from his perspective–but make no mistake, it is Kelly who asserts herself as the story’s dynamic hero. Interestingly, even with all the changes the audience sees in Lisa as the story progresses, she never loses her identity. She is still Lisa. She has not reinvented herself to accommodate Jeffries or to prove a point.  That remains incidental. Instead, she shows herself to be more resourceful, more complex, than her seemingly more seasoned boyfriend could ever imagine. And he digs it, but Lisa remains her own woman, not a fixture. Again, Kelly manages to be both actress and movie star.

Of course, no one thinks of big emotionally demonstrative speechifying scenes in a Hitchcock film. Certainly not, so Kelly’s role in Rear Window, in all its vibrancy, pales next to the histrionics of The Country Girl, but that’s what also makes Rear Window a richer experience.  Consider that though Hitchcock periodically shifts the camera to visually eavesdrop on the activities of those who live in proximity to Stewart’s digs, much of the verbal exchanges are solely between Stewart and Kelly–and, again, all within the confines of Stewart’s relatively cramped living space. The spotlight, so to speak, is squarely on the two leads, and they have to be on-point. This is where Kelly most impresses, not in her ability to spar with Stewart, though there’s plenty of that–and it’s exciting–but in the way she seems genuinely invested in listening, in reacting. Moreover, in its talkiness Rear Window asks an audience to listen attentively through a number of shifts in tone. One minute Kelly and Stewart are hurling quips and accusations in a battle of the sexes; then, they’re almost ghoulish players in a macabre comedy of manners, that is, before the talk becomes philosophical and Kelly admonishes the both of them for being disappointed that the man they’ve been spying on might NOT have committed a crime, to which she adds that she’s certainly not an expert on “rear window ethics.” This is the challenge for viewers. Of course, that’s Hitchcock’s genius though the two leads so fully inhabit their roles that audiences are willing to follow. Think about it, a movie designed with the inherent limitations of a self-contained world (an apartment and only that which can be seen beyond the back window) featuring a key performance by a glamorous movie star that doesn’t “read” as a performance but as a progression. Now that’s an achievement.

Thanks for your consideration.

 

Rear Window, along with Vertigo, and Rope, was among 5 Hitchock titles re-released to theatres between 1983 and 1984. It has since been the subject of an intensive restoration, and subsequently re-released (circa 1999). Since then, it has been revived in TMC’s Big Screen Classics series. I see it in theatres every chance I get, and even played it during my theatre days. In 1954 the Academy saw fit to nominate Alfred Hitchcock for directing the modern suspense classic, along with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, and sound engineer Loreen L. Ryder. Who can account for the Academy overlooking it as a Best Picture candidate, especially given the inclusion of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Three Coins in a Fountain, both lightweight enterprises compared to such heavy contenders as On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny. Also jarring is the Academy’s neglect of A-1 character actress Thelma Ritter in the role of Stewart’s health insurance nurse who drops in daily to check up on her patient and also gets caught up in the ensuing mystery. For my money, Ritter has simply never been better than she is as no-nonsense Stella, which is a huge statement given that she was a 6-time Best Supporting Actress nominee who, alas, never won–an unfortunate Academy record of sorts. More puzzling is the Academy’s failure to recognize the stunning design work by the team of Joseph MacMillan Johnson and Hal Pereria (Art Direction) along with Sam Comer and Ray Moyer (Set Decoration). Together, these guys created a multi level set on a Paramount soundstage that allows viewers to peak into multiple, seemingly fully-functional, apartments, around a central courtyard all from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. Kudos are warranted, likewise, to cinematographer Robert Burks. In my next piece, I propose to write about another fabulous entry, also slighted by the Academy, by two members of the Rear Window design team.

 

[1] The highly lauded 1937 original, starring Oscar nominees Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, with a screenplay co-written by Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker (and award worthy Technicolor cinematography), owes a great deal to 1932’s What Price Hollywood, starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman. The common link between those two films is producer David O. Selznick; meanwhile, George Cukor of What Price Hollywood? was hired to direct the Garland version in 1954.  Furthermore, in the 1970s no less than Barbra Streisand co-produced a rock-n-roll themed update with her then s.o., Jon Peters–and won an Oscar not for acting but for for co-composing the movie’s love theme (“Evergreen”) along with Paul Williams.

[2] Technically, Kelly starred in a 4th pic that year, Green Fire, opposite Stewart Granger, a flick that made almost no impact and may have very well been a contractual obligation for the actress in exchange for high profile loan-outs.

[3] I take tremendous exception to Charles Matthews’ claim that Kelly’s Oscar for The Country Girl came essentially for the effort that went into the performance rather than the “real acting” exhibited by Garland in her film (189). Yeah, I get it. The effort is definitely on display in Kelly’s offering, but what I see is that Kelly’s effort is in service of a character far removed from her poised persona and that is surely worth as much as Garland’s go-for-broke comeback vehicle.

[4] The film-buff world is apparently divided into two camps: those who marvel at “Born in a Trunk,” and those, such as me, who find it distracting. While thrilling in its use of color, design, and wide-screen camera setups, not to mention Garland’s raw talent, it runs far too long and disrupts the narrative flow. Plus, as noted in multiple sources, it contributed to the film’s already bloated budget though it might have seemed like a good idea at the time given the era’s preoccupation with filling movie screens with spectacle in order to lure audiences away from their television sets; plus, similarly conceived production numbers, such as the one in 1951’s Best Picture winner An American in Paris, had achieved the desired effect by most accounts.

[5] Kael’s complaint is directed at both Garland’s ’54 incarnation and Barbra Streisand’s “rock musical” take, opposite Kris Kristofferson, in 1976, widely panned but hugely popular nonetheless. This prompts further exploration, if not criticism, in that the title is A Star is Born, but both Garland and Streisand were already well-established not as mere talents but mega-talents, with devoted followings, so where is the joy of discovery, the element  of awe, for audiences in seeing that talent uncovered and nurtured before taking its rightful place in the spotlight? Especially, that is, when Streisand, like Garland, had an active role in developing her project?

 

Works Cited

Eastman, John. Retakes: Behind the Scenes of 500 Classic Movies. Ballantine, 1989.

Humphries, Patrick. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Portland House, 1986.

Kael, Pauline. When the Lights Go Down. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 240-241. Print.

Matthews, Charles. Oscar A to Z: A Complete Guide to More than 2,400 Movies Nominated for Academy Awards. Main Street Books, 1995.

McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. Dey St., 2003. 2004.

O’Neil, Tom. Movie Awards: The Ultimate, Unofficial Guide to the Oscars, Golden Globes, Critics, Guild & Indie Honors. Foreword by Peter Bart.      Perigee Books, 2001.

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars: One Critic’s Choice for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress–from 1927 to the Present. Delta, 1993.

Schechter. Scott. Judy Garland: The Day by Day Chronicle of a Legend. 2002. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006.  http://Web.https://books.google.com/books?id=GMtT0rOMyS4C&pg=PA197&lpg=PA197&dq=the+greatest+one+woman+show+in+the+history+of+movies+AND+Judy+Garland+AND+A+star+is+born&source=bl&ots=Ch8kZeyM-6&sig=XSvT3s11LOtmj1mZlWbkdOi5UzE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjamqrt173bAhWhyoMKHZ6vDcg4ChDoAQhFMAc#v=onepage&q=the%20greatest%20one%20woman%20show%20in%20the%20history%20of%20movies%20AND%20Judy%20Garland%20AND%20A%20star%20is%20born&f=false

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition. Ballantine, 1996.

Also, see Frank Miller’s notes on A Star is Born at the TCM website:

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/12836/A-Star-Is-Born/articles.html