Silver Screen Standards: Tallulah Bankhead

Silver Screen Standards: Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead Headshot
Early in her life, Tallulah’s beauty won her the chance at stardom, but her indomitable personality made her a legend.
Tallulah Bankhead Mother's Grave
Tallulah’s mother, who died a few weeks after giving birth, is buried at Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama. A local performer plays the role of Tallulah visiting her mother’s grave during the annual Cemetery Stroll.

Tallulah Bankhead was more famous during her lifetime as a stage actress than a movie star, but she’s on my mind perhaps more often than any other icon of the classic era because I live in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and here she’s almost omnipresent in my daily life. My house sits just a few blocks from Bankhead Parkway, which was named for the powerful male politicians in her family, and my regular walks through our historic cemetery take me by the grave of her mother, Adelaide Eugenia Bankhead, who died shortly after Tallulah’s birth on January 31, 1902.

Downtown there’s a marker noting the house where Tallulah was born, just across the street from the courthouse. It glosses over the scandalous habits that made Tallulah infamous rather than merely famous, but it rightly notes her importance as a leading actress of her day. Her legacy, however, reaches far beyond her stage career, her 19 film appearances, and her own self-destructive behavior, and every classic movie fan ought to know more about her.

Tallulah Bankhead Birth Marker Huntsville Alabama
A historical marker notes the location of Tallulah’s birth in downtown Huntsville, Alabama.

I won’t call her “Bankhead” – she was that rare, first name only kind of famous. She was also fiercely possessive of her distinctive name and her fame, which led her to sue Prell Shampoo in 1949 for its jingle about “Tallulah, the tube of Prell.” She had been named for her maternal grandmother, who was named for Tallulah Falls in Tallulah Gorge State Park in Georgia. If Prell had thought about it, they would have seen the lawsuit coming, because Tallulah was a force to be reckoned with all her life. She got her start as an entertainer singing and behaving badly to get the attention of her alcoholic, widowed father, but luck gave her a wider audience for those talents when she won a photo beauty contest in Picture Play and escaped Alabama for New York City, where her prize was a bit part in the 1918 silent film, Who Loved Him Best. Soon she was acting regularly on the Broadway stage and wreaking havoc at the Algonquin Hotel, where theater friends introduced her to cocaine and other habits that would stay with her for the rest of her life. Determined to be a star, she relocated to London, where she got attention from the audience by turning cartwheels on stage. Although she would eventually become a huge theater star, success in the movies eluded her most of her career, with her best Broadway roles in the original productions of Jezebel, Dark Victory and The Little Foxes earning critical raves and Oscar nominations for Bette Davis instead.

Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat (1944) Alfred Hitchcock
In Hitchcock’s WWII thriller, Lifeboat, Tallulah gives her most memorable film performance as a journalist adrift at sea with other survivors of a Nazi attack.

Luckily, we have an enduring example of her talent in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 psychological thriller, Lifeboat, in which Tallulah leads an ensemble cast as one of the survivors of a German U boat attack. Her casting as Connie Porter was intentionally incongruous – imagine the epitome of worldly glamor and sophistication in such a spot! – but she’s perfect in the role, fierce and determined but never naïve about the situation. She suffered through motion sickness and pneumonia on the shoot, scandalized the crew by neglecting to wear underwear, and gave a performance that tantalizes us with what might have been had she enjoyed the Hollywood success of rivals like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Lifeboat is the best known and easiest to find of her dramatic films, although you can track down copies of The Cheat (1931), Devil and the Deep (1932), and A Royal Scandal (1945) if you’re persistent, patient, and willing to spend some money. Several of her film appearances were cameos where she simply played herself, as she did in Make Me a Star (1932), Stage Door Canteen (1943), and Main Street to Broadway (1953).

While her own addictions and recklessness undermined her chance at movie stardom, they also made her a larger-than-life figure whose legacy endures. She wasn’t the inspiration for Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), as much as she would have liked to be, but she definitely was the inspiration for Cruella de Vil in Disney’s original, animated adaptation of 101 Dalmatians (1961), in which fellow Southerner Betty Lou Gerson gives the iconic villain Tallulah’s cadences and her penchant for calling everyone “darling.” Cruella’s mad driving around London recalls Tallulah’s days terrorizing other motorists in the city when she wasn’t on stage. Long after her death in 1968, her ghost would be resurrected on Broadway multiple times. Kathleen Turner played her in Tallulah in 2000, and Valerie Harper resurrected her for Looped in 2010, which dramatized her disastrous effort to loop her lines for Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), a hagsploitation horror that would be Tallulah’s last appearance on the cinema screen. Fictional versions of Tallulah also turn up in TV productions like Z: The Beginning of Everything (2015-2017) and Hollywood (2020). It turns out that you don’t have to live in Tallulah’s hometown to find that she’s almost omnipresent.

Tallulah Bankhead Die! Die! My Darling! (1965)
Like Davis and Crawford, Tallulah accepted a horror role late in her career; she plays a deranged mother in Die! Die! My Darling (1965).

I can only offer a brief glimpse of Tallulah’s story in this post, but there are many biographies where you can plunge deep into the history of her rise and fall. Try Joel Lobenthal’s Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady (2004), for a more recent book that is readily available, or read the section devoted to her in Judith Mackrell’s Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation (2015), which also discusses contemporaries like Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker. Once you’ve sampled her work in classic movies, catch her famous guest star turn on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957) and her final TV bows as Black Widow on Batman (1966-1968).

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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Classic Conversations: The Late Michael Apted, Director of the Acclaimed ‘Up’ Documentaries

In my opinion, the most extraordinary documentary series in the history of the medium is the late director Michael Apted’s “Up” films. Beginning in 1964 with “Seven Up,” a group of 14 British children from various socio-economic backgrounds were interviewed about their lives, hopes, and dreams for the future. Attempting to explore the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you a man,” the film offered a fascinating glimpse into class and social structures of 1960s England. Apted was a young researcher for that film, but seven years later, when the children were 14, he took over the reigns and has been directing updates ever since.

I first caught up with the series in 1984 when the subject were 28 and I’ve waited with great anticipation every seven years for the next installment: “35 Up,” “42 Up,” “49 Up,” “56 Up,” and finally, last year’s “63 Up.” While some of the players have come and gone over the years, the films continued to feature most of the original subjects: charismatic cab driver Tony; former East London schoolmates Jackie, Lynn (who sadly died in 2013 shortly after the release of “56 Up”), and Susan; the troubled but always searching Neil; Nick and Suzy, who were among the more privileged kids, and the others, each one revealing a fascinating story despite the fact that they were a fairly ordinary group of people.

When he wasn’t working on this lifetime project, Apted became one of the most prolific, well-respected directors of his generation. His feature films include “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “Nell,” “Enigma,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” I was thrilled when I got the chance a while back to sit down with Michael Apted in a Los Angeles recording studio to talk about his remarkable documentary series. Here is that unpublished interview.

Danny Miller: I know that the first film was made as a one-off for British television. Was it your idea to go back seven years later to see what happened to those kids?

Michael Apted

Michael Apted: No—I wish I could take credit for it but I was just a small cog in the wheel. I found most of the children for the first one. We were just trying to get a quick look at the class system in England and we were surprised how successful it was when it came out—I think people responded to it because it was funny as well as being chilling. But even then the penny didn’t drop until about five years later. I was having lunch with the head of Granada Television one day and he asked me if I ever thought of going back to those kids and seeing what they were up to. So we did it and it wasn’t that great because they were teenagers and pretty mono-syllabic with spots on their faces and all that! But we could see there was a big idea there that no one had ever tried before and it was really a no brainer to keep it going every seven years. I love the series and I know it’s never going to happen again because the business side of things just won’t allow for it.

Yeah, for one thing I can’t imagine any company today having the patience and foresight to wait seven years between films!

Never, and remember, this same company has bankrolled it every time for 50 years now. I can’t even imagine any company staying in business that long anymore! And I’ve seen what happens without that kind of support. I tried to do another series called “Married in America” which I thought had a lot of very rich material. I somehow managed to do two films, but I can’t get the money to do a third one. The people who financed the first one disappeared, the people who did the second one pulled out, then you get into the copyright issues in terms of who owns what, and so on.

Not an easy model to follow these days! I love all of the films but was surprised at how uplifting the current film is. It felt like despite some big challenges they were facing, all of the people were getting a much better handle on what’s really important in life and what true “success” is. I found this film to be terribly moving and inspiring.

It’s reassuring to hear you say that. I did this interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and she said she thought the film was quite depressing, all these people in very difficult situations. I said “Really?” Like you, I was very surprised by how positive the film was in the end. You don’t really know what you’re going to get in something like this because each film really has a different tone to it that you can’t anticipate. But when I saw the film put together as a whole, I thought the cumulative effect was very positive.

The series is such a great depiction of the “extraordinary” in the “ordinary.” Even though no one is curing cancer or famous in any way, they have proven to be such a fascinating group of people. Did that surprise you over the years?

It just made me believe what I always suspected—that everyone has a story worth telling. We picked these kids very quickly back in 1964, almost in an arbitrary way, really. We just thought, okay, let’s have a few with this background, maybe a couple from the north of England, and so on, but they all turned out great.

One element of the films that I find so fascinating is the antagonism some of them feel toward the series. I love that you include those conversations. These are obviously not the Kardashians looking for some kind of false celebrity. And considering it all began when they were just seven, it’s not realy like they chose to be in it.

No, not at all, that’s why there is this residual anger that probably started at 21 when they found themselves in the middle of this roller coaster. By that time the series was beginning to gather momentum and they started to have a lot of negative feelings about it since they had no say in getting involved in the first place. To be honest, there’s been a lot of anger generally about the project—it’s always been torture for me to get some of them to do it every seven years! It’s gotten less difficult lately, but sometimes it was really awful, it took months to talk them into it.

I think one of the funniest lines in “56 Up” is when Suzy (who does not appear in “63 Up”) compares being in the series to staying with a bad book—she hates it but feels a kind of strange loyalty to it!

I know! I had a lot of trouble with Suzy who announced in “49 Up” that she wasn’t going to do any more films. Suzy and I are quite close, actually, she’s a wonderful person, but she seemed quite firm that she wasn’t going to come back. She had always stayed in touch with Nick and it was finally Nick who convinced her to return which is why the two of them appear together in the film. That was their idea, not mine, I was quite worried about it but Nick got much more out of her than I ever could. For me it was always like trying to get blood from a stone! But I always thought comments like Suzy’s were fair game, and people love it when they tell me off, it’s part of the life of the films!

Do you stay in contact with them between the entries?

Not that much. It’s kind like a family, some of us get on better, some of us are more social than others. Whenever I have a movie opening in the UK, I always get a theater and invite them and their families. It’s nice for me to do something for them for a change without asking for something in return. (Laughs.) I’m usually in the role of the supplicant!

Is there ever a situation that arises that would make you shoot them in between the seven-year gaps?

I only did it once and that’s when Bruce got married and Neil showed up at the wedding. I just couldn’t miss that, but it’s the only time. I think doing that would be very confusing. There are now eight films where they are eight different ages, not more, and if I mess around with that and start going somewhere when I think something important is happening, it undermines the whole idea. This is a snapshot of these people every seven years.

It must be incredible for them all to watch their lives flash before their eyes as they age in minutes. Is there vanity involved? Do they panic in the months before you get there and try to lose weight or something like that?

I don’t think so. I remember going around to all of them at 42 asking them how the series has affected their lives. And I think it was Symon who said that he always thinks, “What have I done over the past seven years—I better hurry up and do something before Michael gets here!” But I honestly don’t think they do anything special to prepare for the cameras. I do agree with you that they’re very brave. Who would want one’s life put up to examination like that to a fairly big audience? It’s a huge act of courage!

At this point are they pretty well known in the UK?

Oh yes, for a time, anyway. For about six months after it comes out they’ll be recognized in shops and on the street, and of course some of them, like Tony who has become something of a celebrity, really embrace it and do interviews and press. But a lot of them wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot bargepole!

Do you think your original assumptions about what would happen to the kids were borne out?

No, not really, and I learned a painful lesson about that. I made a bad mistake with Tony in “21 Up.” At that time he was running around the dog park laying bets and I thought, this guy is going to end up in the slammer—wouldn’t it be a good idea to take him around East London in his cab and have him show me all the choice crime spots. So I did that and put it in the film and it proved to be a major embarrassment since he didn’t go that route at all and he was very upset when he figured out what I had done. After that I thought, you can’t play God with these people! It’s interesting enough and hard enough to track what’s really happening in their lives, I don’t need to try to anticipate what might happen. I’m glad I learned that lesson early on!

Of all the people that dropped out of the series from time to time, Charles is the only one who hasn’t returned to it. Do you still hold out hope that he might?

I don’t know. The truth is I behaved badly when he pulled out. Charles is a documentary filmmaker himself and that made me more angry—I thought, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword! With Peter, who was gone for several films but came back for “56 Up,” I was much more humane and kept in touch with him all these years but with Charles I’m afraid I misbehaved. I think I cursed at him when he said he wasn’t going to do “28 Up!”

Do the rest of them have any control over the content of their segments?

Yes, now they do! At this point they know they have the ultimate sanction in whether they come back to do the next one. As it’s gone on some of them have become very savvy about it!

Well, I’m already counting the minutes until the next film comes out.

Let’s just hope we’re both still above ground at that point!

Director Michael Apted died on January 7, 2021, at the age of 79.

…..

–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Danny’s Classic Conversation Articles Here

Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of  About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the StarsYou can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller

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Monsters and Matinees: How Abbott and Costello brought the Meet-cute to Horror

How Abbott and Costello brought the Meet-cute to Horror

To start this new year of Monsters and Matinees let’s take a deep breath, exhale all the anxiety from 2020 and laugh. Yes, even here in the world of Monsters and Matinees, we need to laugh and remember that horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin.

So this column is dedicated to the monsters and matinees that brought us chills and laughter courtesy of that dynamic comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. These guys perfected the scare comedy and the fact that they brought Universal monsters and iconic horror stars with them is an irresistible combo.

The gang’s all here in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Though there were scary elements in Hold That Ghost (1941), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is the first with the Universal monsters and remains the duo’s most popular film. We can think of the five films in the A&C Meet… series for Universal International as the horror version of the meet-cute with comedy duo getting to know the all-star horror roster of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff and Glenn Strange. There were scares and laughs in equal measure and even controversy that led to heavy editing, an “X” rating and banned films. (Getting laughs out of corpses was not OK at the time.)

Here’s a quick look at the Abbott and Costello Meet … movies. Since the duo often went by variations of their own names in the films, I’ll call them Abbott and Costello, then list the character names.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

This was hailed as an instant classic on its original release. Today, the film that inspired filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and John Landis is considered one of the best horror comedies ever made and is on the AFI list of the 100 Greatest Comedies and National Film Registry.

It’s also a favorite of classic horror film fans who admire this movie for the respect it shows to the creatures and actors. In “Turner Classic Movies Presents Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide,” Maltin writes that the “All-time great horror-comedy still works beautifully, mainly because the monsters play it straight.”

Lon Chaney Jr., who reprises his role as Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man, remains the tortured soul he was in the original 1941 film. And though we laugh at Costello’s reaction as he’s hypnotized by Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the close-up of Lugosi’s eyes – used so menacingly in 1931’s Dracula – remains intensely chilling.

Abbott and Costello are bumbling baggage clerks put in charge of two crates carrying the remains of Count Dracula and Frankenstein. It’s a set-up by Wilbur’s lovely girlfriend Sandra (Lenore Aubert). She’s a surgeon working with Count Dracula to find a “pliable” brain for Frankenstein so they can control the creature. Who better a brain donor than the childlike Wilbur?

Talbot tracks down Costello and begs him not to move the crates until he arrives. Now if Costello heeded that warning, we wouldn’t have a movie, so the crates are moved to McDougal’s House of Horrors where hilarious hi-jinks ensue. Costello sees Dracula rising from the coffin – the moving candle on the coffin routine is from Hold That Ghost – but can’t prove it. The scene is replayed when the action moves to a fantastically creepy castle on a lake where Costello is chased by Dracula and Frankenstein but again isn’t believed.

The boys, the monsters, a beautiful insurance investigator and a handsome doctor attend a costume party at a club that is ripe with opportunities for mistaken identity. Watch and laugh as Costello bravely takes on the Wolf Man thinking it’s Abbott who is dressed as a wolf. The music club is next to a forest that’s made for chases and has plenty of isolated spots for people to be hypnotized and bitten. The action returns to the castle where things go haywire as everyone comes together to either help or stop the transfer of the brain from Costello to Frankenstein.

This lean 83-minute film moves along quite well. Every scene is packed with action, laughs, chases, creatures, vampire bites, hypnotism and, my favorite, secret passageways.

Stay to the end for a surprise cameo that’s the perfect conclusion for this monster mash-up.

Trivia: The working title of The Brain of Frankenstein was changed because it sounded like a straightforward horror film. Nearly all the scenes with the monsters were cut in Australia and Finland – which leaves you with a very short movie. This was the second – and last  –  time Lugosi played Dracula on film. Lon Chaney Jr. was the only actor to play Lawrence Talbot and even subbed for Strange in one scene after he hurt his foot on set.

Names: Abbott is Chick Young, Costello is Wilbur Grey, but listen for Wilbur to call Chick “Abbott” during the revolving door scene.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff ( (1949)

(1949) Without the late addition of Boris Karloff to the cast – and film title – this could have played as a murder mystery. But when you’ve got Karloff as a mysterious Swami and other odd characters skulking about a secluded resort on a dark and stormy night, the tone changes quite a bit.

Abbott is a detective and Costello an often-fired bellboy at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel where a high-powered attorney arrives and within hours is murdered. Costello, who finds the body, is becomes the prime suspect and is then framed for the murder by those strange hotel guests who all have a shady past with the attorney. They spend much of the film peering out from behind curtains, popping their heads out of hotel doors and just looking guilty. The group is led by Karloff playing Swami Talpur complete with turban, satin shirt and cigarette holder. He uses hypnotism – to little avail – on Costello by wiggling his fingers in front of his face. Though it’s a comical gesture, it mimics the same hand movements of Lugosi in Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Bud Abbott, left, and Lou Costello (dressed as a maid) are trying to hide two corpses but are forced to sit them at a card game to fool a flirtatious hotel clerk played by Percy Helton (standing) in this hilarious scene from Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.

The body count grows (don’t open the closet door) and the action turns farcical as the boys move the corpses around the hotel to avoid the police. There is an especially funny sequence where Costello, dressed as a maid to transport a body in a laundry cart, catches the eye of the desk clerk played by character actor Percy Helton (his raspy voice is instantly recognizable). In another famous scene, they somehow make it believable that the corpses are two members of their card game. Though the corpses look impeccable in their suits, these scenes were deleted in Australia and New Zealand and the film was banned in Denmark.

Despite his perceived guilt, Costello is used as a pawn to draw the killer out and the plan works. He’s stalked by a masked person in a long raincoat through the very nifty Lost Caverns – complete with a bottomless pit. When the killer is revealed and all is told, don’t be surprised if you’re scratching your head at the quick, nonsensical explanation. And don’t be surprised when you shrug it off either because you’ve had a good time.

Trivia: The film’s original title was Abbott and Costello Meet the Killers which was too similar to 1946 Burt Lancaster film The Killers. The “s” was dropped to make it “Killer”; the final name change occurred when Karloff was signed days before filming started.

Names: Abbott is Casey Edwards; Costello is Freddie Phillips.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man(1951)

When are Abbott and Costello like the 3 Stooges? When they meet the Invisible Man. 

Newly licensed private detectives A&C realize too late that their first case is with boxer Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz) who is wanted for murder. Tommy needs help proving his innocence and thinks the invisibility formula being worked on by his fiancée’s (Nancy Guild) uncle, Dr. Gray (Gavin Muir), will buy him time. One problem: the doctor warns it comes with a side effect of madness, which is especially bad for a guy with a hot streak. That doesn’t deter Tommy from injecting himself to evade the police, allowing hilarious 3 Stooges-like antics throughout the film where the trio is poking, prodding and slapping each other like children. (Take notice of the “spaghetti” scene between Costello and the invisible Tommy; it looks an awful lot like the spaghetti sequence from Lady and the Tramp, released in 1955.)

When Abbott and Costello help by going undercover as a manager and boxer, the invisibility leads to the film’s best known and funniest sequences where Tommy throws punches so it look like the hapless Costello (as Louie the Looper) is doing it. Everyone buys it and the shady promoter gets Lou in the ring to throw a fight – or else. (The promoter is played by Sheldon Leonard who you’ll recognize from his thick New York accent and similar roles as heavies.)

Genre fans will appreciate the nod to the 1933 Universal film as it references the work of Dr. Jack Griffin, played by Claude Rains, whose photo also is on the wall.

Names: They use their first names with Costello as Lou Francis and Abbott as Bud Alexander.

Trivia: Look for William Frawley as Detective Roberts.

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1953)

This film is an absolute gem, an underrated film packed with some of the duo’s best comic set pieces.

For the first 20 minutes or so, you’ll forget you’re watching an Abbott and Costello movie. We’ve got a murder on a foggy London night; newspaper headlines screaming “Monster Strikes Again”;  a women’s suffragette rally; a lovely young lady (Helen Wescott) and equally handsome journalist (Craig Stevens) making eyes at each other. Oh look, there’s Dr. Henry Jekyll, regally portrayed in cape and top hat by Boris Karloff. And we’re off.

Is this a murder mystery? A romance? Whatever it is, I’m into it. Plus any film with a revolving bookcase is a winner.

Abbott and Costello’s role? They’re in London studying local police methods but get thrown off the force when they bungle helping at the suffragette rally. To get back in the force, they go on a monster hunt where their lives get tangled with the young lovers, Dr. Jekyll and the monster Mr. Hyde. Then the fun really begins.

Lou Costello starts to transform into a mouse – and it won’t be the last time he doesn’t look like himself in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Witness:

  • Costello trapped in a museum with Mr. Hyde and wax statues including Dracula, Frankenstein and police officers.
  • A basement research lab where rabbits bark, a dog mews like a kitten, and a monkey moos.
  • Costello turning into an adorable mouse.
  • Two – yes two – Mr. Hydes being pursued by authorities culminating in a clever overhead chase around a large chimney. And by the film’s end, don’t be surprised to see more.

Trivia: The scenes with Dr. Hyde led to an X rating in England. Reginald Denny plays a police inspector.

Names: Abbott plays Slim and Costello plays Tubby.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy(1944)

This was the last film the duo made with Universal after 15 years. They would make only one more film together, Dance With Me, Henry, in 1956.

Abbott and Costello are in Egypt where they overhear a doctor who needs help getting a newly discovered mummy to America. Klaris is the guardian of the tomb of Princess Ara and has a sacred cursed medallion that will open her treasures. That makes the mummy highly sought after by others including Semu, the leader of the followers of Klaris (the wonderful Richard Deacon, looking a bit humorous – in a good way – in his high priestess garb) and Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) who are willing to kill for the treasure. That’s bad news for the doctor who is dead by the time the boys show up to offer their services, leading to another “moving corpse” scene played for laughs.

The boys find the medallion and naively try to sell it, putting a target on their backs. When they learn it’s cursed, they try to pass it off to one another in a hamburger scene originally in The Colgate Comedy Hour. Costello eventually swallows the medallion, but that doesn’t deter the bad guys who will get it out of him one way or another.

Lou Costello, left, Bud Abbott, Richard Deacon and Marie Windsor are in trouble
in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

As in the other films, the movie has a frantic and hilarious denouement, this time with an ancient pyramid filled with mummies standing in for the haunted houses.

Trivia: The flower girl in the café is Costello’s daughter, Carole.

Names: The end credits list them as Pete Patterson and Freddie Franklin, but they used their real names in the film.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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Classic Movie Travels: Doug McPhail

Classic Movie Travels: Doug McPhail
Los Angeles, Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Betty Jaymes and Doug McPhail in Babes in Arms (1939)
Betty Jaymes and Doug McPhail in Babes in Arms (1939)

While Doug McPhail’s name may not be well remembered today, his brief time in the film industry is to be appreciated. Typically appearing in lighthearted musical fare with his booming, melodious voice, McPhail is best remembered for his appearances in early MGM musicals alongside the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Sadly, his life was tragically cut short by suicide.

Douglas Saunders McPhail was born on April 16, 1914, in Los Angeles, California, to Norman and Caroline Kemp McPhail. His father was of Scotch-Irish descent, born in Massachusetts, and worked as a salesman in the oil industry, while his mother was born in South Dakota. Douglas also had a brother named Norman or “Kemp,” who was one year older.

McPhail and his brother attended Beverly Hills High School in the 1930s. Though McPhail would complete one year of college, he would soon transition to working in the film industry, capitalizing on his baritone voice. He appeared with various nightclub bands in South America before eventually being hired on to carry out bit parts in films, usually as an uncredited singer.

Doug McPhail young
a young McPhail

When McPhail performed in the chorus of San Francisco (1936), actress and singer Jeanette MacDonald took a personal interest in him, advocating for him to sing in more of her films. For example, he can be seen in Maytime (1937) and Sweethearts (1938) in very minor roles. He can also be spotted performing a short solo in the “Entrance of Lucy James” scene in Born to Dance (1936). At age 19, he was signed on by the studio to perform in the chorus of The Girl of the Golden West (1938), though he actually did not appear on-screen.

The best years of his career were in 1939 and in 1940, in which he worked in several different musical films. He worked with Rooney and Garland in Babes in Arms (1939), Eleanor Powell in Honolulu (1939), and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), and as Garland’s love interest in Little Nellie Kelly (1940). He would actually perform with Betty Jaynes, whom he secretly married in 1938, in Babes in Arms. According to census records, they supposedly lived together at some point in Dayton, Ohio, in 1935, though I could not locate an address for them.

Doug McPhail and Betty Jaymes
James and Betty

McPhail and Jaynes would go on to have a daughter named Joan Lorraine McPhail on January 5, 1940. Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived, with the couple divorcing after about three years of marriage. With his career on the rise, McPhail was being groomed as the next Nelson Eddy, though this reality would not come to pass. The studio recognized that moviegoers were tiring of Eddy’s singing style, leading them to take less interest in McPhail. Jaynes was given sole custody of their daughter.

McPhail enlisted in the Army in 1942 within the Quartermaster Corps. His service time was cut short due to a fall in basic training, which left him bedridden for eight months He was given a medical discharge at the rank of private.

Though he tried to restore his film career, MGM did not renew his contract in 1943. He worked four hours a day as a gardener and took music lessons in hopes of securing a concert. McPhail turned to alcoholism and attempted suicide in the same year.

In the following year, McPhail attempted suicide again. He suffered from acute nervous exhaustion and swallowed poison at his Hollywood home, passing away at the General Hospital on December 6, 1944. He is buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery.

Today, some locations of relevance to McPhail remain.

In 1920, he and his family lived at 3909 Halldale Avenue in Los Angeles, California. The original home has since been razed. This is the property today:

3909 Halldale Avenue, Los Angeles, CA
3909 Halldale Avenue, Los Angeles, CA

His alma mater, Beverly Hills High School, does still remain. In fact, it happens to house the still functional “swim gym” that appeared in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).

Beverly Hills High School
Beverly Hills High School

By 1940, he and Jaynes were living at 11150 Cashmere St. in Los Angeles with their daughter, Joan; housekeeper Anne Hardin; and nurse Marie Marsel. Both he and Jaynes are listed as actors and singers.

11150 Cashmere St., Los Angeles, CA
11150 Cashmere St., Los Angeles, CA

In 1942, he relocated to 10355 Cheviot Dr. in Los Angeles. This is the home today:

10355 Cheviot Drive, Los Angeles, CA
10355 Cheviot Drive, Los Angeles, CA

McPhail’s suicide occurred at 1818 N Vine St. in Hollywood, which is now the location of the Vine Lodge Hotel.

1818 N Vine Street, Hollywood, CA
1818 N Vine Street, Hollywood, CA

Though McPhail’s time in films was short, viewers can continue to enjoy his vocal talents in his films available today.

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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What’s Streaming in Jan on the CMH Channel at Best Classics Ever? His Girl Friday, Cyrano de Bergerac, Road to Bali.

Our January Picks on the Classic Movie Hub Channel
January Birthdays and Chasing Away the Winter Blues!

It’s that time again… We have our monthly free streaming picks for our Classic Movie Hub Channel at Best Classics Ever (BCE) – the mega streaming channel for classic movies and TV shows!

That said, here are some of our January picks available for FREE STREAMING all month long on the CMH Channel. All you need to do is click on the movie/show of your choice, then click ‘play’ — you do not have to opt for a 7-day trial.

In celebration of January Birthdays, we’re featuring Cary Grant (born Jan 18, 1904) with the rapid-fire 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday co-starring the wonderful Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy. We’re also celebrating Jose Ferrer’s birthday (born Jan 8, 1912) with the 1950 classic Cyrano de Bergerac also starring Mala Powers and William Prince. Plus more movies from birthday boys and girls Dan Duryea (Jan 23, 1907), Conrad Veidt (Jan 22, 1893), Danny Kaye (born Jan 18, 1913), Donna Reed (born Jan 27, 1921), Loretta Young (born Jan 6, 1913) — and more!

his girl friday movie poster
Starring birthday boy Cary Grant
angel and the badman movie poster
With birthday boy, Harry Carey, born Jan 16, 1878

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We’re also chasing away the winter blues this month with some fun movies including Road to Bali, My Favorite Brunette and Father’s Little DividendAnd more…

road to bali movie poster

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For those of you who aren’t familiar with the service, Best Classics Ever is a new mega streaming channel built especially for classic movie and TV lovers. The idea of the channel is to make lots of classic titles accessible and affordable for all. That said, Classic Movie Hub is curating titles each month that our fans can stream for free on the Classic Movie Hub Channelat Best Classics Ever. If you’d like access to the entire selection of Best Classics Ever titles, you can subscribe to everything for a low monthly fee of $4.99/month (Best Stars Ever, Best Westerns Ever, Best Mysteries Ever, Best TV Ever) or for an individual channel for only $1.99/month.

You can read more about Best Classics Ever and our partnership here.

Hope you enjoy!

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–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

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“Made in Hollywood” Book Giveaway (Jan)

“Made in Hollywood”
We have FOUR Books to Give Away this month!

“Only Jim Bacon could top himself with Made in Hollywood.
I thought Hollywood is a Four Letter Town was hilarious until I read this”
–Bob Hope

It’s time for our next book giveaway contest! CMH will be giving away FOUR COPIES of Made in Hollywood by syndicated columnist James Bacon, courtesy of Doris Bacon, from now through Jan 30.

made in hollywood james bacon book

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In order to qualify to win one of these prizes via this contest giveaway, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, Jan 30 at 6PM EST. However, the sooner you enter, the better chance you have of winning, because we will pick a winner on four different days within the contest period, via random drawings, as listed below. So if you don’t win the first week that you enter, you will still be eligible to win during the following weeks until the contest is over.

  • Jan 9: One Winner
  • Jan 16: One Winner
  • Jan 23: One Winner
  • Jan 30: One Winner

We will announce each week’s winner on Twitter @ClassicMovieHub, the day after each winner is picked around 10PM EST — for example, we will announce our first week’s winner on Sunday Jan 10 around 10PM EST on Twitter. And, please note that you don’t have to have a Twitter account to enter; just see below for the details.

James Bacon and Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe and James Bacon

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And now on to the contest!

ENTRY TASK (2-parts) to be completed by Saturday, Jan 30, 2021 at 6PM EST — BUT remember, the sooner you enter, the more chances you have to win…

1) Answer the below question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog post

2) Then TWEET (not DM) the following message*:
Just entered to win the “Made in Hollywood” by James Bacon #BookGiveaway courtesy of @JBaconHollywood & CMH – #CMHContest You can #EnterToWin here: http://www.classicmoviehub.com/blog/made-in-hollywood-book-giveaway-dec/

THE QUESTION:
What star(s) would you want to hang out with if you were living during the Golden Age of Hollywood and why?

*If you do not have a Twitter account, you can still enter the contest by simply answering the above question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog — BUT PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU ADD THIS VERBIAGE TO YOUR ANSWER: I do not have a Twitter account, so I am posting here to enter but cannot tweet the message.

NOTE: if for any reason you encounter a problem commenting here on this blog, please feel free to tweet or DM us, or send an email to clas@gmail.com and we will be happy to create the entry for you.

ALSO: Please allow us 48 hours to approve your comments. Sorry about that, but we are being overwhelmed with spam, and must sort through 100s of comments…

James Bacon and Sammy Davis Jr
James Bacon and Sammy Davis Jr.

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About the Author and Book: James Bacon was the ultimate insider of Hollywood’s Golden Era as a syndicated columnist for 41 years, first with the Associated Press and then with the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He sipped champagne with Sophia Loren, drank vodka with Joan Crawford and got a first-hand account of Marilyn Monroe’s affair with JFK. During his lifetime, Bacon compiled his memorable celebrity encounters in two books, “Hollywood is a Four-Letter Town,” (1976) and “Made in Hollywood” (1977), which the New York Times called “frank, spicy and entertaining.”   He also wrote an acclaimed biography of Jackie Gleason, “How Sweet it Is” (1985) which was celebrated by notables like Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra and Laurence Olivier. His widow, Doris Bacon, has decided to reissue the books, long unavailable  on Amazon,  in Bacon’s spirit.  They are entertaining reads, crammed with stories and inside scoop on Hollywood’s biggest names, from Monroe to Elizabeth Taylor to John Wayne to Bette Davis and more. 

Click here for the full contest rules. 

Please note that only United States (excluding the territory of Puerto Rico) AND Canada entrants are eligible. No P.O. Boxes please.

And — BlogHub members ARE eligible to win.

James Bacon Gary Cooper on set of High Noon
Gary Cooper and James Bacon on the set of Oscar-winning High Noon

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Good Luck!

And if you can’t wait to win the book, you can purchase the on amazon by clicking here:

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–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

Posted in Books, Contests & Giveaways, Posts by Annmarie Gatti | Tagged , | 26 Comments

Working Night & Day: Max Steiner, Fred Astaire, and the RKO Movie Musical (Exclusive by Author Steven C. Smith)

Max Steiner, Fred Astaire, and the RKO Movie Musical
(Exclusive by Author Steven C. Smith)

In 1933 — the same year he recorded his landmark score for King Kong Max Steiner achieved another ambition he’d sought since becoming RKO’s musical director: oversight of a sophisticated, successful movie musical.

Nine years earlier, Steiner — then a top Broadway conductor — first worked with Fred Astaire, on George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good! The show would be a turning point in the American musical, thanks to jazzy standards like “Fascinating Rhythm” and the title song.

In 1933, Steiner was thrilled to re-team with Astaire at RKO, after the stage star was hired to play a supporting role in Flying Down to Rio. 21-year-old Ginger Rogers, a frequent RKO player, would be Fred’s dance partner during the film’s final number.

flying down to rio lobby card
Flying Down to Rio Lobby Card

Rio marked the studio’s most ambitious return to a genre Hollywood had mostly abandoned. By 1930, moviegoers had tired of watching creaky musicals that seldom made use of cinematic techniques. Limited recording technology and locked-down cameras were partly to blame.

But by 1933, Warner Bros. dazzlers like 42nd Street proved that a new kind of musical was possible — and Max was eager to build on Warners’ model.

Flying Down to Rio began as a vague concept in search of a story. RKO production chief Merian C. Cooper approved the project after producer Lou Brock pitched a flying scene–something he knew that Coop, a pilot, would love.

Dolores Del Rio signed on to star. Gus Kahn and Edward Eliscu were hired as lyricists; and for composer, Brock chose another of Max’s former Broadway collaborators, Vincent Youmans. Max was elated: he revered Youmans as a songwriter (“Tea for Two,” “I Want to Be Happy”), and their all-night sprees in 1920s Manhattan were among Max’s happiest memories.

At RKO, Youmans wrote melodies as fine as his Broadway work: “The Carioca,” “Orchids in the Moonlight,” and Rio’s title tune. Steiner’s orchestra sometimes played live on set; an upside of that approach was a spontaneity in playing.

On September 7th, 1933, cameras rolled on Astaire’s first movie dance solo, “Music Makes Me.” Prior to the shoot, Astaire spent weeks developing each step in partnership with a rehearsal pianist, dance director Dave Gould, his assistant Hermes Pan, and Steiner.

Once the dance was set, the team “wrote out a score indicating all the important musical points for the arrangers and orchestrators,” observed Astaire scholar Todd Decker. At this point, Steiner became essential, as he assigned and critiqued the orchestrators’ work.

On September 21st at 9 a.m., Astaire and Rogers reported to Stage #8 to rehearse their first screen dance together. The following day, filming of “The Carioca” — Fred and Ginger’s only dance in the movie — began. After four days of shooting, their two-minute segment was complete.

Max’s simpatico work with Astaire contrasted sharply with the helter-skelter shooting of Rio’s non-musical scenes. Producer Lou Brock was so obsessed with secrecy — or so unprepared — that according to co-star Gene Raymond, script pages were distributed on the day of shooting. “When we finished the picture we thought, ‘This is going to be the bomb of all bombs.’”

Two months later, Flying Down to Rio was previewed in Los Angeles. After Fred and Ginger’s dance, “The audience cheered,” Hermes Pan recalled. “Right away, the studio knew: we’ve got something big.”

RKO producer Pandro S. Berman was quick to capitalize on that success by pairing Astaire and Rogers in a movie of their own. On a trip to London, he had seen Fred onstage in Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorce, which Berman “thought would be an ideal vehicle.”

the gay divorce lobby card
The Gay Divorcee Lobby Card

In 1934 the project moved ahead, now titled The Gay Divorceethe extra “e” due to censors who would not condone the idea of a gay (happy) divorce. Berman assigned Mark Sandrich to direct, and commissioned songs from two teams — Con Conrad & Herb Magidson, and Mack Gordon & Harry Revel — retaining only “Night and Day” from Porter’s stage score.

Max was tasked with providing Astaire with musicians during rehearsals, composing underscore, supervising orchestration of songs and dances, and conducting recording sessions.

Astaire often came to those sessions to discuss tempos and other details. Harpist Louise Klos recalled with delight days when Fred and Ginger visited the orchestra, to compare dance steps with the music being recorded. During an arrangement, Astaire and Steiner often stopped the orchestra to showcase the taps, a percussive instrument of their own.

By now, Steiner was using a “soft piano” recording as a guide track for a song’s filming. The full orchestra would be added later.

One exception was Astaire’s tap dance to Divorcee’s first song, “Don’t Let it Bother You.” The use of live orchestra on set, Steiner wrote, was “a very difficult procedure…because of the camera set-ups my orchestra and I were sometimes as far as a hundred feet away from [Astaire]. On a big stage where sound might have traveled at a rate of ¾ [of a] second, I had to be a little ahead of Mr. Astaire’s taps…to offset this sound lag.”

Mark Sandrich, Fred Astaire, Max Steiner
Mark Sandrich, Fred Astaire, Max Steiner (image courtesy of Steven C. Smith)

No such challenge occurred during the filming of Divorcee’s most famous sequence: Astaire and Rogers’s “courtship” dance to “Night and Day.” By then, excitement about the movie was spreading at the studio; and as expectations climbed, Divorcee’s dance finale “The Continental” expanded to a record 17-1/2 minutes.

Max and team were under the gun, and Steiner grew defensive. His attitude wasn’t helped by the scant amount of sleep he’d had since joining RKO in 1929.

Music costs nearly doubled. Overage reports exude passive-aggressive frustration. “It was necessary to remake guide track for the CONTINENTAL Number due to the metronome being inaccurate.” “This overage is due to the extreme difficulty in scoring the CONTINENTAL and the inadequate time we had to prepare same.”

Handed one such report for his signature, Max exploded. In oversized handwriting, he wrote, “I resent this as a slur on my unimpeachable integrity for the last five years. We can easily offset this overage by cutting ‘The Continental’ number out entirely.” His suggestion was sarcastic, but his anger was genuine.

Max’s burst of temperament may have had another cause. His mother Mitzi remained in Austria, a country now described by its chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, as a “German state.” Annexation with Nazi Germany would follow four years later.

Mitzi also needed money, leading Max to borrow heavily from his bosses. That amount was subtracted from his weekly salary, leaving him with a few hundred dollars. His resentment festered; and after three draining months on The Gay Divorcee, with some recording sessions lasting until 3:30 a.m., Steiner snapped.

Max Steiner portrait 1936
Max Steiner, portrait 1936 (image courtesy of Steven C. Smith)

On Saturday, September 29th, RKO vice president B.B. Kahane received a telegram. He probably expected it to confirm the shipping of Divorcee’s final negative. Instead, he read the following.

From: Max Steiner

Subject: Office Hours

TO ALL LOVERS OF NIGHT SHIFTS!

Effective Monday morning, October First, I can be found at the Studio during the hours: 9:00 am to 12:30 pm; and from 1:30 pm to 6:00 pm, every day except Sundays and Holidays. However, I WILL NOT be found, any longer, during the hours from 6:00pm to 9:00am next morning, as in the past.

Should this not be satisfactory to anyone, I shall be only too happy to cancel my contract.

Furthermore, I just received an offer from the President of the May Company, Eighth at Broadway, Los Angeles, California, who wants to obtain my services, on a long term contract, as a “BED-TRYER” and that looks awfully good to me.

By the time his memo was delivered, Max was en route to Mexico for a weekend of gambling at Agua Caliente, Hollywood’s favorite south-of-the-border resort. If he meant his note to inspire a sympathetic chuckle from the boss, he grossly miscalculated. Kahane wanted Steiner’s head–and after that, a new musical director.

With Max away, the telegram was read first by his secretary, then Murray Spivack, the brilliant sound engineer who co-managed the music department.

According to Spivack, Kahane “said, ‘I did not like your letter, and it only remains for you to set the date that your resignation becomes effective.’ I didn’t know what the devil to do. I wanted to save Max’s job, because he was a very fine composer and a good conductor.”

Max Steiner conducts 1939
Max Steiner conducts 1939 (image courtesy of Steven C. Smith)

Fast forward to the following Thursday, and another memo:

Dear Mr. Kahane,

Forgive me for not answering your note before this, but I have been away from the studio for three days sick and exhausted..

If my note has offended you, I am sincerely sorry. Believe me, it was not intended to be offensive and should never have been sent to you personally at all…

Please set the date as soon as you see fit for my resignation to become effective, as I have no intention whatsoever of embarrassing the company in any way.

Thanking you for your kindness and good-will in the past, I remain,            

Respectfully yours,

Max Steiner

The memo saved his job. But according to Spivack, Max had not written it. He had.

“I dictated a letter to [Max’s secretary] stating, ‘I’m sorry that you read my joking letter of a serious nature, and since you apparently are dissatisfied with my work, it now remains for you to set the date that my resignation is to become effective.’ So in other words, I passed the buck to him.”

Steiner returned from Mexico a chastened employee.

The Gay Divorcee was the triumph its struggling studio prayed for, earning $584,000 in profit. It received five Academy Award nominations, taking home one for “The Continental”–the first Best Song winner. Hollywood Reporter swooned over cast, songs, and “the excellent arrangements of all the music as conceived by Max Steiner.”

The makers of The Gay Divorcee had cracked a musical code that, for a time, would generate RKO’s most reliable money-earners.

The movie also planted the seeds for Steiner’s departure. Two years later he would leave RKO, and find even greater success working for two of the industry’s most demanding taskmasters: Jack L. Warner and David O. Selznick.

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–Steven C. Smith for Classic Movie Hub

You can read more CMH articles by Steven C. Smith about Max Steiner here.

Steven C. Smith is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer and the author of Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer (Oxford University Press). His previous book, A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (UC  Press), received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.

Steven has produced over 200 documentaries for television and other media. They include The Sound of a City: Julie Andrews Returns to SalzburgA Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy; and Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. He can be reached at www.mediasteven.com

You can purchase Steven’s book on amazon by clicking on the below images:

               

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Western RoundUp: Can’t Help Singing

Can’t Help Singing: A Western Musical!

Last December I ended the year here writing on a dark topic, “Noir-Tinged Westerns,” so I thought this December I’d write about something completely different, a color Western musical!

That musical is Can’t Help Singing, a 1944 Universal Pictures film starring Deanna Durbin.

Cant Help Singing Lobby Card 1

The movie boasts a score by the great Jerome Kern (Show Boat), with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg (The Wizard of Oz).  It was one of the Kern’s final scores before he passed away in November 1945.

Can’t Help Singing was directed by Frank Ryan from a screenplay by Lewis R. Foster and Frank Ryan, based on the novel Girl of the Overland Trail by Samuel J. and Curtis B. Warshawsky.

Deanna plays Caroline Frost, who lives in Washington, D.C., with her father, Senator Frost (Ray Collins).

Cant Help Singing Deanna Durbin portrait with hat 3
Deanna Durbin

Senator Frost is anxious to break up Caroline’s romance with Lt. Robert Latham (David Bruce), a Cavalry officer the senator (with good reason) doesn’t find trustworthy or admirable.  The senator has Lt. Latham abruptly sent to California, so Caroline decides to run away from home, heading west to find and marry her lieutenant.

Caroline buys a broken-down wagon and convinces gambler Johnny Lawlor (Robert Paige) to escort her West.  She’s also shadowed by a pair of Russian emigres, Gregory and Koppa (Akim Tamiroff and Leonid Kinskey), who want to steal her trunk but end up being harmless comic relief, especially when Caroline briefly pretends to be married to Gregory.

Deanna Durbin Robert Paige Can't Help Singing
Deanna Durbin and Robert Paige

Caroline just misses finding Lt. Latham on multiple occasions, but she’s not particularly disappointed, as during the wagon train journey she finds she’s come to love Johnny instead.

Can’t Help Singing may not be Durbin’s best film, particularly as the latter half of the film is a bit choppy; this may be partially due to the studio having to cut down the film schedule due to shooting delays on the movie’s Utah locations.  (More on the consequences of the abbreviated shooting schedule below.)  I also would have preferred less of Tamiroff and Kinskey, and more of Durbin and Paige’s romance.  But honestly, these are minor quibbles in a film which gives the viewer so much joy.

Cant Help Singing Poster 2
In beautiful Technicolor

Deanna and the film’s Utah locations look absolutely stunning in Technicolor; she’s truly “pretty as a picture” as spunky, determined Caroline.  It’s remarkable to note this was Durbin’s only Technicolor movie in a highly successful film career which spanned a dozen years.  And what a delight that the covered wagon storyline got her out of the studio and into the Utah sunshine!  

Cant Help Singing Deanna Durbin gown in forest 6

The lilting title song, sung on multiple occasions in the film, always brings a smile to my face, particularly when Durbin duets it with Paige in a frontier town’s public bathhouse.  It’s a rare treat that Deanna shared the screen with a leading man with an excellent singing voice.  Paige isn’t well-remembered today, but he does a fine job in the film playing a likeable scoundrel who’s the right match for headstrong Caroline.

There have also been few Durbin numbers as thrilling as “Any Moment Now,” performed at the Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah.  Much of the film features beautiful location filming by Woody Bredell and W. Howard Greene, which also took place around Kanab, Utah and in California’s San Bernardino Mountains.  The movie’s Utah locations included a fort originally built for the 20th Century-Fox film Buffalo Bill (1944), which starred Joel McCrea.

Historian James V. D’Arc, in his 2010 book When Hollywood Came to Utah, noted that Variety’s review at the time of the film’s release commented “Exterior locations in Utah are tops for scenic values, with the color photography accentuating the overall eye appeal.”  That opinion still holds today, over 75 years later.

Cant Help Singing Poster 3

I would love more film fans to get to know the work of Deanna Durbin, whose movies have brought me great happiness.  Jeanine Basinger aptly wrote in The Movie Musical! (2019) that “The genius of the Durbin career was that the movies she was in were designed to let her sing for joy, a joy that came across to the audience.”  My spirits are always lifted watching a Durbin musical.

Durbin was one of the screen’s most unique performers, possessed not only of a fine singing voice but a confident and serene yet playful persona which rendered her instantly likeable to movie audiences, even when her character was a bit of a pill, as is the case here.  We forgive her lying and silly choices because, well…she’s Deanna Durbin!

The actress apparently sometimes had a whimsical personality offscreen as well. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that during the final “Californ-i-ay” musical sequence, there’s a dissolve to a water fountain midway through the number, after which Deanna is wearing a completely different gown!

Cant Help Singing Finale Deanna Durbin Portrait
Finale

Costume designer Walter Plunkett explained in John Kobal’s 1971 book Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals that filming had been delayed due to bad weather and the studio needed to rein in the budget: “When we got to the end…they wanted to cut a sequence.  She had two left to shoot and I had designed an elaborate ball gown for each.  They didn’t know which sequence to cut… So they hit on the idea of asking her which dress she preferred, and that was going to decide the sequence they would shoot.  But Deanna couldn’t make up her mind; she liked them both, so for the big musical finale with chorus and all the trimmings, she wore both, first one, then for the next verse the other.  Nobody noticed, I don’t think, and anyway, that sort of thing is OK in a musical!”

Speaking of music, it should be noted that Kern received Oscar nominations for this film for both Best Scoring and, with lyricist Harburg, Best Song, “More and More.”

There are a handful of additional musicals about life on the Western frontier, including The Harvey Girls (1946)Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)Oklahoma! (1955), and Paint Your Wagon (1969), but movie musicals with that theme aren’t great in number, making this film even more of a delight for those who love both the Western and musical genres.  And for Western fans who may be dubious about musicals, why not give this one a try?  It’s brought me considerable pleasure on multiple viewings.

Best wishes to all my readers for a happy, healthy New Year!

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— Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Laura’s Western RoundUp columns here.

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

Posted in Films, Posts by Laura Grieve, Western RoundUp | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The One and Only Douglas Fairbanks

Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The One and Only Douglas Fairbanks

With his endless energy, impressive athletic skills, muscular physique, and winning smile, Douglas Fairbanks was the all-American role model that the early 20th century needed. His films were good, clean, old-fashioned fun, drawing on popular stories like Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers. He and his wife Mary Pickford were key to cinema being accepted as a respectable industry, turning movie stars into a kind of American aristocracy. And Doug himself was a deeply optimistic figure, urging people to “make life worthwhile” and “laugh and live!”

Douglas Fairbanks
Douglas Fairbanks

When Douglas Elton Ulman was born on May 23, 1883, in Denver, Colorado, his parents probably had little idea what a phenomenon their son would be. His strong-willed mother Ella was Roman Catholic, and his father H. (Hezekiah) Charles had a German-Jewish background. The two had married after Ella’s husband John Fairbanks, a friend of Charles, died of tuberculosis. The new marriage didn’t last long, however, since Charles was an alcoholic and a secret bigamist. Ella’s subsequent marriage to the equally-alcoholic Edward Wilcox also ended in divorce. No doubt all this family drama had a deep effect on little Doug, known to be a quiet, rather solemn child. He soon found he was happiest when he was active, frequently attempting all sorts of daring feats (one family anecdote claimed he climbed to the top of a barn roof when he was only three).

And that energy served Doug well when he began showing an interest in acting. Joining Denver’s thriving theater scene at a young age, he performed in summer stock and joined a drama school by the time he was a teen. This proved far more interesting than regular school–and fortunately so. Always a practical joker, he went overboard by cutting the school’s piano wires as a St. Patrick’s Day prank found himself expelled.

Douglas Fairbanks around 1905
Doug around 1905.

This merely gave him more time to pursue acting, which he did with gusto. In 1899 he joined the Shakespearean-trained Frederick Warde’s traveling troupe, and after a couple of years had gained enough experience to hit Broadway. His comic talents and acrobatic feats delighted audiences, and he soon became a major star in productions like The New Henrietta and He Comes Up Smiling. His personal life had some excitement as well–he married Beth Sully in 1907 and the two would have a son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ( you may have heard of him).

Doug made the move to films thanks to some fortuitous timing. He and Beth were walking through Central Park one day when a cameraman asked if Doug would like to perform for the camera. He obligingly leapt over a park bench. This amusing footage of the Broadway star made its way to Harry E. Aitken, head of the Triangle Film Corporation, and he promptly offered Doug $2000 a week to move to Hollywood.

Douglas Fairbanks The Matrimaniac (1916)
The Matrimaniac (1916)

Films turned out to be the athletic actor’s destiny–no longer was he confined to the physical limits of the stage. He was a bit much for director D.W. Griffith, who told the irrepressible actor he’d be better off in Keystone comedies. His first starring vehicle, The Lamb (1915), was a big hit and convinced him cinema was the right move. A series of light comedies followed, such as His Picture in the Papers (1916), with witty title cards by Anita Loos and plenty of action. A blend of well-plotted story and fast-paced action was a winning formula for Doug, and he’d happily scale buildings, hang from cliffs and leap through drawing rooms for just the right shot. It wouldn’t be long before he’d be ranked the #2 star in America.

Fairbanks in The Matrimaniac (1916)
Fairbanks in The Matrimaniac (1916)

#1, of course, was Charlie Chaplin –who would become Doug’s closest friend. The two had a lot in common, not the least of which was extreme fame, and would screen their unreleased films for each other. Doug would also get to know another extremely popular and talented star, the great Mary Pickford. During World War I, the trio had incredible success touring the country to sell war bonds–crowds would number in the tens of thousands.

Douglas Fairbanks promoting Liberty Bonds in New York
Douglas promoting Liberty Bonds in New York

By the late 1910s, the name of Douglas Fairbanks was not only famous around the world, but he’d become an American icon of optimism and a role model for good health. He was popular with men, women, and children alike, a cultural hero of sorts (his sun-bronzed skin also apparently popularized tanning). He released a series of ghostwritten self-help books with titles like Laugh and Live, Making Life Worth While, and Whistle and Hoe – Sing as We Go, and would talk about the importance of physical fitness.

There were also big changes in Doug’s personal life. His marriage to Beth grew rocky, and it was revealed that he’d been having an affair with Pickford, who was also married. They both got divorced in order to marry each other but worried about the blow to their images. It’s a remarkable testament to their popularity that little damage was done – indeed, Doug and Mary were all but proclaimed the King and Queen of Hollywood.

Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks
Mary & Doug

In a way, they were the new American aristocracy, moving into a mansion they dubbed “Pickfair” and entertaining royalty from around the world. Perhaps more than any other stars, they legitimized the movie industry as worthy entertainment and an art form to be taken seriously. In 1919, they joined forces with Chaplin and D.W. Griffith to create United Artists, their own distribution company that allowed them to work independently.

Pickford, Douglas, Chaplin, and Griffith - United Artists
Pickford, Douglas, Chaplin, and Griffith – United Artists

After making light comedies for UA (the best being When the Clouds Roll By, 1919), Doug embarked on a new specialty: elaborate costume pictures, starting with the wildly popular The Mark of Zorro (1920). The end of WWI and the beginning of the Roaring Twenties meant audiences were hungry for escapism, and Doug delivered with other classics like The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), and the beautiful The Thief of Bagdad (1924). In his spare time, he also helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, now host to the Academy Awards.

Douglas Fairbanks The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Doug’s popularity was unshakeable until the end of the silent era. He made a final silent film, The Iron Mask (1929), at a time when most studios were transitioning to sound and began to uneasily contemplate his future in talkies. His formerly ideal marriage to Pickford was now on shaky ground. They attempted to make a talkie together, The Taming of the Shrew (1930), but production was uncomfortable for all involved and the film itself received mixed reviews. The couple would separate in 1933 and divorce in 1936, and Doug would marry Sylvia Hawkes, the former Lady Ashley.

Doug’s last film would be The Private Life of Don Juan (1934). For the remainder of the 1930s, he would travel the world restlessly until succumbing to a heart attack in 1936. It was perhaps an ending he’d prefer–he disliked the idea of growing old. In 1941 his body was moved to a large, expensive marble monument at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, with its own reflecting pool. But the greatest monument of all was certainly his influence on early cinema, particularly the exhilarating joy of pure escapism.

Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood (1922)
Robin Hood (1922)

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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A Visit to the Lucy-Desi Museum, Lucille Ball Memorial Park and More: A Pictorial (Guest Post)

A Visit to the Lucy-Desi Museum and more
Special Guest Post by Lucy fan, Lucy Ortiz

When I was born, my parents decided to name me after the I Love Lucy show. As an adult, I realized I had some things in common with the Arnaz-Ball family. My birthday is exactly one week before Desi Jr’s in January, Lucille Ball and my father’s birthday are both in August, my name and Lucie Arnaz’s name sound similar, and finally Desi Sr. and my father both played the guitar.

Every once in a while, I watch the show and laugh at the crazy situations Lucy gets into, even though I’ve seen the episodes before. A relative of mine, who knew I was named after the show and occasionally watches it, told me there was a Lucy-Desi Museum in Lucy’s hometown of Jamestown, NY. I looked it up online and decided this was something I’d love to see. A month later I took the 6 hour drive to Jamestown and here’s what I saw…..

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The Lucy-Desi Museum

A personal necklace of Lucille Ball
One of Lucy’s personal necklaces
I Love Lucy Emmy Awards at Lucy-Desi Museum
The actual Emmy’s the show won
Desi's Babalou record at Lucy-Desi Museum
Desi’s Babalu record
telegram announcing Desi Jr's birth at Lucy-Desi Museum
A telegram announcing Desi Jr’s birth
Painted portrait of the family Lucy-Desi Museum
Painted portrait of the family
Mame - two costumes
Two of Lucy’s Mame costumes
The Paris original Ricky & Fred outfits made for Lucy & Ethel out of potato sacks
The Paris “original” Ricky & Fred concocted for Lucy & Ethel out of potato sacks
Desi's office chair & smoking jacket at Desilu Studios.
Desi’s office chair & smoking jacket at Desilu Studios
The Ricardo's piano
The Ricardo’s piano
The Ricardo's New York apartment - living room 1
The Ricardo’s New York apartment
Ricardo's NY apartment - living room from another angle.
Ricardo’s NY apartment from another angle
Ricardo's NY apartment - living room - the right side that connects to the kitchen.
The right side that connects to the kitchen
Ricardo's kitchen
The Ricardo’s kitchen
Ricardo hotel suite in California (left side)
Ricardo hotel suite in California (left side)
Ricardo hotel suite in California (right side)
Ricardo hotel suite in California (right side)
Ricardo hotel suite in California - front view
Front view of the suite
Lucy's personal 1972 Mercedes
Lucy’s personal 1972 Mercedes
Lucy had her initials engraved on the Mercedes.The M stands for her husband Gary's last name Morton
She had her initials engraved on the Mercedes. The M stands for her husband Gary’s last name Morton.
Desi's personal suits & golf clubs
Desi’s personal suits & golf clubs
A few pieces of Lucy & Desi's personal china
A few pieces of Lucy & Desi’s personal china
Little Ricky's pants
Little Ricky’s pants
Lucy's shoes
Lucy’s shoes
Lucy & Desi's chairs on the set
Lucy & Desi’s chairs on the set
You see this little message when you first come in
The little message you see when you first come in
I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball's Queen of the Gypsy's necklace
Lucy’s “Queen of the Gypsies” necklace
Ethel wore these for the Women From Mars episode
Ethel wore these shoes for the “Women From Mars” episode
Vitameatavegamin This is my sister mimicking Lucy. They had the dialogue to the scene available and whoever you're with can make a video of you acting out the scene
This is my sister mimicking Lucy in the Vitameatavegamin scene. The scene’s dialogue is available so whoever you’re with can make a video of you acting out the scene.
Lucille Ball Vitameatavegamin
Lucy and Vitameatavegamin
Desi Sr. made this teddy bear for one of his kids. The message says Get well soon Love Daddy, The teddy bear looks just like him.
Desi Sr. made this teddy bear for one of his children. The message says “Get well soon. Love Daddy”. The teddy bear looks just like him.
This tiny bicycle was used by Pepito the Clown n the pilot episode of the series
This tiny bicycle was used by Pepito the Clown in the pilot episode of the series

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Lucy's costume for the I Love Lucy show - blue
Lucy's costume for the I Love Lucy show - silver
The above photos are two of Lucy’s costumes for the show. See if you can guess in which episodes she wore these.

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At the end of the exhibit before leaving, there is a handwritten message from Lucy and Desi’s daughter Lucie. On the opposite side of Lucie’s photo, there is a board you can sign.

At the end of the exhibit before leaving they have a handwritten message from their daughter Lucie.
Lucie’s message to Jamestown says “Thank you for honoring my family so beautifully all these years. There’s something magical here  now…laughter”.
On the opposite side of Lucie's photo they have a board you can sign
I’m sure there were other Lucys that signed the board, so I boxed my message.

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I Love Lucy Murals

The museum wasn’t the only thing that there was to see in Jamestown. As you walk around the city area, you’ll see I Love Lucy murals….

Lucy and Desi mural Jamestown
Vitameatavegamin Mural in Jamestown
Lucy and Desi driving mural Jamestown

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Lucille Ball Memorial Park

There was also the Lucille Ball Memorial Park where her bronze statue is located.

Lucille Ball Memorial Park sign Jamestown NY
Lucille Ball Memorial Park bronze statue of Lucy

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Lucy’s Childhood Home

We also saw her childhood home located at 59 Lucy Lane. The street was originally W. 8th St, but they changed the name in her honor.

Lucille Ball's childhood home childhood home located at 59 Lucy Lane Jamestown NY
Lucy’s childhood home at 59 Lucy Lane
Lucy Lane, Jamestown NY
Lucy & Desi visited the house in 1956. I get goose bumps knowing that I took the same walk they took to get to the house.
Lucille Ball home Jamestown NY doorway
Visitors aren’t allowed into the house, but I walked up to the porch and took a photo of the front door. The sign says “Welcome Lucille Ball”.

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Lake View Cemetery

Our last leg of the trip was the cemetery where Lucy’s ashes are; the ashes were originally kept in a mausoleum in California but were moved in 2003 to the Hunt-Ball family plot in Jamestown. We entered the cemetery not sure of where her family plot was located, until we saw a sign that said to follow the L’s, and then follow the hearts.

Hunt-Ball family plot in Jamestown NY follow the L's
Follow the L’s
Hunt-Ball family plot in Jamestown - pathway follow the hearts
Follow the hearts
Lucille Ball grave - underneath her name it says You've come home.
Underneath her name it says “You’ve come home”

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–Lucy Ortiz for Classic Movie Hub

A Big Thank You to Lucy for sharing these wonderful photos with us!

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