Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Birthday Tribute to Greer Garson

I will never forget the first time I heard that voice.

"You are from the asylum, aren't you?"

It came from an unseen face. If velvet could speak, it would sound just like that. Oh, sure, I had heard the voice before, but it was not until that moment that I really, truly heard it. As the richness resonated in my ears, the soft-focus lens went to a close-up on the face belonging to the voice.

That face.

In my seventeen years of existence, I had never seen such a face. I had seen the face before, but, in the way that I had never really heard the voice, I had never really seen the face. It was magnificent. Radiant. The most exquisite thing I had ever seen. The soft, perfectly coiffed hair, the glistening eyes, the perfectly chiseled bone structure marked by high cheekbones, a beautiful jawline, and a cleft in the chin – how could anything so ethereal be real? The movie was Random Harvest (1942). The face was that of its star, Greer Garson. How could I have known what a defining moment that would be in my life? How could I have prepared myself for the inspiration I would find in this woman?

I had seen her in two films before. The first of these was The Valley of Decision (1945; a personal favorite). The second was Pride & Prejudice (1940), which I watched because I was going through an Olivier phase. But it was Random Harvest (1942) that really brought her to my attention. She was so beautiful; her voice was comparable to a piece of silk or a saucer of cream, and her every move was so, well, perfect. Bewitching. You couldn't look away out of fear that you would miss some subtle yet brilliant nuance of her acting. And then … she performed "She's Ma Daisy." In a kilt. With a Scottish accent. This charming woman, this paragon of perfection, had suddenly become a music hall performer. Vitality radiated from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. She was hilarious and brash and still just as poised and elegant as she could be.

This woman could do anything.

Greer Garson's 1939 film debut performance as Katherine Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips brought her an Academy Award nomination. She brought tears to our eyes in the Technicolor treat Blossoms in the Dust (1941), schooled the proud Mr. Darcy in archery in Pride & Prejudice (1940), fought the Germans in her kitchen and gave an Academy Award-winning performance as Mrs. Miniver (1942), discovered radium as Madame Curie (1943), loved Walter Pidgeon in countless films such as Mrs. Parkington (1944), won the heart of a young Gregory Peck in The Valley of Decision (1945), made us laugh until we cried in Julia Misbehaves (1948), defied the segregation of Catholics and Protestants in Scandal at Scourie (1953), warned her husband of his impending death in Julius Caesar (1953), and threatened to bash a child's brain in Her Twelve Men (1954), among others. Be it comedy, drama, or Shakespeare, she did it all. And she did it well.

It's hard to say what has drawn me to Greer Garson for going on ten years now. Her beauty, her talent, her perfection are all undeniable, but there's something more. There's an electricity to everything she does. The way her eyes light up when she laughs, the way her jaw clenches and nostrils flare when she's upset, the truth behind everything she does – every gesture and word is filled with a great, intangible quality unlike anything I have ever seen before, and unlike anything we shall ever see again. She has inspired me as an actress and classic film buff. She has taught me that as a comedienne, beautiful and silly can go perfectly hand-in-hand. She has shown me as a person the importance of faith, compassion, strength and dedication. But most importantly, she has brought me immeasurable amounts of joy. She is a star whose luster can brighten up even the darkest nights, a source of warmth when the world around us turns cold.

Thank you, Greer Garson, for all that you have done and all that you will continue to do. You are beloved and missed more than you possibly know. Happy 109th birthday, Duchess.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Anything worth having is worth going for, all the way."

The show "Dallas" has nothing to do with my typical content, which is that of classic films.  I suppose one could argue that "Dallas" has several old movie connections -- the presence of veteran actresses and actors such as Barbara Bel Geddes, Jim Davis, Howard Keel, Donna Reed, and Alexis Smith.  But, in my eyes, that'd be stretching it a little.  My apologies for straying away from the norm, but last week's episode of "Dallas," in which we said goodbye to J.R. Ewing (and, ultimately, Larry Hagman), brought me to tears and completely inspired me.

My love of the eighties primetime soap began when I was ten years old.  I know my parents watched it in my childhood, but it went off the air when I was five, so I remember nothing of it until the first reunion movie, J.R. Returns, in 1996.  My father, who constantly usurped the living room TV, forced me to watch it.  (Well, I'm sure he didn't force me, but that's what was on.)  I have no idea what it was about that show that I loved and connected with, but I remember being instantly caught up in the drama.  Who were these characters?  What was their backstory?  Why did Major Nelson have insane eyebrows? 

It was around that same time that TNN (RIP that channel) began to air the original series.  My dad being my dad, he watched it religiously.  Me being me, I decided to join him.  Now, my father and I have never had an easy relationship.  We haven't always gotten along and our relationship during this time was incredibly strained, in many ways nonexistent.  "Dallas" was what brought us together.  For an hour at a time, we could sit there and root for our favorite characters -- his were Jock and J.R. (to this day, he always says, "J.R. is everything I wanna be: rich, powerful, and corrupt.") and mine was Sue Ellen.  More on her later.

To this day, this is one of my favorite shows.  I'd go so far as to say it's my second favorite show of all-time.  The characters and their relationships are so compelling that even a reboot of the show 34 years later is still popular.  So when Larry Hagman died, I was beside myself.  Is that a little much for a man I've never spoken to a day in my life?  Probably.  But the fact of the matter is that I considered Hagman (and J.R. Ewing) more of a member of my family than, well, most members of my family.  He has been a constant presence, a source of bonding for me and my own father, and let's face it -- a life without J.R. Ewing is simply no life at all.  I still like to pretend November 23rd never happened, but last week proved that, without a shadow of a doubt, our beloved Larry Hagman is gone.  (Unless he's faking his death.  Which is unlikely.  But would be THE GREATEST PLOT TWIST OF ALL TIME.)  And that beautiful memorial last week brings me to this woman:

Have you ever seen a sadder-looking individual?  When I first saw Linda Gray, I thought she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen.  She was fifty-six at the time.  When I started watching the original series, I thought the same thing, but with an added layer: she was also the most tragic person I had ever seen.  Between those huge eyes and that trademark lip-quiver, Linda Gray made you want to save Sue Ellen.  Neglected by J.R. and driven to alcoholism by his philandering, I have never seen any character before or since that I felt that sorry for.  And yet, there were times when she could be a woman of steely resolution.  She was a dichotomy, and in so many ways, the most real of any character on there.  She will always be my favorite.  I will always want to be her.  And when she threw her slightly intoxicated self across J.R.'s grave last week and told him she'd have dinner with him, it felt like somebody was tearing into the depths of my soul.

So thank you, to the cast of "Dallas," for 35 years of incredible television.  Thank you for the joy you have brought to both my family and to myself.  Thank for the laughs, the jaw-dropping moments, and even for the tears.  Thank you to Linda Gray for being an inspiration to me for the past 17 years of my life.  And thank you, to Larry Hagman, for being the man the world loved to hate.  You will forever be missed. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

TCM Star of the Month for March: Greer Garson

When I found out a few weeks ago that Greer Garson was going to be TCM's Star of the Month for March, I was overjoyed.  For those of you who do not know, this woman is my favorite actress -- has been since I was around 17 years old.  And yet, my love for her was not instantaneous. 

I had seen her in a couple of films prior to the onslaught of love, those films being Pride & Prejudice (1940) and The Valley of Decision (1946).  I loved her in both, but I must have been too obsessed with Debbie Reynolds at the time to become enamored with anyone else.  (Don't worry, Debbie, I still love you.)  It was not until I saw Random Harvest (1942) that I completely, unabashedly fell head-over-heels with her. 

If you've never seen Random Harvest, stop whatever you're doing and buy it.  Right now. For those of you who have seen this classic, you know about Greer Garson's entrance.  Aside from Bette Davis' shooting that guy in the beginning of The Letter, it may be the greatest film entrance of all time.  Ronald Colman, playing the tongue-tied, shell-shocked WWI veteran who just peaced out of an asylum, is standing in a tobbaconist's shop (yes, definitely the first place I would go if I just rolled out of the looney bin), and all of a sudden you hear this voice.  The voice, in tones of liquid velvet, asks, "You are from the asylum, aren't you?"  You have just enough time to process the fact that this individual should be doing books on tape when the camera goes into a soft-angle close up of the face attached to the voice.  That face.  The incredible false eyelashes, the perfectly chiseled cheekbones, the cleft in her chin -- everything about her is just exquisite.  After I picked my jaw up off the floor that fateful day, I actually watched the movie and couldn't believe what I was seeing.  The story of Random Harvest is that of a chorus girl (Garson) who falls in love with and marries this amnesiac soldier (Colman), only to undergo more tragedy than I can even put into words.  It has the potential to be schmaltzy, sappy, and completely unrealistic.  But Greer Garson plays Paula Ridgeway in a way that makes her believable.  There isn't a false note in Garson's portrayal.  You believe her, you believe her improbable circumstances, and you root for her life to stop sucking so much.  It was after watching that movie that I realized what an incredible performer she was.  Regal and stiff-upper-lip she may have been, but she is also one of the warmest, most accessible personalities to have ever graced the silver screen.  There's a reason why she was the Queen of MGM from 1939 to 1945.   I've seen nearly every single thing she's ever been in, and while some of the films were mediocre (Adventure, I'm talkin' to you), she never turned in a mediocre performance.

Ironically, her performance in Random Harvest is one that was overshadowed by another film she made that year, Mrs. Miniver.  She won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Kay Miniver, and rightly.  It takes one heck of an actress to win an Academy Award for playing a housewife.  And that's exactly what Greer Garson was -- one heck of an actress.  She could have stood onscreen and read the phone book and it would still be one of the finest performances ever recorded.  And, contrary to popular belief, she was versatile.  Go watch her play an Irish maid in The Valley of Decision or a screwball actress in Julia Misbehaves.  Look at her performance as Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello or as a frontier girl (and brunette, no less!) in Mrs. Parkington.  If you take the time to investigate her body of work, you will see what an incredible actress she truly was. (Oh, and let's not forget that time that she took over the role of Auntie Mame on Broadway when her friend, Rosalind Russell, left the stage to go film the movie.  WHERE IS THE FOOTAGE OF THIS?  I need to hear the words, "But darling, I'm your Auntie Mame!" issue forth from Greer Garson's mouth.)

Greer Garson was also a generally remarkable person.  Most actresses peak in their 20s.  In fact, the average age of the winner of the Academy Award is 26 according to something someone posted on Twitter last weekend.  (Obviously, I'm not fact checking this because I'm just assuming all of the film buffs I follow on Twitter know what they're talking about.  Apologies in advance if I'm wrong.)  Garson didn't even make her first film until she was 34 years old.  She went through two failed marriages, one of which ended after being subjected to verbal abuse and mental cruelty (Richard Ney, God rest his soul, should be glad I never met him in a dark alley) before finally marrying her soul mate, oil magnate Buddy Fogelson, at the age of 44.  She loved the theatre (she first began acting on the London stage) and gave a great deal of money to the theatre program at Southern Methodist University in Texas to help fund the arts. She loved her fans, particularly the young ones, as evidenced by her cameos as herself in The Youngest Profession (aka my life story) and "Father Knows Best." 

Greer Garson was intelligent, beautiful, witty, warm, and talented -- everything that every woman should aspire to be.  The world is a better place for having once been home to this incredible individual. Make sure to catch as many of her films as you can every Monday this month on TCM this month, starting this Monday, March 4th, at 8 PM.  You won't regret it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

So Kiss Me Kate (1953), Darling Devil Divine!

Picture it: a movie theater, 1953.  You're "sitting in the darkness, popcorn on your knee" as the old song goes, a pair of 3D glasses perched atop your nose.  Suddenly, the opening credits begin to roll, and as they appear on-screen, you realize -- holy cow! -- EVERYTHING IS COMING AT YOUR FACE.  3D!  In color!  With Stereophonic Sound!  This is what audiences experienced while watching MGM's film version of Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate (albeit with "cleaned up" lyrics and the absence of Lilli's profane entrance), the tale of divorced actors who are forced to reunite when they are both cast in a musicalization of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.  Sumptuous and extravagant (and even hilarious), this movie musical is a gem, regardless of the number of gimmicks it employed at the time to get audiences out from in front of their television set and into the theatre.  It's fast-paced, frivolous fun from the Jack Cummings unit (a step down from Arthur Freed, but it's all good, Jack -- I support you) with some epic dance numbers choreographed by the fabulous Hermes Pan, and even a segment choreographed by a featured dancer in the film ... a blond fellow by the name of Bob Fosse. 

The Actors:
  • Kathryn Grayson: This is easily my favorite film of my fellow North Carolina native.  Grayson, whose petite frame and heart-shaped face lent itself to playing pretty much every soprano ingenue ever, is really able to sink her teeth into the role of tempestuous stage star Lilli Vanessi.  Her delivery of "I Hate Men" (and really, every hateful line she throws at Howard Keel) is hilarious -- and not just because she keeps throwing junk at your face.  (3D WIN!)  She basically portrays the kind of human I aspire to be.  Also, I have to add that I don't think Kathryn Grayson ever looked any lovelier than she does in that beautiful, long, red wig she wears for playing Kate.  Seriously, she should have worn that wig forever.
  • Howard Keel: True story - I was first exposed to Howard Keel at some point in my elementary school career when I became obsessed with the TV show, "Dallas."  Teenage me discovering twelve/thirteen years ago that he had actually been a huge MGM singing star was like discovering America or a third arm.  I feel that Howard Keel was to musicals what Errol Flynn had been to swashbucklers.  He's the perfect combination of brash and boastfulness as Fred Graham.  The chemistry between Keel and Grayson in this film is positively electric.  No more of this precious Magnolia/Gaylord Show Boat nonsense.  It's time to throw things and yell! 
  • Ann Miller: Sheeeeeeeeeee's baaaaaaaaaaaaaack!  And this time her name is Lois Lane.  (No.  Not a joke.) I never love Annie more than when she's a man-eater, and boy does she feast upon the dudes in this movie.  She has four big dance numbers in this film, all of which contain some of the greatest dancing ever captured on film.  (We'll talk about those later.)  Girl can bust a move. 
  • Tommy Rall: Rall plays Ann Miller's paramour numero uno, Bill Calhoun, dancer and gambler extraordinaire.  It's fun to see him in another film with Howard Keel, with whom he would work again the following year in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  (Incidentally, not exactly my favorite movie.  My apologies to everyone I just offended.)  Also, he really knows how to work the guyliner. 
  • Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore: Uncle Albert's son and Ado Annie's dad in a movie together?  Playing Runyonesque gambler-thugs named "Lippy" and "Slug"?  YOU BETCHA.  MGM seriously had some of the best ideas -- and truly more stars than there are in the heavens.  These two character actors are hilarious, particularly in their duet "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."  Also, I just have to throw out there that Wynn was also on "Dallas" as Digger Barnes no. 2.  How many future "Dallas" cast members can we put in this movie?
  • Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, Jeanne Coyne, and Carol Haney: All four of these folks are featured dancers, but they all deserve recognition.  While film fame never really found Coyne and Haney, they are both tremendously talented in their own right.  See my post on On the Town (1949) for more on Carol Haney.  Jeanne Coyne, on the other hand, was married to director Stanley Donen for three years.  They divorced, and she later married Donen's buddy, Gene Kelly.  (Bet those Christmas parties were awkward.)  Coyne and Kelly had two children together and were married until her death from leukemia.  Fosse and Van were later able to secure some decent roles in a number of MGM musicals, but theatre types will know Fosse for his immense contribution to the world of musical theatre.  Of course, later in his life, Bob Fosse became a high-profile Hollywood director of films like Cabaret

The Memorable Quotes:
  • LILLI: Do you really think I could play the shrew?
    FRED: You'd make a perfect shrew!
  • "There's another good song in the score for Lilli!  'I Hate Men'." - faux Cole Porter
  • LOIS: Hey, wait a minute!  Now it's coming through to me.  She wants to do the number!  You gave it to her!
    LILLI: Why, that's absurd!  I wouldn't dream of displaying my legs.
    LOIS: What's the matter with your legs?  Are ya knock-kneed?
  • FRED: Calling me a louse.  And on stage!
    LILLI: Sorry.  I should have waited.  YOU LOUSE!
  • FRED: (to Lilli who is filing her nails) Lilli, will you stop that infernal squeaking? You know it gets on my nerves.
    LILLI: What do you want me to do, bite them off?!
  • LILLI: What happened to us, Fred?
    FRED: I -- I don't know.
    LILLI: Whose fault was it?
    FRED: Well.  Could've been your disposition.
    LILLI: It might have been your ego.
  • LIPPY: I don't like my face.
    SLUG: Neither do I.
  • "Thou jerk!" - Lilli
  • "Bill, you've simply got to tell Mr. Graham.  Signing somebody else's name is perjury!" - Lois
  • LOIS: (after Bill walks in on her being kissed by Fred) I was just saying, 'Thank you!'
    SLUG: How do you suppose she says, 'You're welcome'?"

The Favorite Musical Numbers:
  • "Too Darn Hot."  Ann Miller sizzles and shows off those gorgeous gams while throwing things at the audience and tap dancing on the furniture in a hot pink, beaded costume.  What's not to love?  Unfortunately, when she's finished dancing up a storm, Cole Porter informs her they've cut the number.  Reminds me of that moment in Singin' in the Rain when we spend twenty minutes watching the "Broadway Melody Ballet," only to have Millard Mitchell tell us he'll have to see it on film first.  *headdesk*
  • "Wunderbar."  You can tell that Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson are having such fun in this number.  The staging is simultaneously humorous and romantic.  You really root for them to get back together, regardless of the egomaniacal/violent tendencies.
  • "Tom, Dick or Harry." Another great dance number, not only for Ann Miller, but for Tommy Rall, Bob Fosse, and Bobby Van, all of whom are wearing really tight pants. 
  • "Always True to You in My Fashion."  Probably my favorite number in the whole show.  It's flirty, it's witty, and I'm pretty sure Hermes Pan shows up as a sailor boy toward the end of the song.
  • "From This Moment On."  This number is not so much about the song as it is the dancing.  You've got six outstanding dancers -- Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, Jeanne Coyne, Bobby Van, Carol Haney, and Bob Fosse.  The best part of the dance is the duet between Haney and Fosse, choreographed by Bob Fosse himself.  I don't know what made Hermes Pan decide to let him do his own thing, but it was a brilliant move on Pan's part.  The choreography is so perfectly Fosse, and of course Carol Haney is second only to Gwen Verdon when it comes to executing his style.  If you click on the above link, his piece starts at 2:11.  If it doesn't blow your mind, there might be something wrong with you.

The Random Thoughts Swimming Through My Head:
  • HAHAHAHAHAHA, FAKE COLE PORTER, HAHAHAHAHAHA.  However, he's just as snarky and flamboyant as the real Cole Porter, which makes it even better.  Also humorous is the fact that they try to have him distracted by Lois' legs.  How unlikely.  Pretty sure he's more distracted by Howard Keel.  Just sayin'. 
  • Somebody kill that blonde wig they forced Kathryn Grayson to wear.  
  • I just realized (upon viewing this film for the umpteenth time) that there are pictures of Howard Keel in Annie Get Your Gun and Kathryn and Howard in Show Boat sitting on their piano.  Well played, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  
  • Walter Plunkett, you've done it again.  These costumes are absolutely stunning.
  • Ann Miller's first entrance consists of her coming in and taking off her clothes.  Why don't more people do this when they come into a room nowadays?
  • How many times can one person say "sweetie" in one film? (Talkin' to you, Lois Lane.)
  • Lilli should have stabbed Fred with that nail file.  I feel it would have added something to the scene.
  • I dig Howard Keel's earring. And his burro.
  • Ann Miller should obviously have done Shakespeare professionally.  
  • This film promotes domestic violence.  
  • Fosse caught Fred's little black book in the end.  There's some irony.