Bruce Crawford’s Unexpected Movie-Movie Life, Omahan Salutes Classic Hollywood Films with Panache: See Shirley Jones and ‘Carousel” May 24
If you’re a classic movie fan in and around Omaha then the closest thing to a Turner Classics Movie Film Festival in these parts are the twice-a-year revivals that Bruce Crawfort puts on for charities. His next is a May 24 screening of the 1956 movie musical Carousel starring Shirley Jones and the late Gordon MacRae with a special appearance by Jones, who will speak before the film and sign autographs afterwards. The 7 p.m. event is at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are are available at the customer service counter at Omaha Hy-Vee supermarkets.
Also on this blog is an exclusive interview I did with Shirley Jones. You can also find here previous stories I’ve done about Crawford and his film events and guests. The blog features many other film stories as well.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Metro Magazine
When Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford introduces legendary stage-screen star Shirley Jones at a May 24 screening of Carousel it will mark the 32nd time he’s celebrated Hollywood royalty at one of his film events.
The 7 p.m. event will be at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall.
Jones feels the 1956 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Harmmerstein stage classic, Carousel, features some of the great composer-lyricist team’s finest work. She was under personal contract to R & M when she made the picture with co-star Gordon MacRae. “I think it’s the best score they ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful,” says Jones. “I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You’ and I close it with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel and I just think it’s magnificent.”
All the trappings
For 20-plus years now Crawford’s feted classic movies and the legends who made them. He does it in grand style, too. Attending a Crawford event has all the trappings of a Hollywood premiere, complete with red carpet, limos, searchlights, media, VIP guests, costumed reenactors and movie memorabilia displays.
Renowned celebrity pop artist Nicolosi creates original commissioned pieces for the events that the U.S Postal Service now uses to adorn commemorative envelopes and stamps.
Crawford’s programs always benefit a cause. This time it’s the Omaha Parks Foundation. Past beneficiaries included the Nebraska Kidney Association.
He counts Oscar winners among his acquaintances and friends. He particularly close to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. Crawford’s work in support of classic film has taken him around the country presenting programs around his first love – movie music. He’s been an invited participant for live programs and filmed documentaries honoring movie icons such as Harryhausen.
His Omaha events attract national media attention and his efforts earn endorsements from organizations like the American Film Institute. Radio documentaries he produced years ago on composers Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann still air worldwide.
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
A life devoted to film
Wherever he goes and whatever he does in service of film is an expression of the intense boyhood fascination with movies he grew up with in Nebraska City, Neb. and later cultivated as a young man.
“It’s been my therapy,” Crawford says of his work. “I would have to say it’s some strange destiny. I look back to when I was a kid and now I can see where it makes sense – I can connect the dots. But to be from a small town in this part of the country it’s so out of the norm, is so alien. It’s just an unusual life.
“And to have gone as far as it has and to be with these people and to have that recognition and reputation for these events is mind boggling. I never would have imagined it would have gone quite so far.”
What began as an avocation is now a career.
“The most meaningful part of it is that I’ve been able to have a career and make my full-time work honoring classic films. That’s been incredibly gratifying for me because I absolutely love doing this.”
Nicolosi, the Chicago-based celebrity portrait artist who’s lent his talents to Crawford events since 2008, says the Omahan’s enthusiasm for classic film is infectious.
“He has such a passion for what he does it’s literally palpable. In any business it all boils down to relationships and there’s a genuine warmth and authenticity about Bruce. He’s the real deal. He has that strong Midwest work ethic. Every event he does feels like a giant homecoming. He’s brilliantly fluent in film, too.
“All of that keeps drawing me back. Plus, I’ve fallen in love with Omaha.”
Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, Forrest J. Ackerman, Bruce Crawford, Ray Harryhausen
Avocation to career
Crawford’s first event in 1992 paid tribute to Harryhausen. Getting Harryhausen to come for a double-feature of Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island at the Indian Hills was a coup but Crawford had an inside track to him.
“It was still tough to pull off but it wasn’t as tough because I had that rapport with him. There was a connection.”
A bigger coup was getting a week’s run of Ben-Hur for its 35th anniversary in 1993.
“Doing Ben-Hur was off the wall because I had no connection to that film. I knew nobody involved with that in any way. That is the real rosetta stone to this whole thing,” he says.
Crawford, who puts these events together with equal parts chutzpah and doggedness, contacted Ted Turner because the media czar owned the film’s rights. Much to Crawford’s surprise Turner ordered a new print struck of the 1959 classic and allowed Crawford first crack at it. Crawford also got the family of the film’s revered director, William Wyler, to come and secured the support of its star, Charlton Heston.
The success of the Ben-Hur run “set the stage” for what’s come since. His third program, a screening of The Longest Day for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, featured reenactors in military uniforms.
“That’s when the showmanship started,” he says.
For a screening of Psycho he brought star Janet Leigh. For King Kong he anchored a huge inflatable replica of the ape outside the Indian Hills and come show night featured dancing girls in grass skirts. The special guests included Harryhausen and author Ray Bradbury.
Subsequent events featured Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) and John Landis (Animal House).
Some unexpected guests have arrived too. For last fall’s showing of American Graffiti acclaimed director George Lucas showed up unannounced, jetting in from a New York gig on his way back to the west coast. He was spotted by the the event’s official guest star, Cindy Williams, as well as several attendees. For the premiere of Ben-Hur Crawford recalls that Liza Minnelli, who was in town doing an Ak-Sar-Ben show, came incognito wearing sunglasses and a scarf.
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
The shows go on
Pulling off these events means countless phone calls and emails getting the details just right. He must please the sponsors and charities he works with as well as cater to his special guests..
“But above everything else I feel a commitment to the audience. I want to make sure people enjoy themselves and have a good time. That’s my biggest goal.”
He hasn’t missed a beat yet.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get films and guests that always find a very sizable audience. The events just keep coming together, but I don’t take anything for granted.
Nicolosi’s come to appreciate Crawford’s imagination and tenacity.
“The secret to his success is his passion. He has such a clear vision and, in an endearing way, a stubbornness, which you need. Then nothing can get in your way.”
As soon as Carousel’s over Crawford, ever the showman, will be thinking what to do next and how to top what he’s done before.
Tickets for the May 24 event are $20 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee customer service counters.
On May 24 a Hollywood legend comes to Omaha for a one-night only screening of the 1956 film Carousel, in which she stars with Gordon MacRae. It’s the latest classic Hollywood tribute event from Omaha film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford, who’s previously brought Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, and Debbie Reynolds, among other movie legends, to town. The Carousel event is at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The program, done up in the style of a premiere, starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the customer service counter at Omaha Hv-Vee supermarkets.
In my Q&A with her Jones discusses many aspects of her remarkable career, including the Cinderella story of how she came to be discovered by the great composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who put her under personal contract and launched her career. Jones is an easy interview. Down-to-earth, smart, funny, and unafraid to tell it like it is. She would be fun to hang out with.
Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood Star to Appear at May 24 Omaha Screening of ‘Carousel’
Interviewed by Leo Adam Biga
©Exclusive for the blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com
LAB: Let me start by saying that Carousel is one of my favorite musicals.
SJ: “Mine too. It’s my favorite score. I think it’s the best score they (Rodgers and Hammerstein) ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful.”
LAB: That’s obviously saying a lot given who were talking about here.
SJ: “I know, exactly, but that’s my feeling and by the way my opinion was shared by Richard Rodgers. He always stated that he felt his finest work was Carousel.”
LAB: What do you feel makes it stand apart?
SJ: “Well, just all of it, the lyrics. I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You ‘and I close with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel. And I just think it’s magnificent. ‘The Carousel Waltz,’ the opening, is so beautiful. I mean, I’m not saying everybody would feel that way, but I do, and as I said Rodgers always stated that he felt that way too.”
LAB: Rodgers and Hammerstein became very close mentors of yours.
SJ: “I was under contract to them.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
LAB: And were you the only one they had under contract?
SJ: “The only one, the one and only person put under contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it was supposed to be a five-year deal. It lasted about four years, I guess, under which I did the movie Oklahoma, then I did the stage production all over Europe of Oklahoma with jack cassidy as my leading man. That’s how we met. And then I came back to do Carousel. Before all that though I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific. It was the first thing I ever did – the last four months of the Broadway production – and then a show called Me and Juliet, which I went on the road with. So I did all of those under the contract of R & H, and then it was over.”
LAB: Why were they responding to you so strongly? You were after all very young and green and a total unknown.
SJ: ”Very, very young, I was 18, I was barely out of high school and on my way to college to become a veternerian. Oh yeah, that was the story, and I stopped off in New York with my parents. This was July. I was going to college in the fall. I’m from the Pittsburgh area and I’d done a lot of work at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during the summers when I was in high school. I was the youngest member of the church choir at age 6, so it was a gift that was given to me. Anyway, I went to an audition while I was in New York with my parents, an open audition. I knew this pianist in New York and he said, ‘Shirley, c’mon over, R & H are having open auditions for anybody that wants to sing for them because they had three shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long they had to keep replacing chorus people every few weeks. But I barely knew who these men (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were, you understand. I was a little girl from a town of 800 population. It was all very new to me.”
LAB: Was the audition run by John Fearnley?
SJ: “That’s exactly right, it was through him. People were waiting around the block holding their music. My friend and accompanist talked me into doing it. I said no at first because I was terrified. But I got to the stage, sang for the casting director and he did the usual, you know, ‘Miss Jones, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘Mr, Rodgers just happens to be across the street rehearsing his orchestra for Oklahoma (which was about to reopen at City Center and then go out on another tour) and I would like to have him hear you personally.’ And he cancelled the rest of the auditions for the day.
“So I waited. Again I wasnt sure who I was singing for and down the aisle walks this gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones?,’ and I said, ‘What did you say your name was again?’ Richard Rodgers. I sang for him and he said, ‘Miss Jones, can you wait about 20 mins? I’m going to call my partner Oscar Hammerstein at home and have him come and hear you.’ Now my pianist said, ‘Shirley, I hate to do this to you…’ But he had a plane to catch. He said, ‘I can’t wait,’ and Richard Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we’ll think of something.’Here I am alone, my first audition anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I waited and 25 minutes later down the aisle comes this very tall gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones, do you know the score of Oklahoma?’ and I said, ‘Well, um, I think I know some of the music but I don’t know the words,’ and of course I’m talking to the lyricist you understand. He said, ‘Nevermind, I have a score here.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Hammerstein, my pianist had to leave, I don’t have anybody to play,’and Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we have the full City Center Symphony across the street.’
“Now can you imagine, I’d never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sing with one. They took me across the street, I held the score in front of my face so I couldn’t look at them and I sang ‘Oklahoma’, ‘People We’ll Say We’re in Love’ and ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ with the City Center Symphony. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show (South Pacific). So that’s how it happened.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma
LAB: You can’t make up something like that.
SJ: “No, you can’t, and you know xomething. I’m not sure it could even happen today. It was one of those fluke things that fortunately happened to me but I don’t i think it could ever happen in today’s times.”
LAB: Were there specific things in you they were responding to?
SJ: “Oh sure, well you know I was Laurie, I was from a little town, a little farm community. I was that girl. And the fact that I could sing. I could. As I said it was a gift. I’d studied. I mean, I could always sing but I started formal study when I was about 13 and I had a coloratura soprano voice. My teacher wanted me to go into opera because it was that kind of a voice but you know this music just came so natural to me. And the fact that the character was so close to who I was. And the fact that I had an incredible director for my first motion picture, Fred Zinneman. It was wonderful. That helped a lot.”
LAB: You felt fortunate to be in his hands?
SJ: “Oh, I cannot tell you how fortunate that was for me because I’d never done a film of any kind. And when I did the screen test…I had to screen test for it. They sent me to Calif. and fortunately Fred directed the screen test, which was unusual, because usually they have an assistant director do it, and Gordon (her costar Gordon MacRae) was in the test with me. He was already cast. And so from that standpoint it was all just wonderful because when I finished the screen test Fred said, ‘Have you ever acted before a camera before?,’ and I said, ‘Oh no,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t change anything, you’re a natural,’ and from then on he was my mentor. I workedd with a lot of directors but there’s just a few that I just absolutely adored and because they thought of the actor, they were with the actor. It wasn’t just – put your hand here and speak, it was giving actors a reason for things and he was certainly a big one at that.”
LAB: R & H really handled you with care.
SJ: “They put me in South Pacific first to keep me with them and decided to sign me so I wouldn’t go to work for somebody else and then sent me to Calif. to screen test when I was in Chicago with Me and Juliet. Two wks later I get this phone call and its Rodgers and he said, ‘Hello, Laurie?’ So that’s how it happened.”
LAB: That had to be one of the most amazing screen debuts ever, an iconic part, iconic music. That music is going to endure forever.
SJ: “That’s for sure.”
Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry
LAB: The movie was a huge hit and with your very first film you were a star.
SJ: “Yeah it just happened so quickly for me, it really did. But the truth of the matter and this is what I say in all my interviews…I went on to do Carousel but at that point pretty much they stopped making musical motion pictures and Rodgers hated Hollywood. He didn’t want to be here. They produced Oklahoma themselves, that was their production, they were on the set every single day in Nogales, Aarizona, where we shot it. But Carousel was 20th Century Fox and that was the end of the musical until way later when Music Man came to be.
“My career was over because at that particular time when you were a singer they didn’t consider you an actress and you know I hadn’t done anything but that and they didnt make musicals anymore. So I went into television and fortunately they were doing Playhouse 90 and Lux Theater and Philco Playhouse and I did a Playhouse 90 with Red Skeleton called The Big Slide and Burt Lancaster happened to see that and he was taken with my performance. And at this point in time I was doing a nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy. We were touring, we were at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and I get this phone call and this man says, ‘Miss Jones, this is Burt lLncaster,’ and I said, ‘Sure it is,’ and I hung up. Fortunately he called back. Anyway, he told me about Elmer Gantry and he said, ‘Get the book, read the book, and I want you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard rooks and read for the role of Lulu Baines.’
“I did that and I was amazed he was thinking of me for this role, which was just incredible. I met with Brooks. Brooks didn’t want me. He wanted Piper Laurie. He didn’t want me at all but Burt fought fought for me and that’s how I got the part (that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). But my point is had that not happened my career would have been over because I wasn’t an actress to Hollywood then. After Gantry then I went on to do 30 films.”
LAB: You went on to work with Brooks again.
SJ: “Yes, yes on The Happy Ending.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: How did R & H feel about the film adaptation of Carousel – were they pleased?
SJ: “No, not completely, they weren’t. You know, Frank Sinatra was signed to do it. I did all the prerecordings, all the rehearsals, all the costumes, everything with Frank. We were shooting in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. Frank was thrilled about playing the role, thrilled. He said it was the best male role ever written. We get up there and we were shooting with two separate cameras (for different wide screen processes), which everybody knew from the beginning. And Henry King was the director and Frank came onto the set for our first dramatic scene and he saw the cameras and said, ‘Why the two cameras?’ Henry said, ‘Well, you know, we may need to shoot a scene twice, we’re doing regular cinemascope and cinemascope 55,’ and Frank said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two,’ and back in the car and back to the airport.”
LAB: So that’s true then that that’s the reason he walked off the picture?
SJ: “Well , that was not the reason I’ve come to know. I called Gordon (MacRae) in Lake Tahoe and told him, ‘You’ve got the part in Carousel,’ and he said, ‘Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.’ In later years, every time I’d see Frank I’d say, ‘Frank, what happened?’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Shirley.’And just about three or four years ago or so I was in a big conference with the press and some of the old guys from way back were sitting in the back row and talking about everything and I brought this story up and one of these old guys spoke up and said, ‘Shirley, don’t you know why fFank left?’ I said, ‘No, do you?’ ‘Oh yeah, everybody knew.’I said, ‘What was it?’ H said, ‘Ava Gardner (Sinatra’s then-wife) was in africa doing Magambo with Clark Gable and she called him and said, Unless you get your fanny down here I’m having an affair with Gable.’ So that was it.”
LAB: Well, that does sound more likely.
SJ: “Doesn’t that sound more likely?”
LAB: You were reteamed with Gordon MacRae – what was your working relationship like with him?
SJ: “Oh, it was wonderful, I adored Gordon. He and Sheila were the godparents of my first born son (Sean). We stayed close close friends. He was my favorite male singer of all time. When I was 16 he had a radio show called ‘The Teen Timers Club’ and every Saturday morning I would turn it on and hear his voice, so at 16 I fell in love with that voice.”
LAB: You know the last several years of his life he lived in Lincoln, Neb.?
SJ: “I know, I know.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: What kind of an experience was the Carousel shoot?
SJ: “Well, it was beautiful. We, we were in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine,. It was gorgeous. Ihad a little house overlooking the water. We were shooting on the dock. And Barbara Uric became my very, very best friend. I adored Barbara, We roomed together in New York and we had a place together here. It was great, I loved eryv body in the film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful film but its very melancholy.
SJ: “Oh my goodness, yes.”
LAB: It touches on things most musicals don’t get to.
SJ: “Well, yeah, it’s a dark story. I mean, that’s the point. Billy Bigelow’s a bad guy and that’s why a lot of people said Sinatra’s personality would have been better for the role than Gordon’s. But for me ne never could have sung it like Gordon. Gordon’s soliloquy was just to die over.”
LAB: Do you feel the film has been somewhat overlooked or underappreciated?
SJ: “Yeah I do, I don’t know why exactly but I do. You know they did a revival of it in New York at Lincoln Center and I was sitting at the matinee and there were a lot of women sitting in the audience and you know it’s about wife abuse basically and it was really interesting right during the show all these ladies got up and screamed, ’Everybody leave, this is wrong,’ and they left the theater. Isn’t that something?”
LAB: How about the director of that film, Henry King?
SJ: “He was just an old-time director. That may have been the other reason why I feel the film wasn’t as good as maybe it could have been in many ways. He was very aging then and everything was just just what it should be, he didn’t go further than that. you know what I’m saying?.”
LAB: Even though movie musicals were already dying out by the time Carousel was released you still made two fine musicals after it, one of them, The Music Man, being another classic.
SJ: “Oh yeah, big time still. As a matter of fact my son (Patrick) and I have been doing it several places. I’m playing Mrs. Peru now on the stage. In 2014 they’re scheduling a four month tour of Patrick and myself, showing film clips and me talking about The Music Man.”
LAB: And let’s not forget April Love.
SJ: “Yes, Pat Boone, uh huh.”
LAB: I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple years ago when he was the guest star for Bruce Crawford’s screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and he spoke very fondly of working with you.
SJ: “Oh, we had a wonderful time, really. Kentucky was great. We went to the Kentucky Derby. We’re still close friends.”
LAB: Didn’t you end up playing the role of Nettle?
SJ: “Mmm hmm, on the stage, I did it up in Connecticut. I’m graduating to the old lady roles now, I know.”
LAB: Do you enjoy coming to places like Omaha to share your passion for the films you made?
SJ: “Oh, sure, absolutely, of course I do. That’s been my career really. Winning the Academy Award. I’m still working up a storm all over the place. I just did a movie, this is hysterical – I play a zombie. They’re big now. Isn’t that funny? I’ve really come a long way, the Academy Award to a zombie.”
LAB: That proves you’re right on the cutting edge of things right now.
SJ: “That’s right, exactly.”
LAB: I have to ask you something about the Partridge Family because it was a pop culture phenomenon.
SJ: “Yes it was.”
LAB: Are you glad in the final analysis you did that?
SJ: “Oh, yes, I’m glad for personal reasons more than anything else and the fact it was a big hit. But you know at that time the agents and managers said, ‘Shirley, don’t do a television series,’ because I was a movie star. They said if it is successful you’ll be that character for the rest of your life and your movie career will be in the toilet. Well, they were right. But what I wanted was to stay home and raise my kids and that gave me that opportunity. I had three sons and they were all over Europe, on the road with me on movies everywhere and they were school-age and I said if this is successful it’s the perfect time for me to do this and it was. And it was great for me that way and it didn’t ruin my career but they felt at that time television was a step down.”
LAB: There are a few more of your movie experiences I want to ask you about. So what was it like working with Marlon Brando on Bedtime Story?
SJ: “Let me say that I think I got Brando at a very good time in his life because he wanted to play comedy and nobody would give him the opportunity. He’d just come from Mutiny on the Bounty in which he was hated. He was a brilliant actor but he wanted to expand. He adored David Niven. The only problem I saw at this time in his life is that it was nothing for him to do 40-50 takes on one scene.”
LAB: And you got the chance to work with the great John Ford in Two Rode Together, in which you co-starred with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.
SJ: “Couldn’t stand him. He was not good with women. He was a man’s man and he looked down on women. It was like, Who cares? I never got one direction from him, nothing. And he had a handkerchief hanging out of his mouth all the time. I said to Richard (Widmark), ‘What is that handkerchief?’ He said, ‘Shirley. don’t say anything about it, don’t ask him.’ But it was hysterical. He’d take it out and say, ‘Let’s get ready to shoot,’ and put it back in. And the script – there’d be a rewrite every single morning. So it was not an easy movie for me. Thank God I was working with people like Widmark and (Jimmy) Stewart because they were sensational and very helpful to me.”
LAB: They were protective of you?
SJ: “Oh, very much so, yes. So that helped a lot. I was offered another movie with him (Ford) after that and I said no.”
LAB: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
SJ: “Yes, that was it.”
LAB: You had the misfortune of catching Ford near the end of his career when he was even more cantankerous than before.
SJ: “I think early on he wasn’t quite like that but it was terrible then.”
LAB: You’re in one of my favorite movies – The Cheyenne Social Club.
SJ: “Ah, I love that movie.”
LAB: I think it’s underappreciated.
SJ: “So do I. It’s a great movie. it was a great movie to do. Gene Kelly directed it. I had a wonderful relationship with him, and I adored Jimmy. Jimmy lived down the street from me. I loved the story. And I think it’s the funniest thing Henry Fonda ever did.”
LAB: Fonda and Stewart are so masterful together in their simplicity and naturalness.
SJ: “Well, they were college roommates (roommates back East and in Hollywood), and I’ve often said watching them work was truly an acting lesson. They would ad lib, they knew each other so well, they knew each other’s timing. It was incredible.”
LAB: And this next one is not a great movie but you costarred in it with one of my favorite actors, James Garner…
SJ: “Tank. Oh, yes, I loved Jimmy, we had a good time.”
LAB: You’ve worked with a lot of legends…
SJ: “Oh, very much. I have a book coming out by the way – in June. It’s Shirley Jones, A Memoir. Yeah, it’s the story of my life.”
LAB: Is that something publishers have been trying to get you to do for some time?
SJ: “Yes, they have, and Simon and Schuster bought this so I’ll be on the road doing a lot of talking.”
LAB: So will we see different shades of Shirley Jones?
SJ: “Different shades absolutely. I’m not saying I slept with every male star that I worked with but I have a lot to say about everybody I worked with and two crazy husbands and 12 grandchildren, so my life has been rather extraordinary from the beginning.”
LAB: As you may have heard, Bruce Crawford really puts on the dog for his events. They’re like Hollywood premieres, only Omaha style.
SJ: “Yes, that’s what I hear. That’s great, I think that’s wonderful, it gives them an opportunity to view this film.”
- You’ll never walk alone- (lesplaisirssimplesdelavie.wordpress.com)
- Carousel (bettysbrownies.wordpress.com)
- Live From Lincoln Center: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Carousel (alaskapublic.org)
- Carousel (3159shroyer.wordpress.com)
Cindy Williams Interview: Film-television Atar to Appear at Nov. 2 Screening of ‘American Graffiti’ in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
FOR EVENT DETAILS, VISIT: http://www.omahafilmevent.com
Cindy Williams broke our hearts in American Graffiti and made us laugh in Laverne and Shirley and this ageless American Sweetheart is still plying her craft in film, television, and theater. She’s coming to Omaha for a 40th anniversay screening of the classic George Lucas coming-of-age movie, American Graffiti. The Friday, Nov. 2 event at 7 p.m. in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is the latest revival by film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford. Williams will speak before the film to share some behind-the-scenes anecdotes from one of the most warmly regarded pictures of the last four decades. She spoke with me by phone from a bus transporting her and her fellow cast members after having just completed a performance of Nunsense Boulevard as part of a tour the musical comedy production is making on the East Coast and in the Southern states. The play is part of the Nunsense franchise by Dan Goggin. Williams appeared in Nunsense I and she calls the material “a lot of fun,” adding, “They’re happy musicals about a gaggle of nuns.”
LAB: In terms of your work on American Graffiti the first thing I’m curious about is what did you make of the young George Lucas?
CW: “He was just one of the gang, he was like one of us, he was our age. We knew he had directed at film at USC. There were rumblings he was a boy genius and his film THX-1138 was received so well. When Ron Howard and I went in to read for him, even before we had read it, he said, ‘Think of it as a musical.’ He told us that was because the music would never stop in the entire film except when the source of the music was gone, which would mean that the car was gone or the characters were out somewhere where they couldn’t hear a radio.
“I remember walking out of that meeting with Ron and saying, ‘A musical, incredible, that’s genius. Both of us agreed on that.”
LAB: So what kind of an experience did you have working on the film considering it was a low budget production all shot at night and you were among a cast of relative newcomers on a film that the studio (Universal) had little faith in?
CW: “It was like a very risque church camp experience.”
LAB: How is that?
CW: “We had one car, which was the prop car, that also was the car that took us to and from the hotel – the Holiday Inn we were staying at. Everybody had to ride together because he (the driver) wasn’t going to make anymore trips than he needed to because he was also the prop master. There was a Winnebago for the cast. There were no dressing rooms, there was no makeup, there was no place to go.
“We would start shooting at 6 at night and end at 6 in the morning with a guy from Universal there watching the clocl, making sure we didn’t go over schedule, and with one hand on the plug to the generator (to pull it and shut down filming if he had to). And so it was like fly-by-your-pants and we’ve-got-to-get-this-done and we’re-all-pulling-together.
“I don’t know if Ron had worked for Roger Corman yet but I had and I believe Harrison (Ford) had and a few others had. It was like Roger’s schedule. We were all young and anything he (Lucas) said we would just go with. Like the ending scene…Ron and I had been dismissed, it was over for us for the night, so we were in the Winnebago and he was in the boys section and I was in the girls section and we were waiting to get a ride from the prop car home. And all of a sudden the A.D. came in and said, ‘Put your wardrobe back on, we’re shooting the ending scene.’ And this was like 5 in the morning.
“Well, we had never rehearsed it, we weren’t prepared. I panicked and I said, ‘I can’t do this, I’ve read it like twice, we haven’t blocked it.’ We put our wardrobe on and ran out to George and said, ‘We’re not ready,’ and he said, ‘We’ve got to shoot it now because we’ve got to get the sun rising.’ We said, ‘Well, what do we do?’ and he said, ‘Improvise.’ And so we all got together and decided what we wer’e going to do. Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer, with a hand-held (camera)…The cars turned over, they started the car on fire, and Harrison and I figured out I’d be hitting him with my purse and then Ron was going to run up…We just talked about it as actors and we discussed it with George in about 30 seconds and he said, ‘Action!,’ and that was it, it was one take and it was over.”
LAB: Did you have a sense while making it that the picture was something special or did it surprise you because as you know little was expected of the film and yet it became a sensation?
CW: “That’s a tribute to the genius of George Lucas and to the beautiful photography of Haskell Wexler (one of three DPs on the film and officially credited as the film’s “visual consultant”). But, you know, the overriding factor is George Lucas had a vision and he shot the vision. And when he said it was a musical, when you think about the music in the film it’s another character in the film and it tells the story. It just leads everybody through this fabulous one night of coming-of-age.”
LAB: Do you regret that Lucas departed from this personal, humanist strain of movies to go on to do the Star Wars franchise?
CW: “That’s a very good question, no one’s ever asked me that. But here’s the thing: we wouldn’t have had Star Wars, there wouldn’t have been the phenomena of Star Wars. Yeah, you’d have to ask George, I can’t speak for George. In him, you have someone who can write the humanist story and who also can write the techno story and the fantasy futuristic story in brilliant terms. And let’s not forget it was written by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck and George.”
LAB: Anything more you’d care to add about Lucas?
CW: “He’s a great great person, he’s got a wonderful heart and he just happens to be a genius. He’s a computer-age genius along with being a humanist.”
LAB: Even though you were a relative unknown to most moviegoers then, you’d already done some films and a fair amount of television before Graffiti and you’d worked with some very good people. I’m thinking of Drive, He Said with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern and Travels with My Aunt with Maggie Smith and directed by George Cukor.
CW: “I don’t even know if I had a line in Drive, He Said. Travels with My Aunt – I had just come back from doing in Spain, and the next day they called me about American Graffiti and I said, ‘I cannot come in and meet anyone.’ I was jet-lagging so bad that I was sick, I just wanted to go to bed for like a month. They kept calling me and I went in and that was because of the casting director Fred Roos, who’s brilliant. He produced The Godfather. He cast American Graffiti. Fred Roos had cast Mayberry RFD and that’s why he thought of Ron to play the lead in American Graffiti.
“I went in and I met with George and I really liked George. After I read the script I said, ‘I’d like to play debbie, the Candy Clark character, or Carol, the Mackenzie Phillips character, and Fred Roos said, ‘No, we’ve cast those, we cant find the ingenue, Laurie,’ and I said, ‘Oh please don’t make me an ingenue who cries all night.’ I didn’t want to go and screen test becauae I was so tired. I didn’t think i could learn the dialogue. I’ve got ADD and Dyslexia anyway, so it was almost impossible. I needed two weeks and a fresh mind. Well, I went in and did screen test with Ron and they offered me the part, and I said, ‘I can’t,’ I was still jet-lagging. I know, it sounds crazy. So then my agent called and said, ‘I think this is going to be a great movie.’ But it wasn’t until Francis (Coppola, who produced the film) called (that she accepted the part).
“I hadn’t seen The Godfather but I had seen (his) You’re a Big Boy Now – it’s one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. I was just awe struck that Francis Coppola would call me. I was like hypnotized: Yes, evil master, I will do the film. I said, ‘Of course I will.’ And it wasn’t because of The Gofather, it was because of You’re a Big Boy Now.”
LAB: You went on to work with Coppola on The Conversation, which also reunited you with Harrison Ford.
CW: “I could tell you a whole bunch about that (film) and about the genius of Francis Coppola, and I’m talking about a double scoop of genius.”
LAB: A few years after Graffiti you played the character of Shirley Feeney on several Happy Days episodes before starring alongside Penny Marshall in the monster TV sitcom hit Laverne and Shirley and so I take it then that Graffiti had quite an impact on your career?
CW: “Oh, absolutely. People always ask me if it was because of American Graffiti that Happy Days happened. I think they had already shot the pilot for Happy Days and American Graffiti was shelved by Universal. They hated it (despite great test screenings). Yeah, it was shelved for a year and then Francis Coppola offered to buy it. You should look that up, it;s so interesting. And then it was because Elton John and a bunch of musicians had screenings for it and people went crazy and they loved it and it became a populist kind of thing. And then I guess Universal took another look.
“Well, you know Universal passed on Star Wars (too), so then Fox picked it up.”
LAB: And the rest is history. Star Wars helped usher in the blockbuster event motion picture but Graffiti became a huge hit in its own right, sparking the nostalgia craze, and it’s still one of the top money earned versus cost to make productions in movie history.
CW: “Who knew?”
LAB: Why do you feel it resonated so strongly with the public?
CW: “It was the music, the cars, the characters. It all took place in one night, it was coming-of-age. There was something for everybody in that film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful observance of certain youth rituals in a particular place and time and yet there are universal themes of yearning and courtship it touches on, too.
CW: “That’s so true, Leo. It’s the basic goodness of those rituals and also, and I remember George saying this, the story took place before President Kennedy was assassinated and before we all went to just hell in a handbasket, before everything became cynical. It was like a delineation. It was an age of innocence in those cars and with that music. There was nothing diabolique or gruesome or shocking. It was just all this sweet mirth. They were happy times, and you go to Garry Marshall in creating Happy Days. It was really a lovely time. It was such a different time.
“I remember that line drawn where you’re happy one day and then the president is assassinated and the whole country is trying to figure it out and mourn and grieve, and then all this cynicism began.”
LAB: You obviously continue to feel very warmly about American Graffiti and what it represents.
CW: “I always will. That film, to be a part of it, is such a privilege and an honor. A happy happy time of my life.”
LAB: Are you still close to some of the cast and crew?
CW: “Oh yeah, I see Paul Le Mat all the time and Candy (Clark) and Bo Hopkins. Things were so uncanny about the film. Like my best friend Lynne Marie Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, she played Bobbie Tucker, who throws Richard Dryfuss out of her Volkswagon. Do you remember that scene? Well, Richard Dryfuss was her childhood friend – they went to elementary school together, and I knew Richard because of Lynne way before any of us started acting professionally. And so that was just like crazy that we all got cast in it, though Lynne and I went to theater school together. We knew Fred Roos together.
I haven’t seen Suzanne (Somers) and Ron (Howard) in a while. Richard, I’ve seen recently, and Harrison. But yeah everybody’s very friendly.”
LAB: Did you see any evidence of Howard’s interest in being a director?
CW: “Yes, he would get out of the car and he’d go and talk to Haskell and come and sit back in the car because we had no where else to do, and I’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, I’m just asking Haskell how he’s shooting this because I’d like to direct some day,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’”
LAB: I take it that you’re coming to Omaha for this revival screening because you enjoy celebrating the film with fans.
CW: “I’m happy to get up before the film and tell everybody this was shot in 28 nights for $750,000 and most of that went to the music rights. Tell them little stories about it because people who love it, that just makes them love it even more and it let’s them see it the way I see it. I kind of give them a from-the-inside out kind of view of it. So yeah it’s a happy thing, Leo, and how many of those are in the world right now?”
LAB: The whole night shooting aspect of it is pretty fascinating.
CW: “Twenty-eight nights. It all takes place at night except for one shot in the morning when Kurt (Dryfuss) takes off for college in the plane. If you look at the plane real close one of the engines catches on fire when it starts up.”
LAB: Just how tight the shooting schedule was boggles the mind. But then again working fast forces you to be inventive.
CW: “You know, when you don’t give people a chance to (over)think and they’re thinking on their feet sometimes you get the best stuff because people just work twice as hard and they just buckle down. It’s great. When I was in school and we’d have a scene due a week you just did it, you didn’t question anything, you didn’t say, ‘What’s my motivation?’ You figured it out in your mind and your body and your heart and your soul and you did it.”
LAB: Do you regret making the sequel to American Graffiti?
CW: “No, not at all.”
LAB: Even though it was very poorly received and is not well regarded today either?
CW: “I know but I don’t regret it at all. I wish George had given the director more time to shoot it.”
LAB: Where do you place American Graffiti in your career compared with other projects you’re most proud of?
CW: “They’re on a loop – American Graffiti, Laverne and Shirley and The Conversation.”
LAB: You’ve done some producing as your career’s gone on.
CW: “I did co-produce Father of the Bride and that’s a whole other ball of wax, which im happy to talk with you about some other time. It’s a good story.”
FOR EVENT DETAILS, VISIT: http://www.omahafilmevent.com
- Lucas to be grand marshal of Modesto Graffiti parade (modbee.com)
- THE LIST Coming-of-age gems (goerie.com)
- Happy Birthday, Cindy Williams!!! (kidzrockinc.co)
- Penny Marshall Looks Back On Life – And The Movies – In Memoir ‘My Mother Was Nuts’ (movieline.com)
- AFI Night: #62 American Graffiti (mateohines.wordpress.com)
I have been fortunate enough to interview several film legends and with this story I landed a biggie in the person of the late Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning producer-director who made two of the greatest screen musicals in West Side Story and The Sound of Music, though as my piece points out he was a versatile enough filmmaker that he made memorable movies of all different genres, including horror, crime, Western, and science fiction. My story appeared on the eve of a revival screening of West Side Story at the restored Orpheum Theater in Omaha some eight or nine years ago. The event was organized by local impresario Bruce Crawford. For the story I interviewed Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn, who came to the showing, and Crawford. Though Wise was not a great filmmaker or auteur he was certainly one of the most commercially successful prodcuer-directors of his era. His career also spanned an incredibly long period, from the Golden Age of 1930s-1940s Hollywood well into the 1980s, and intersected with scores of great talents. It was a distinct privilege to speak with him. Flm lovers should note that this blog is full of my stories from my work as a film journalist.
‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Before becoming the home of Omaha’s performing arts in the 1970s, the Orpheum Theater reigned as the grandest movie palace in the city. It’s only fitting then the newly renovated downtown Orpheum will, for one night only, on Monday, November 11, showcase a national cinema treasure – West Side Story – in a special screening benefiting the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Omaha
The event is the latest in local impresario Bruce Crawford’s series of annual film revivals presented in the manner of Hollywood premieres. This time, he’s arranged personal appearances by three West Side Story notables — its Oscar-winning producer-director Robert Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn and vocalist Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood. Also, a choreographed work by Robin Welch of the Omaha Theater Ballet will pay homage to the dance numbers in the film. Wise, Tamblyn and Nixon will speak prior to the film and sign autographs afterwards.
Crawford said he’s secured “an archival print” for the showing, which will offer audiences a rare chance to see the film in all its 70 millimeter Super Panavision glory on the big screen. In the opinion of Crawford, a devotee of film music, West Side Story “broke the mold” as far as the American musical is concerned. “I consider it a modern opera. Maria,Tonight, In America – these are not just show tunes, these are almost operatic arias,” he said. “I think it transcends the musical genre and is the most unique of all film musicals, hands-down.”
Released by United Artists in 1961, West Side Story became a huge box-office hit and one of the most honored films in Academy Award history, winning 10 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Wise and co-director Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). As successful as the film was, it owed everything to the original stage production upon which it was based. Boldly transposing the forbidden romance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the New York gang milieu and exchanging the Montague-Capulet feud for the gang warfare between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins covered new ground in American musical theater with their honest depiction of racial issues.
The modern, socially-conscious drama became a Broadway phenomenon soon after opening at New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1957. Brimming with an urgent passion and intellect, the show ran more than 700 performances before going on tour. Sensing a hot property when they saw one, producers ponied-up to buy the film rights. In the changing landscape of American cinema then, old-line Hollywood studios were giving way to brash new independent film companies, one of which — Mirisch Pictures — acquired the rights to the play and, in association with Seven Arts Productions, launched the much-anticipated screen version.
To helm the film, veteran Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me) was signed and, in an unusual arrangement, Broadway’s Robbins was given co-directorial responsibilities. The plan was for Wise to direct the dramatic scenes and to shape the overall story for the camera and for Robbins to develop the demanding dance and music numbers. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, The King and I, Sweet Smell of Success, North By Northwest) wrote the film adaptation. Bernstein and Sondheim again provided the powerful music and lyrics around which the entire spine of West Side is built. In preparing the film, Wise-Robbins elected not to use any leads from the Broadway show and instead cast five fresh-faced young players under contract to various studios.
As the souful, starcrossed lovers whose romance defies family, ethnic and gang codes of honor, Richard Beymer was cast as Tony, the Polish-American boy, and Natalie Wood as Maria, the Chicano girl. Newcomer George Chakiris took the showy part of Bernardo, the charismatic leader of the Sharks. Plucked from the obscurity of previously decorative bit parts, Rita Moreno won the role of Anita, the fire brand mate of Bernardo. And, finally, for the cocky role of Riff, the leader of the Jets, Russ Tamblyn got the call.
In recent phone interviews from their California homes, Wise and Tamblyn spoke about making the film and the artists they collaborated with. After 56 years directing some of the most famous features in movie history, 88-year-old Robert Wise is finally retired from picture-making, although movies are always on his mind. The venerable Wise is the last of the old guard of Hollywood filmmakers. In a distinguished career that saw him transition from the editing room at RKO, where he cut such classics as Citizen Kane, to assuming the director’s chair, from which he oversaw dozens of popular films of every conceivable genre, Wise earned a reputation as a fine craftsman. His fluid, incisive, unadorned work exudes a sober integrity reflective of his own character. In preparing a film a director is like a reporter and Wise, who intended to be a journalist, anchors his work in research. “When I go into any project I research every aspect of it thoroughly, so I can tell all the truth and reality I can up on the screen,” he said.
By the time Wise joined the West Side creative team, he was a bankable, versatile director adept at making suspense films (The Curse of the Cat People), horror films (The Body Snatcher), film noirs (The Set-Up), crime thrillers (Odds Against Tomorrow), Westerns (Blood on the Moon), science fiction flicks (The Day the Earth Stood Still), high dramas (Executive Suite), biopics (I Want to Live) and war films (Run Silent, Run Deep). Despite never directing a musical, he worked as an assistant editor on Astaire-Rogers pictures, an experience, he said, that helped him know “the form” of the musical. Four years after West Side, he struck gold with another Broadway adaptation – The Sound of Music –which broke all box office records.
Wise knew the challenge in making a film from a play, any play, was in finding ways to open the story up in cinematic terms that liberated the action from the constraints of the stage. So that he could capture the grit, vitality and scope of West Side’s New York City setting, he realized he must get dynamic shots of the Big Apple and thus fix the story’s urban location in people’s minds. To do that, he came up with the novel idea for the signature opening — a sweeping helicopter pan looking straight down at the looming cityscape. The resulting images offer arresting views of the city and serve to heighten the reality and poetry of the stylized drama. The filmmaker had to fight reluctant, penny-pinching executives to do the opening his way.
“Well, they were not too happy about it because it was going to cost a lot more money to shoot that, but that was the only way to do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fake that out here in Los Angeles. I wanted to deliver New York and I didn’t want to do it with that same old shot across the river of the bridge and the skyline. I got to wondering what it would look like just straight down — a New York most people have never seen. I didn’t actually shoot that myself. A second-unit man did it for me. I think we had about a half-hour’s worth of film, which we cut down into what’s in the movie.” The montage rythmically leads into the first pulsating shots of gang members moving in the streets and breaking into dance.
Aside from his own contributions, Wise felt secure knowing he had a brilliant book, sublime lyrics and memorable music to work with. In his mind, a film is only as good as its screenplay. He said, “We had a marvelous script by a writer-friend of mine, Ernest Lehman, who’s done several of my other things. The foundation of any film is the script, and if it’s not on the page, you’re not going to get it up there (on the screen). If you’ve got it on the page and if you get the right cast together and the right crew, then away you go and you let the chips fall where they may.”
Russ Tamblyn said West Side was a project where “all the ingredients clicked.” Among the big egos and talents behind it, he said, it was the cool, calm, quiet Wise who held it all together. “He was quite different from Jerome Robbins. Jerry was very passionate and out front. He would get mad at dancers if they couldn’t remember steps and he wanted actors to keep doing stuff over and over and over again. On the set, boy, he was a demon. Whereas Robert Wise was more laid-back. He was the kind of director I really like — that’s more self-assured and would point you in the right direction and leave it up to you to go there. That’s the thing I loved about him. He just is really sweet. You can call him at his office, and he answers the phone. There aren’t many people in his position that do that.”
When, more than half-way through production, the film fell behind schedule and went over-budget, the fiery Robbins was fired and assistant Tony Mordente, who also played one of the Jets, Action, assumed the choreography. Ironically, Robbins won Oscars for his energetic, sexually-charged choreography and co-direction.
Behind-the-scenes intrigue or not, Tamblyn enjoyed the shoot and felt lucky to be part of the film at all. He was “on loan” to the producers from MGM, where he was a contract player. He actually tested for the role of Tony, but ended up playing Riff over the objections of studio head Bennie Thau, who felt the part projected the wrong image for a young star being groomed as a clean-cut boy-next-door type. West Side was not the first or last musical for Tamblyn, who displayed his acrobatic style, replete with his trademark back flip, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tom Thumb and Hit the Deck. While lacking formal training, the former Los Angeles youth tumbling champ got the equal of a graduate-level dance education from such master choreographers as Robbins, Michael Kidd and Hermes Pan. Although “extremely intimidated” by the dances required in West Side, he gained confidence during months of rehearsal and from being in the company of fellow former child actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, whom Tamblyn later co-starred with in David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks.
Tamblyn, who considers West Side Story “the peak” of his career, enjoys attending revivals of the film. “Last year we did a cast and crew reunion in New York at Radio City Music Hall,” he said. “It was completely sold out. It was right after 9/11 and we didn’t even want to go, but Mayor Giuliani asked us to, and it was one of the best trips I ever had there.” Robert Wise was there too and said the film “played like gangbusters.” For his Omaha screening, Bruce Crawford is “thrilled” to have the combination of “a legendary filmmaker, a classic film and the Orpheum Theater.”
- How we made … Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris on West Side Story (guardian.co.uk)
- Five top stage-to-film musical makeovers (nydailynews.com)
- West Side Story, film soundtrack, CD review (telegraph.co.uk)
- The Search for the ‘West Side Story’ Album Cover in NYC (wqxr.org)
Movie Maven Crawford Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Film Revivals that Bring Hollywood to Omaha, Special Guest Pat Boone to Appear at Screening of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’
One of my favorite movies as a kid was the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I’ve seen it all the way through perhaps a handful of times but always on television, which is why I’m looking forward to an upcoming big screen revival of the Jules Verne sci fi adventure in Omaha, Neb. courtesy of film impresario and historian Bruce Crawford. Omaha has had a spotty hisory when it comes to opportunities for seeing classic films on the big screen. Aside from the occasional studio re-releases of classics that come here there’s been sporadic commercial and nonprofit screenings of classics, and I was involved with some of these myself as a programmer from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. When the university, independent, and museum-based film series I worked with went by the wayside in the early 1990s, Crawford was there to pick up the slack. What he’s done over a 20-year period now is give film lovers the chance to see old movies the way they’re meant to be seen, namely on a big screen, but he also takes great pains to make these presentations special events by bringing in cast or crew from the pictures along with reenactors and staging Hollywood premiere-like settings, complete with red carpet and all the trappings. This, combined with the emergence of the downtown Omaha art cinema Film Streams and its regular repertory series of classics, has given the city a robust classic cinema scene.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine
When film impresario Bruce Crawford presents the 1959 big screen version of Journey to the Center of the Earth May 19 with star and special guest Pat Boone he’ll celebrate three milestones.
The 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall benefiting the Nebraska Kidney Association marks Crawford’s 20th year of classic film revivals and 30th screening. The program also pays homage to the centenary of the movie’s late great composer, Bernard Herrmann.
Growing up in Nebraska City Crawford developed such a strong affinity for movie music and special effects he cultivated friendships with idol Herrmann and stop motion master Ray Harryhausen. He says he never imagined his film passion “would by my life and career and take me all over the country and the world.”
Boone’s the latest in a long line of legends Crawford’s brought to Omaha, following Harryhausen, Patricia Neal, Janet Leigh and Debbie Reynolds. Crawford’s rep as a movie maven and historian finds him contributing to documentaries and hosting movie music concerts. He and Kim Novak hosted a program at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival in L.A. Always a showman, he puts on the dog at his Omaha events with red carpet, searchlights and reenactors. For Journey he’s arranged for bagpipers in quilts and steampunkers in period costumes and gear to set the mood for the Jules Verne Victorian science fiction tale.
Boone or bust
The ultra square pop singer Boone was under a seven-year 20th Century Fox contact when he refused doing a Marilyn Monroe picture on moral grounds. That’s when the studio compelled him to make Journey. He initially balked, preferring romantic comedies and musicals like his idol Bing Crosby. Besides, sic fi movies were usually cheap, B program fillers then. Under threat of suspension he acquiesced when Fox assured him they planned a big budget production with A-list cast (James Mason) and crew director Henry Levin), plus top billing and backend profits for him.
A script rewrite also gave him a love interest and several songs to perform.
Things worked out for Boone when the Cinemascope Deluxe Color film became a hit. It reportedly kept a struggling Fox solvent.
A production to remember
Making the epic with its giant sets, exotic locations and esteemed co-stars is well-impressed on Boone’s mind.
“For me working with James Mason and Arlene Dahl was not only a privilege and a highlight but it validated me as a movie actor. It was a tremendous experience but it was a very tough picture to make.”
Among other things, there were several nights shooting in the subterranean reaches of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Back at the studio he and his fellow players clung to a mock raft suspended on a soundstage that crew rocked and deluged with water to simulate a raging whirlpool scene. He says the look of panic on Dahl’s face is real.
In one shot Boone came close to being smothered on set when buried in an avalanche of gypsum crystals that covered his mouth and nose, pressing down on him with such weight he couldn’t move. As he struggled to breathe he says he heard director Henry Levin checking, one by one, with the four camera operators to see if they got the shot, but the crystals continued falling. Luckily, he says, someone on a catwalk saw he was in trouble and alerted Levin, who finally called cut, as crewmen rushed to get him out. Another time, Boone says he kicked what he thought was a paper mache rock that turned out to be real and broke his foot.
‘Journey’s’ place fixed, Boone’s Hollywood fling flags
The pains that went into making the film account for its enduring appeal. Crawford says, “The movie endures for several reasons – the music, the art direction, the whole way it was put together, the beautiful sets they created, the full use of the technologies of the time. It’s quite spectacular on the big screen and a lot of fun.”
Boone’s film career faded by the late ’60s. As censorship dissolved and new permissiveness emerged., he found fewer scripts conforming to his conservative Christian beliefs. He’s proud that Journey still holds up and entertains. He’ll speak before the film and sign memorabilia afterwards.
Tickets are $25 and available at area Hy-Vee stores.
- Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version ofJules Verne’s ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Filmmaker Steve Lustgarten Proves He Can Come Home Again (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tempting Fate: Patrick Coyle Film ‘Into Temptation’ Delivers Gritty Tale of a Working Girl and an Idealistic Priest in Search of Redemption (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- ‘Out of Omaha’ (‘California Dreaming’) Project Adds to Area’s Evolving Indie Filmmaking Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Payne Delivers Another Screen Gem with ‘The Descendants’ and Further Enhances His Cinema Standing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne to Talk Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Film Connections, An In-Progress Story of How a 1968 Convergence of Future Cinema Greats in Ogallala, Neb. Resulted in Multiple Films and Enduring Relationships; From the Melting Pot of Coppola, Lucas, Knight, Duvall, Caan and two Ranch-Rodeo Families Cam (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version ofJules Verne’s ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment
My guilty cinema pleasures include plenty of kitsch movies, though over time I have less and less patience and tolerance for these less than great films that enthralled me as a kid but do very little for me as an adult. The 1954 Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea certainly held my attention when I first saw it on television in the late 1960s. I have maybe seen it in one sitting a couple times since, but mostly it’s one I’ve caught in bits and pieces in the intervening years. Any film with Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre has to hold your attention for a minute or two, and then add in the action-adventure and fantasy aspects of the story and one can perhaps overlook its sometimes clunky specal effects. I missed what may have been my only opportunity to see it on a big screen when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford presented it a few years ago. He’s been reviving classics for more than two decades and he has a new program planned for May 19, the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, that falls in the same camp as 20,000 Leagues.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Sure, one can quibble with some of Bruce Crawford’s selections for his now semi-annual film revival events. The Omaha promoter’s picks are not all classics for one thing. Two of his last three screenings — the creaky 1960 The Time Machine and the 1997 bloater Titanic — don’t compare with the stellar, stand-the-test-of-time cinema of, say, West Side Story or The Misfits or The Searchers, all of which he’s presented in recent years. But, like all show people, Crawford has a nearly unerring sense for putting on the dog. His newest foray into extravaganza is a December 17 unreeling of the wide screen spectacle 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney’s 1954 film version of the speculative Jules Verne adventure yarn.
Working his Hollywood contacts as usual, Crawford’s secured a restored print of the Cinemascope and Technicolor film from the Disney vaults for the Omaha showing at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The film is the main attraction for another boffo Crawford program, beginning at 7 p.m., that in addition to the flick will feature reenactors in Victorian splendor, a live theater organ performance of music from the film and special guests.
The one-night only screening is a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska.
You won’t find 20,000 Leagues on any all-time Best list. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a richly entertaining romp. There’s enough going on to please all but the most discriminating viewer. For starters, the story imagines — from Verne’s amazingly visionary 19th century perspective — a host of technological advances. At the center of it all is the fictional submarine the Nautilus, whose limitless diving feats are fueled by a revolutionary power source that modern audiences can only interpret as nuclear-based. Mistaken for a leviathan serpent from the deep, it surfaces to wreak havoc on war ships at the bidding of its creator, Captain Nemo, an inventor turned militant political activist and seafaring terrorist.
With its cold metal hull and soft upholstered interior, Crawford said, the ship makes a striking visual contrast between the Victorian period’s harshness and plushiness. It even has a pipe organ on which Nemo, in scenes reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera, plays Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor.”
The vessel’s brilliant but bitter skipper, played by James Mason, is bent both on revenge and on a punitive mission to end the war-making ways of the world. Brooding Mason’s Nemo dominates the film and, in true mad scientist tradition, he’s a figure to be feared, revered and pitied all at once. The haunted Nemo’s rather sketchy back story is the impetus for his reign of terror, as we learn his family was killed by mercenary forces seeking the secrets behind the amazing energy that powers his futuristic submarine and underwater domain. Nemo, Crawford said, is “a tortured soul brilliantly realized by Mason.”
The post-World War II story opens with a U.S. naval expedition being launched to investigate reports of “a monster” attacking and sinking ships on the open sea. The expedition is led by a professor Arronax, his assistant Conseil and harpooner Ned Land, a survivor of a ship wrecked by the Nautilus. When the expedition team’s ship is rammed and sunk by what they at first believe to be the “monster,” Arronax, Conseil and Land are rescued by the Nautilus crew. The hostages soon learn they are aboard a man-made vessel, meet the mad genius behind it and witness the wonders of underwater voyaging, deep sea diving and ocean farming.
As Ned Land, virile Kirk Douglas hams it up as a singing, dancing, guitar-strumming mariner who plots to escape the sub. He’s the heroic, swashbuckling antithesis to Nemo’s ruthless radical. Bug-eyed Peter Lorre cracks wise as the comic relief Conseil. Earnest Paul Lukas is the idealistic Arronax in awe of Nemo. A pet sea dog, Esmeralda, steals scenes. Oscar-winning special effects and art direction bring the ocean floor to life, capture the destruction of ships targeted by Nemo and realize a climatic battle between the Nautilus and a giant squid. As if that’s not enough, anointing the action is the Disney studio’s seal of family approved entertainment.
Disney, still a newcomer then to live-action films, spared no expense bringing the 1870 Jules Verne novel to life. Originally conceived as another animation feature, company head Walt Disney was convinced by some of his studio artists and technicians that the film could work as a live-action project. To undertake a live-action film of such visionary scale, however, meant animation-based Disney had to out-source many human talents and resources, including renting 20th Century Fox’s back lot water tanks. Known for his demanding, meticulous attention to detail, Disney and his production chiefs assembled a veteran Hollywood crew and cast and gave them a long leash that he only occasionally felt compelled to rein in.
Using full-scale models, as well as miniatures, matte paintings, rear screen projection and animation, Disney threw everything into the making of 20,000 Leagues. The Nautilus seen in the film was built to scale — reaching 200 feet in length. The squid, constructed of rubber, springs, tubing and plastic, had tentacles 40 feet long. A crew of dozens worked the squid’s remote control movements.
According to Crawford, early footage of the squid’s duel with the Nautilus was a disaster Uncle Walt himself nixed. “It was horrifically bad. It looked like Ed Wood with a big budget. They filmed a sunset sequence in bright light. The squid was wrong. It just didn’t work. They wanted to keep it from being optical. Stop motion would have been perfect, but they wanted to make it full size. They were building Disneyland at the same time this film was being made and of course it became famous for its Animatronics, and that’s what they wanted to utilize,” Crawford said.
The final squid sequence, he said, “was filmed at night during a heavy storm. It works perfectly. It holds up just as good today as it did then. The squid was full size and all controlled through hydraulics and wires and such. It was clever of them to film it at night during a hurricane-like storm because it adds to the eeriness and the fear factor and, of course, it masks any possible flaws in the visuals.” For a purist like Crawford, the old-school special effects rule. “Well, they hold up, don’t they? It’s not CGI (computer generated images). It’s tactile. It’s organic. You can see it and touch it. I mean, two TV films (of 20,000 Leagues) were made. They bombed. You can’t remake a classic. It just doesn’t work, especially one like that. You can’t out-Disney Disney — even with today’s technology.”
Underwater and beach scenes were filmed off Jamaica and the Bahamas. When all was said and done, 20,000 Leagues supposedly owned the biggest production budget for any film up to that time. Matching the production values, Disney signed an “A” list cast. Douglas and Mason were at the height of their fame. Lukas and Lorre were top character players. After a string of highly-regarded “B” film noirs for RKO (Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin), Richard Fleischer was commissioned to direct the picture and displayed a flair for the fantastic that he would brandish again with such later pics as The Vikings and Fantastic Voyage.
That Fleischer was entrusted with Disney’s first foray into Cinemascope, the super wide screen format that became the tail that wagged Hollywood’s dog in the ’50s, is interesting since his previous work had mainly been with back alley crime tales. But his effective use of small spaces and instinctive handling of suspense action may have been just what Disney was looking for, said Crawford. “Disney wanted to treat the film like a prison breakout story. It’s very clever. It works.”
Indeed, the film largely plays out on the Nautilus, whose mates, we learn, are former prisoners who broke out of bondage with Nemo, only to become hunted outlaws in his service. When Ned Land and company are taken as hostages, they see both the danger and the promise that Nemo and his new technology pose. When they try and fail to get him to end the attacks and to share his discoveries with the world, they hatch an escape plan. The drama then becomes a race against time. Will the hostages escape before the megalomaniacal Nemo self-destructs?
Crawford said what Hollywood producer-director George Pal did for H.G. Wells with his ’50s production of War of the Worlds, Walt Disney did for Jules Verne with 20,000 Leagues. The success of 20,000 Leagues “certainly was a breakthrough” in paving the way for future adaptations of Verne works, including Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island, the film that first stirred Crawford’s passion for film.
“It set that template for the ones that successfully followed it,” he said. “It ranks at the very top in that genre because it was not only the first, but because Disney spent so much time and effort and money on it to make it the best. Disney wouldn’t settle for anything but the best.”
- 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA – Mondo Tees Poster Art (geektyrant.com)
- D23 and Turner Classic Movies Present 2 Disney Classic Movies (candoitmom.com)
- Journey 2: The Mysterious Island – Classics come together (thehindu.com)
- Great Leaps of Imagination: Jules Verne (makezine.com)
Bringing Back Classic Movies and the Old-Time Ballyhoo, Bruce Crawford Shows ‘King Kong’ the Red Carpet Treatment
I’ve been writing about Bruce Crawford’s film events for more than a decade. The Omaha-based film historian and impresario has gained national recognition for his elaborate revival screenings of classic movies. This story appeared in 1998 on the eve of his screening the original King Kong. Crawford’s special guests for the show were special effects master Ray Harryhausen, who cut his chops alongside Kong special effects genius Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young, and noted science fiction author Ray Bradbury. I had the chance to interview Harryhausen for the story. Crawford is very close to Harryhausen. You’ll find several more stories by me about Crawford and his work on this blog.
Bringing Back Classic Movies and the Old-Time Ballyhoo, Bruce Crawford Show ‘King Kong’ the Red Carpet Treatment
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Ever imagine yourself at a Hollywood premiere? Well, Omaha promoter Bruce Crawford lets area moviegoers experience the real thing without ever leaving town. Using his gifts for old-fashioned showmanship and ballyhoo, he presents gala film events at local theaters that capture the hoopla of a Los Angeles opening night.
Since 1992 Crawford has screened classic films in the grand Sid Grauman tradition, complete with searchlights, limousines, photographers and elaborate theater displays. Crawford, the producer of noted radio documentaries on film composers Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa, adds to the glitter by bringing celebrity guests. At a screening of Patton he arranged for the grandson of the film’s legendary subject to attend, along with top military brass. For Gone with the Wind he brought co-star Ann Rutherford and added atmosphere with women in period hoop skirts.
For the Hitchcock suspense masterpiece Psycho he got star Janet Leigh to visit. Family members of late-great directors Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and William Wyler (Ben Hur) and producer Darryl F. Zanuck (The Longest Day) came at his request to events featuring films made by these legends. He enticed special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (Mysterious Island) to appear at a tribute in his honor.
Crawford’s latest spectacular is the 65th anniversary showing of the 1933 RKO classic, King Kong, a movie that’s captivated generations of filmgoers. A newly restored print will run one night only, Saturday May 30, on the giant Cinerama screen at the refurbished Indian Hills Theater in Omaha. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. The event, sponsored by Midwest Express Airlines, is a fundraiser for Children’s Square USA in Council Bluffs. Tickets, priced $15 each, may still be available at the Hills’ box office.
Like all Crawford events, this one is sure to turn heads with its red carpet fanfare. A 30-foot tall Kong balloon will tower over the theater. Searchlights will brighten the night sky. Crawford, his wife Tami and guests will arrive, via limousine, in black tie and tails. Paparazzi will snap pictures. No doubt, fans will gather to glimpse two much-anticipated celebrities who are fervid Kong admirers: Harryhausen and famed sci-fi author Ray Bradbury (Farenhite 451). Each will sign autographs after the show.
In true impresario style, Crawford has planned “a live prologue” with dancers and acrobats recreating the film’s native ceremonial ritual — painted faces, grass skirts, shields, spears, drums, et all — as performed for “Kong’s” original Grauman’s Chinese Theater run. Crawford said, “Of all the events I’ve done, it will probably be the most showmanlike.”
For most in the audience the event will mark the first time they’ve seen Kong (rarely reissued in theaters) on anything approaching the Hills’ 65-foot curved screen, one of the largest remaining of its type.
“To appreciate its awesomeness you must see it on a big screen,” the 70-something Harryhausen said by phone from his home in London. “It’s not the same seeing it on television. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Crawford said what he aims to do with his extravaganzas “is recapture the magic of going to the movies I felt as a kid, and add to it with the glitz and glamour. You get your money’s worth at a Crawford show. You get to see movies shown the way they’re meant to be, and so rarely, seen.”
Many wonder how someone so far removed from the center of the film industry is able to pull off major events with such big name draws. In a word, passion. As a boy in his native Nebraska City Crawford fell in love with movie scores and special effects and by his teens was corresponding with various film artists, many of whom are now his friends. Most are much older than Crawford, 39, but they share his passion. He credits the warm reception with which he’s been received to his “sincerely enthusiastic” zeal. “You have to have that extravagant enthusiasm…that charisma.”
Apparently it’s infectious.
“I’m delighted he takes it so seriously and takes the initiative to try and present pictures the way they were presented in the early day,” Harryhausen said. “What it takes is somebody with enthusiasm for these types of things. Bruce has that, and it’s wonderful.”
Gerry Greeno, Omaha city manager for the Douglas Theater Co., whose Cinema Center hosted past Crawford events, said, “He has an exuberance that generates interest and gets people to participate in what he’s doing. He’s not bashful about it. He puts a lot of time and effort into these special events. He loves doing it.”
You don’t have to be a film buff to appreciate classics. Like Titanic today, Kong reaffirms the powerful hold cinema exerts on us all. In the darkened theater we sit transfixed as our dreams, fears and desires are projected on the silver screen. Kong’s rich symbolism has gained it cult status and inspired Freudian interpretations. While director Merian Cooper dismissed such notions, there’s no doubting the film’s potent imagery. Who can forget Kong besieged by airplanes atop the Empire State Building, with the impossible object of his affection, Fay Wray, lying on the ledge below?
Those same images fired the imagination of Harryhausen, who saw Kong as a young photography buff and was sufficiently moved to begin experimenting with the film’s stop-motion animation techniques. “I was 13 years old when I saw it, and I haven’t been the same since,” he said. “It left me startled and dumbfounded. It started me on my career. That shows you how influential films can be.” He later worked with Kong’s creator, special effects master Willis O’Brien, on the Kong-inspired Mighty Joe Young.
While Harryhausen went on to create critically acclaimed effects for a series of highly popular fantasy films, he still considers Kong a milestone:
“It is the most outrageous fantasy ever been put on the screen. The storyline, along with the phototgraphic effects and Max Steiner’s wonderful score, was way ahead of its time and very clever in making you believe what you saw and setting the mood of the picture. Willis O’Brien’s animation was superb. He put the personality in Kong. It was just an 18-inch size stuffed puppet with rabbit hair, and it became a star personality.”
A model with feelings, no less. “It especially comes through in Kong’s eyes,” Crawford said. “As vicious and powerful as Kong could be, look how gentle he is with the Fay Wray character.”
The film’s become a fixture of popular culture. References abound in comic books, comic strips, paperbacks, posters, print-TV ads and movies. Toymakers have churned out Kong action figures. There’s a Kong theme park ride. There’s even a King Kong restaurant in Omaha. Oft-imitated and parodied, the film’s never been surpassed. “Kong is timeless. No matter how many remakes…they don’t equal the original,” Harryhausen said. Crawford agrees, adding, “The picture still holds up today. Some of the animation’s still so dynamic. And the film is just a part of our folklore. It’s legendary. It’s pure escapist-adventure.”
But why has a film about an oversized ape had such lasting impact? For starters, it tells an irresistible adventure story whose action unfolds as in a dream or fable. A filmmaker, Carl Denham, charters a ship sailing from Depression-era New York to mythical Skull Island. The woman hired to star in his film, Ann Darrow (Wray), is kidnapped by natives and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, which steals her away to his island domain. Kong fends-off dinosaurs and the ship’s crew to, as he sees it, protect her. Despite his savagery, Kong elicits our sympathy when captured, brought to New York and exhibited in chains. The theme of a noble beast felled by beauty and civilization still reverberates with audiences today.
“I think what makes it so touching is that Kong is a tragic hero. Kong is a symbol of a creature that should have been left alone. Of a wild animal that you can’t contain or train. And what’s made it so enduring is its Beauty and the Beast theme. Kong risks his life for this woman,” Crawford said.
Many scenes stand out in his mind, but none more than the climax. “For sheer drama and visual magnificence, the finale on the Empire State Building is just incredible. Max Steiner’s music fades out entirely and all we hear is the drone and the whir of the airplanes’ prop engines, the machine guns firing and the roars and grunts of Kong’s defiance.”
For Crawford, films like Kong are national treasures. It’s why he devotes much of his life to their continued exhibition and recognition. His efforts have paid off too. His documentaries (made at KIOS-FM’s studios) have aired nationwide on public radio, his eight film events have netted wide media coverage and his growing status as a film historian has earned him commissions to write for major film publications.
What’s next? Future projects may include an audio biography on film composer Dimitri Tiomkin, events honoring native Nebraskan screen legends and a revival of the 1958 movie The Old Man and the Sea.
Meanwhile, he can’t believe how far his passion for movies has led: “I didn’t know what I was tapping into. It’s rewarding to have it all come together and it’s a good feeling to know people appreciate what I’ve done.”
- Spotlight on…Ray Harryhausen (kurojabber.com)
- The Genius of Ray Harryhausen (filmverse.wordpress.com)
- Sci-Fi’s No. 1 Fanboy, Forrest J Ackerman, Dies at 92 (time.com)
Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event
I have always loved the great MGM musicals. Singin’ in the Rain is perhaps the best known and loved of those films, and while I admire the picture, I actually prefer some others to it, especially The Band Wagon and On the Town. But there’s no getting around the fact that Singin’ is a high achievement and an always entertaining watch. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor carry the film but there is no denying that Debbie Reynolds holds her own in what was her breakout role in Hollywood. I have seen very few of her films but what I have seen I have been impressed by. She has one of those indomitable spirits that I suppose made her a natural choice for portraying The Unsinkable Molly Brown when Hollywood got around to adapting that Broadway smash to the screen. I’ve only seen a couple minutes of the film, and one of these times when it’s showing on TCM I’ll have to make the effort to sit down and watch the whole thing. The following story for the New Horizons was written in advance of Reynolds making an appearance in Omaha, Neb., where I live, for a screening of Singin. I interviewed her by phone for the piece and I found her gracious and forthcoming in answering questions she’s likely been asked hundreds or thousands of times. I found revealing a particular anecdote she shared about Fred Astaire — it’s in the story. Singin‘ was a grueling experience for Debbie and when she was at her lowest Astaire befriended her by helping her learn what it means to be a professional. That same perseverance has helped see her through many difficult times since them. I look forward to seeing this consummate trouper in person.
Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
As Old Hollywood royalty goes, Debbie Reynolds is still a princess more than 60 years since inking her first studio contract and 58 years since her star-making turn in the classic MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Reynolds, 78, is one of the last remaining stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the only survivor from this iconic musical’s principal cast. Even though she’s made scores of movies and still appears on the big screen and makes guest spots on television, she’s perhaps most closely identified with Singin’ in the Rain.
Consistently rated one of the all-time greatest movies in American Film Institute polls, the musical spoofs Hollywood’s messy transition from silent to sound pictures. Gene Kelly stars as matinee idol Don Lockwood and Donald O’Connor as writer Cosmo Brown, with Reynolds as the plucky ingenue Kathy Selden, the girl who breaks into pictures and steals Don’s heart.
Singin’ rarely gets a theater screening now, so when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford asked Reynolds to be the special guest at a November 5 charity showing, the actress and nightclub entertainer said yes. Join Reynolds for the 7 p.m. revival at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee store. Proceeds benefit the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
The artist will be the latest in a long line of Old Hollywood figures Crawford’s brought to Omaha. Two past guests were Patricia Neal and Kevin McCarthy, While those recently departed stars came to Hollywood as theater and Actors Studio veterans, Reynolds was a neophyte with zero acting experience when discovered.
At age 16 the then-Mary Frances Reynolds won the Lockheed Aircraft-sponsored Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948. Her lip-synching to a record of a Betty Hutton song caught the attention of two pageant judges who just happened to be talent scouts, one for Warner Brothers and the other for Metro-Goldywn-Mayer.
Soon, Mary Frances, who was born in El Paso, Texas and lived a hardscrabble life with her family during the Great Depression, found herself making a screen test for Warners. The charmed execs signed her to a $65 a week contract. Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie, but she refused attempts to alter her surname. The precocious young woman had just moved to Burbank eight years earlier. Her family had fled the Dust Bowl as part of the great migration West in search for a better life.
Attending public school, “Frannie” excelled in sports, baton twirling and music. She was a Girl Scout. She came from a evangelical Christian household yet her mother indulged her daughter’s expressive talents and love for the movies and radio. A favorite pastime was mimicking cinema stars and radio personalities.
The newly dubbed Debbie Reynolds made her motion picture debut as an extra in 1948′s June Bride. Her first speaking part came in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady. When those appearances failed to ignite with audiences or critics, Warners elected not to renew their option. That’s when MGM, whose talent scout had noted her charisma, cast her in a small part in Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Red Skeltonl. She made enough of an impression that that most prestigious of studios put her on a standard seven-year contract at $300 a week.
In a phone interview from Biloxi, Miss., where she was performing her cabaret act, Reynolds recalled the serendipity of it all.
“Well, first of all I was very lucky to be there during that stage,” she said. “MGM was the largest studio that made the greatest musicals of all and that had the largest of roster of stars. I came in in 1949, near the very end of this wonderful era of musicals, and I was fortunate enough to be taught under all those great stars. I was a very fortunate young lady and it paid off all these years because I’m still around.”
She said she couldn’t help but blossom in the training ground that MGM presented.
“When you have great teachers and you learn under the really marvelous tutelage of all those wonderful talents and all the stories they have to say and all the teachings they have to pass onto you, why those are things that never really leave you. It’s like going to the finest of universities let’s say.”
A few more forgettable pictures followed. One, Susan Slept Here, she did on a loan out to RKO. In another, Two Weeks with Love, she created a buzz with her rendition of the “Abba Dabba Dabba” song. Then the biggest break of her fledgling career happened when cast in her first starring role, opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, in Singin’. MGM mogul Louie B. Mayer ignored the wishes of producer Arthur Freed and co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen, who preferred someone with polished acting-singing-dancing skills, by giving the part to the inexperienced Reynolds.
Freed, a former song plugger and lyricist, oversaw the fabled Freed Unit that churned out the classic MGM musicals with their sumptuous production details. He packaged the creative talents behind Singin’ and such other gems as An American in Paris and Gigi. For Singin’, he brought together Kelly, Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Roger Edens and character actors Millard Mitchell and Jean Hagen.
Getting third billing in a Freed musical starring Kelly was a coup for Reynolds but it brought tremendous pressure. Her role required her to act, sing and dance. The vocals posed no major problem, but the dance numbers did for the unschooled Reynolds. She had to match, step for step, the moves of two world class hoofers after only a few weeks rehearsal. It was a trying time for the starlet. She felt overwhelmed by it all.
“I was just a young little girl who’d done just a few pictures. I had done nothing of any noteworthy dimension,” she said.
After one rehearsal she waited till everyone left the sound stage before crumpling to the floor in tears, hiding under a piano to conceal her distress. That’s when she said Omaha’s own Fred Astaire came to her rescue, not so much by consoling her as by giving her a tough love message about what it means to be a professional.
“Yes it’s a true story,” she said. “I was crying under a big grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was alone, so I could just sob away. I was only 17 and I was untrained and I felt very lost and, you know quite, miserable as a young girl out of my element totally.
“Mr Astaire was walking by because he was rehearsing right next door ,and I guess he heard me, and so he reached down and he said, ‘Who is that?’ I said my name and he said, ‘Give me your hand,’ and he pulled me out and he said, ‘Now, Debby, I’m going to let you watch me rehearse,’ which he never allowed. He always had a guard at the door and the only ones allowed were his drummer and the guard and Hermes Pan, who was his dance assistant.
“So I watched for awhile, until his face turned red and sweat was profusely coming down his face, and he turned to me to say, ‘Now you’ve seen how tough it is, how hard it is. This is the way you have to learn to be really the best. You have to work this hard. No pain, no gain. You have to go back, stop crying, and get to work.’ So I did, and I have continued to do that all these years. Don’t complain, just get better, just work harder.”
She needed to develop a thick skin and a more demanding discipline because Gene Kelly, “the creative mastermind of it all,” drove her and everybody else so hard.
“He was a taskmaster on himself more than anybody,” she said. “It was equal. This was, after all, his pride and joy, and he treated every project that way. I don’t think Gene ever did anything half way. Gene was a perfectionist. He was a creative artist, he was a great dancer, as was Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. They all worked the same. I don’t know any dancer that ever worked easy. There is no easy way to dance.”
Kelly had earlier put a non-dancer through his paces when he worked with crooner Frank Sinatra on Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. The dancer didn’t cut Old Blue Eyes any slack and he sure didn’t for Reynolds.
Someone who did offer solace from the daily grind was co-star Donald O’Connor.
Said Reynolds, “Well, we were closer because we were nearer the same age. Donald was 27. Being younger, he was a bit more friendly and he had more time to visit with me. He worked with me on the dancing. He taught me how to do back flips and front flips and tumbling. He was very sweet. We had a lot of fun doing ridiculous things together and being young together and laughing together, so he was kind of my release. With him, I was allowed to be young and laugh and not be so dedicated every minute.
“And we remained dear friends. We did an act together many years later on the road called Together Again. It was very successful and we had a wonderful time.”
Perhaps an unlikely confidante was the head man himself, Louie B. Mayer, who was known to be alternately tyrannical and tender. His studio’s rather idealized portraits of Americana and the family reflected his own sentimental leanings.
“Any problem I had I just called him on the phone and said, ‘Mr. Mayer, do you know whats happening?’ He’d say, ‘You come up here and see me,’ and I was just like a little kid and he treated me like a little kid. He took care of any problem I had. He’d always sit me down and say, ‘What’s the problem?’ He always had time for me. I’m not saying he wasn’t a tough man with a lot of other people, but with me he was really very sweet. I found him to be very fatherly.”
Not even L.B. Mayer could protect her from the fallout of her failed marriage to pop singing star Eddie Fisher, who infamously left her for her friend, Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal made headlines. Reynolds’ later marriages also ended badly when her business magnate husbands’ financial problems forced her to declare bankruptcy. Financial woes also dogged her dream of establishing a motion picture museum displaying her vast collection of vintage Hollywood costumes.
“I wanted to do that in my lifetime, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to get it done. It’s very sad for me to say that. That was my dream. Sometimes dreams don’t always come true, even though they have written many songs that they do.”
Her collection, worth many millions of dollars, is due to be auctioned off in 2011.
But like Molly Brown, the indefatigable Reynolds keeps plugging away, just like she learned to do from Astaire many years ago. Even though Singin’ “was a very difficult picture to do,” she said it turned out to be the boost that put her over the top.
“Oh, it made it,” she said of the film’s impact on her career. She went on to star alongside such greats as Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Dick Powell, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Ford, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck and James Garner. She earned a Best Actreee Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Years later she and Molly co-star Harve Presnell recreated their roles for a national stage tour. She starred on Broadway in Irene, Woman of the Year and her own one-woman revue, Debbie. She starred in her own network TV specials and in a short-lived series.
More recently, she won good reviews for her work in the Albert Brooks film Mother and her recurring role in TV’s Will & Grace. She mended fences with Liz Taylor on the TV movie These Old Broads, written by Reynolds’ daughter, actress-author Carrie Fisher. After finding stardom as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher struggled. Her best-selling book Postcards from the Edge became a movie starring Shirley MacLain and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter patterned after Reynolds-Fisher.
Reynolds is no stranger to Omaha, where she’s performed with the symphony and dined with Warren Buffett, whom she calls “the financial Jimmy Stewart.”
For more information, visit wwwomahafilmevent.com or call 320-1944.
- Reynolds’ Hollywood memorabilia set for auction (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Debbie Reynolds Returns To Movies To Play Katherine Heigl’s Grandmother (cinemablend.com)
- MGM film studio rescued from bankruptcy (guardian.co.uk)
- Remembering the Movies of Debbie Reynolds (omg.yahoo.com)
- Debbie Reynolds On Elizabeth Taylor: “She Was A Symbol Of Stardom” (socialitelife.com)
- Debbie Reynolds auctions off Hollywood treasures (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toga Party: Filmmaker John Landis Waxes Nostalgic on ‘Animal House,’ Breaking Into the Biz and His Journey in Film
One of the things I like best about doing this blog is that I can post items at a whim. I am in a movie-movie frame of mind this week, and so many of my posts in late September 2010 are about movies and moviemakers. This one for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about John Landis, the popular American filmmaker who came to Omaha a few years ago for a revival screening of his first of many mega hits, Animal House. Landis was kind enough to give me an advance phone interview and he was very generous with his time and incredibly easy to converse with, as is the case I’ve found with most successful artists and entertainers. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many leading figures in the arts and one of the qualities they share is professionalism. Doing press is a part of the gig, and they get that. The program Landis attended in Omaha was organized by Bruce Crawford, a film impresario and historian who I go back with some three decades. Bruce has presented many first-rate revival screenings, often with legendary special guests like Landis. Bruce is bringing Debbie Reynolds to town for a Nov. 5 th screening of Singin’ in the Rain. I’ll be posting a story about that before too long. You can find my stories about Bruce and his magnificent obsession with classic movies and film scores on this site.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toga Party: Filmmaker John Landis Waxes Nostalgic on Animal House, Breaking Into the Biz and His Journey in Film
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Mega hit filmmaker John Landis (The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, Coming to America, Spies Like Us) is the special guest for a May 19 Omaha salute to his first triumph, National Lampoon’s Animal House. Landis directed the 1978 movie. Its surprise success made his career and boosted the screen fortunes of several then-unknown actors he shrewdly cast, including Kevin Bacon, Tom Hulce, Peter Riegert, Karen Allen, Bruce McGill and John Belushi.
Friday’s 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is a benefit for the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. Besides Landis, actor Stephen Furst (Flounder in the movie) is expected. Each is to speak before the show and to sign autographs after it. In keeping with the story’s Greek frat theme, toga-clad models will be stationed around the museum. Food fights are discouraged.
Omaha film maven Bruce Crawford made Animal House his 18th film revival “by popular request.” He knows it’s a coup to get Landis, “regarded as the most successful director of comedy in movie history, at least in box office terms.” Crawford speculates Landis is the biggest name director to land here since Cecil B. DeMille came for the 1939 world premiere of Union Pacific. Landis, speaking by car phone between appointments in L.A. (he’s prepping a new project), said a “very persistent” Crawford got him to agree to an Omaha appearance. Landis was to be at Crawford’s 1998 King Kong revival at the Indian Hills, joined by mutual friends Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman. “I couldn’t make it, but I heard what a marvelous time they all had. So I said I’d come and I will.”
For Landis, Animal House culminated his early journey in moviemaking, which began a decade earlier. Born in Chicago but raised in west Los Angeles, this self-described “movie freak” mainlined on industry buzz. In many cases his friends’ parents worked in the business, giving him added “exposure” to that world. A friend’s father wrote for a television series, enough entree to get Landis and his buddy a free pass on the 20th Century Fox back lot, which Landis said was akin to “a kid at Disneyland.” His pal Peter Bernstein’s father was the great composer Elmer Bernstein, who later did the score for Animal House, the first of 11 scores Bernstein did for Landis. Similarly, Landis was befriended by Donald Sutherland when the movie M*A*S*M*A*S*H shot on the Fox lot, where Landis worked in the mail room. Ten years later Sutherland bailed Landis out on Animal House.
As a kid his celluloid day dreams kept him from being more than an average student. At 16 he quit school — “I’m a bad example” — for a $60 a week mail room job at Fox. He “lived through the death” of the old studio system. Still, it was Hollywood. “I loved it because the lot was very busy.” An old hand at Fox, Hungarian-American filmmaker Andrew Marton, took Landis under his wing. “He very kindly took an interest in me,” Landis said. One day, Landis said, Marton told him, “‘John, if you can get yourself to Yugoslavia, I’m doing second-unit on a movie there called The Warriors (released as Kelly’s Heroes)…intimating a gig as “a gopher or schlepper, they’re now called production assistant,” would be waiting. “So, I told my mother I had the job, which wasn’t really true, and took all the money I had in the world, which was $800, and I bought myself a ticket. Eight-hundred bucks in those days got you to London from L.A.” What came next no one could plan.
“I was so ignorant I thought, Well, Europe’s small. How far can Belgrade be from London? And I got to London and found out. It took me almost 10 days to get to Belgrade. I hitchhiked…that was a saga. Anyway, I got there just as the production arrived. It was an international production…a huge World War II picture with Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland. I was very lucky it was so chaotic because I ended up really getting quite a big job eventually. The director, Brian Hutton, was very kind to me and I ended up working on the first unit.
“It was an amazing time for me. I turned 19 on that show and I wrote American Werewolf in London while I was there.”
Nine months overseas duty on one film evolved into a few years in Europe working on a slew of international pics as everything from P.A. to actor to stunt man. As he often says, “I’ve done every job there is to do on a movie set except hairdressing.” For this drop-out, it was a priceless education no film school could offer.
“It was 1969-70 — the Spaghetti Western boom. I worked and lived in Almeria (Spain) for over a year and I worked on, gosh, I’m not exaggerating if I say 75 to 100 films. Mostly Italian, but a lot of German, French, Spanish and American. I did that and then came back to the United States and made my first film, Schlock. It cost $60,000. Thirty thousand of it was all the money I’d made in Europe and the other thirty I raised from relatives and friends.”
His second project as director, Kentucky Fried Movie, got him more attention. He was originally hired by Universal to supervise a rewrite of the Animal House script crafted by Doug Kenney, Chris Miller (National Lampoon Magazine) and Harold Ramis (Second City). “Animal House was a terrific screenplay” but “it had been in gestation for awhile” because, as Landis said, “it was kind of obnoxious. It was really, really funny but it was also misogynous, it was racist, it was very much like fraternities in 1962,” when the story’s set.” In the process of revision, some things were softened and humanized.
“I told the writers, ‘Look, we have to have people we root for. Everyone in the movie can’t be a pig. We have to have clear cut heroes and villains,’” Landis said. “So, the Deltas became the good guys and the Omegas and Dean Wormer the bad guys. It was just basically structural stuff. But the screenplay was very much the work of Doug, Chris and Harold, all of whom were in college in 1962, in fraternities, at three different schools. I’ve heard a lot of colleges and fraternities claim ownership (of the movie), but the truth is Chris Miller was in college at Dartmouth and his fraternity is what Animal House is based on.”
When the script was approved Landis was hired to direct it. He was only 27. “It’s quite something they hired me to do it because, you know, I’d only made Schlockand Kentucky Fried Movie. It was my first studio film,” he said. Going from page to screen proved a battle as the studio balked at the character actors and newcomers, many stage-trained, he assembled. Some parts were written with people in mind. Bluto was always meant for Belushi, whom Landis liked. Otter was to be Chevy Chase but Landis just didn’t see him in the part. D-Day was crafted for Dan Aykroyd, but he couldn’t get out of Saturday Night Live. Landis courtedDragnet’s Jack Webb for Dean Wormer before casting John Vernon, “the only one who had confidence from the very beginning we were going to be a hit.”
“I really felt strongly it would be best to have people you would accept as the character than famous actors who, no matter what they play, are still that actor. I said to the casting director, ‘I want to see every talented young actor there is.’ So we went to New York,” said Landis, who filled out his cast with Broadway, off-Broadway, and L.A. talent “I was hiring actors and they (studio execs) wanted me to hire comedians.” Finally, he said, Universal laid down an ultimatum: “‘If you don’t have a movie star, then forget it — we’re not making the movie.’ The only movie star I knew personally who I could actually say was my friend was Donald Sutherland. He was a big star at that point. I called him and said, ‘Don, can you do me this huge favor?’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Be in my movie for a day or two.’ And so he did. Doug Kenney wrote the part of Professor Jennings and Donald did a day-and-a-half’s work and that’s how they finally green-lit the picture.”
To instill frat loyalties-rivalries, Landis brought the Deltas to the Eugene, Oregon set a week before shooting. “They bonded…to the point, I’ll never forget, when the Omegas came into the dining room where we were eating I said, ‘Oh, look, those are the Omegas,’ and the entire Delta table starting throwing food,” he said.
Making the movie, he said, “was a very positive experience. We were left totally alone up in Oregon. We were very unimportant to Universal.” So far down the food chain the Chapman crane used to shoot day one of the parade scene was gone day two. The studio sent it back to L.A. for use on the TV series The Incredible Hulk.
He said the freedom he enjoyed on the film mirrored the carte blanch other young directors found in the ‘70s, when the beleaguered studios put their trust in “the long hairs and beards” to rescue them. “If you look at the movies made then, they’re quite remarkable, especially compared to the crap they’re making today. It had a lot to do with respect for the filmmaker.”
He’s fond of the movie for its impact. It spawned imitations. It launched careers. It revived the college Greek system. It introduced phrases like “double secret probation” into the American lexicon. Belushi’s scene-stealing bits boosted Saturday Night Live’s ratings. One downside, Landis said, was getting typed as a comedy director. “I don’t think of myself as a comedy director.” He followed it with a string of hits. “It allowed me to make The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London and all kinds of movies that would never have gotten financed otherwise,” he said. Besides features, he scored as a music video director (Thriller, Black and White) and television producer (Dream On, Weird Science, Sliders).
Then there’s the fact that for this high school drop-out, “Animal House is my college experience,” he said. He feels what he and others respond to in the film is the Deltas’ sweet, silly sense of “brotherhood” and rebellion that runs counter to the Omegas’ and Dean’s pomposity. “I don’t like exclusivity,” Landis said. Party on!
Does he ever wonder how a starry-eyed geek got to be such a big shot? “I know exactly how it happened — a lot of hard work and luck.”
Tickets to the May 19 Animal House event starring Landis are $15 and may be purchased at all Omaha Hy-Vee Supermarkets or at the door the night of the show. For more information call 850-1941.
- John Farr: The Best “Back To School” Movies By Farr (huffingtonpost.com)
- John Landis’ Son Attempts ‘Blair Witch’-esque Superhero Movie (cinematical.com)
- Fox Buying ‘Chronicles,’ a Superpowered Script From the Son of John Landis (slashfilm.com)
- Film: My Year Of Flops: Clueless Case File #185: The Stupids (avclub.com)
- Fat, Drunk, and Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of Animal House (Feature) (popmatters.com)
I love writing about film, and several of my new posts will reflect that. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in 2003 to report on an exhibition of Magnum photos and a screening of the classic film The Misfits at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. The connection between the photo agency and the film is explained in the piece, but suffice to say that my main interest was in writing about a film I always admired, even as a kid, when its adult themes were well beyond my years. But the melancholic work resonated with me even then, perhaps because I so strongly identified with its outsider characters and their vulnerability. Every time I watch the movie I glean new insights from it. Of course as I got older I learned that this was the last film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, one of the last that Montgomery Clift made, and that the marriage between Monroe and the film’s screenwriter Arthur Miller was effectively over, all of which lends the performances a tragic certain patina. Kevin McCarthy, who played Monroe’s husband in the opening scene, was the special guest at the revival screening of The Misfits. I did an advance phone interview with him and he was just a delight to speak with. I saw on the news that he passed away the other day.
My friend and fellow Omaha native Gail Levin, a documentary filmmaker, took the measure of the potent forces at work in the film and on the set in her film, Making the Misfits. Find other posts on this blog about Gail and her work, including her documentary about James Dean. One of her latest films profiled Jeff Bridges.
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It is only fitting a photographic exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum capturing candid moments of movie legends should kick off with a screening of the legendary film The Misfits, a picture resonating with so much of what makes the movies alluring.
From iconic stars who met tragic deaths to an enormously talented writer and director dealing in potent themes to a majestic Western landscape filmed in moody black and white and riddled with rich metaphors, The Misfits has it all. The film, apropos its title, is an evocative tale, sparely and honestly told, about the disenchantment and yearning of drifters and dreamers hanging on to an endangered way of life in the vanishing wild of the Nevada desert. It is a quintessentially American story about pursuing individual freedom and expression in a conformist world and following dreams, even if deferred, with the aid of a star.
Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is presenting, in his usual boffo style, this one-night only tribute to The Misfits on Saturday October 11 in Joslyn’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The doors open at 6 p.m., the event begins at 7 and the film unreels at 7:30.
Among the Crawfordesque touches planned are searchlights, red carpet fanfare, horse riders, a trick roper and reenactors portraying the film’s two stars, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Special guests include actor Kevin McCarthy, who plays Monroe’s jilted husband in the film. McCarthy will speak before the picture. Legendary producer and former Paramount Studios exec A.C. Lyles was also to have appeared, but will instead be presiding at the memorial services of two Hollywood greats that recently passed away, Donold O’Connor and Elia Kazan.
As with past film events (including Ben-Hur, Psycho, King Kong, The Searchers, West Side Story), Crawford’s secured a restored print, from United Artists, for the show.
After the film, audience members may enjoy a cash bar, cash hors d’oeuvres and desserts in the museum’s atrium, get autographs or photos of McCarthy and Lyles and see a sneak preview of the traveling exhibition Magnum Cinema: Photographs from 50 Years of Movie Making. The exhibition, which runs through January 4, 2004, includes images that a team of photojournalists from Magnum, a renowned, worldwide cooperative photo agency started in 1947 by famed imagemakers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger, took during the making of The Misfits. In all, the exhibit displays 111 works by 39 leading photographers culled together from Magnum’s archive of more than one million photos covering the breadth of human endeavor and experience.
For a long time, The Misfits, that elegiac tone poem to the passing of the American Wild, was regarded more as a morbid curiosity than a successful filmic drama. Besides being a psychologically-complex, symbol-filled, post-modern adult Western where the only “action” comes late in the last reel and where the only “hero” is a broken down cowboy in crisis, the movie has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion.
Clark Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, in 1962, Marilyn Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away unexpectedly at age 45 in 1966.
Rounding out the supporting cast were dynamic Eli Wallach and Kevin McCarthy, Actor’s Studio veterans with Clift, and powerful character actress Thelma Ritter.
Then there were the on-the-set intrigues that played out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans that wrote and directed The Misfits. The script was authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible), the towering intellectual icon of American theater, for his then wife Monroe. Directing the picture was Oscar-winning filmmaker John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Moby Dick, The Man Who Would Be King), the great maverick adventurer-artist of American cinema.
By all accounts, the collaboration between Miller, Huston and the other artists involved was relatively congenial. Miller, the insular egghead, wore his pensiveness like a badge of honor. Huston, the unabashed sensualist, presided over the set like a lion on the hunt. Monroe, the bright but brittle star, variously charmed and confounded everyone with her child-like persona and neurotic flights of fancy. Gable, the macho, devil-may-care journeyman, bore all the distractions like the true gentleman and professional he was. Clift, the complex, introspective method actor riddled by insecurities, tried fitting into this dysfunctional family.
Adding to the tension were the personal dramas playing out during the project. Gable felt out-of-step with the times given the studio system he became a star in was dying, the pictures he became identified with were not being made anymore and the kinds of rebel parts he built his persona on were going to younger actors.
Hounded by the press since their headline-making marriage a few years before, the unlikely match of the serious writer Miller and the blond bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began shooting. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.
In a phone interview from his Sherman Oaks, Calif. home, McCarthy recalled Marilyn’s difficulties in the brief scene they have together in The Misfits. In it, she rushes up the steps of the Reno courthouse where McCarthy, her estranged husband, is hoping she will rethink her decision to divorce him, but instead she brushes him off with the enigmatic line, “You’re just not there.”
What should have been a simple take turned into an ordeal.
“She was having trouble remembering her lines in sequence,” McCarthy said, “and John Huston was getting to the point where he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t hear her. He’d ask, ‘Did she say all her lines?’ And I’d go, ‘No,’ or the guy running the boom would go, ‘No, she’s missing some of the stuff, Mr. Huston.’ She came running up the steps maybe 16 or 17 times. Well, finally, after a lot of procedures and wrangling, they put a microphone underneath my tie and ran a wire up my pants leg, all the kinds of things you didn’t do then…So, I was pinned to the spot where I was standing, and when Marilyn finally said everything, Huston turned the camera around and did a take with me. And I was through with the picture.”
Ironically, McCarthy said, “it was a film I reluctantly took because I was too vain to be playing a scene where I was gone in 28 seconds or something like that when my buddies Eli Wallach and Monty Clift were playing full-blooded, fully-written parts.”
The palpable strain caused by Marilyn was made worse with Miller always looking over her shoulder on the set. Then there was the script’s lack of any clearly defined narrative driving force or traditional happy ending and the demands on the players to drop all hint of vanity in portraying a motley crew of losers in emotionally raw scenes rare for that era of American cinema.
Miller came up with the story, which originally appeared in Esquire Magazine, after an extended stay in Nevada to establish residence in Reno for his divorce from his first wife. Besides the dissolution of his marriage and the bloom of new romance with Monroe, his plays were being dismissed and he was reeling from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington, where he’d been called as a witness and refused to name names in the Communist witch hunt proceedings.
It was in Reno where Miller was introduced to similarly displaced persons as himself. Not surprisingly, the three major male figures in the film are cowboys who, as Bruce Crawford puts it, resist “modern civilization encroaching on them and their free-spirited way of life.” Gay (Gable) is an aging, spent, but still gallant horse wrangler, Purse (Clift) a sweet-natured rodeo rider and Guido (Wallach) a cynical war veteran turned bush pilot. The men prefer living a hand-to-mouth existence rather than “work for wages.”
Perhaps projecting himself into the characters, Miller has each stubbornly hold fast to some ideal of freedom and vision of happiness amid this harsh new era reining them in. When Monroe’s nurturing character, Roslyn, comes onto the scene she forms them into a loose family of misfits, each of whom is running away from something or towards something. Perhaps, as Gay says, they’re all trying “to find a way to be alive.” In Roslyn, who awakens promise and desire in the men but ultimately chooses the older Gay, Miller seemed to be imagining a hoped-for reconciliation with Monroe.
Unusual for Huston, The Misfits revolves around a female figure. With the exception of Katharine Hepburn’s turn in The African Queen, no actress so dominates one of his pictures as Monroe does in the part of Roslyn, the human equivalent of the wild mustangs the men try corralling. When, near the end, she expresses disgust at the idea the horses will be sold to the dog food factory, she makes the men question themselves and their methods. In using trucks and a plane to round up the animals for such an inglorious end, the men realize they’ve corrupted the very thing they love.
For Crawford, the denouement is “the end of an era…the end of the West as we once knew it. It’s the last roundup. The cowboys are left knowing they’re going to have to find another way of feeling alive and validating their lives.”
Anyone who knows Huston’s work can see the story echoes the recurrent theme of his pictures — a group of people banded together in search of some prize or goal that proves elusive amid the human conflicts and dramatic fates that arise. And, like much of Miller’s work, the story examines the uneasy gulf between ideals and reality, the challenge of remaining an individual in a corporate era of crushing anonymity and the need for and difficulty of maintaining human-family relationships in a world where people act, by nature, at cross-purposes to each other.
Fateful quests are not only intrinsic to Huston’s work, they operate on more than one level, said Michael Krainak, a professor of film history and appreciation at Metropolitan Community College and the man who headed-up Joslyn’s film series in the 1980s.
“Besides a material quest there’s a spiritual quest. His characters search for meaning in their lives. In many cases not all the characters are aware that is happening. So often, characters like Bogart at the end of Sierra Madre never even benefit from it. They’re oblivious to the changes taking place and to the lessons being learned. Huston equated that to the tenets of the existential philosophers. His films tend to end in material failure because for him the ends are irrelevant.
“What gives the quest meaning is the process itself, and you take something from that or you don’t. The ones who don’t often die physically or spiritually and the ones who do are able to carry on. It’s like Syndey Greenstreet’s great reaction to Peter Lorre when they discover the falcon is immaterial in The Maltese Falcon — ‘Well, what are you going to do?’”
Consistent with Miller’s ideology, The Misfits is replete with references to the impermanence of things.
“Gay speaks a line that’s very Milleresque,” Krainak said. “He says, ‘Well, nothing’s it,’ meaning nothing lasts forever. And Miller seems to be saying, Well, if that’s true, then that’s a guarantee of change. A theme of Miller’s has always been this idea of rebirth and reinventing yourself. The humanistic ideas in Miller’s work that are also evident in Huston’s work is this final goal of self-acceptance. To survive the wreckage of your life by seeking shelter in relationships and, more than anything else, by carving out your own meaning in life. The successful characters in Huston’s movies seem to confront the element of choice, You either choose to live an authentic life or an anonymous life. In this movie, becoming anonymous is to ‘work for wages.’”
In The Misfits Gay finally concedes the passing of his ways, but goes out on his own terms (or sword). He utters a line summing up his defiance and regeneration: “A man who’s afraid to die, is afraid to live.”
At the end, he and Roslyn drive off at night in search of a new path. They look out to see the mare and her colts running free, and they smile. She asks, “How do we get home?” He looks up at the night sky and says, “We’ll follow that star and get there.” As Krainak said, “What they’re left with is the quest — to get back on the trail. Instead of the the sunset, they ride off into the evening star. It’s a very Hustonian ending in that there’s promise for redemption or rediscovery or self-knowledge, but no guarantee.” In Crawford’s mind, “That has to be one of the most beautiful, haunting endings in film history.”
Krainak, a Huston buff, said that for years a running argument among cineastes has centered around the question of whether The Misfits is more a Huston film or a Miller film.
“It’s clearly both, but ultimately I think it’s Huston’s film,” he said. “In typical Huston fashion there’s this physical, larger-than-life task that a bunch of ne’er-do-wells on the edge of society attempt and fate somehow intervenes. In The Misfits it’s not so much tempting fate, as in Greek tragedy, but more of an Anglo-Saxon fatalistic attitude that says, If there’s a worst thing that can possibly happen, it will happen. The Anglo-Saxons had a wonderful word for it — weird. It’s indeterminate. It’s a more modern existential attitude toward fate. The character Guido even says something like, ‘I didn’t know that could happen.’ I think that’s so much what The Misfits is about.”
According to Krainak, the Miller-Huston pairing was more than a philosophical fit, but an artistic one. “One thing Miller’s got in common with Huston is a minimalist approach,” he said. “With Huston it was always a minimalist shooting script, shooting style, choice of film language, use of camera and editing. With Miller it was simple sets, lighting and everything focused on characters. Huston had to work very hard to create a visual dynamic when working so close with the figures of these characters in a setting and landscape that is so specific and very important.”
From his extensive reading about The Misfits, Krainak found Huston, with Miller’s blessing, eschewed color cinematography in order to bring out certain dramatic-symbolic points. “Huston definitely wanted stark black and whites in the background and the setting, with the characters, at least as I interpret it, as the shades of gray. That’s how it plays out in the imagery. It’s really a beautiful black and white film.” The atmospheric photography is by Russell Metty and the neoclassical jazz score is by Alex North.” Krainak added that, unlike most films, The Misfits was shot chronologically in order to capture a sense of “immediacy and spontaneity,” vital qualities in a story about impulsive free spirits.
Krainak said the film came at “a very self-indulgent” point in Huston’s career when, in addition to working with Miller, he was collaborating with such artists as Truman Capote (Beat the Devil), Ray Bradbury (Moby Dick), Jean Paul Sartre (Freud) and Tennessee Williams (The Night of the Iguana). “It was a very psychologically-charged period where he was exploring interior adventures or the landscape of the mind as opposed to exterior adventures or the landscape of nature.”
Why The Misfits was, until recently, dismissed as an interesting failure rather than a singular achievement can be explained by its “dense, cerebral, ‘European’ feel and by its star-crossed history, said Krainak, who puts an intriguing spin on the theory by suggesting “a killing off of a Hollywood era” took place with the deaths of Monroe, Gable and Clift and with the way Huston and Miller “underplayed these icons.”
He explained, “These were aging, wounded icons. Monroe was so vulnerable. Gable completely falls apart in a scene that everybody refers to. Clift takes a bad fall and wears bandages the rest of the film. Their audiences were not used to seeing them that way. What Huston and Miller did with these stars was a precursor of the American cinema renaissance of the late 1960s. The drama, thanks to Miller’s screenplay, and the imagery, thanks to Huston’s direction, made it a film dominated by character as opposed to pure action or star persona.”
- Nevada town remembers Marilyn Monroe’s last movie (omg.yahoo.com)
- Actor Kevin McCarthy Passes Away at 96 (pamil-visions.net)
- Academy to honor Alex North with a screening of ‘The Misfits’ (hollywoodnews.com)
- Clark Gable — Hollywood Star and Male Style Icon (rubylane.com)
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