Monday, August 30, 2010

Double Feature: The Parent Trap & Summer Magic

Hello, everyone!  Welcome to another week.  (At least this one leads to a three-day weekend.)  Since I missed writing about another favorite of mine last Monday, I thought I would double up today.  So, let's talk Disney, Hayley Mills, and nostalgia with "The Parent Trap" (the original non-Lindsay Lohan 1961 version) and "Summer Magic" (1963).

I know I've probably mentioned this before, or you've just figured it out on your own, but I'm a Disney kid and proud of it.  Watching "The Wonderful World of Disney" every Sunday night as a family, with our dinners and TV trays set out, are some of my fondest memories of growing up.  And thanks to the creation of The Disney Channel in the 80s, I also got to watch tons of films over and over again that I might have missed.  And now, as an adult, I get to work for the Walt Disney Company.  What better way to come full circle?!  Sure, it's still a big corporation, and like all of them, they have their issues.  But they also treat their employees with fun extras every once in a while.  This summer they have started playing old Disney live-action films at the theater on the studio lot in Burbank.  And they don't skimp on the show.  I went to see "Summer Magic" a couple of weeks ago and had a blast.  The theater performed a fancy fanfare and light show to start off the evening.  An old Mickey cartoon then preceded the film.  And afterward, we got to enjoy some free ice cream (sorbet for me).  A great way to spend a warm summer night!

And a great way to share the old films with a new audience.  Most people I talk to know "The Parent Trap" well, but not "Summer Magic."  "The Parent Trap" was Hayley Mills' most successful film.   Her second film for Disney (her first was the popular "Pollyanna" (1960)), Mills plays twins Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick, sisters separated when babies by their divorcing parents.  Never knowing they had a sibling, the two meet accidentally at summer camp and decide to switch places and get their parents back together.  Walt Disney was entranced with Mills when she starred alongside her father British star John Mills in 1959's "Tiger Bay" and signed her immediately.  She was only 13 years old.  By the time she was making "Parent Trap," she was a star herself, having just received a special Oscar for her performance in "Pollyanna." 

Originally, the script for "Parent Trap" had very few scenes of Mills standing beside herself in double exposure shots.  Writer and director David Swift intended to use mainly a body double for over the shoulder shots of the twins.  However, when Disney himself saw how well the visual effects guys had blended the double shots of Mills, and how well Mills created two separate characters in those difficult scenes, he insisted they use more effects shots.  Maureen O'Hara recalled in her autobiography how impressed she was with Mills talent and professionalism, saying "It got quite confusing, and even Hayley only knew which girl she was playing by which wig she was wearing."

It was a great cast, including Mills, O'Hara and Brian Keith in his first ever romantic comedy role.  Yet one person who was never credited on screen must be mentioned - Susan Henning, Mills' unseen body double.  When she got the part in the film, she had to sign away her screen credit, even though she's in the majority of the film.  She did receive some recognition though.  At the wrap party for the film, Disney presented her with a statue of Donald Duck, called the "Duckster," for "best unseen performance."  Only two other Ducksters have ever been awarded in the history of the company.

"Summer Magic" was Mills' fourth film for Disney (she made "In Search of the Castaways" in between). This lesser-known film tells the tale of a recent widow and her three children at the turn of the century in Boston.  When finances dry up and force the family to move to a tiny apartment, the eldest daughter (Mills) takes it upon herself to inquire about a house they once all fell in love with out in the Maine countryside.  The kindly caretaker (Burl Ives) agrees that they can rent the house, and lovely lighthearted fun and music and romance fill the rest of the story.  Along with Mills and the lovable Ives, it also stars Dorothy McGuire (who also starred with Mills' father John in another Disney classic "Swiss Family Robinson") and Deborah Walley (of "Gidget Goes Hawaiian" fame).

Written by Sally Benson (whose books about childhood were turned into "Meet Me in St. Louis"), it was originally intended as a vehicle for Annette Funicello.  But Mills shines as always as the lead.  She even received a Golden Globe nomination for this film.  Also, there are some great songs in the film by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, like my favorite "Ugly Bug Ball."  I remember watching this on D-TV and Sing Alongs on the Disney Channel (see below).  So much fun!  Also, there is the beautiful "On the Front Porch" (Robert Sherman's personal favorite of all his work), and "Flitterin'" (which can be heard on Main Street at Disneyland). 

So, get out your Hayley Mills fan club cards (I know you have them) and enjoy a Mills marathon this week.  Both films can be found on DVD and you can also find "Summer Magic" here.  Until Friday.  Have a great week, everyone!

(Post-tidbit:  You may have been surprised that Maureen O'Hara didn't get top billing for "The Parent Trap."  Well, so was she, for her contract stated that no other actress would get billing over her.  Yet, when Disney decided to capitalize on Hayley Mills' popularity and bill her as "Starring Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills" above the title, O'Hara was bumped to after the title.  She wanted to sue, but when Disney made it clear he could destroy her, she backed off...and never worked for Disney again.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

For the Weekend: Hollywoodland

There are a lot of times when I get wrapped into the day-to-day grime of life and forget that I live in one of the most iconic cities in the world.  Everyone knows Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood and the dream makers.  And I do love this town, as much as I hate it sometimes too.  The history's like a drug to me.  So today, I thought it would be fun to discuss one of the city's most iconic images, and its role in the movies.  Ladies and gentlemen, the Hollywood Sign!

Originally constructed in 1923, the Hollywood Sign actually read "Hollywoodland" and was an advertisement for the housing district on the south side of Mount Lee, part of the Santa Monica Mountains.  It was thought up after the success of a similar sign advertising nearby Whitley Heights.  The original letters were 50 feet high, 30 feet wide, and studded with thousands of light bulbs.  It was only supposed to remain up for about a year or so, but by that time, it had already begun its iconic ride to fame. 

By 1949, though, the sign was in need of some help.  The "H" had recently fallen over and money was running short for repair.  So, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce reached an agreement with the City of Los Angeles Parks Department to continue and maintain the upkeep of the sign.  However, the contract only covered the first nine letters, so "land" was removed, and the view we know today was born.  Also, the LA Parks Dept. pushed the cost of the lights' electric bill on to the Chamber, so the bulbs were removed as well (thus you can no longer see the sign at night, even though many people still think you can).

Even though the sign was under more care, the years took their toll on the famous letters.  By the 70s, vandalism and weather had reduced the sight to spell out "HuLLYWO D" as the exposed metal and wood frames began to collapse.  In 1978, though, the stars stepped in to save the sign.  Run by Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion, an auction was held were they "auctioned off" each letter for $27,700 a pop.  Some of the sign's saviors - rocker Alice Cooper (in memory of Groucho Marx), Gene Autry, even Les Kelley (originator of the Kelley Blue Book).  The new letters, only 45 feet high this time, were made of steel to last and unveiled on Hollywood's 75th anniversary, November 14, 1978.

Since then, the Hollywood Sign has remained strong and protected.  In the 90s, the city even installed motion sensors and closed-circuit cameras to protect it from vandals and pranks.  Earlier this year, the sign had its most recent scare though.  138 acres behind the sign went up for sale and threats of building mansions that would destroy the famous skyline caused a fundraising effort to be made to save the peak.  Finally, saved by Hugh Hefner again with the final donation of $900,000, the $12.5 million needed to save the area was achieved and the sign remains safe again.

Now, of course, the Hollywood Sign hasn't just been a something on a hill.  It's also made several media appearances.  You can't have a disaster movie set in LA without the sign being destroyed, like in "Earthquake" (1974) and "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004).  There are also other things out to destroy it, like the angry gorilla in the 1998 remake of "Mighty Joe Young" (who hurls an "O" at his enemies), or "The Rocketeer" (1991) (where the sign loses its "land" because the villain accidently crashes into it).  Be sure to check out "Chaplin" (1992) again.  There is a great scene between Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr.) and Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline) as they ride up - on horseback, no less - to chill by the sign.  Most recently in the biopic "The Runaways" (2010), Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart stop by the dilapidated sign of the 70s to...well, get drunk.  And don't forget "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lighting Thief" (2009) too!  The sign plays an important role, but you'll have to wait to see what.

So, this weekend, have a little scavenger hunt and see how many movies you can find the Hollywood Sign in.  And if you're an Angeleno, take a break and enjoy the view with a hike (but bring your hat, sunscreen, and water, cause it's hot outside).  Until Monday, everyone.  Have a wonderful weekend!

(Post-tidbit:  The sign has only been missing from the hill once since its debut in 1923, when they were replacing the letters in 1978.  From August to November, no sign was visible.  So (interesting maybe only to me), I was born during that time!  How cool is that?!  hahaha)

Friday, August 20, 2010

For the Weekend: Hello, Mr. Newman!

Yay!  Tomorrow's is Paul Newman Day on TCM, the best actor ever!  This is one of the few days I wish I could just turn on the television in the morning and let it play all day long...if only I had cable.  Damn you, cable companies and your ridiculous prices!  Well, for those of you who can enjoy Mr. Newman tomorrow, I highly recommend watching TCM.  Really, the entire day is filled with a lot of my favorite films, like "Cool Hand Luke" (1967) and "The Sting" (1973) (which I'll talk about soon, I promise).  But if you need help selecting a few choice tidbits, below are some gems you shouldn't miss out on.

First up is "Until They Sail" (1957) at 7:45am EST.  More girl-centric than Newman's films usually are, it tells the story of four sisters in New Zealand, and how their lives are changed by the US Marines who arrive in their small town during World War II.  Starring as the sisters are Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine, Piper Laurie, and a 14-year-old Sandra Dee in her film debut.  Directed by Robert Wise and based on a story by James A. Michener, Newman was originally a little reluctant to do the film, thinking his part was really irrelevant to the story.  But due to his contract with Warner Bros, he, of course, had no choice.  He did get to reunite with Wise, though, who directed him in his breakout performance the year before in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (on at 11:45am EST).  It's a great little fresh-for-its-time look at WWII, and Newman and Simmons chemistry is not to be missed.

Next, try and catch "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) at 1:45pm EST.  This film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' famous play was a big success, even though Williams himself hated how his story was altered for production codes at the time.  (Williams even stood in the queue lines for the film telling people "This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!")  Originally the project was going to star James Dean and Grace Kelly, but during the length of time it took to get the film made, Dean sadly died young in a car crash and Kelly retired from acting after marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco.  Thus, Newman and Elizabeth Taylor were cast instead.  Taylor was the one to really give this film publicity though.  Shortly after filming began, her third husband Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash.  Distraught, she locked herself up at home for three weeks (director Richard Brooks shot around her for that time).  She managed to come back and finish the picture with surprising strength (even if she was much weaker physically).  Yet, by the time the film came out, Taylor was having her affair with Eddie Fisher, husband to Debbie Reynolds.  It was the scandal of the year, which caused people to flock to the film even more.  Yet, she and Newman did give unbelievably good performances, both earning Oscar nominations.

At 12:30am EST (Saturday night or Sunday morning, whichever way you want to look at it) is a special Newman treat - "Rachel, Rachel," his directorial debut.  Released in 1968, it stars Newman's wife Joanne Woodward as the title character.  Newman stayed behind the camera for the entire project, so we don't get to look at him unfortunately.  But it's a great little film about a 35-year-old school teacher who realizes she's never really experienced life like she wants to when she starts dating an old high school friend.  Based on the book A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence, Woodward fell in love with the project after Newman's business partner John Foreman brought it to her.  With a screenplay by Stewart Stern, the three shopped the script all over town but there were no takers.  During this time, Newman had no interest in directing the project.  Yet, after helping his wife and partner out with advice and improvements for so long, he became so invested that he realized there was no other choice but to direct.  So, with Newman, they finally managed to sell it to Warner Bros (as long as Newman and Woodward did some other pictures for them).  "Rachel, Rachel" received much critical acclaim, including four Oscar nominations (Best Actress for Woodward, Best Supporting Actress for Estelle Parsons, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture).  Even though Newman didn't get a Directing Oscar nom, the two were extremely proud of their project, and they did get to share awards during the Golden Globes that year.

So, flip on the television and watch the best actor to grace the screen tomorrow.  I know, it's a jam-packed day full of greats, but try not to miss these gems too.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!  Be back on Monday!

(Post-tidbit: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was originally going to be filmed in black and white like Williams' previous play adaptations "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) and "Baby Doll" (1956), but once Newman and Taylor were cast, director Brooks insisted on filming in color to capture the famous vibrant eyes of his leads (Newman's blue and Taylor's violet).)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Meet Me in St. Louis: A Little Music and Romance

Hello, everyone!  As I said on Friday, today I'm entering the musical world again, and talking about one of my favorite Judy Garland films - "Meet Me in St. Louis."  Did you get a chance to watch it yesterday on TCM?  I hope so.

This is one of the first films I recorded when I was a little girl after saving up my allowance and purchasing my very own VCR for the little television in my bedroom.  And I still have that tape from some many years ago.  It has been watched over and over and over again, but somehow it has lasted.  I wanted to be Judy and dance around a Christmas tree.  I got the chance in high school when my theater department did a production of "Meet Me in St. Louis."  Sadly, I was just a chorus girl...but I still had fun.

Released in November1944, it stars Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Tom Drake, and Mary Astor.  Based on the personal, real-life stories of Sally Benson from her book 5135 Kensington, it follows a year in the life of the Smith family leading up to the World's Fair of 1904.  A sweet story of young love, casual days, and good old-fashioned family values, it epitomizes the classic MGM musical.  Many consider this film as the one that kicked off MGM's golden age of musicals.  A smash hit, "Meet Me in St. Louis" was the second highest grossing film of the year (behind only Bing Crosby and "Going My Way").  The studio was going to continue with more films about the Smith family, hoping for an "Andy Hardy" type series, but the sequel "Meet Me in Manhattan" never got beyond the planning phase.

Of course, much of the film's success was due to Garland.  Three of the films songs which she debuted ("The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") became hits on the charts, and have since become standards, like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" during the holidays.  Garland had to be persuaded to do "Meet Me in St. Louis" though.  Twenty-two at the time, she was tired of playing childhood roles and longed to move into the adult realm.  Luckily, she was convinced otherwise, for this film is where she met future husband and director of "St. Louis" Vincente Minnelli.  They fell in love during filming, married the following year, and then nine months later had little Liza.  As Liza mentioned in the book Directed by Vincente Minnelli, "You can see his love for her in every frame."  Garland once stated that she married Minnelli because he made her feel beautiful.  Throughout her career afterwards, even after her divorce from Minnelli in 1951, she considered "Meet Me in St. Louis" her absolute favorite film.

Another reason Garland was initially reluctant to do this film was Margaret O'Brien.  Afraid she would completely steal the film, O'Brien still managed to steal practically every scene she was in.  O'Brien plays the youngest Smith girl Tootie, the character that was writer Sally Benson in real life.  (Her entire family called her by the nickname "Tootie.")  O'Brien almost lost out on her most famous part, though.  Her mother asked for too much money for the youngster, so the studio cast a lighting technician’s young daughter instead.  Later, the studio changed their mind and cast O'Brien instead.  The lighting tech, however, was working on "Meet Me in St. Louis" and purposely dropped a lamp during one of little Margaret's scenes, barely missing her.  He was carted off and sent to a mental hospital for the incident.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards - Best Color Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Song for "The Trolley Song."  The only award that was taken home that night, though, was a special juvenile award for Margaret O'Brien.  Sadly I think, my favorite song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was not nominated.  The song was originally a little darker than we know it now.  The original line was "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / it may be your last" in reference to all the soldiers fighting in World War II at the time of the film's release.  However, Garland thought the line was too cruel to sing to little O'Brien and refused to say it. 

Even though the studio did not continue the Smith series of films, a television version was done in 1959 starring Jane Powell, Patty Duke, and Myrna Loy.  A weekly non-musical television series was even produced in 1966 starring Shelley Fabares and Celeste Holm, but no network would pick it up.  And if you are saying to yourself, "Wait!  There was that Broadway version, right?," you are right.  It ran for a little less than year in 1989 and received a few Tony nominations too.

So, if you didn't get the chance yesterday, or if you just have to watch it again, gather the family together and watch "Meet Me in St. Louis" this week.  Your heart will thank you.  Have a good week, everyone!  Be back Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  Margaret O'Brien's special Oscar for "Meet Me in St. Louis" was stolen when she was young.  She finally got it back about 50 years later when some antique dealers came across it and contacted her to give it back.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

For the Weekend: Child Star Power

It's August, and that means it's "Summer Under the Stars" month on TCM, where they dedicate each day's programming to a different star.  There have already been some good days, like Warren Beatty, Ingrid Bergman, and Errol Flynn.  This Sunday is all about one of my favorite young actresses of Golden Hollywood, Margaret O'Brien.  So, here are some great films of hers for you not to miss.

First up at 12:30pm EST is "Journey for Margaret" (1942), the film that made her an instant success.  Only 5 at the time, she had made only one other film before this one (a small one-minute bit part in "Babes on Broadway" (1941)).  Born Angela Maxine O'Brien, MGM saw her potential immediately and put her in "Journey" opposite Robert Young (and changed her name to her character's).  In the film, little Margaret plays a young girl orphaned during the Blitz.  When Young, an American reporter living in London at the time, finds her, he becomes entranced with the youngster, and is determined to get her to America and adopt her.  Based on the real-life story by William L. White, it became a huge success thanks to O'Brien's amazing performance as the traumatized little girl, instantly making her a huge child star.

Next up, check out "Little Women" (1949) at 5:45pm EST.  One of many film versions of Louisa May Alcott's classic book, it is my favorite thanks to its impressive cast, which includes O'Brien, June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter Lawford.  O'Brien plays the tragic Beth (the youngest Marsh girl in this version). Allyson, who was actually 31 years old when she played Jo March (who's supposed to be 15 years old), really enjoyed working with O'Brien and the rest of the cast.  She considered this one of her favorite movies ever.  However, when she had to film O'Brien's death scene, young Margaret's performance affected her so much that Allyson had to be sent home early to recover.  She even had to stop a couple of times on the drive home because she was still crying so hard.

Finally, don't miss Margaret's last film for MGM, 1949's "The Secret Garden."  O'Brien plays the lead character Mary Lennox from Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic childhood tale about a lonely orphan who discovers a hidden garden.  Her costar in "Garden" is another child star of the time, Dean Stockwell.  One of the best adaptations of this novel (even using the "Wizard of Oz" technique of shooting the garden scenes in color), it unfortunately was not a success at the box office.  Many critics felt the material was too dark for youngsters, something that actually seems quiet tame in today's limelight.  After leaving MGM, O'Brien only made one more film ("Her First Romance" (1951), on at 10:45am EST) before she retired from films.  She would later make many television and stage appearances, but she never had the same fame she had as a child.

So, be sure to flick on the television this Sunday and watch these great films by one of the best child actors ever to grace the screen.  Only "Little Women" can be rented on DVD so try not to miss this chance.  Also, check out O'Brien's most famous film, "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), at 3:45pm EST, for I will be talking about it very, very soon (you know, as in Monday).  Have a great weekend, everyone!

(Post-tidbit:  Even though she wasn't as successful in adult roles, Margaret O'Brien still made quite a few appearances, including on the game show "What's My Line?" a couple of times.  So, for your video treat for the day, you can watch an adult O'Brien in one of those fun episodes below.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Breakfast at Tiffany's: Goodbye, Ms. Neal

We lost a great actress and a strong character yesterday - Patricia Neal.  She died of lung cancer at the age of 84 at her home in Martha's Vineyard.  So to honor her, I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite films costarring Ms. Neal - the iconic "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Based on the novella by Truman Capote, "Breakfast" tells the tale of the friendship and romance between a young novelist (George Peppard) and the prostitute living downstairs from him in New York City.  The girl, of course, is the now-famous character Holly Golightly, played by the beautiful and iconic-in-her-own-right Audrey Hepburn.  Released in 1961, it has become one of the most influential films of pop culture, from fashion to music and beyond.  It also received five Oscar nominations, including one for Hepburn for Best Actress, and won two of them, Best Original Score and Best Original Song ("Moon River"). 

Patricia Neal plays "2-E", Peppard's wealthy (and married) lover.  In other words, his sugar mama, a small costarring part but a strong role.  I believe this was the first film I ever saw with Neal, and I remember hating her character for being mean and cruel to Peppard.  Such an innocent romantic I was.  Now, I can't remember exactly when the first time was I saw this film, but I know I was a little girl because much of the movie went right over my head.  I have to admit I didn't really get everything, like the prostitute part and Mickey Rooney's horrible portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, until I was much older.  But I still loved it, because it was this strange little romance between these odd, eccentric people...and a cat.  Also, my absolute love of Audrey Hepburn helped in solidifying this film as a favorite.  Yet, what I love about this film now is that, as I've grown older, I have discovered all these different layers of the story that I never noticed or understood before. 

Much of that is due to the fact that Hollywood had to tone down Capote's novella for the film standards of the time.  They could never officially call Golightly a prostitute, even though she is.  In the book, she actually "swears like a sailor" too, which could not be used to its extent.  There is even a bit about her dabbles with bisexuality in the novella, something Hollywood cut out completely.  They might have been able to get away with a little bit more if everyone's first choice to play Holly had accepted the role - Marilyn Monroe.  Monroe was not only Capote's first choice but screenwriter George Axelrod's and original director John Frankenheimer's too.  However, Monroe's acting coach Lee Strasberg insisted she turn down the role because he thought playing a prostitute would not be good for her image.  So after Kim Novak turned down the role too, the studio got Audrey Hepburn instead, something Capote was never happy with.  Hepburn also insisted that they change directors when she came onboard, so Frankenheimer was fired and Blake Edwards was hired.

Almost all the exterior shots were filmed on location in New York, including the famous opening scene of Hepburn eating her breakfast as she stares into the window of Tiffany's on 5th Avenue.  There are several stories about how difficult it was to get this seemingly simple shot.  Evidently, there was a crowd of onlookers and Hepburn fans watching the filming off camera, making Hepburn a bit nervous.  Also, she absolutely hated Danish pastries, the breakfast she had to eat, so it was difficult to muster.  And finally, somehow while trying to get the shot done, a crew member was nearly electrocuted.  However, on a recent anniversary DVD edition, Blake Edwards said that the scene was actually filmed rather quickly thanks to a break in traffic at the time.  So who knows what really is truth versus myth.  The only outdoor scenes they did film in California were the ones between Holly, Paul and Cat at the end of the film.  You know, the ones in the rain.  Throwing Cat out the taxi was one of the worst things Hepburn felt she ever had to do in her films, according to her in later years.

Patricia Neal mainly had scenes with only George Peppard though.  Even though they had met before and got along, Neal said that working with Peppard on "Breakfast" was very difficult and frustrating.  Yet she still pulled off a great performance.  However, the next few years turned out to be very difficult for her and her family.  Married to writer Roald Dahl ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), they had three children at the time.  In 1961, horror struck when their little 4-month-old boy Theo was hit by a taxi while in his baby carriage.  Luckily, after much care, he survived.  However the next year, the couple's oldest child Olivia died suddenly from measles at the age of 7.   They managed to survive the tragedy and have another baby girl (and Neal won her Supporting Actress Oscar for "Hud.").  Yet, in 1965, while pregnant with their fifth child, Neal suffered a series of strokes, leaving her in a three-week coma.  She was only 39 at the time.  When she woke up, she required an extensive amount of physical and speech therapy.  She still managed to stay strong, though, giving birth to a healthy little girl named Lucy.  Neal then worked vigorously to recover, and successfully managed to do it in two years, a task that many doctors today call miraculous. 

Patricia Neal used to proclaim that she survived her personal tragedies because she was "born stubborn."  Well, I hope I have a little bit of stubbornness in me too then, like her, because she was a class act.  According to her family, the night before she died she said "I've had a lovely time."  So have we, Ms. Neal, so have we.  Until Friday, everyone.

(Post-tidbit:  Audrey Hepburn's famous black dress from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" sold for $807,000 in 2006, making it the second most expensive piece of movie memorabilia ever sold.  The first, you ask?  "Gone with the Wind"s Oscar for Best Picture.)

Friday, August 6, 2010

For the Weekend: Dance Your Cares Away

Woohoo!  It's the weekend again!  Really, these things don't come around enough in my opinion.  So, time to have some fun, relax, maybe know, dance your cares away (worries for another day) with some great dance flicks. (I know, I'm a cheese.)

First up is "The Turning Point" from 1977 starring the wonderful actresses Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft.  The ladies play old friends who used to be members of the same ballet troupe until one chose a family (MacLaine) while the other chose stardom (Bancroft).  They reunite years later when MacLaine's daughter becomes the new budding ingenue of ballet, and let's just say, a lot of long-awaited dirt comes to the surface between them.  "Turning Point" received 11 Oscar nominations that year, including a Best Actress nomination for both MacLaine and Bancroft and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for "newbie" Mikhail Baryshnikov.  Unfortunately, all those nominations led to absolutely no wins, the highest number of nominations in Oscar history to not win anything (a feat matched by only one other film, "The Color Purple" (1984)).  As for the two leading ladies, MacLaine (the family one) is the accomplished dancer of both.  Bancroft had no dancing experience so all her dance shots were done with a body double.

Next up is a more modern ballet troupe film, "Center Stage" (2000).  The story of a group of new ballet students at the fictional American Ballet Academy in New York City is one of my guilty favorites, I proudly admit.  It's a great little coming-of-age film that has all the classic subplots you would expect from a privileged school flick.  The acting isn't the best, but that's because the filmmakers decided to actually find real ballet dancers to play ballet dancers.  Of the main cast, four are professional dancers, including the lead ingenue character Jody Sawyer, played by Amanda Schull.  A young Zoe Saldana made her film debut in "Center Stage."  Though not a professional dancer, she does have formal ballet training.  Like I said, it's full of tributes to former films, like "Fame" (1980).  Even the lead character's name, Jody Sawyer, is a reference to the ingenue from the classic musical "42nd Street," Peggy Sawyer.

And finally, another guilty pleasure of mine, 2001's popular "Save the Last Dance."  Starring budding starlet Julia Stiles and young Sean Patrick Thomas, it tells the tale of a young ballet dancer (Stiles) whose life is flipped upside down when she loses her mom in a car accident and must move from the safe Midwest to the rough streets of Chicago.  Heartbroken, she gives up ballet, but when Thomas and her fall in love, he pushes her to follow her dream.  Stiles didn't have professional dance training before this film, but she won the lead when the director Thomas Carter saw her table dance in "10 Things I Hate About You" (2000).  The film was actually a surprise success for MTV Films, making over $130 million worldwide.  It didn't receive any Oscar nominations, of course, but it did receive a slew of MTV Movie Awards.

So, get out your dancing shoes and pirouette the weekend days away.  All these fun films can be found on DVD.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!  Til Monday!

(Post-tidbit:  Audrey Hepburn once said that her only regret in her career was missing out on Anne Bancroft's role in "The Turning Point.")

Monday, August 2, 2010

Willy Wonka: Pure Deliciousness with a Dash of Scary

Hello, everyone!  Sorry for not posting anything last week, but everyone needs a break now and then.  I hope you weren't too lost without me.  ;-)  Anyway, I'm back now, and ready to talk about another great favorite of mine, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971).

I'm pretty sure every kid in the world knows this story.  Based on the book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl, it tells the story of five lucky children, mainly poor Charlie Bucket, and their extraordinary adventures in the candy factory of the odd, secretive Willy Wonka.  The great Gene Wilder plays the title character in one of his best performances ever (definitely my favorite).  He managed to give Wonka, a character who is basically just plain scary and mean at times, a constant lovable undertone.  I never felt he would harm long as I was good.  Or maybe I just really liked his creepy, kooky mind.

This is one of those films were everything seemed to fall into place at just the right time to make it.  Director Mel Stuart started working on making the book into a film after his young daughter came up to him one day.  She had just finished reading "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and told him he should make a movie out of it, and "Uncle Dave should put up the money" (aka producer David L. Wolper).  Wolper, at the time, was actually in talks with the Quaker Oats Company about producing a vehicle to introduce their new candy-making venture.  They all agreed that the book was the perfect story, but the company wanted the name of the chocolate bar in the title.  So they agreed to change the name for the film to "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and Quaker Oats would make Wonka bars.

Everyone thought this was great...except for writer Roald Dahl.  He was hired to write the screenplay for the film but after his first draft, Stuart and Wolper hired first-time screenwriter David Seltzer to do some rewrites to brighten it up, etc.  This included adding candy-making competitor Slugworth as a spy and having Wonka quote everyone from Shakespeare to Wilde to Keats.  All this did not make Dahl happy at all.  He also was upset about not having his first choice to play Wonka cast, Spike Milligan.  This all led to Dahl being so dissatisfied that he refused permission for a sequel based on the next book in the series "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator."

Wilder was cast after a long list of contenders was eliminated, including Milligan, Ron Moody, and Joel Grey.  However, when Wilder went to New York to audition, he was hired on the spot.  Stuart knew he was Wonka as soon as he walked through the door.  As for the children, the production searched all over New York, London and Germany.  At the auditions, the kids had to read from the book, for the script was not written yet.  A few of the children had acted before, like Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Paris Themmen (Mike Teavee), and Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde).  But for Peter Ostrum playing the lead kid Charlie, it was his first acting job...and what turned out to be his last.  He had a great time filming, but he decided not to act again and is now a happy veterinarian.  Cole is actually the only one of the bunch still acting today.

Filming of "Willy Wonka" took place mainly in Munich, Germany (West Germany, at the time).  The cast and crew spent three months there, starting exactly 40 years ago this month.  Many of the songs were the first to be shot, for some of them were written before the script was.  I have two favorite numbers, "Pure Imagination" and "I Want It Now."  "Pure Imagination" is the song Wonka sings when they first enter the main room of the factory.  The reactions of the children in those shots are actually real, for it was the first time any of them had seen the set.  It was all created by the amazing art designer Harper Goff.  No CGI to make that place.  It really was as wonderful as it looked.  As for my other favorite number, Veruca's "I Want It Now," Cole filmed that entire sequence on her 13th birthday.  She had to do up to 30 takes of the entire thing.  (They always did cause Stuart was a perfectionist.)  The main thing she remembers to this day is how she did her final stunt.  She had to make sure she stood right in the center of the platform, and she had to have her arms glued to her side - no moving them out or they'd be knocked off.  Imagine having a child do that stunt now in today's Hollywood?!

"Willy Wonka" is one of those films that is so ingrained in my head that the smallest word can make me unconsciously start quoting movie dialogue.  I have a lot of these movies and television shows.  And the quotes are always small and simple, like "tricky, tricky, tricky" or "messy, messy, messy."  Some have that strange pull, like "almost there."  They have to be completed, or the world just feels wrong ("stay on target").  And then there are the ones that just make me burst into song, like "secret tunnel" and "doom."  As for "Willy Wonka," it's simply the line "button, button, who's got the button."  It's strange and random and I love it.  Luckily, all my friends have the same condition so we all get along wonderfully.  (By the way, just click on the above quotes if you don't recognize them.)

"Willy Wonka" was actually not much of a success when it was released.  It made money (for the budget was only $2-3 million), but the marketing plan didn't work out as well as everyone thought.  The Quaker Oats Company released the Wonka bar, but something was wrong with the formula, so all the chocolate started melting on the candy store shelves.  So, Quaker Oats quickly pulled all the bars from the stores.  It is mainly because of television airings and VCRs that "Wonka" is such a cult favorite today.

So, I recommend bringing out the childhood memories this week and watching "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."  You can rent it or watch it instantly on Netflix.  Also, for the LA crowd, "Wonka" is playing at the Hollywood cemetery August 21st (hmm...the day before my birthday...what wonderful kismet).  Until Friday, everyone.  Have a wonderful week!

(Post-tidbit:  Originally the producers wanted Jean Stapleton to play Mike Teavee's mother, but she decided not to do the film and accepted a television pilot instead.  That pilot was "All in the Family.")