Friday, March 28, 2014

Joan Has Arrived!

So you've been wanting to read that new book on your favorite comedienne, but online sellers are telling you you have to wait until mid-May? Not true! Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy is available today from its publisher, McFarland & Company. Click the link above to have a copy in your mailbox faster than Joan Stevens can spend her $412 clothes budget for the year! Once you've finished reading it, you'll Sing and Be Happy that you know so much about the life and career of this extraordinarily funny lady.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reunion with Joan

Happy birthday to my favorite Golden Age movie star, the one and only Joan Crawford. Born March 23, 1904 (possibly 1905) in San Antonio, Texas as Lucille LeSueur, Joan went from an impoverished, hardscrabble start in life to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Her amazing career spanned forty-five years, from her start in silent films to her starring role in 1970's Trog. Even in the least of her films (and Trog may well be that), she always gives 100% in her performances, and is never less than fascinating to watch.

While I love Mildred Pierce, which won her an Oscar as Best Actress, I also have a soft spot for one of her least-acclaimed movies, Reunion in France, co-starring John Wayne. Released in 1942 by MGM, Reunion cast Joan as Michele de la Becque, well-heeled French socialite whose comfortable life comes crashing down when the Nazis occupy Paris. Wayne plays American flier Pat Talbot, shot down by the enemy, who needs Michele's help to make it safely out of France. I love the exchange in which a shopgirl says of the initially self-involved,  high-handed Michele, "Mademoiselle seems annoyed by the war." Her pal replies, "It's a wonder she doesn't forbid it."

By most accounts, Miss Crawford didn't share my fondness for the film, which helped persuade her to bid MGM adieu after many years. She told interviewer Roy Newquist (Conversations with Joan Crawford), "If there is an afterlife and I'm to be punished for my sins, [Reunion] is one of the pictures they'll make me see over and over again." You can visit YouTube to see the original theatrical trailer, and get a taste of the film.

Not convinced? Sue me, I like it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: What's the Matter with Curtis Harrington?

If you've admired the sleek, stylish horror and suspense films of director Curtis Harrington, you'll enjoy reading his posthumously published autobiography Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business, published in 2013 by Drag City. Among his memorable films are Night Tide, What's the Matter with Helen?,  and the TV-movies The Cat Creature and The Dead Don't Die.

Harrington (1926-2007) pulls no punches in discussing his career, or his colleagues. Of one producer, he writes, "There is no one that I've ever encountered in the film business for whom I have more loathing and contempt than [him]. He did everything possible to destroy the film." One popular and well-regarded actress whom he refused to cast in a project he describes as "short, dwarfish, unsexy and unattractive." Readers will be both impressed by the battles he fought to bring his visions to life, and saddened by the stupidity that sometimes compromised the films he left behind.

Harrington resented the fact that film work dried up for him in the 1970s, leaving him on the "slippery slope" to television work he regarded as inferior. An incisive observer, he offers revealing anecdotes about the many famous names he met along the course of his career -- Kenneth Anger, Bette Davis, Simone Signoret, James Whale, and many more. Who else can you think of who knew both Josef von Sternberg and Aaron Spelling?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mercedes Quality

On this date nearly a century ago, one of film, radio, and television's most distinctive and memorable actresses made her debut in the world. I'm talking about Mercedes McCambridge (March 16, 1916 - March 2, 2004), an Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress (for 1949's All the King's Men) who may be best-known today for voicing a demon in the 1973 film version of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. 

As Carlotta on Bewitched.
A distinguished performer whose admirers included the great Orson Welles, McCambridge was nevertheless no snob when it came to maintaining her career. She loved the stage, and was a radio mainstay in the 1940s, but took roles in everything from Charlie's Angels to a women's prison exploitation film. Wherever she acted, she gave full measure, and a commanding performance. I remember her as intergalactic hillbilly Sybilla on Lost in Space, as Carlotta, overbearing mother to a wimpy warlock, on Bewitched, and duking it out with Joan Crawford in the odd Western Johnny Guitar.

A good place to learn more about this talented performer is author Ron Lackmann's Mercedes McCambridge: A Biography and Career Record, a fine overview of her life and work. The lady herself wrote a quirky memoir, regrettably out of print, called The Quality of Mercy. As for me, I've heard good things about her early 1950s films The Scarf and Lightning Strikes Twice, but I haven't seen them yet. So, if you'll excuse me...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Meet Millie's Mama

If you enjoyed Night Court in the 1980s, you probably remember Florence Halop (1923-1986), who played bailiff Florence. But did you know that this talented actress had by then been playing funny, quirky older ladies for 30-some years?  I recently read a 1954 interview with her, when she was playing lovable Mama Bronson on CBS' Meet Millie. 

Halop out of costume, 1950s.
In reality, Florence was only a little older than TV "daughter" Elena Verdugo. Already a respected radio actress, Florence first tried out for the lead role, but was instead asked to play Mama. That involved quite a transformation each week. She donned "an old-fashioned bathing suit with a little padding in front and a lot in back," she explained. "I go from a size 10 to a size 16." Not everyone would relish being dowdied up for the TV cameras, but Halop said she enjoyed it. She reported getting lots of mail "from teenage boys -- they think Mama Bronson is cute."

That's Florence, as Mama, at left.
Sadly, it's difficult to see Meet Millie all these years later. While the show, which originated on radio, was successful enough to last from 1952 to 1956 on TV, it was broadcast live, rather than being filmed. At right is a cast photo with Florence as Mama, Marvin Kaplan (later featured on the long-running sitcom Alice) as Alfred, and Elena Verdugo as Millie. Fortunately, a few episodes of this series are preserved in museums and archives such as the Paley Center for Media, and some Old Time Radio vendors offer transcriptions of radio broadcasts. Go here to see a breakdown of one TV episode in the Paley Center's collection.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Burden of Proofing*

Talk about mixed emotions. One day a little email appears in my inbox, telling me that page proofs for my forthcoming book on Joan Davis are ready for my review. This is good news, right? I've worked hard on this book over the last couple of years. I'm proud of the new information I've uncovered about her life and career, and I'm eager for readers to see it. I download the page proofs and they look terrific. Even before I wrote books for McFarland, I often read their books, and I loved the way they looked. They've taken my manuscript and made it into a beautiful book (love the new typeface, by the way!)

So what's the downside? Well, there's the little matter of proofreading. For the past week or so I've spent a lot of hours staring at those pages, trying to nip anything in the bud that I don't want found in the finished book. Even after a good copy editor has done his or her best to clean me up, there are still little things here and there. I'm really good at leaving words out sentences -- er, out of sentences -- and that's always a hazard. Sometimes things have changed since I turned in the manuscript -- sadly, my reference to Shirley Temple (born 1928) now needs to read (1928-2014). Despite all my best efforts, there will be flaws in the book when it's published. For someone like me, who's capable of slight perfectionist tendencies, that's frustrating.

But in a couple more days, I will send my corrections to the nice folks in Jefferson, North Carolina, and then wait for that day when the UPS man delivers ten author copies of the book to my front doorstep. And even after five books, that's pretty exciting.

*with apologies to Scott Turow

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

It's the Bucket Woman!

For whatever reason, Britcoms don't usually work for me. But I've happily made an exception in recent weeks as I make my way through five funny seasons of the 1990-95 BBC series Keeping Up Appearances. As fans worldwide know, the show, written by Roy Clarke, is about middle-aged, middle-class Britisher Hyacinth Bucket, who may be one of the worst social climbers of all time. Having come from modest circumstances, Hyacinth isn't content to relax and enjoy her pleasant suburban home with husband Richard. Instead, she devotes herself to hilarious schemes designed to improve her social standing, and help her hobnob with the upper classes. Although Richard manfully endures her trying ways, she's often undermined by the appearance of her socially questionable family members, who fall decidedly short of the high-falutin' image she wants so badly to present.

The series is a tour de force for leading lady Patricia Routledge, who haughtily informs one and all that, despite the spelling, her last name is correctly pronounced "Bouquet." Her reign of terror extends to neighbors Liz and Emmet, the young vicar and his wife, and the hapless mailmen and other workers who try their best to do their jobs while staying out of her sight.

While Rutledge is brilliant, it's not a one-woman show; she's backed by a solid-gold supporting cast. I especially like Judy Cornwell as Hyacinth's sloppy, down-to-earth sister Daisy, who passes her days reading paperback romances, and trying to stir a spark of life in her "bone-idle" husband Onslow. Clive Swift, as the endlessly tolerant Richard, is the epitome of a fine supporting actor, and I'm always impressed by how many variations Josephine Tewson (as Liz) can play on the theme of the jittery neighbor who finds Hyacinth's invitations to coffee so nerve-wracking.

If you haven't tried the show, by all means see if it doesn't tickle you. It does me, and I'm awfully sorry that I'm running out of new episodes to see. You can visit the BBC's official page for the series here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Ides of Hal March

What better way to welcome the month of March than by celebrating the life and career of actor, comedian, and TV game show host Hal March (1920-1970)? Best-
remembered as host of the popular 1950s game show The $64,000 Question, March also played Harry Morton in early TV episodes of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and starred on Broadway in Come Blow Your Horn. Fans of I Love Lucy know him for his guest appearances as Eddie Grant, a lecherous salesman who tries to put the moves on Lucy Ricardo in "Lucy is Matchmaker", and as the phony doctor who diagnoses her with "the gobloots" in "Lucy Fakes Illness."

By 1957, March was reported to be receiving bales of fan mail and earning a sizable paycheck as host of Question, which CBS expected to run for at least five more years. Unfortunately, the game show scandals of the late 1950s soon brought the show to its knees, and did March's career some serious harm, although he personally was not implicated in wrongdoing. He continued to work as an actor throughout the 1960s, and was making a comeback with another game show, It's Your Bet, when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died on January 19, 1970 at the age of 49, leaving behind a wife and five children.

You can read more about this engaging favorite from TV's youth at The Game Show Fix.