Apr 27, 2007

Divine in the Briny

Wash your towels, perfect your pedicures, and stir your poolside lemonade, because a sea-worthy revelation is set to hit shelves on Tuesday, July 17, 2007: After spewing forth innumerable Cagney, Bogart, Davis and Crawford box sets, Warner Brothers Home Video is finally lavishing some overdue attention on The Million Dollar Mermaid herself, MGM darling Esther Williams.

A champion diver in her early teens, Williams revolutionized the film industry in the 1940s by using her films to showcase her extraordinary aquatic abilities - she not only swims in beautiful costumes amongst lavish underwater sets, but she dives, performs extended water ballets and acrobatics, water-skis, and choreographs complicated numbers for her myriad "chorus girls" to perform (Williams is credited with co-authoring the sport of synchronized swimming). Though retired from film and running her own line of swimwear from her California home, Esth still remains a fan favorite - she still signs autographs and recently published her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid (a scandalously good read) - but curiously enough, the advent of The Esther Williams Collection will mark the initial release of any of Williams' water-related films on dvd (1949's Take Me Out to the Ball Game is definitely dry-land fare).

Complete with featurettes, film trailers, musical number outtakes, and TCM's original Private Screenings with Esth herself, a five-disc box set will include:

Bathing Beauty (1944), with Red Skelton and Harry James
Easy to Wed (1946) with Van Johnson, Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn - easily my favorite flick of the set!
On an Island with You (1948) with Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse
Neptune's Daughter (1949) with Betty Garrett, Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalban - again
Dangerous When Wet (1953) with Fernando Lamas - let the real-life love affair begin!

Though these five flicks aren't entirely representative of Esther's unquestionable underwater appeal (where, exactly, is Million Dollar Mermaid?), fear not, swimfans...the "Volume 1" subscript on the case's cover is a sure guarantee that more mermaid is on the way!

The July-released Esther Williams Collection is available from Amazon.com for an astoundingly low $34.99 USD.

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Apr 26, 2007

Gone with the Bind

It seems I'm always reading. Celebrity autobiographies, vintage movie magazines, heavy, photo-laden coffee table books: I'll gladly pore over all of them, stumbling over decades-old love affairs, soaking up sartorial elegance splayed across yellowing pages, and discovering backstories of Tinseltown in its glory days, as told by those who lived it themselves (or by those who, like me, yearn to live it vicariously).

Some reads, like Lauren Bacall's By Myself and Katharine Hepburn's Me: Stories of My Life, have proven to be well-written self-portraits of fascinating personalities, penned with far more depth than is traditionally attributed to, or anticipated from, "celebrity autobiographies"; others, however, are in desperate want of the research and passion necessary to craft engaging stories as unforgettable and dynamic as their celebrity subjects (Lana Wood's trashy homage to her sister, Natalie, for example, should be considered an affront to both Nat and to literate persons everywhere).
In keeping with my tradition of sifting through the tripe and presenting you with the best of the best, then, I present to you three of the most recent pieces to take up residence on my film library bookshelf:

Rita Hayworth: A Photographic Retrospective by Caren Roberts-Frenzel
Let's face it: Love Goddess or not, Rita Hayworth and her iconic pin-up presence is inarguably one of the most beautiful ever to grace film. Sultry or demure, blond, brunette or devastatingly red-haired, she is sizzlingly iconic of the 1940's, but few know of her painful shyness and insecurities, of the dissolve of five marriages, or of the devastating toll that Alzheimer's disease began to take on the Spanish beauty as early as the 1950's (Hayworth died of the disease in 1987). Author Roberts-Frenzel displays a dizzying array of photographs of the star's life culled from her own collection, one of the world's largest - and as sweet and telling as the photos are, equally valuable are the detailed captions paired with each pic, unearthing a side of Rita that the camera never picked up.

Selected works by Truman Capote - Paring off the shell of adulation that encases most biographers' writings, Capote instead crafts his portraits with keen observations and recollections of his esoteric interactions, both formal and informal, with the erstwhile celebrities he focuses on. These particular portraits follow no particular format or length (many were serialized and published in popular publications of the day); some are, in fact, comprised largely of conversation between the author and subject, the dialogue interspersed with recollections of most unconventional meetings between the two: he chaperones Marilyn Monroe to a funeral, visits Elizabeth Taylor at the apartment she shares with then-hubby Eddie Fisher, and spends a late evening in Tokyo listening to Marlon Brando vocalize his life's philosophies. The element that Capote employs that authors of similar work, like Peter Bogdanovich, do not, is his uncanny ability to absorb these people in their most natural and unguarded states; he comes to them an extrinsic party and leaves brimming with anecdotes that he so vividly translates into these portraits.For stunningly candid insights into selected stars, detailed and written in Capote's dramatic style, seek out these unflinchingly honest literary snapshots that are, perhaps, as notable as the author's 1959 novella-cum-blockbuster "Breakfast at Tiffany's".

*I recommend Capote's "The Duke in his Domain" (1957) on Marlon Brando; "Elizabeth Taylor" (date unknown); and "Beautiful Child", a portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

Debbie: My Life by Debbie Reynolds and David Patrick Columbia - One would not be hard-pressed to dig up dozens of accolades for the divine Miss Debbie here at Hillary's Classic Cinema, such a favorite of mine is she - whether she's singing, dancing, or deftly deferring the advances of any of her amorous male leads on the silver screen, I just adore her. It is without bias, though, that I can unequivocally call Debbie: My Life a thorough and most captivating read for any fan of classic cinema.
My Life includes an impressive array of Hollywood characters as they came to intertwine with Debbie's on varying levels of professional and personal reasons, but set to the tone of Debbie's narration
- candid, compassionate, naive - her story resists treading the touchy waters of a tell-all (Esther Williams' 2003 autobiography, in comparison, spares no details in dishing the dirt on anyone and everyone's personal goings-on). But the tale here is Debbie's very own, an engrossing portrait of the gifted comedienne who came from poor Texas family and entered movies with no serious intentions of ever becoming the legendary performer she is today.

Reynolds' trademark tenacity is intact from the very first page, evident as she survives a lonely childhood as a scrappy tomboy; struggles with being deserted by her first husband and the father of her two children, Eddie Fisher, for her former Hollywood classmate and box-office rival Elizabeth Taylor in 1958; through desperate financial situations, familial strains and the lifelong undercurrent of longing for unfulfilled normalcies of a non-celebrity life. Don't be mistaken, though - this ain't no sob story, it's an honest, humorous, often heartwrenching story of a young girl's rise to near-instant stardom and her tenuous, tenacious efforts to remain connected with the audience that keeps her buoyant in her fifth decade of fame. Now that's what I call unsinkable.

All of the above books are available at reasonable rates on Amazon.com, but for those with a stricter budget, I recommend browsing eBay, Half.com, or your local library for these titles. Betterworld.com, an online used-book seller, offers low prices, free shipping, and benefits charitable organizations at local and worldwide levels - I highly recommend it.

For more of my book recommendations, please click here.

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Apr 21, 2007

Quote of the Week

'"If I'd had a child," she said, "and the child got sick and was crying just as I had to leave for the theater, where hundreds of people were waiting for me to perform, and I had to make a choice - the play or the child - well, I'd smother the child to death and go on with the show. You just can't have both, a career and children."' - Katharine Hepburn, 1981 (as quoted by Jane Fonda in My Life So Far)

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Apr 20, 2007

Kitty Carlisle Hart, 1910-2007

As a girl who emulates that vanishing social set comprised of the talented, elegant women of yesteryear, I was truly saddened to hear that just months after touring the United States with her one-woman show, sassy singer, actress, socialite, philanthropist, lecturer, television personality, and Broadway star Kitty Carlisle Hart died this week at her Manhattan, NY home. She was 96 years old.

Perhaps best known for her long-running presence on popular game shows of the 1950s and 60s (she appeared as a favorite panelist on TV's "To Tell The Truth" for a span of more than forty years), Carlisle was born Catherine Conn in New Orleans on September 3, 1910. After her father died in 1920, Catherine and her mother took to Europe, where Mrs. Conn hoped to marry her daughter into royalty after she had been suitably educated. While intentions of noble nuptials never materialized, young Kitty finished her formal education in Switzerland, France's Sorbonne, and the London School of Economics; she also studied acting at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Returning to the United States at age 21, Carlisle soon took to the musical stage, premiering in the titular role of "Rio Rita" before embarking on a brief tenure in Hollywood. She made only four films during her ingenue period in the 1930's; perhaps most notable is her role in 1934's zany Marx Brothers classic, A Night at the Opera. Feeling films were not her fortitude, she returned to the theatre and continued performing sporadically through the 1970's, mostly musicals and occasionally drama, even making numerous noted and successful forays into opera (she premiered in Die Fledermaus in 1967).

Carlisle married prominent Pullitzer prize-winning playwright Moss Hart in 1946 - her only marriage - and remained devoted to him and to their two children after his 1961 death at age 57, never remarrying, despite the fact that she outlived him by nearly fifty years. Colorful accounts of the couple's glitzy social life, rife with renowned talents from the arts and New York's elite uppercrust society, remained a mainstay of Carlisle's personal appearances in theatres and nightclubs for the rest of her life.

remained a foremost supporter and advocate of the arts in the years following Hart's death, most notably chairing the New York State Council of the Arts for over 25 years, where she worked to expand the council's budget by an estimated $50 million. She was still actively fundraising into her 90's.

The few in today's audiences who are privileged enough to be familiar with Kitty Carlisle Hart won't be surprised to learn that she continued her one-woman cabaret act until late 2006, even celebrating her 96th birthday with a performance at New York's Regency Hotel. Pretty, genuine, unpretentious, and endlessly enthusiastic about the perpetuation of memories of Hollywood's Golden Age, she created a name for herself by trying her talents in a multitude of mediums and endeared herself to New Yorkers with her dedicated efforts to enrich the art and culture of their legendary city. To tell the truth, a lady like this will never be forgotten.

Ms. Hart is survived by her two children with Moss Hart: son Christopher Hart and daughter Cathy Hart Stoeckle.

For more information on Kitty Carlisle Hart, I highly recommend reading Kitty: An Autobiography, which she published in 1988: it's an engrossing read that fully employs Kitty's wit and intelligence, detailing her youth, her romantic forays in Europe, her decades-spanning and multifarious career, her family life with Moss Hart, and the considerable strides she made as an independent woman in her later years. It's quite a book based on quite a life.


Kitty: An Autobiography

Complicated Women (TV Documentary)

Vintage Episode of To Tell The Truth - Courtesy of YouTube (external link)

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Apr 13, 2007

Classic Film Trivia

What classic star was the first to win both an Academy Award and an Emmy?

Use the comment box to post your answers below!

Apr 1, 2007

The Birthday Girl

Joyeux Anniversaire, Debbie Reynolds! The divine Miss D turns 75 today. Here she celebrating in style, left, and in a still from one of my fave movies, The Mating Game, snuggling some sort of ewok-like dog, below.

Fast facts on Debbie:

- She was born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas, April 1, 1932.

- As the best pitcher on her neighborhood's sandlot baseball team, she intended to pursue a degree in education and work as a gym teacher.

- At 16, Debbie entered the Miss Burbank Contest near her California home - her family had relocated when she was just eight years old - simply to get the free silk scarf and blouse and the complimentary lunch offered with entrance. To her and everyone else's suprise, she took home the crown.

- It was talent executive William Orr who changed her moniker from Frannie to Debbie, coining it after the daughter of friends; studio head Jack Warner also challenged her to change her last name to Morgan, which Debbie steadfastly refused to do.

- Did only two films under her Warner Bros. contract between 1948 and 1950; MGM snatched her up and plopped her into 1950's Two Weeks With Love with Jane Powell and Ricardo Montalban. Still planning to go to college, Debbie thought of her movie career as a great means of income for her tuition expenses - until she made six films in three years at MGM, including 1952's blockbuster Singin' in the Rain.

- Sometimes sent as many as 300 letters per week to soldiers serving in war-torn Korea and other southeast countries she had visited during her USO tours in the early '50's.

- Seriously dated actor Robert Wagner, two years her senior, in the early 1950's before meeting future husband Eddie Fisher. In her book, Debbie: My Life, Reynolds expresses regret that her relationship with Wagner did not culminate in marriage.

- Survived three marriages, one to somewhat-celeb Eddie Fisher, with whom she had children Carrie Fisher and Todd Fisher.

- Is an avid collector of film memorabilia, including costumes and posters, often asking celebrity friends and colleagues to autograph. A museum showcasing her collection is rumored to open in late 2006/07.

- Still tours the country as a singer and stage performer, most frequently appearing in the California/Nevada area.

- Debbie Reynolds is awesome.

"Singin' in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life." - DR

NOTE: This post was renewed from last year's birthday tribute to Debbie - it's been a hectic week, and I haven't had the time to create a new post that will do this great lady justice! In the twelve months since I've posted this, though, I've had the pleasure of meeting Debbie in person and attending two of her shows, so I hope to incorporate all of that awesomeness into an upcoming belated birthday tribute - stay tuned!

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Photo of the Week

Montgomery Clift struggles to balance lovely Elizabeth Taylor,
candid, 1950s

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