Jul 23, 2008

DeHaven a Party

  Sizzling chanteuse and sometime-screen star Gloria DeHaven celebrates her 83rd birthday today, July 23. The daughter of vaudevillian Carter DeHaven and his actress wife Flora, Gloria infiltrated Hollywood practically from birth - she was born in Los Angeles - and kicked off her career with tiny, uncredited film roles during her teens, often appearing alongside her father. It wasn't until 1944's Two Girls and A Sailor that Glo was recognized as a bona fide star, and she brought fellow relative newcomers June Allyson and Van Johnson, her Sailor co-stars, into orbit with her, where all three remained for nearly a decade.

  After adjusting the pace of her film career to suit her 1944 marriage to actor John Payne (they divorced in 1950) and the family they raised together, Gloria premiered on the stage as a successful nightclub singer and Broadway actress, filmed several musicals, and eventually segued into frequent cameo television appearances. Still an active participant in retrospectives and benefits related to her Tinseltown past, she most recently appeared in the 1997 film Out to Sea, where she supresses the brazen, boy-crazy blonde role she typified decades ago and instead plays a modified version of what seems to be her more authentic self - chic, elegant, dignified, and successful.

  I had the pleasure of seeing Gloria in Hollywood recently, and she is every bit the definition of 'star' for her generation even as she maintains the warm and appreciative appeal of her celluloid youth. (Well, she is a little less flirtatious now, but maybe that's because June Allyson doesn't have an onscreen boyfriend for her to steal). She's still gorgeous, though!

Happy Birthday, Glo!

Jul 20, 2008

Decades of Darling!

I will admit it. When I read of eternally-cute June Allyson's outspoken, matchmaking fans in her mildly heartstring-tugging 1984 autobiography, I knew immediately that I was one of them. After June's smash success alongside Van Johnson in their 1944 film, Two Girls and A Sailor, moviegoers the globe over began to plan the pair's nuptials, write scenarios of their wedded bliss, and submit potential names for future Allyson-Johnson offspring - all hypothetical, of course - to movie magazines of the day. While a reflective and amused Allyson divulged that she adored Johnson but enjoyed only a platonic relationship with him, their onscreen interaction was, and is, so sparkling and wholesome, so innocently romantic, so darned charming, you can't help but imagine a preacher and a white picket fence in their near future every time the credits roll on one of their five collaborative films.

Imagine my pure and unfettered delight, then, upon discovering the painfully adorable partners in a 1984 episode of the Angela Lansbury television classic, "Murder, She Wrote". Forty years after their first screen pairing, Van and Junie were still as darling as they had been when they were sharing marquees with Jimmy Durante and Gloria deHaven, and I'm sure there were more than a few erstwhile audience members thrilled at their onscreen reunion upon the show's airing nearly 25 years ago (though Van and June were still pretty young themselves: she was a mere 67 to his 68). Despite a rather lackluster storyline in the 48-minute mystery and a disappointing amount of screentime alloted Miss Allyson (she appears but briefly as a pivotal supporting character), that old MGM chemistry was in full force between those two dolls - all that was missing was a little Technicolor, Butch Jenkins and a Freed Unit number, and it would've been 1944 all over again!

The episode of "Murder, She Wrote" featuring Van Johnson and June Allyson is entitled "Hit, Run and Homicide" and is available in the first season of the show's DVD release.

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Jul 17, 2008

Did You Know?

Inimitable screen siren Barbara Stanwyck was initiated as an honorary member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe's Brave Dog Society. She was adopted by the braves, who were impressed with her handiwork and willingness to perform her own dangerous stunts while shooting the 1954 film Cattle Queen of Montana, and she was given the honorary title of Princess Many Victories III.

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Mary Astor-read

Regardless of how long you have been visiting here, my voracious appetite for classic-movie-related literature is probably quite apparent. I purchase books quite frequently, and without discretion or forethought, simply if they bear the name of an erstwhile celebrity, and thus, I came to acquire a hardbound 1968 fiction novel penned by silent film star Mary Astor out of pure curiosity (and, perhaps, a latent desire to become more well-schooled in movie trivia than the revered Robert Osborne).

Astor, long celebrated as one of the few actresses to segue seamlessly from silent films to talkies in the late 1920's and early '30's, is notable in that her lengthy career encompassed roles of advancing ages as she herself aged, rather than being passed over in favor of younger starlets of her day. She was a rare actress who was sought to play the sexy ingenue in the 1920's, a thirty-something woman in the 1930's, and a parent with adult children in the 1940's (she's a memorable mama in both 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis and 1949's Little Women). Few had her versatility or longevity of appeal. Oh, and she wrote, too.

A Place Called Saturday is as much a meditation on the issue of fidelity, equality, and abortion as it is a reasonably engaging dramatic fiction. The last of her six novels (she also penned two autobiographies), Saturday begins at the scene of a violent sexual crime committed in a small American town, and follows the development of its aftereffects on the once-complacent marriage of its protagonist young couple. Astor is decidedly adept at conveying ambience with lush imagery, and she crafts complex characters through fine attention to idiosyncratic behaviors and selective descriptions of their intimate interactions; her writing is often the only element that keeps the story buoyant when a core character fails to provide the pre-denoument tension necessary to make this book truly satisfying. While it is poignant and by no means a poor read, Saturday is perhaps more considerable as an well-crafted opinion on such a touchy topic as abortion in light of its time of publication, than it is a literary achievement.

A Place Called Saturday is available in used condition through online retailers such as Amazon.com and Half.com.


Jul 7, 2008

To Be Seeing You, Pat and Mike

  No stressful, school-laden week is replete without a respite into the realm of classic movies, I've discovered: even 90 minutes in the silvery screen presences of uberstuds like Dennis Morgan or dashing comedic greats like Jack Benny is enough to renew my passion for the films of yore and to sate the vintage vixen in me. These three recently-viewed films, then, are enough to keep me happy long after summer's through - so take note, check your popcorn stock, and do indulge in:

To Be or Not To Be (1942) - The notion of seeing unrivaled radio and television star Jack Benny - who not only set entertainment standards with his delectable radio and television shows and rich, timeless humor, but who was himself an enduring element of 20th century entertainment - as the deadpan husband of glamorous Carole Lombard was, well, a bit unsettling. How could I accept him as anything but the notorious violin-playing cheapskate character he so believably perpetuated for nearly fifty years? I shouldn't have worried, though: Benny's appearances are brief but side-splitting as the somewhat cuckolded straight man cast in a Poland-set, Nazi-infused muddle of love, intrigue, spies, and the abiding hope that the right men will be fooled at the right times. Director Ernst Lubitsch deftly balances tension and wartime grimness with lighthearted farce and audience-flattering intelligent plot twists, all while showcasing the talents of his favored bit players and the best aspects of his stars' appeal. I definitely recommend this sweet, smart comedy.

I'll Be Seeing You (1945) - Oh, Ginger. Just when I thought 1940's stellar Kitty Foyle was the lone epitome of red-haired Rogers' touching dramatic acting skills, her turn as pensive prisoner Mary Marshall in I'll Be Seeing You convinced me that she is among the most dexterous screen stars of all time. Though the film's appeal lies in the evident and inherent redeemable qualities of its lead characters - the Rogers' heartsick Marshall and Cotten as her shy, self-doubting, shaky suitor - this is no mere wartime weepy; under its engaging, romantic plot are rich commentaries on acceptance and prejudice, love and loneliness, salvation and sanguinity. An added bonus (as though you needed one amidst the romance and heartache) is the haunting and melodic title track, a version of which is featured in the film performed by vocalist Helen Forrest (one of my perennial faves) and which has since become a timeless American Standard.

Pat and Mike (1952) - Every so often there is a film so transcendent of the era in which it was produced, so sturdy despite its soon-dated hairstyles and music styles and clothing styles, that it can be seen and appreciated in light of the day it is screened, be it days or decades later. Pat and Mike is one such film. This sparkling comedic gem, the fusion of four-part brilliance emanating from writers Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and their friends, stars Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, imparts a likable plot conducive not only to easy humor, but to evidencing the appeal of the latter two talents, screen icons both.
Hepburn, a real-life athlete skilled in numerous sports, takes to her role of gym-teacher-turned-female-sports-star with enviable vigor and agility, while it's clear from his introduction that venerable old Tracy delights in channeling his roguish side to bring rough, tender-hearted, slightly legitimate business manager Mike Conovan to life. It's entertainment enough just to see Spence revert from his typical meted, articulate screen presence to talking in bum-lingo, and Kate relish her foray as fast-talking, sports-dominating, skirt-loathing feminist Pat - aside from their tender turn in their final screen collaboration, 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, Pat and Mike may well be the pair's most true-to-life characterizations. And tee for tee, match for match - we're the ones who win big for having this sporting, delectable comedy to savor long after tournament's end.

For access to these and hundreds of other similarly-scrumptious classic movies, I recommend checking out your local cable lineup for channels like Turner Classic Movies, utilizing your library or video rental stores, or becoming a customer of home-delivered movie rental programs such as Netflix.

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