SUMMER SHORTS

Tomorrow is the first official day of smelly armpits season (unless, of course, you live in the southern hemisphere of earth — or in any hemisphere of Ur-anus, where, they say, it stinks the year round). To greet the season, I’m saluting summer with a look back at several good old summer films (and I mean films that actually have “summer” in the title).

It’s unthinkable that there’s no unstinkable way of sweating as I wrack my brain composing a fulsome introduction to each movie, so I’ll make do with a minimum of b.s. (background setting) preceding each clip….then sum(mer) it all up with bonus b.s. at post’s end.

First we have SUMMERTIME (1955), starring Katherine Hepburn as a spinster vacationing in Venice. After meeting and being attracted to shop owner Rossano Brazzi in his antiques store, they unexpectedly encounter each other again in this scene:

Next: IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME (1949) starring Judy Garland & Van Johnson as lonelyhearts pen pals in a musical remake of THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Jimmy Stewart. Here is the trailer:

Last we have SUMMER AND SMOKE (1961), a film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, neither of which I have seen, but which I include here because its title serves as a “Perfect!” lead-in to this anecdote told by the late actor Tony Randall (and which relates back to the first of our films):

David Lean, one of the world’s finest directors, is a meticulous and fastidious craftsman, compulsive and uncompromising about getting things exactly the way he wants them. There is a scene in Summertime in which the [female] owner of a Venetian pensione arranges a tryst with a young American guest at night on the terrace of the pensione. Lean put the couple in two high-backed wicker chairs that completely envelope them,  placed with their backs to the camera so that all the lens could see were her left hand holding his right hand and puffs of white smoke from their cigarettes curling above the backs of the chairs. The brief scene, which could have been shot with any two people sitting in the chairs and the voices of the couple dubbed in later, took an entire night and a carton of cigarettes to film. Lean made the two actors do it over and over. Just as dawn was about to break, Lean finally got a shot that satisfied him.
“Perfect! Perfect!” Lean exclaimed enthusiastically. “The puffs were perfect!”

It seems we’ve come to the end  — but where, you might ask, is the promised “bonus b.s.”? Will you settle for the bonus without the b.s.? Here is the trailer for the aforementioned THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, directed by that master of “the Lubitsch touch” of happy memory to Golden Age film buffs:

 

 

TRAINS OF THOUGHT

All my life I have been thrilled by the names of famous trains. The Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul, the Train Bleu rushing through the night to the Riviera, the Flying Scotsman and the Brighton Belle rolling north and south from London, the Twentieth Century Limited, the Santa Fe Chief and Super Chief crossing the vast continent of America — these were magical names to people of my generation, but on a dark November evening in 1963 the rather dingy train awaiting us in the Zurich station offered no interest until, at a second glance, I noticed that under the grime it bore a name in letters which had once been of polished brass — the Wiener Waltzer [Vienna Waltz]! My spirits rose. How charming, how romantic and how right, I thought, for I was on my way to Vienna to play the part of Johann Strauss in a picture.
–Brian Aherne, English-American actor (1902-86)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I, too, have long been fascinated by trains — probably since the age of 12, when I traveled with my family by train from Cincinnati to Mexico City. Perhaps my most vivid memory of that trip: the elegant dining car, lined on each side of the aisle with tables covered by immaculate white tablecloths topped by spotless linens and tableware, at which we would sit like ‘big wheels’ eating leisurely meals as the scenery rolled by. “Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer” — like the old song, now echoing back over time.

On the wall near where I sit as I write this post, hangs a large 1966 calendar published by the Union Pacific Railroad (“Road of the Domeliners”). Above each month is a color photo of a scene which is presumably within viewing or dreaming distance of a Domeliner: Sun Valley, Idaho; Morro Bay, California; Heceta Head Lighthouse, Oregon; Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona; a covered bridge somewhere in northern California; and so on. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in 51 years.

But the handwriting was already on the wall for iconic streamliners in America by 1966. Numbered were the days of such storied trains as the CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO and railroads like THE ATCHISON, TOPEKA AND THE SANTA FE. Sad to say, the new kid on the track, AMTRAC, would lack their imagery….not to mention, their soundtrack songs from films such as SUN VALLEY SERENADE (1941) and THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946):

Those were the days, my friend. Clickety-clack, echoing back. It’s enough to give one the….

NOTE: I will be taking a one-post break. Until my next post on June 20, keep your dreams intact and your hopes on track.

 

 

What’s In YOUR Toilet?

In his incisive biography of Spencer Tracy, author Bill Davidson tells of a problem which arose during planning stages of a Tracy film based on a short story titled BAD DAY AT HONDO. He quotes Millard Kaufman, who was writing the screenplay, as follows:

Our picture still was called Bad Day at Hondo, when, to everyone’s surprise, there came the release of a John Wayne movie called HONDO. So our title went out the window.

Davidson continues, “Such coincidental flaps can cause weeks of delays at a studio, while everyone tries to think of a new title. In this case, Kaufman was out in Arizona looking for locations for another picture, when [he] stopped for gas at one of the bleakest places [that] was not even a ‘wide place in the road’, just a gas station and a post office. Kaufman looked at the sign on the post office. The name was Black Rock, Arizona. Kaufman rushed to the phone and called the studio. ‘I’ve got the title for the Tracy picture,’ he said. “We’ll call it “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

You may be wondering what the foregoing has to do with the title of this post….and the answer is diddly-squat (or just squat, for short). So what’s the deal? Simply to serve as a pun-gent example of a title’s potential to entice you in to a creative work, whether it be film, story, poem or poop. Did the serendipitous (and delay-saving) spotting of the Black Rock post office sign lead to a perfect fit for the title of the movie? Perhaps this scene will tell you all you need to know to answer that question (Tracy plays a one-armed WW II officer, just returned from the service, who goes to a middle-of-nowhere desert town to present a posthumous medal to the father of one of his soldiers):

But suppose, after chewing it over endlessly, you still can’t come up with a killer title for your opus delicti? Friends, just swallow the bitter pill that there are times indiscretion is the better part of valor, and settle for a title such as this post’s. And what if even doo-doo doesn’t do the trick? There’s still the when-all-else-fails last resort I used when I titled this poem….

UNTITLED

This poem’s title is Untitled —
Not because it is untitled,
But because I am entitled
To entitle it Untitled.

If I’d not titled it Untitled,
It would truly be untitled….
Which would make me unentitled
To entitle it Untitled.

So it is vital, if untitled,
Not to title it Untitled,
And to leave that title idled,
As a title is entitled.

NOTE: This is the Random poem leftover from my previous post

 

RHYMES AT RANDOM

In a comment to my last post (CERF’S UP), I raised the possibility of re-publishing several of my poetic baubles from THE RANDOM HOUSE TREASURY OF LIGHT VERSE. Generous soul that I am, suppose I add a bonus of bangles and beads to the baubles….for man does not live by words alone, but with the inspiration of Blyth spirit beautifully begetting beguiling music, without which our Kismet (fate) would be drab indeed:

Yes, my friends, I have rhymes — or, conversely, should I say….

And now, having strung my lead-in out this far / I wish upon a wishing star / to make appear my Random rhymes / from the pages of bygone times. / These rhymes abode in poems four / nothing less and nothing more / but not having used up all my string / I’ll save one of the poems for my next post-ing:

LOVER BOY

Narcissus was too perfect for sex or pelf —
He longed only to gaze in love at himself….
The moral of which is that, even in myths,
Too much reflection may be your nemesis.

THE BOOK OF WISDOM

Thou shalt not commit adultery;
Nor shalt thou covet thy neighbor’s spouse.
Shouldst thou succumbeth to temptation,
Thou shalt not do it in thy neighbor’s house.

CONCEIVABLY, THE COMPLEAT HISTORY OF HUMAN SEX

Adam and Eve,
I believe,
Were the start of it.

Everyone since,
I’m convinced,
Played a part in it.

NOTE: Ann Blyth, who played Marsinah (daughter of The Poet, played by Howard Keel) in the film version of Kismet, is one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

 

 

HIGH FIVE FOR FIVE STARS

Each of the five days since my last post was the birthday of at least one iconic figure in music or film who left lasting memories for those who appreciate legacies in artistry. I could easily go overboard writing in depth about any of these mid-May arrivals, but maybe it’s best to lessen my losses by not overly testing readers’ patience (O me of little faith!):

May 11 — IRVING BERLIN (1888-1989). Perhaps the most prolific composer in American history, with an estimated 1,500 songs to his credit, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films (three of which were Astaire-Rogers musicals). Writing both words and music (relatively rare for his era), his hits include seasonal evergreens White Christmas and Easter Parade, as well as the red, white and blue God Bless America. His lyrics may lack the wit and sophistication of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, but there’s no denying the emotional appeal of such songs as….

May 12 — KATHERINE HEPBURN (1907-2003). In the Golden Era of Hollywood, was there ever a more successful, fiercely independent woman than Katherine Hepburn?  Successful? It’s hard to argue against receiving a record four Academy Awards for Best Actress, and being named the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema by the American Film Institute. Independent? Her own words say it all:

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” (Hard as it may be to imagine the Bryn Mawr-educated Hepburn uttering “ain’t,” I ain’t about to correct her quote.)

“We are taught you must …. never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change, you’re the one who has got to change.”

“As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.”

“Life gets harder the smarter you get, the more you know.”

“Politicians remain professional because the voters remain amateur.”

NOTE: For my ode to another May 12 bundle of joy, see my post of May 12, 2015.

May 13 — ARTHUR SULLIVAN (1842-1900). Can’t place the name? How about Arthur Sullivan of GILBERT AND SULLIVAN fame? Who doesn’t enjoy their great comic operas such as THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, THE MIKADO and H.M.S. PINAFORE — the latter of which I have loved since When I was a Lad:

May 14 — SIDNEY BECHET (1897-1959). This is a name you almost certainly can’t place unless you’re a classic jazz fan….but if you are such a fan, you know him as a major figure in jazz annals since his recording debut in 1923. New Orleans born, he spent the last decade of his life in France, where he died on the same day — May 14 — that he was born. Here he is on soprano sax in a 1950s recording from the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s magical MIDNIGHT IN PARIS:

May 15 — JOSEPH COTTON (1905-1994). I have previously mentioned Joseph Cotton in regard to his co-starring role (with Orson Welles and Alida Valli) in one of my favorite films, THE THIRD MAN. He first met Welles in 1934, beginning a life-long friendship and on-and-off association with Welles in numerous plays, radio dramas and films, as well as co-starring with Katherine Hepburn in the 1939 Broadway play THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. But it is in his role as Holly Martens in THE THIRD MAN that he stands alone (literally so, in the end), and I can think of no more fitting way to end this post than with that indelible closing scene from the film (to the tune of Anton Karas’ Third Man Theme):

A “TOUCH OF EVIL” GENIUS

The word “genius” was whispered into my ear, the first thing I ever heard, while I was still mewing in my crib. So it never occurred to me that I wasn’t until middle age. –Orson Welles

“Come on, read my future for me.”
“You haven’t got any.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your future is all used up.”
–Orson Welles (drunken sheriff) & Marlene Dietrich (fortune teller), in TOUCH OF EVIL

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Tomorrow marks the birthday of Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 — the same day Babe Ruth hit his first major league home run). Welles, as you may well know, was “the ultimate auteur” director, co-writer, and star (at age 25) of CITIZEN KANE, considered by many film critics to be one of the greatest movies ever made — and it isn’t even my favorite Welles’ picture (but I will tell of two that are favorites).

The life story of such a complex, larger-than-life legend is beyond the scope of this post, and could itself make as great a movie (CITIZEN WELLES?) as it made a great biography, aptly titled simply ORSON WELLES (another of my library book sale bargain buys) by Barbara Leaming….which leads me to this Welles quote from her book:

“I see The Third Man every two or three years — it’s the only movie of mine I ever watch on television because I like it so much.”

Great minds must indeed think alike, because he and I are of one mind regarding THE THIRD MAN — it is the one Welles’ movie I have watched many times over the years.

Turning from that “non-auteur” film in which Welles acted but didn’t direct, to films Welles both directed and starred in, my favorite is TOUCH OF EVIL (1958). During the 1940s, the mercurial Welles increasingly didn’t see eye-to-eye with movie moguls and had become persona non grata in Hollywood. Leaving for Europe, he starred in the 1948 Italian film BLACK MAGIC (he, by the way, was a wizard of an amateur magician and member of The International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians), followed by THE THIRD MAN (1949) and several other British and Italian films and radio series into the 1950s. TOUCH OF EVIL was his third film following his return to Hollywood in 1956.

More Welles quotes:

Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive such a world is, in fact, an affirmation of the human spirit.

Race hate isn’t human nature; race hate is the abandonment of human nature.

I don’t pray because I don’t want to bore God.

I started at the top and worked down.

Again great minds think alike — I started this post at the top and worked down….and now nothing remains but to go into my disappearing act.

 

 

GANGSTER WRAP

I trust that you remember my March 30 post titled HOLLYWOOD, DEAD LEFT ON VINE. If not, maybe you could use a nudge from Police Lt. Frank Drebin to refresh your memory:

Maybe now you remember: my March 30 opus delicti distinguished between film noir (theme of that post) and gangster movies (this post’s theme), while allowing for crossover in films like WHITE HEAT (classified as film noir in one book, and gangster film in another). To anyone not ‘into’ such films, these thorny details may strike one as nothing more than a distinction without a difference….but I’ll assume you aren’t “anyone,” because I’ve got a job to pull — I mean, a post to write — and the subject ain’t roses.

That’s odd. I could have sworn the subject was not roses.

Wait a shrouded minute! Now I remember — the subject was supposed to be gangster movies. My bad. Sorry for the hold up.

In the introduction to his book CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS, by (appropriately enough) Robert Bookbinder, he writes: “The gangster film has always been one of the staples of the American cinema. Though there were several motion pictures with a gangster theme produced as far back as the silent era, the genre did not really begin to flourish until the thirties, when it reigned throughout the decade as one of the public’s favorite kinds of “escapist” entertainment. Depression-era audiences responded strongly to all the action, violence and romance, and were more than willing to get caught up in the on-screen exploits of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In a sense, the movie gangster, with his rebellious breaking of society’s rules and regulations, and his aggressive drive to “get somewhere” regardless of consequences, became something of a hero to filmgoers of the period.”

It is worth noting that, although the gangster film by no means passed completely out of the picture, its most productive period (1930 to 1941-42) led to the era of classic film noir (1941-59)….which began with THE (never-surpassed) MALTESE FALCON. The above three stars were equally without rival in both genres.

Bookbinder’s book binds together the above transition, providing a fascinating look back at 45 gangster films (several overlapping into film noir), complete with credits, cast, commentary, photos and synopsis for each film, ranging from LITTLE CAESAR in 1930 to BONNIE AND CLYDE in 1967 and THE BROTHERHOOD in 1969. Of the latter, Bookbinder states: “It was not especially successful, and it has been almost completely overshadowed in film history by the more expensive and elaborate Godfather films of the early seventies. The picture deserves a better fate….what a truly entertaining gem it is.”

Now, I will admit that, in general, I am not as big a fan of gangster films as I am of film noir. I have an affinity for the more tangled and convoluted plots (in most cases) of the latter, compared to the more macho and less sophisticated gangster films….but then, “sophisticated” is not a term one normally associates with gangsters — so, by Sam, let’s call a spade a Spade. It’s not a bum rap.

But there is one bailiwick in which gangster films win hands down — I mean, hands up! (ha ha) — and that is in gangster film spoofs such as the all-time classic, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), which lost out to (would you believe?) BEN-HUR in practically every Academy Award category for that year. Oh, well — nobody’s perfect. 😦

And that’s a wrap.