Friday, August 26, 2011

Happy "Anniversary"

This has to be one of the least prolific months at The Underworld and for that I am sorry. With a play reading at the start of August, a pleasure trip last week, a work-related convention over the last couple of days and then the stacks of work that have accrued while I've been away, I just haven't been able to post as much as I would like to. And I'm off to another convention, this one theatre-related, over Labor Day weekend! So life is hectic down here at present. Then there's the sad story of how I prepared 5/6ths of a profile spotlighting yet another favorite hunk only to have the entire thing disappear with the click of a (wrong) button! Nevertheless, I've still got plenty to say, show and share. I'll be back in the swim of things soon and will have more frequent postings.

Wednesday of this week was something of an occasion here as August 24th is the two-year anniversary of the inception of this website! It's been a source of great fun for me and, I hope, for my readers as well. My goal in creating Poseidon's Underworld was to a) give myself an outlet for all the tidbits, opinions, information, pictures and so on that I have accumulated since I was bitten by the nostalgia bug, b) shine a light on some of the lesser known people and product that I have enjoyed during my journey through vintage movies and TV and c) build the type of blog that I would want to visit myself. This last one is interesting because, in all honesty, I never thought anyone out there would give the things I happen to care about a second glance (I've often remarked here about how my “real” friends couldn't care less about the many topics and personalities I've covered!), yet I have swiftly learned that I was wrong. There are folks out there who enjoy it as well and for that I am grateful.

I make no money off of Poseidon's Underworld and have no plans to ever “monetize” it, though I am frequently approached about or alerted to the feasibility and profitability of it. It's just not about that for me and I prefer not to have the pages littered with ads if I can help it. I am consistently amazed at not only the keywords that draw people to this site, but also the jaw-dropping variety of countries who are represented in the statistics. My sense of geography has improved greatly since I've taken a look at where some people are located who delve into The Underworld! I have yet to conquer Antarctica or the better part of Africa, but most other places have been represented, hence the new tongue-in-cheek blurb at the top of the page. I also, as you surely noticed, have made a little switch to the logo to give the place a quick coat of paint.

Onward to today's subject. I thought that since this is being written on and shortly after the two-year anniversary of this site, I should profile something with an appropriate title. Thus, today I will look at 1968's The Anniverary, a Hammer Studios black comedy film starring Bette Davis and quintet of snacks for her to gnaw on (this referring, of course, to her fellow cast members who were acting against her in one of her most formidable and fire-breathing parts!) Even the press book for the film had her huge, looming visage, with mouth agape, behind all the other cast members standing there like toothpicked appetizers.

The Anniversary first saw the light of day as a 1966 play, staged in London and starring Mona Washbourne and (as her character's youngest son, Michael Crawford.) It concerned a domineering matriarch whose three sons are endlessly tied to her, even though one is married with children and another has been engaged several times. The family ritualistically celebrates the parents' anniversary each year, though the father has died a decade prior. The sons (two, in particular) make haphazard plans to escape their mother's stranglehold, but cannot ever seem to win in the end. Meanwhile, the mother makes no attempt at civility, especially when it comes to the wife of one son or the fiance of another!

Strangely enough, one of the early names bandied about for the hard, demanding mama of the film version was Miss Greer Garson, an actress known throughout her career for playing demure, thoughtful characters. She passed on the project and the writer-producer Jimmy Sangster (who had written 1965's The Nanny, starring Bette Davis) went to Miss Davis with an offer. She initially turned the part down, but reconsidered once Sangster made some script revisions that tailored the role more to her persona.

The title credits roll as the vintage Al Jolson/Saul Chaplin composition “The Anniversary Song” is prominently sung by a male vocalist with The New Vaudeville Band (Alan Klein, I do believe, though no one is credited.)

As the film opens, we meet Elaine Taylor, an attractive blonde girl who has come to the workplace of her fiance Christian Roberts. Roberts, the youngest son of Davis, works in the construction business with his brothers, none of them being particularly skilled, dedicated or filled with integrity when it comes to their work. Amazed that Roberts has brought yet another girlfriend home for the title celebration, his brothers Jack Hedley and James Cossins abandon their projects and head home for the big night.

Hedley is married to Sheila Hancock, a strong-willed redhead with whom he has five children and another one on the way. He's lived under the thumb of his mother for all of his life and harbors the secret desire to flee to Canada and start life anew there with his wife and their brood.

Cossins is single, most likely due to the fact that he is a major league fan of women's lingerie, stealing panties, bras, slips and so on from peoples' clotheslines while thoughtfully leaving money pinned to the line in their place. (We are spared the sight of the husky cross-dresser actually donning any of this stuff.) An early scene has him stopping off at a florists, where he spies the lacy lingerie of the clerk (who has some fun, flippy hair.)
Roberts, of all the sons, makes the least attempt to cover up his feelings toward his dragon lady of a mama. He gives her plenty of back talk and flippancy, though there often seems to be a humorous tinge to it. On this anniversary, though, he is determined to make a go of his relationship with Taylor and finally break out of the stranglehold Davis has on him.

The five attendees of the anniversary party mingle together until it's time for Miss Davis to make her grand entrance. For this, a record is played while she sashays out of her room and makes her way flouncily down the considerable set of stairs. We see that she is missing her left eye and that it's covered with a patch in the same color as her vibrant, sleeveless dress.

She's barely down the steps and into the living room before the barbs begin. There's little or no pretense of civility to speak of as she flits across the room and starts tearing open her presents (taking time out to scoff at the sizeable flower arrangement she's been given.) The presents are either taken with a modicum of appreciation or else pointed out for their faults, though she does get a kick out of Roberts'. It's a statuette of a small boy who pees water out of his winky. The demonstration of the novelty gift causes Davis to let out one of her trademark loud, cackly, bellowing laughs.

During the course of the action in the living room, some positively gargantuan anniversary cards can be spotted on a mantle, situated within some curved alcoves. This is quite clearly a very special occasion for Davis and it seems that everyone had better be ready to pay tribute! One of Bette's most quoted lines comes when she turns to Taylor and asks if she will sit elsewhere because “Body odor offends me!”

Next, she heads into the (massive) kitchen where she makes an attempt to interact with her bratty grandchildren, tossing them coins as treats, even the baby! One of them sticks his tongue out at Taylor when she attempts to greet him and, though I can't place him, I know I've seen this kid before. (He isn't credited....) Anyone??

What's most interesting here is that the children are drinking bottle of PEPSI-COLA!! I should think that after her early-'60s tussles with Miss Joan Crawford, longtime board member of the Pepsi-Cola Company, Bette would have thrown every last drop of the stuff out into the street and replaced it with Coca-Cola (or practically ANY other soda!) The labels are never very clearly shown (as Joan would have insisted they be), but it is definitely Pepsi.

After a very short period of time the children are sent packing, with Cossins in charge of driving them home, leaving Davis free rein to taunt and antagonize the remaining foursome. As the evening unfolds, we learn little bits about how Hedley has both allowed himself to be controlled by his mother while simultaneously exploiting her for extra money, all with the blessing of his exasperated wife Hancock. Cossins is revealed to have gone upstairs and tried on some of Taylor's unmentionables, much to her horror. We also see the kinky side of Roberts, who wants to bed down with Taylor in his mother's own bed, purely to disgust and upset her!

Davis schemes to get Hancock out of the way for the night, though that only works temporarily. The unhappy gathering of “celebrants” dine at a local restaurant and are presented with a massive, pink, candle-lit cake. Unfortunately, one of their disappointed homeowners shows up to complain about the lack of workmanship in his newly purchased house (there's no kitchen floor installed!) Here, Davis shows a rare display of consideration -- until the man walks away! Then Cossins is dispatched to take care of his floor.

Back at the mansion, Davis and Co. are preparing to shoot off a fireworks display to honor the marriage of her and her deceased husband (who, in a painting, seems to resemble Grover Cleveland or William Howard Taft.) Before this can take place, though, Davis feels the need to rat out Taylor's Achilles Heel and finally does so in an eye-poppingly hysterical scene.
Not content to humiliate Taylor in front of everyone, she has peered into the future with her one good eye and determined that Roberts might be planning something untoward in her bedroom. When Taylor strips to her skimpy underthings and pulls back the sheets, she gets quite a surprise (though we don't actually see it and her reaction to it does seem just a tad over the top all things considered.)
The parade of spite, hatefulness, revenge and deception continues on into the night. There are little surprises here and there along with the exposure of an untruth or two. Davis is running on all four cylinders, her one unobstructed eye darting feverishly all over the place as she spits out her lines from between two rows of chartreuse teeth (which are set off by some vivid red lipstick.) The sons can conspire all they want, but there's never any doubt as to who is in charge within the movie (and apparently behind the scenes, too!) The venom grinds to a halt in time for Davis, cackling mightily, to try out her gift from Roberts again, effectively telling everyone that they can “piss off” for all she cares.
Mothers-in-law from hell on film were certainly nothing new. Both Helen Hayes and Irene Dunne had grappled with their in 1933 in Another Language and The Silver Cord, respectively, and there were surely others before that. By 1968, though, there was no Production Code to ensure that monstrous behavior on screen was punished in the end, so Davis could do whatever she wanted to and possibly get away with it. Davis herself was rather inimitable to begin with, though she wasn't above borrowing an aspect or two from others if it suited the role. Here, she has an overstuffed greenhouse that harkens back to that of Katharine Hepburn's controlling mama in Suddenly, Last Summer.

Within the six years prior to The Anniversary, Davis had done five films that presented her in a light that ranged from intimidating (Where Love Has Gone and The Nanny) to dangerous (Dead Ringer) to batshit crazy (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.) Thus, she was firmly entrenched in the battle axe phase of her career and was able to portray a gorgon like this with ease.

The striking eyepatch, similar to one her old pal Olivia de Havilland once wore in That Lady (and which allegedly led to some balance and skin irritant issues) aside, it would be tough to concoct a more severe, immobile hairstyle for Bette. With those sawed-off bangs and the shellacked wings on the sides of her face, she is quite a sight, though she was never afraid to dive off into the deep end when coming up with a look for her character.

She was also still enough of a star, too, to be able to put her foot down about things. For one, the director, Alvin Rakoff, was deemed unsuitable due to his heavy television background and perceived lack of artistry, so he was canned within one week of the start of filming. Veteran director Roy Ward Baker, who had been keeping busy with a lot of television himself in recent years, was brought in to take over. He scrapped all the Rakoff footage and even redid some of the costuming and décor in order to make the film his own. (Note how this lobby card photo - taken during Rakoff's time on the film - depicts Hancock in a suit, rather than the floral print dress she wound up wearing in the finished film and with less elaborate hair.)

Hancock, a stage actress who had played her role previously opposite Mona Washbourne in London, couldn't believe the star treatment she was witnessing during her time on the set. Then again, let's face it, the primary draw for tickets to this movie, then and now, was the visage of Bette Davis looming on the posters with her eyepatch and unforgettable facial features. Davis apparently wasn't all that fond of Hancock either and tried unsuccessfully to have her replaced with Jill Bennett, an actress she'd worked with in The Nanny three years earlier.

Hancock, like most of the supporting cast, is not known much at all in the U.S., but she has had a distinguished theatre career in the U. K. A stage actress from the late '50s on, she eventually portrayed Miss Hannigan in Annie and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd when those productions were mounted in London. Later, she won a Laurence Olivier Award for her work as Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret. A breast cancer survivor, she ironically lost both of her husbands to esophageal cancer, one in 1971 and one in 2002. Still working, she played the grandma in the film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a take on concentration camps as seen through the eyes of a young boy living near one.

Hedley, who played Hancock's husband, was another original member of the stage cast and had done quite a bit of TV and film work prior to this, though often in small roles (at least in the films.) The year after The Anniversary, he had a small part in the flop musical adaptation of Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Peter O'Toole. In 1976, he again played the father of a brood of children, married to a strong-willed wife, and angling for his parent's inheritance when he played Gooper to Laurence Olivier's Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This is the one that starred Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood as Brick and Maggie! Now eighty-one, he hasn't done any movie or TV work since about the year 2000.
Cossins was still another actor from the stage production. He gives a welcome understated performance that doesn't attempt to sensationalize the fact that he's a closet transvestite. (In a refreshing twist, Davis' character is remarkably non-judgmental about the fact as well, even remarking on his good taste in garments! It's sort of a precursor to the way Sophia regarded her unseen son Phil on The Golden Girls.) He'd been a busy character actor before this and would continue to do so, sometimes appearing in hit films like The Man with the Golden Gun and Ghandi, but mostly flying under the radar on television. He died in 1997.
Roberts (who took over Michael Crawford's part) was a relative newcomer compared to most of the rest of the cast. He'd just had a hit the previous year with To Sir, with Love, in which he was one of several rowdy students under the tutelage of new teacher Sidney Poitier. His subsequent films tended to land on the hooty side. The Desperados was a vulgar western with Vince Edwards and an impossibly hammy Jack Palance. Then he was one of The Adventurers (a bloated, loony mess that is profiled elsewhere on this site.) The Last Valley, an adventure film with Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, was not a success. He soon was out of feature films and by 1979 his screen career had petered out entirely, though he did occasionally return to the stage. Still with us, he runs a restaurant/hotel in Barbados.
Taylor, a newcomer as well, had played a small role in the garish 1967 version of Casino Royale and had a featured part in Half a Sixpence before The Anniversary. The year after this, she worked in Lock Up Your Daughters! with Christopher Plummer and the two fell for each other. They were soon married and she only appeared on TV and in movies sporadically after that, concentrating more on her marriage and their mutual love of renovating and designing homes together. In a happy bit of news, they are still going strong after more than 40 years of marriage and I think she looks terrific!

The Anniversary is not really a pleasant film. The spitefulness and overall sense of doom can become oppressive if one doesn't appreciate the black comedy form. It also suffers from staginess, despite a couple of attempts to open up the action and the presence of a truly cavernous and elaborate set. It's chief appeal is to see Bette in dragon lady form, tossing off insults and manipulating those around her. It might not be an accident that she has Joan Crawford-like lips and eyebrows and sometimes puts on a falsely polite act. These were things she allegedly disliked about her old nemesis. (She'd already lampooned these Crawford qualities earlier in The Star.) She outlived Crawford by about a dozen years, passing on in 1989 (and working longer than she should have at that. The Whales of August in 1987 should have been her last movie and would have been if she hadn't entered into the dreadful The Wicked Stepmother.)

Anyway, it's surprising that Bette Davis isn't better represented here in The Underworld because I love her work and find her fascinating. Thus, I'm proud to share my own anniversary with hers!

9 comments:

Andy said...

Congratulations on your anniversary. I found your blog a couple of months ago and saved it to my favorites. I check it out every day for updates. Love it.

Rob said...

Congrats Poseidon! I can't remember exactly how I found The Underworld, but I'm happy I did!And I love The Anniversary-it doesn't seem too grim to me, just because Davis is SO hilarious in it; to paraphrase a critic RE Crawford in Strait-Jacket: Davis in The Anniversary owns everything within a 50 mile radius of the film. It's fun and, frankly, she looks terrfic in it, croaking "Rock of Ages, CLEFT for me...!"
And you're right, Taylor's looking pretty good in that picture w/her husband. And Christian Roberts needs to call me!
So what exactly was up with writers and their "moms" in the theater and film of that time??? Between Tenn Williams and Albee,Robert Bloch and many more, it seems like everyone had a devouring mama totally responsible for ruining everyone's lives. I can't bitch about it too much because at least these roles gave JC, Bette and Talloo (not to mention quite a few other actresses) some much-needed work (as well as a chance to startle viewers with their emotional dexterity in supposedly "minor" films), but DANG, does it seem like Motherhood must be an unrewarding job!
I've been thinking about doing a post on one of my absolute favorite films of the "awful mother" genre: "Oh Dad, Poor Dad..." w/Rosalind Russell--but darn it, I can't find too many images online to flesh the post out. It's INSANE (even more so than The Anniversary, believe it or not),a total experience and, if you've seen it, I'd love to hear your take on it.
Thanks again for all your thoughts on so many diverse subjects here!

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks so much, Rob, for your comments (and you, too, Andy!)

You might have been drawn here either by an early JC post I did called "I Saw What Joan Did" or even more likely my thesis on the mess Christina made of her mother's reputation in "Hatchet Job." But, anyway, I'm always happy to see that you're still around!

I have never seen Oh Dad, Poor Dad! I just have never come across it. I'd LOVE to read about the moms you speak of, though. Don't forget Ann Sothern in Killer's Kiss or Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama! But I don't think the genre is dead even now. There was Hush with Jessica Lange several years ago and Monster in Law with Jane Fonda more recently. The maternal connection, especially mother-son, just seems to be a very fertile ground for melodrama.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Happy Anniversary indeed! The Anniversary is one of my favourite trash classics - AND I saw the original stage production in London, with dear old Mona and most of the cast of the film. I was about 20 and have the programme signed by all the cast, including the young Michael Crawford, as I was with someone who took me backstage (yes, I was a pretty young thing then).

Sheila Hancock is indeed a revered actress here now - she actually played the mother part in a theatre revival of the play about 5 years ago. A friend of mine, Jeff, now no longer with us, loved this film and had a big poster on his wall ....

A said...

Happy Anniversary and thank you for this wonderful blog.

Poseidon3 said...

Thank you, guys!

MOS, it's always interesting to get your perspective from "across the pond." And I swear it seems like you've seen everything and been to everything that was ever created! How neat that Sheila Hancock got to play the mom... That's great.

Take care!

WonderPrincess said...

Poseidon, I ran across your blog a couple of months back and fell in feet first. As a child of the seventies and a lover of comics and glamour, I am truly hooked on the Underworld. :). I am slowly working my way through the archives and enjoying every post. Thank you for wonderful new addiction. May the Gods continue to smile upon you. Love and laughter.
Princess Selina Desire

Poseidon3 said...

Welcome, WonderPrincess, and thank you so much for taking the time to comment! Not sure if you're working your way through chronologically or not, but it's nearly sixi years now of this junk! LOL I appreciate your reading it all and for letting me know! ;-)

WonderPrincess said...

Hola, Poseidon. I was initially caught by our mutual appreciation of men's fashion in the swinging seventies and fabulously beautiful disasters. Then I saw we both grew up reading comics and I had to keep exploring. I eventually found a link to your first post and then my reading enjoyment took off. I am working my way through chronologically with the occasional diversion. Thank you so much for such a fun trip down memory lane with so many fun sidestreets. :) May the Gods bless you with Love and Laughter.
Princess Selina Desire