Friday, June 21, 2024

Poseidon Quickies: "Crane" Your Neck This Way a Minute.

Somewhere along the line I'd at least heard of this movie, Hilda Crane (1956), because the name was familiar, but I can't recall the last time I ever saw it air on television of any kind.  Based upon a Broadway play that ran for two months in late-1950, it concerns a young lady who's returning to her hometown after being away in New York City. During this period, she's managed to marry and divorce... twice! This raises an eyebrow or two amidst some of the residents of her small Illinois hamlet. A real nice widescreen print of the film has emerged on YT and for fans of the stars or this genre will likely enjoy watching it.

Posters for the film wanted to point up Crane's "many" loves, but there are only two...! Random faces are slipped in of elusive other gents (unless the dude on the train, who appears for about 2 or 3 seconds, is meant to be one!)

Jean Simmons was generally a reliable cinematic leading lady, and a pretty one, while Guy Madison, drew me in as this is not his usual milieu. (More often, Madison could be found in westerns by this stage.)

Overly-lit promotional stills such as this one are a far cry from the richly-textured and atmospherically-lit sets of the film, as you'll soon see.

Simmons, as the title character, returns home on the train from The Big Apple, sporting a mink coat. Her mother (Judith Evelyn) wastes no time in discovering that the coat's lining is beginning to wear out, signifying that its been around a lot, just like its owner!

Back home, we learn of Simmons fixation on her now-deceased father. His chair (and pipe) still maintain a position of prominence in the family abode. By the way, people simply read older back in the day. Simmons wasn't yet 27 when she made this movie!

Though she's styled to emphasize an older look, Evelyn was 47 (!) when she played Simmons' mother. She and her daughter were never too close. Though she wanted happiness for Simmons, she was too focused on how things appeared than in exploring much in the way of feelings of satisfaction in a relationship.

Simmons meets up with construction contractor Madison, who was in love with her prior to her flight to New York and is clearly still smitten with her now.

The casting of Madison presents a bit of a problem. Simmons isn't sure she loves him and waffles significantly over his proposal of marriage. Um... No one in her right mind could resist the fit and handsome Madison, who also happens to be quite wealthy thanks to his gumption in the construction biz! (In the play, a wildly dissimilar actor named John Alexander essayed the part. He played the Teddy-Roosevelt-obsessed cousin in Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944, so reticence is far more understandable!)

There's another contender for Simmons' affection, a former college professor of hers who still gives guest lectures at the school. He's played by Jean-Pierre Aumont.

I wouldn't say that Aumont is repellent, but for me there's no contest when it comes to the men. I don't get the allure surrounding Aumont, but perhaps as a Frenchman there is something he provides that we as the viewer aren't privy to (in 1956 anyway! Ha ha!)

So she's torn between the arty, seductive Aumont, who principally wants her just as a sexual partner if the truth be told...

...and the secure, reliable Madison, who adores her, but possesses a level of scintillation about on par with Professor Roy Hinkley of Gilligan's Island, who he vaguely resembles here. Nevertheless, for me the choice is clear.

But as Popeye the Sailor used to often say, "There's a fly in the oinkment!" Madison has a burly, brash, highly-controlling mother in the form of Evelyn Varden, who, needless to say, does not approve of her son's choice in a bride.

I love, worship and adore old-fashioned, disagreeable, controlling old biddies like this (think Mary Astor's Roberta Carter in Return to Peyton Place, 1961) and as far as I'm concerned Varden IS the movie...! Though she likely wouldn't have taken a part this small in 1956 as she was still starring in movies, I could very well see Bette Davis playing this part. And Varden does augment her voice to sound much like Davis as a matter of fact.

Varden only shares only very brief scene with her son Madison, seen here in their mansion.

Nevertheless, she looms large thanks not only to her hilariously memorable portrayal, but also due to the huge portrait of herself that hangs over the family living room.

At the wedding rehearsal... how does the ditty go? "One of these things is not like the other..." Varden has her back turned during all the thank yous and congratulations.

Then she gets up and trundles through the participants like a fleshy bowling ball with the wedding party as pins, never uttering a word or even looking at anyone!

Basically everything and everyone in this "women's picture" is beautiful, including the bride and groom's friends, ever-elegant Peggy Knudsen and Gregg Palmer, looking like a sibling to Rock Hudson before weight gain led him into character roles.

Seizing an opportunity to get the bride-to-be alone, Varden closes in for the kill.

First, she takes a gander at the rock her son has given Simmons as an engagement ring.

Then she facetiously compliments Simmons' suit before announcing that she got it from some other man.

Varden's sense of "style" is almost a living example of the "before you leave the house, remove one item" school of thought.

More than once she reminded me of Popeye's Alice the Goon character!

Anyway, she's got a whole laundry list of things that Simmons has done in her brief life that would bring nothing but shame to her son. Simmons, a bit of a pre-Feminist in that she sees little-to-nothing wrong with her past behavior, stands firm and still intends to wed Madison.

The day of the wedding, she comes barrelling into Simmons' home again. I couldn't love her weary, common, blunt manner any more if I tried!

This time, she's armed with $50,000 in government bonds! She's ready to do practically anything to rid herself of the scarlet woman her son is so attracted to.

Also, having been known to feign illness when it might aid her in her pursuits, she collapses into Simmons' father's chair and begins to moan in agony.

Simmons is unmoved and by this time has really had it with the future gorgon-in-law. The wedding will take place no matter what!

By the way, Evelyn and Simmons aren't exactly destitute. They have their own housekeeper! The performer, Marie Blake, may seem familiar to you? Eight years later, billed as Blossom Rock, she portrayed Grandmama Addams on The Addams Family

Anyway, one way or another, Varden is not going to let Simmons have her way. This leads to a variety of hurdles for the newly-married couple.

I mentioned earlier the bright, unappealing lobby cards for this movie. I think you can see that they don't represent the splendidly moody cinematography found in the actual film.

Though the movie never comes near his level, this is Douglas Sirk-ian territory and there were occasional bits of artfulness in its presentation. The director, Phillip Dunne, was most successful as a writer (How Green Was My Valley, 1941, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, 1947, and The Agony and the Ecstacy, 1965, to name a few.)

The movie's "heroine" makes a few foolish decisions and isn't always understandable (and Simmons over-accentuates some of her dialogue at times), but fans of the actress would surely enjoy seeing her here, looking lovely and being featured heavily.

But my greatest thrill, clearly, was seeing the often bubbly and amusing Varden (you might recall her from The Night of the Hunter, 1955, or The Bad Seed, 1956?) barging around as this menacing battle-axe. It's the sort of part that, were I in charge of such things, would have merited an Academy Award nomination. And why shouldn't she have mastered the role?

She had already assayed it 70 times on Broadway! She was the only cast member who made it into the movie adaptation.

I'm actually quite a fan of Jessica Tandy, whose husband Hume Cronyn directed her in the Broadway production, but as you can see, there's a pretty big difference in how she appeared as Hilda and how Simmons did as Hilda.

As is often the case, foreign posters, in this instance French, offered more striking artwork than the US ones.

The film came close to breaking even, which makes it a box office "miss," but I felt it was worth a look. At 87 minutes it certainly wasn't oppressive to sit through. Probably my biggest disappointment was that Madison was underutilized. He really got no real closeups (there's little-to-no reason for this film to have been done in Cinemascope except that it was 20th Century Fox's claim to fame at the time.) And he had no shirtless scenes or anything even close to that. He couldn't have been shown washing up in the construction trailer or something....?! LOL But I will remedy that by leaving you with a few nice pictures of him in his hey-day. He's been featured here in the Underworld multiple times, but there's always room for more.


An apple a day couldn't keep Henry Willson away...!

Monday, June 10, 2024

Fond Farewell: Turning of the Paige

Well, if we're being completely honest, it wouldn't truly naturally fall to me to write up a tribute/photo essay on today's recipient, though I certainly had nothing against her. Janis Paige was a feisty, vibrant, enthusiastic performer in many a movie and TV program. But she wasn't someone who grabbed me in a significant way. However, when you take into account that she passed away recently (June 2nd, 2024) at the age of 101 (!) and was performing a one-woman show as recently as 2012 - topping off a career that started in the mid-1940s... well, it's a no-brainer that she deserves some attention here. 

Born Donna Mae Tjaden in Tacoma, Washington on September 16th, 1922, she was of Norwegian and Eastern European descent. Already a ham by age 5, she was singing her little heart out in local amateur talent shows.

Evolving as a big-eyed brunette, she moved with her mother and sister to Los Angeles after graduating from high school. Work as a pin-up model followed soon after. As the U.S. entered WWII, she began singing and volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen. It was the beginning of a lifetime in which she would offer support and entertainment to soldiers. 

Having been discovered at the canteen by a talent scout and signed to MGM, she found herself in the 1944 Esther Williams spectacular Bathing Beauty as well as playing a studio guide in the film Hollywood Canteen (1944.)

Air Force pilots who flew the P-61 Black Widow twin-engine fighters during WWII selected Paige to be their "Black Widow Girl," hence her unusual pose for this pin-up.

The curvy, sultry young girl with a lustrous mane of thick, beautiful hair, sat for countless photo sessions as an ingenue.

Here we find her "shipwrecked" and "stranded" on a photographer's set.

In 1946 and now at Warner Brothers, she was featured in movies like Of Human Bondage (with Eleanor Parker) and Two Guys from Milwaukee while also winning costarring parts. 

She was the female lead in Her Kind of Man (1946) opposite Dane Clark and Zachary Scott and was the same in The Time, the Place and the Girl (1946) opposite Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson.

One thing which probably helped prevent Paige from becoming a highly successful movie star was the fact that she tended to look very different from project to project. The biggest stars usually had a set persona and a regular look which they often carried from movie to movie.

There was this brief blonde period during her days when she was most frequently a brunette or dark auburn-haired performer.

It wasn't uncommon to find her rather overdone, even in a time when gals were always at least "done." There's a lot going on here.

And here, striking as the whole look may be, she's being overtaken.

But she was busy, either in support of others (like in Cheyenne, 1947, with Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman) or Winter Meeting (1948, with Bette Davis and Jim Davis) or costarring, as seen here with Robert Hutton in Wallflower, 1948.) She also wed for the first time in 1947 to a restaurateur, but the union was over by 1951.

In 1948, she was the leading lady in Romance on the High Seas, the film which introduced Doris Day to movie audiences. Note the way Paige suits the piled-up hair more than Day, whose face was wider and rounder. We wouldn't see this type of coiffure on Ms. Day much thereafter.

Paige kept plugging along in a variety of projects, few of which seemed to play to her biggest strengths.

1950 wound up as a rather pivotal year for Paige. There was a pair of noir movies including This Side of the Law...

...and Fugitive Lady in which she looked very lovely, but which did nothing to expose her innate effervescence and skill with song and dance. After filming two comedies which would see release in 1951 (Mister Universe and Two Gals and a Guy), Paige packed up and headed for New York City.

There, she joined Jackie Cooper for the Howard Lindsay-Russell Crouse comedy-mystery Remains to Be Seen. The show was a moderate success (and she toured with it after its 199 performances), but she was considered a highlight.

In 1954, she and John Raitt scored a smash with The Pajama Game. The Tony-winning musical ran for more than 1,000 performances and garnered a lot of attention.

At this same time, Paige was putting together and starring in a sitcom, co-produced by Desilu. She played a nightclub singer with a 10 year-old daughter who shares a New York apartment with two other singles ladies.

Called It's Always Jan, the show offered Arte Johnson his first work on television in a recurring role as a delicatessen employee and comic foil to Paige. The series only lasted one-season despite moderate popularity. Paige wed the creator of the show, but the marriage ended right about the time the show did!

The following year, 1957, she was dealt a blow when Warner Brothers bought the rights to The Pajama Game. It was under the condition that only one of the two leads would be cast in the movie as neither one was a box office draw. Initially, it was meant to be Frank Sinatra and Paige for the film, but Sinatra turned the part down.

And so it was that Raitt was permitted to bring his stage role to the screen opposite Doris Day who, in the meantime since debuting in one of Paige's movies, had become a sought after movie star. A lesser mortal might have created a voodoo doll with a lock of Day's blonde hair, but Paige was philosophical about it and moved on.

In fact, she did a complete turnabout, changing her hair, her makeup and - to a degree - her image, emerging in the Cole Porter movie musical Silk Stockings (1957) as a glitzy Hollywood actress.

There's a lot going on here...! The brows, the eyelashes... and her hair was red. It's as if Joan Crawford and Carole Cook made a daughter. This time, it was she who was inheriting someone's stage role (in this case, Gretchen Wyler) for a movie and she leapt into it full bore.

She had no follow-up to Silk Stockings, movie-wise, instead appearing on various TV series of the time such as Lux Video Theatre, Studio 57, Schlitz Playhouse and (the unwieldy-named) Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.

Her next movie came in 1960, playing another glitzy, emotionally-feisty actress. Ironically, the movie was Please Don't Eat the Daisies, which starred none other than Doris Day!

By this time, the die was cast and Paige was a go-to for brash, brassy, energetic ladies with a goal in mind.

She popped up on many TV variety shows, game shows, sitcoms and even the occasional western, such as Wagon Train.

1961 brought a showy supporting part in Bachelor in Paradise, with Bob Hope. The movie's leading lady was Lana Turner, but Paige did all she could to score points of her own.

She and Hope had worked together on TV and at various events over the course of several years and so there was a comfort level in their scenes that Turner (for whom comedy was never a strength) couldn't achieve.

Now on the cusp of 40, a deadly age at that time for most actresses, Paige was still actively working, but the caliber of her projects was diminishing.

Follow the Boys (1963) was a negligible comedy-romance about girlfriends and wives catching up with the sailors they love at various ports of call. She was in support of Connie Francis, who was making a futile attempt at movie stardom.

The Caretakers (1963) offered more meat, and had her playing a mental hospital patient who's a complete floozy and party girl. She turns in on full-blast, though Robert Stack as her doctor, is able to withstand it.

The crazed, troubled film is brimming over with stars, each hoping to make a mark, and Paige is by far the one ACTING the most. (She's given a run for her money by leading lady Polly Bergen who, in a feverish performance, is repeatedly ripping up her own clothing. While wearing it!)

While returning to Broadway again (for the modestly successful show Here's Love, a musicalization of Miracle on 34th Street, 1947), Paige made occasional TV appearances on series like Burke's Law and The Fugitive. In 1967, she returned to the big screen as a saloon girl in Welcome to Hard Times, starring Henry Fonda.

Paige, who'd been a favorite of servicemen since the 1940s, joined pal Bob Hope on a couple of his legendary tours. Here, she's seen giving her all to a flood of G.I.s during The Vietnam War.

Back home, she was treading the boards of The Great White Way again when she became the first replacement for Angela Lansbury in Mame.

Soon enough she adopted Angie's close-cropped hairdo while enacting the grueling role, as seen here in this ad for the New York News. Paige, who'd previously done regional productions of Born Yesterday and Sweet Charity, would continue in that vein with productions of Gypsy, Applause, Desk Set and others over the next several years.

As the 1970s arrived, Paige proved a worthwhile guest star on many hit TV series. Columbo, Mannix, Police Story, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Alice, Hawaii 5-O and Charlie's Angels are only some of the ones she popped up on. This is the Janis Paige I first became aware of as a kid.

She also made a key appearance on All in the Family as a diner waitress who temporarily catches Archie's eye in a two-parter. (Note that the promotional photo was from a rehearsal, before Paige had her hair properly done and full costume and jewelry added.) Two seasons later, he character returned for another appearance.

Amid requisite appearances on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, Paige was tapped as the star of a pilot for another similar series, virtually a hybrid (!) called Magic on Love Island (1980.) Her character appeared to have a certain level of ESP, but the show wasn't picked up. (Don't know if she saw that coming...! LOL) Paige proceeded to a recurring role on Eight is Enough.

One memorable guest appearance came with St. Elsewhere in which she played a middle-aged female flasher bent on "cheering up" male patients in the hospital!

Paige was also found alongside a roster of longtime pal Bob Hope's leading ladies that same year.

One final Broadway show was Alone Together, with Kevin McCarthy and an array of younger performers. The show ran for just under 100 performances before closing in 1985. She continued to act on stage in various locales until 1989.

She was far from finished performing on-screen, however. She played Parker Stevenson's mother in an episode of the Mission: Impossible redux and appeared on 15 episodes of Trapper John, M.D.

She next turned to daytime TV, working on Capitol, General Hospital and most memorably on Santa Barbara, taking over the role of Minx Lockridge from Dame Judith Anderson.

The always effusive Paige, with a fun, zany style of her own, was retired not by choice, but by medical necessity. Since the late-1990s, she'd been experiencing "cracking" vocals in her speech and singing. During some treatment in 2001, she wound up not being able to speak at all! In time, and with further - different - therapy, she was able to regain her voice.

In 2006, she was able to make a dazzling appearance as a presenter at the Tony Awards with Michael McKean.

In 2012, at age 90, she made a startling comeback on stage in Hollywood with a one-woman show about her long and varied career, complete with songs.

In 2017, at 95, she emerged at an Actor's Fund commemoration, still flashing the smile that had entertained millions of viewers and audiences over the years.

I hope you enjoyed this peek under the veil of Ms Paige. A third marriage (in 1962 to songwriter Ray Gilbert - "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah") was the most successful, though it ended with his death at 64 in 1976.)

The tireless performer managed a career that lasted almost the length and breadth of her time on earth!

Only the march of time could put an end to her vivacity, zest and lively spirit. She was, as I noted above, 101 years of age when she died of natural causes on June 2nd, 2024, missing 102 by only a few months.