Thursday, January 16, 2020

Reunited: Seems Like an "Eternity"

Usually, our "Reunited" posts tend to be brief, but this one is more extended, primarily because I'm also paying a little bit more attention to the stars involved. They deserve it. Neither one has been on the receiving end of a tribute here, though I like them both very much; Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. From Here to Eternity (1953) came to the screen only after a fairly torturesome pre-production period. Two studios had given up on the notion of filming the source novel, which was riddled with casual sex, foul language, military hazing and other big-screen no-nos of the time (including some homosexual dabbling amongst some soldiers.) When Columbia Pictures' Harry Cohn paid $82,000 for the rights, the project was dubbed "Cohn's Folly" in the industry. He had the last laugh, however, when the movie (with an all-in budget of $2,000,000) became the second-highest grosser of the year (behind the staggering success of The Robe) and raked in the dough like no one's business. It only came to pass after some considerable script-cleansing (including issues involving the U.S. Army's depiction) and a bit of creative casting, but emerged as one of Hollywood's all-time classics.
Erotic sparks fly between Kerr and Lancaster.
Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift (in roles that were earmarked in the earliest stages of production for Glenn Ford and John Derek) are just becoming acquainted on the base at Pearl Harbor when Lancaster spots something that piques his interest.

The object of his attention is Miss Deborah Kerr, the wife of his command- ing officer, who pulls up to the base in her convertible and, while playing cool, doesn't allow Lancaster to completely fall out of her own gaze either.

Later, as she emerges from the building, Lancaster (now with another soldier) is again on hand to give her the once over.
It's not every man who could pull off the look of this hat with just aplomb.
This time she comes over to him for a chat. She's looking for her husband. She's clearly rather down in the dumps and detached, the light gone out of her eyes. (Note the dynamics of him hovering above her.)
After walking away, she turns back once Lancaster who has (blatantly) offered his services to her (which ones? Well...) Now she has a spark in her eyes for the first time, clearly brought back to life a bit by their exchange.

Lancaster was at or near his physical peak during Eternity. With a wasp waist and broad shoulders, he spends the early part of the film strutting around like cock of the walk, with his pants leaving precious little to the imagination (and we do have imagination! LOL And, yes, I know there are nude shots of him out there.) During filming, the intense actor and ex-acrobat was often doing push-ups between takes to work off steam (more about that in a moment.)

Kerr is wed to a real louse, a slacking, cheating jerk played by Phillip Ober (a part earmarked for Broderick Crawford in the earliest casting notions.) He and Kerr are woefully unhappy and merely share the same residence, but little else.

Lancaster, on the other hand, seems to have more of an appreciation for Kerr. With her portrait on his boss's desk, he can scarcely get her off his mind, especially when he finds out that at her prior location, she had a habit of entertaining the troops (and I don't mean with a song or dance!)

One rainy day, Lancaster heads over to Ober's house under the pretense of getting some important papers signed.

Kerr (shown behind a porch screen) is startled to see the rain-soaked soldier before her. Knowing better, but unable to help herself, she invites him to come in out of the drenching weather.
"Avon... Ding-Dong calling...!"
Telling him he ought to come inside or else he'll get wet, he says to her, "I'm already wet..." !! Note that the balance of power has shifted now. She's the one hovering over him. His expression is delicious.
Probably my favorite shot of Lancaster. Ever.
Once inside, he removes the papers, which are rolled up phallically, and gestures towards her with them.

They proceed to the kitchen where they perform a cat and mouse game of flirtation, antagonism and seduction.
Now he's in danger of getting her wet...!
They meet again, both a bit scared, on the beach where Kerr was just about to flee even though Lancaster has shown up on time! An unintentional bit of hilarity comes here when she says, "I've got a swimsuit on under my dress" and he replies, "Me too!" Really, Burt? Under your dress...?

Next comes the iconic moment when they are shown kissing in the surf. Foamy water laps all around them as Kerr (trying to remain on top amid the crushing waves!) devours her new lover. This now-tame sequence was considered the ultimate in screen steaminess in 1953.

Imitated, parodied and justifiably famous, this screen clinch helped send the movie soaring to the top of the box office. Having met for the first time on the plane to Hawaii, Lancaster and Kerr developed a true and deep chemistry which spilled over onto the screen and allegedly resulted in a real life affair between the two.
"Nobody ever kissed me the way you do..."
"Nobody?... not even one...? Out of all the men you've been kissed by?"
Unfortunately, things take a turn when Lancaster reveals that he knows about her platoon of previous lovers. In an unexpectedly spiteful moment, he lashes out at her over it.

As she runs away from him and he chases after her, we see that either the surf, the sand or the smooching has managed to rupture apart the leg of Burt's snug swim trunks!

By the time he catches up to her and is standing before a humiliated Kerr, the suit is miraculously sewn up again with everything in place.

Once having taken a moment to hear Kerr's story from her point of view, Lancaster regrets his harsh actions towards her.

Now to segue briefly to Lancaster's demeanor on the set. The top-billed star had been enjoying success since his very first movie The Killers (1946), but most of his films were adventuresome or otherwise thrilling in a surface sort of way. This was by far the most important role he'd ever been granted. Insecure enough about that, he was petrified of being overtaken on-screen by Montgomery Clift, who'd been acclaimed (and twice Oscar nominated to this point, including for his debut, The Search, 1948.) Lancaster admitted to knee-shaking nerves in his initial scene with Clift.
 
However, the two developed a chemistry of their own and whether it be by design or not, there is a smoldering, homoerotic feel to some of their interactions. Lancaster is always looking Clift over and not only rests his hand on Clift's wrist, but even strokes the back of his hair at one point (when the two are drunk.) This could have been a coded nod to the excised aspects of the novel (which didn't include these characters, in any case.) The two barely got along at all in real life, their very first meeting going south when Clift was caught on the phone and with Lancaster avoiding eye contact. Lancaster and the director Fred Zinneman also clashed, thanks to Burt's surly attitude and control issues.
Clift fidgets repeatedly with a pocketknife at waist level while Lancaster looks him up and down. Is beer the only thing on tap?
Anyway, things don't turn out great for Lancaster and Kerr as a couple. She wants things from him that he can't give. And before it's all said and done, there are in fact bigger fish to fry. This does take place at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, after all. The movie, however, won eight Oscars including Best Picture. Costars Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed also were among the winners. It was suggested that Lancaster and Clift cancelled one another out for Best Actor, though, leaving William Holden the chance to win for Stalag 17. And Kerr lost to newcomer Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

When it came to losing, this time out at least, one other name comes to mind. Kerr's juicy, richly-layered part had first been given to Miss Joan Crawford. Crawford was then on a pretty solid career trajectory, having just scored a Best Actress nomination for Sudden Fear (1952), awaiting a movie (Lisbon, 1956), that was interminably delayed with script issues. Cohn hand-picked her for the emotionally wounded, adulterous wife and while she might have been strong (one can picture the hard, sarcastic line delivery followed by tear-filled humiliation), she also would have been incredibly pat and obvious (and at seventeen years older than Kerr, a bit past the right age for the role.) She came in hard, wanting her personal costumer Sheila O'Brien to do all her clothes. (O'Brien, whose every credit, almost, is associated with Crawford, did get an Oscar nom for Sudden Fear, but it went to Helen Rose for The Bad and the Beautiful.) Cohn balked at this and she was out. But the thing is, this is likely more an excuse for the fact that Crawford (to whom billing was of paramount importance up till the end of her career) was reluctant to be billed third behind Lancaster and Clift. She was used to being headlined.

Whatever the case, it was a very costly decision to withdraw because she had been offered not only $100,000 (a lofty sum in 1953), but also a percentage of the profits... and few films were as profitable as Eternity! She'd have been virtually set for life. Instead, she wound up in the wrong-headed Torch Song (1953) and a series of increasingly unimportant pictures. Furthermore, looking at Eternity, there's scarcely an item on Kerr's body that doesn't look like something Crawford either would have worn or soon did wear in pictures like Torch Song, Female on the Beach (1955) or Autumn Leaves (1956), from the prim collars to the white gloves to the chained belt to the sport shorts and even down to the swimsuit! So if Crawford quit over the costumes, she sure had O'Brien copy them closely for later movies. I am going with billing as the reason.
For better or worse, Torch Song gave her sole, above-the-title, single-card billing.
But the subject of this post is a reunion. So we're moving on. Now it's 1969 and director John Franken- heimer wants Steve McQueen to star as an introspective, morose stunt-skydiver who has a fateful interlude at one of the show's stopovers prior to the Fourth of July. When that casting notion didn't work out, he turned to his frequent favorite (of The Young Savages, 1961, Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962, Seven Days in May and The Train, both 1964) Burt Lancaster to star in The Gypsy Moths (1969.)

Lancaster headed a cast that included Gene Hackman and Scott Wilson as a trio of skydivers who roam from town to town showing their act to throngs of curious spectators. Wilson was an eleventh-hour replacement for John Philip Law, who broke a wrist during production and had to leave the movie.

During their latest gig, Lancaster waits in the car as Wilson heads up to the home of his aunt and uncle, hoping to be able to have the trio stay with them for this brief while. Wilson is greeted at the screen door by his aunt.
Through the screen we can make out the image of an attractive blonde lady who, naturally, turns out to be Deborah Kerr, who Frankenheimer cast in a moment of inspiration and tribute to Eternity once Lancaster was on board.
Once again, childless Kerr has a disinterested asshole of a husband, who Lancaster shares no great affection towards almost right off the bat. He scarcely misses an opportunity to correct, contradict or condescend to his put-upon wife.
"How'd ya like some lemonade poured down that pipe...?!"
Later that day, a still fit, if sixteen years older, Lancaster holds a demon- stration of the then-new sport of skydiving at a ladies club meeting.

While Lancaster is showing off some of the positions he's familiar with, the dejected Kerr has her interest aroused. After the demonstration, she chats with him as he packs his chute. She's clearly bored out of her mind at the small town, stifling cocoon she's a part of.
"Hmmm... I wouldn't mind yanking on his ripcord."
Frankenheimer selected several opportunities to play subtle homage to the prior Best Picture winner. The screen door was one and then there is this grooming scene in which Lancaster, in a white tank t-shirt, chats with someone as he's getting ready for the evening.
The more things change...
Then we come to another kitchen tete-a-tete, as Lancaster and Kerr begin to realize that they feel something for one another amidst the tattered remnants of their everyday lives. It's nothing as straightforward or suggestive as in Eternity, but the subtle seeds of attraction and seduction are nonetheless planted.
Kerr is about to take a walk and is obviously more than hopeful that Lancaster will join her.
He does head out the door and down the street with her, as - unbe- knownst to them - her husband William Windom is witnessing this from an upstairs window. They proceed to a local playground where they begin to explore their feelings and discuss her past. She had been in love with the man who married her sister (both now dead) and fathered Lancaster's cohort Wilson.
"Wanna play around...?"
Back home, the gloves come off. Er, I should say everything comes off! Kerr is on top again, but this time there are no waves to shove her aside.
Needless to say, it did cause a few eyebrows to be raised when Ms. Kerr was seen naked with Lancaster. The actress was forty-eight and still very trim (especially for that time), but the majority of "old guard" stars like her tended to resist on-screen nudity and love scenes that were this vividly, if discreetly, portrayed. (For his own part, Lancaster had shown off his fifty-five year-old behind the year before in The Swimmer, 1968.)
Just that morning, Kerr, who he'd just met, had served him lemonade on that very couch while her husband was in the chair next to it...!
The next morning, Lancaster, still morose and downbeat, is visited in the garage by Kerr. It's hard to discern in this shot, but she is the one emerging from a downpour this time.

Lancaster wants her to leave her husband and come away with him, but she is heavily reluctant. Once again, these stars are not meant to have their very own "happy ever after" Hollywood ending...


Lancaster proceeded from Eternity to many other significant films. He and Kerr were actually reunited in a way in 1958 with Separate Tables, though in that instance their focus was on others, his on Rita Hayworth and hers on David Niven. 1960 brought him his Oscar-winning title role in Elmer Gantry. Always striving for movies that had something to say, he co-produced many of his own pictures. Directly after Moths, he headlined a movie he made solely for the money and a share of the profits (and bellyached about it plenty.) But the profits were positively unbelievable. Airport was the top-grossing film of 1970 and the biggest money-earner in Universal's history to that time. Lancaster amassed a wealth of great roles on screen (Field of Dreams, 1989, was his last feature, Separate but Equal, 1991, his last television part) prior to his death of a heart attack in 1994 at age eighty (following a string of prior attacks, strokes, etc...) His career is all the more remarkable when one realizes that he was thirty-three before he ever set foot before a camera!
Separate Tables and almost separate movies. In the source play, the same actors play the two couples in back-to-back acts. The film meshed the stories into one, putting Lancaster and Kerr in the same film though not exactly together.
Kerr, while still regarded far and wide as a lady, was able to at least texturize her screen persona after the role in Eternity. After a prior nomination for Edward My Son (1949) she was Oscar-nominated further for The King and I (1956), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Separate Tables (1958) and The Sundowners (1960), but wasn't granted a competitive statuette. These are merely the highlights of a considerable screen career. A belated Honorary Oscar was finally bestowed upon her in 1994. By that time, she'd been off-screen since the mid-1980s with the advent of Parkinson's Disease affecting her. The illness claimed her in 2007 when she was eighty-six.
Cigs may look smoldering, but they can do a lot of harm to one's respiratory and circulatory systems. In other news, Burt looks a bit like a young Clark Gable here, don't you think?