Monday, April 8, 2013

"Word" Has It...

Hello my loves. It's been a wild, crazy week in The Underworld and too long since my last posting! I have a few neat things in the works, but to tide you over until I can break free of the lunatic schedule I've been keeping, I'm going to revisit a subject I've touched on before here  and here. This has become a sort of go-to topic when I'm pressed for time, but want to give my readers something to think about in the meantime.

Turner Classic Movies fills their time in between cinematic treasures with equally captivating and delightful recollections from some of the stars and crew from the glory days of movie-making. They say that archeologists become ecstatic at the sight of a previously buried and unseen relic, but I can tell you that I get just as elated when I get the chance to see a retired or at least currently less-visible star pop up on TCM's interview segment “Word of Mouth!”

Sometimes, it might be disappointing to see how someone has fared, but more often it's a great relief to see the people looking so good and speaking candidly and enthusiastically about their careers and the people they knew and worked with during them. So, today, I give you round three of some folks who've appeared on this terrific little series of inserts (and am I the only one who wishes they would LAST LONGER and not be as brief as they so often are?)

First, we meet Van Johnson, discussing his costar from 1949's In the Good Old Summertime, Judy Garland. It's almost a consensus that Garland was considered brilliantly talented, tremendously overworked and, as a result, terribly troubled. Johnson had his own share of problems, not the least of which was a near-fatal car crash in 1942 that nearly severed his head at the scalp! This injury, however, did keep him home during WWII which contributed to his career immensely. With so many young men enlisted in the service, he became a top box office draw among teenage girls. He also had a controversial marriage (to the wife of his best friend Keenan Wynn!)

If you look closely at these shots of him, you can see that he has some ill-advised mascara on that flicks up at the corners, giving him a vaguely feminine quality that plays up rather than plays down his sometimes prissy personality. Mr Johnson died in 2008 of natural causes at the age of ninety-two!

We so love Miss Jane Powell and are amused that she opted for the camera to be way back instead of up close and personal. (And she's lit up like runway six at La Guardia Airport!) Perhaps she saw some of her old pals from MGM being captured in other Word of Mouth segments with the lens up against their pores. Powell was discussing the joys of working with dancing legend Fred Astaire during 1951's Royal Wedding. She and Astaire played siblings despite a thirty-year age difference between them! June Allyson had first been cast in Wedding, but pregnancy prevented her from doing it. Then Judy Garland was brought in, but swiftly fired. Powell won the part at last and then discovered close to the end of filming that she was pregnant as well! Miss Powell is currently eighty-four.
I have a special place in my heart for this next star because he is someone I have met on two occasions. (You can read more about that encounter right here.) Prior to his emergence as a featured actor (in films like 1961's West Side Story, for which he won an Oscar), George Chakiris was a dancing chorus boy in movies such as White Christmas (1954) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), in which he took part in the famous number “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” featuring Marilyn Monroe. Mr. Chakiris is currently seventy-eight years of age and is in very good, if very lean, shape.
His West Side Story cohort Russ Tamblyn has a segment in which he describes working on the huge Cinemascope production of the musical tom thumb (1958), lower case intentional. He intentionally had to overstate all of his physicality against the giant sets and in the large screen format. A highly acrobatic dancer, Tamblyn was just right to play the diminutive fairy tale hero. Prior to that, he scored an Oscar nod as the repressed and henpecked teen Norman in Peyton Place (1957.) The statuette went to Red Buttons for Sayonara. Tamblyn continues to work even now, having appeared in the recent Django Unchained (2012), in which he appeared with his daughter, now famous in her own right as an actress, Amber Tamblyn. Russ Tamblyn is seventy-eight years old at present.
What fun to see classy and elegant Constance Towers on an installment of Word of Mouth! She popped up to discuss working with craggy, but very dynamic writer-director Sam Fuller, who used her as the female lead in two films, Shock Corridor (1963) and, in particular, The Naked Kiss (1964.) Since 1974, she has been happily married to the once-hunkalicious John Gavin and she continues to act today. After a very long stint on General Hospital, she appeared in an episode of the TV show 1600 Penn this year. She is seventy-nine years old today.
Darryl Hickman had worked steadily as a child actor, appearing in films of as high a pedigree as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), among many others. He was able to work with some of the industry's greatest performers, including Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in 1942's Keeper of the Flame. By the mid-'60s, his career was foundering more than a little (though his little brother Dwayne Hickman was becoming a household name as the star of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), so he went into the business side of show business, with an occasional on-camera appearance.
Always a very introspective person, he briefly lived and studied in a monastery, but later married and had two children (one of which, sadly, committed suicide at the age of nineteen.) Hickman also developed his own approach to acting, which he successfully parlayed into a second career as an acting coach. Now eighty-one, he has not acted on-screen since the late-1990s.

Another child actor who worked in many early films, some of them classics, was Jackie Cooper. Already having worked alongside the considerable Wallace Berry in 1931's The Champ, the two were reunited in 1933's The Bowery, 1935's O'Shaughnessy's Boy and, notably, in 1934's Treasure Island. He greatly enjoyed the pirate adventure saga, less so the wig that was foisted upon him... Known to a later generation for his role as Perry White in the film Superman (1978) and its three sequels, he exited the acting business in 1990 when his wife became ill and he needed to help care for her. Upon her recovery, he decided he liked his free time too much to go back after sixty+ years of working! The youngest male ever nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (for 1931's Skippy, though he lost to Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul), Cooper passed away in 2011 of natural causes at the age of eighty-eight.
Completing a trifecta of child stars in this post is Kevin Corcoran, best known for having played little brother Arliss in the Walt Disney classic Old Yeller (1957) as well as for other Disney films including The Shaggy Dog (1959), Swiss Family Robinson and Pollyanna (both 1960.) Like many child actors, Corcoran found it necessary to segue into other areas such as producing and directing once his acting opportunities began to lessen (in his case by the late-1960s.) Corcoran was one of eight children, most of who pursued acting in their childhood as well. He is now sixty-three.
Jane Alexander was a significant presence in films of the 1970s and still works today, but not nearly enough, nor in important enough projects. She was nominated four times for the Oscar (1970's The Great White Hope, 1976's All the President's Men, 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer and 1983's Testament), but never took one home. The statuettes went to Helen Hayes in Airport, Beatrice Strait in Network, Meryl Sreep in Kramer vs. Kramer (obviously not a supporting role, the category in which she was placed) and Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. Here, she spoke about how her scene in President's Men was filmed without her having even gone to makeup or having put on the assigned costume! The director Alan J. Pakula glanced at her and liked her just as is and the result was an Oscar nomination. A gifted actress, she really should be getting better parts in prominent movies. She is currently seventy-three.
Surely one of the more animated and effervescent personalities to show up on Word of Mouth is Miss Mitzi Gaynor. Best known for South Pacific (1958), she was also the star of Les Girls, directed by George Cukor and co-starring Gene Kelly. I love her glitzy, zesty, upbeat personality, a by-product of her never-say-die career as a nightclub entertainer in the wake of her Hollywood career diminishing. Her last movie role was in 1963!! Thankfully, she did present a series of dazzling TV specials for about a decade from 1967 to 1978. She is eighty-one at present.
Remembered by many as the star of the police detective series The Streets of San Francisco (1972 – 1977), Karl Malden actually enjoyed a long, varied and significant career as a movie character actor. He won the Oscar for 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire and was nominated once more for 1954's On the Waterfront (losing to Edmond O'Brien in The Barefoot Contessa.) Here, he discusses working with the intensely dedicated Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962.) Malden had worked with most of the important stars of the cinema, had served five years as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and been married to his wife for over seventy years (!) when he passed away of natural causes in 2009 at the age of ninety-seven. He was an exemplary actor and human being.
Here, we see Farley Granger, describing how it was to work for the technically exacting Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train (1951), though he had also previously performed for the Master of Suspense in Rope (1948.) Though Granger's career lasted for quite a long while after that, it could be argued that his most important roles were completed by the mid-1950s. Granger passed away in 2011 at the age of eighty-five of natural causes.
You see a shift over the years in these interviews, from floral, elegantly-appointed backgrounds to more sleek, contemporary backdrops. For a few interviews, the background is mostly black, giving stark contrast to the subject at hand. Take director Blake Edwards (of The Pink Panther films, among many others) who, with the dark background and dark glasses looks positively villainous here! Married to Julie Andrews for more than forty years, he succumbed to pneumonia in 2010 at the age of eighty-eight. He'd been nominated for a writing Oscar for 1982's Victor/Victoria, which starred Andrews, but it went to Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart for Missing. In 2004, Edwards was given an Honorary Oscar statuette.
Another of the dark looking Word of Mouth segments was this one with Sidney Sheldon. He discusses his screenplay for The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, the title of which he disliked and thought would lead to a wretched flop rather than the smash hit that it was. He is also known for having created and written for the popular series The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie and Hart to Hart and enjoying a latter-day career as a novelist. Mr. Sheldon died of pneumonia in 2007 at the age of eighty-nine.
We recently sang the praises of Miss Nina Foch in our post about Mahogany, but here she is later in life describing her role in Executive Suite (1954), a role so flimsy and scant on the page that she was hesitant to accept it. It brought her, however, her only Oscar nomination thanks to the way she fought to make herself memorable as the all-seeing, all-knowing secretary of a deceased businessman. The award went to Eva Marie Saint (in what was really a leading role) for On the Waterfront. A supporting player in The Ten Commandments (1958) and many other movies, Miss Foch died in 2008 at age eighty-four of kidney disease.
When you see certain Hollywood actresses continue to color their hair, add attachments to it, pull their faces taut, inject things into it and just basically do anything they can to crystallize their looks in amber, it's refreshing to see someone who has either had little, very good or no work done and just looks like an attractive, older woman. Frankly, I think Sally Ann Howes looks sensational, white hair, extra pounds and all! Here, she's discussing the acting expertise of Vivien Leigh during Anna Karenina (1948), though Miss Howes is better known herself for starring in the maligned musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) opposite Dick Van Dyke. Amazingly, she is eighty-two years of age at present and is just the type of “out of the spotlight” persona we look so forward to seeing on Word of Mouth.
I'll be back very soon with the other goodies I've promised. In the meantime, stay dry during the rainy month of April!


joel65913 said...

Marvelous post! Love these segments and wish they did more.

I'm smack dab in the middle of Jane Powell's bio "The Girl Next Door and How She Grew" at the moment and loving it, sadly it's a few decades old so it will come up a bit short of catching me up. Guess I'll have to Google her to bring me up to date when I finish.

Completely agree about Jane Alexander a shamefully underused talent and one that should have an Oscar on her mantel. However a discussion of the MANY outstanding actors and actresses that are Oscarless while lesser talents win is a whole other matter that I could rail about for hours so I'll just say she's deserving and leave it at that.

NotFelixUnger said...

Oh, dear. A new post and so much to say on some of these folks.

First up: Jane Alexander. Gawd, what a woman. She can walk into the picture and she commands the shot. Period. Nothing else be said. Though I love all the big stuff she has done, [especially, "Testament," which is meaningful for a lot of us who thought we would die in nuclear fire or through slow radiation poisoning in the early 80s] there is a delectable turn she has as the grandma, Sofi Kozma, in the suspense/ quasi-horror, "The Unborn." T'chaild, let me tell you, watching an old lady battle demons with a Hand-of-Miriam instead of a crucifix [for once!] made the movie. I stopped caring when Sofi was out of the shot.

Next on the list, John Gavin. What a hunk! I never realized he had his own place in the Underworld and, yes, I'm still reading back posts! Though only mentioned in passing [thanks to his wife] I've found him to be one of the best looking men ever. I wager anyone that reads this blog to tell me that John Gavin would not be starring in "Snow White and the Huntsman," or "The Avengers," or "Captain America" [or any super-hero flick today] if he had been born in 1975 [my current "birth year"] or 1985, for that matter. I think he was not more famous because that look was still developing. For my tastes he never looked better than he did in "Thoroughly Modern Millie." [I love that movie for many reasons including Gavin, but especially for featuring my own darling, Beatrice Lillie.]

Next up, George Chakiris. To use the common vernacular, "Woof." Though the Underworld frequently echoes my tastes towards the top of the list, there are often quite a few you might find at the bottom of that list. George still commands the billing on that end. [You might be surprised to find Lee Majors on that end of the list too!]

Finally, I loved Karl Malden. One of my favorites of his turns was as a rather evil step-father in "Nuts." No "Streetcar Named Desire," I grant you, but what a conflicted and self-deluded ass! Yes, I know she over-directs and over-produces but she can bring out the most ironic and conflicting human emotions when she does. [Barbra is Barbra, after all.]

Thanks for the fresh post and thanks for the memories! [Especially of George! :-) ]

Ken Anderson said...

Very much enjoyed this post! And like you, I'm always very frustrated by how brief these segments are. Sounding like the old man that I am, I just find television loaded with too much time given over to the inarticulate, uninteresting, or merely mercenary out to hawk a project. It's so fascinating to hear these show biz icons speak about an industry that's long gone.
Hard to believe that so little time is allocated to them. Still, I'm awfully happy TCM provides even these brief glimpses, and that you highlight them so entertainingly here.

Narciso Duran said...

Oh, so much to say here, so I'll just random-comment my way through...

Jane Powell: I adore her. And hers was indeed, a spectacular voice. I have all of her non-soundtrack recordings, and there were indeed a few. Her own adolescent recording of "Over the Rainbow" soars to majestic levels, and her "Donkey Serenade" is pure heaven. A much-older friend of mine saw her as Eliza Doolittle in the early '60s in a national touring company of "My Fair Lady," and reports with clarity all these years later, that her voice and acting were stunning; the glowing memory is still with her. A double recording of Lerner and Lowe tunes featuring Jane and several opera greats from that time can attest.

Van Johnson is so sweet in his TCM blip; I have an early 1970s Van Johnson crockpot cookbook issued by K-Mart, which I treasure. Van is sporting a plaid leisure suit of sorts. The recipes are puke-awful.

Mitzi Gaynor has been short-shrifted by movie musical enthusiasts, in my opinion, and by the Fox DVD people, above all. "South Pacific" and "Les Girls" loom large because of Rodgers and Hammerstein and MGM, respectively, but her bread-and butter Fox musicals were swell and contain some damned-impressive numbers, choreographed by Jack Cole, I believe, in some cases.

Karl Malden appears in one my my all-time favorite westerns, "One-Eyed Jacks," which was directed by and starred Marlon Brando. Karl is the evil S.O.B. in that one. Considered a Brando-indulgence, it is a fine film, loaded with correct period detail (I am a California history freak), so the indulgence paid off. I believe the film is in public domain, which explains its availability and poor visual state of affairs. How sad, as the color photography of the Monterey peninsula is lovely.

And finally, Poseidon's comments on Sally Anne Howes can instruct us all. Healthy and happy are more important to me than bronzing, stretched skin and implants. Even America's home-grown waterfront philosopher Eric Hoffer once felt the need to comment on the subject, in between writing his pithy aphorisms, that growing old gracefully is indeed the secret to growing old.

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks to you all for your insightful, kind and fun comments! I'm glad you enjoyed these little glimpses of the TCM "family."

Joel, Jane Powell's is one of the few classic movie star auto-bio's I've never read (seen even!), but I'd love to do so sometime. She's a great lady!

NotFelix, of course I echo what you (and Joel) say about Jane and your fondness for John, Karl and the rest. John Gavin in the baths of "Spartacus"... Holy Jesus!! I can never turn away if I come upon that sequence.

Ken, I seriously to God would watch a half-hour or an hour of nothing but back-to-back "Word of Mouth" sessions! It's so fascinating to get a present day take from these people on revered old scenes (often without the shackles of having to behave in order to not offend someone... usually these people are the only ones left around from the project being discussed!)

Narciso, yes, yes, yes... Mitzi Gaynor is just a force of nature unto herself and in her day had a mind-boggling body. Surely, you've seen her Oscar ceremony rendition of Georgy Girl, but if you haven't, be sure to youtube it. And I did see "One Eyed Jacks" once and found it very good despite its spotty reputation. Karl was great in it!

Stay tuned for another post very soon. I'm finishing it up now.

joel65913 said...

Poseidon, the Jane Powell book was great! It was refreshingly honest without being bitter or syrupy sweet. I found it at the local library so its out there. The most disappointing thing was that it ended in 1988, the year of publication, but thanks to the internet I was able to bring myself up to date somewhat on what's been going on with her since although unfortunately not in her perspective.

timerwolf700 said...

Jackie Cooper died in 2011 not 2001!