Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Yours"... Truly!

I can't imagine how I made it nearly forty-six years on this earth and yet have never been exposed (until just the other day) to the 1955 debacle Sincerely Yours, the first starring role in a film by pianist extraordinare Liberace. It also proved, quite swiftly, to be the LAST starring role in a film by Liberace!

In 1955, Wladziu Valentino Liberace (of Polish descent) was a monumentally popular nightclub pianist-turned television star thanks to his The Liberace Show, an intimate, schmaltzy program in which he engaged the audience in conversation and sometimes music education while deftly tinkling the ivories in a unique, highly-individualized fashion. Liberace had made a few brief film appearances and in 1950 had played a honky tonk pianist South Sea Sinner with Shelley Winters, but had never carried a movie.
Warner Brothers offered the showman a two-picture deal in which he would rake in that vast black & white TV audience for some lavish, high gloss entertainment. For the first picture, they chose to remake and slightly update a creaky old property that had been a Broadway play called The Silent Voice. Filmed in 1915 under its original name as The Silent Voice with Francis X Bushman and then again in 1922 with George Arliss, the title was changed this time to The Man Who Played God.

Those both being silent films, the story was filmed again in 1932 with sound, again called The Man Who Played God and again with George Arliss. The plot concerned a successful concert pianist who goes deaf and almost falls apart, but through the art of lip-reading begins to help people out of various fixes, in effect playing God. Eventually, he reads the lips of his fiancee (played by Bette Davis!) and discovers that she is in love with someone else. Arliss was by then sixty-four years old (and looked every second of it and more), though he was a tremendously admired and beloved cinematic figure.

For Liberace's rendition of this august tale, the title was changed to Sincerely Yours. The lead character's name had originally been Franklyn Starr and then Montgomery Royale, but for this version was changed to the presumably less flowery Anthony Warrin. Previous versions had also included a heavy dose of mother love, which was eliminated here (even though Liberace was an avowed mama's boy himself as seen at left.) Liberace's character was a touring piano showman who employed a crotchety manager (William Demarest) and an attractive, but understated, secretary (Joanne Dru.)

As the film opens, Liberace is playing to a packed house with every seat taken up to the rafters. Closer inspection reveals that only the first two or three rows have people in them. The rest is an elaborate painting with hordes of painted faces stacked upon one another! (Hans Koenekamp is credited with “special effects” of which this was apparently one...)
Eventually, Liberace gets up and asks if the audience has any requests. Somehow, he's supposed to be able to hear this throng of people all shouting at once and still pick out one pea-sized girl up near the ceiling who wants to hear “Chopsticks.” He agrees to play it and, after the predictably simple start, proceeds to perform a “wow” rendition that startles the freckle-faced boy in front of the girl who'd once been derisive about it.
Next we see Lee (Liberace's real-life nickname, which I will occasionally use for variety's sake) in his hotel suite with Dru. Dressed in a gorgeously saturated red robe (a color that pops up to beautiful effect on several occasions), not green as the tinted photo above depicts, he is answering fan mail and responding to Dru about personal appearance requests. His ear-assaultingly nasal voice tosses off pithy remarks to each thing she says, for example turning down an avocado festival because they're “too fattening” and an aquarium because he doesn't want to get "seasick."

The concert is taking place in San Francisco, leading Dru to remark, “You're very popular in San Francisco” as if we didn't know! There's a feeble attempt to butch Lee up a bit when it's discovered that he is supposed to be escorting Dru to “the big fight” and is even betting on the outcome. When Dru mentions a telegram that has come in, Liberace suddenly bursts into the bathroom to ask Demarest about it.

Here, in the movie's big beefcake scene, sixty-three year-old Demarest is shown plopped down in a bubble bath, scrubbing himself with a brush while smoking a cigar! Ever the curmudgeon, he blathers and lathers on while Lee searches for the telegram. It's an invitation he's long dreamed of to play Carnegie Hall. All he has to do first is allow a representative to watch him in action beforehand.

As the conversation continues, Demarest wriggles around in the tub enough to make the viewer worry that the suds are not going to do their job and keep everything under wraps that is supposed to be in a mid-1950s movie! Even though this is a far more likely domestic scenario for real-life Lee than the one with his female secretary, he seems to take pains not to look at Demarest during the sequence.

Dru is in Dorothy McQuire mode here, the lonesome, pining, buttoned-up secretary, primly admiring her boss, but doing little to nothing about it. She sports a pair of cats-eye glasses that make her seem even more bookish and nondescript. Demarest can see that she has a thing for Liberace, but Liberace is utterly blind to it.

He trots off to meet one of his old piano teachers and mentors whose apartment/studio is in town. Entering the apartment, he sits at the piano and begins to play, though the maestro isn't there himself. Now we have a “meet cute” as luscious blonde socialite Dorothy Malone comes in, ostensibly to procure the services of the piano teacher, but sneaky-pants Lee pretends to be the teacher!

He listens to her bland, rote playing and critiques her accordingly, trying to get her to feel the music when the real instructor finally comes in and blows Liberace's cover.

Remarkably, Malone isn't particularly perturbed by the trick that was pulled on her and she agrees to go have lunch with Lee at an Italian restaurant. She's even understanding when it turns out that Liberace has left his wallet in another jacket and she has to shell out for lunch!

Thus begins a whirlwind courtship in which they date and dine all over town. That same first night, while in a supper club, the celebrated pianist is called up from his table by the resident bandleader to perform for everyone (something Lee does with nary a nanosecond of hesitation.) Before playing, he sits on the lip of the stage, flirting with a quartet of older society matrons, one frantic, heaving lady in particular. He asks her if she wants to touch him, which she does, but he explains that up higher on his leg is where he gets “the message!”
Malone isn't at all jealous of this, of course, and sits beaming throughout the performance, clearly beginning to fall for the performer's charisma. As an aside, I happen to love Dorothy Malone and think she had the most glorious coloring in her films, with big, luminous eyes and a sensual voice emanating from a sexy mouth.

Things heat up, so to speak, when he gets back to the table and kisses Malone. Then, after the patrons begin to holler “encore!” he awkwardly plants another tightly-clamped smack against her lips to the delight of everyone. (In a perfect world, Miss Malone, who is now in her late-eighties, would be recording a DVD commentary for this movie and relaying her experiences of this and other scenes during filming!)

In fact, even to achieve this repellent lip-lock, Liberace required a little help from director Gordon Douglas, seen here guiding Lee and Malone into one of their smooches. (Incidentally, the one below that with Dru isn't even in the film as they are in the costumes from their first scene together!) Anyway, all of the kissing scenes in every respect are cringe-inducing...
The couples' next hot date is to a museum. The elevator operator recognizes Liberace and prevents him from following the tour. He instead escorts him to an empty, closed-off, special room in which pianos having belonged to classical composers are gathered. 

Liberace proceeds to take a turn on each one of these priceless instruments, playing compositions written by each of the gentlemen in question. Again, Malone looks out dreamily, enraptured by the skillful playing of her new gentleman friend (and sporting a great hat.)

Now Liberace has another concert performance, this one for the benefit of the Carnegie Hall booking agent. Here Dru is confronted for the first time by “blonde” Malone who, like Liberace himself, has no clue that Dru is harboring feelings for her employer.

It's another sold out performance, only one seat is conspicuously absent next to Malone, and as the show wears on, a G.I. slithers in to claim it. He's so hypnotized by the performance of Liberace that he passes the empty seat and plants himself instead on top of Malone! (Note the deeply saturated red coat she's wearing.)

After this unusual encounter, the man (Alex Nicol) takes his own seat and proceeds to lap up the intoxicating music of the star pianist.
At intermission, Nicol and Malone strike up a conversation over a drink. He's a composer himself and the way he languidly leans around on the furniture and beams at the sight of Liberace, one wonders if he isn't going to try to make a play for him himself! However, it turns out that he is more interested in Malone.

During the encore, as Dru, Demarest and the Carnegie rep look on, Liberace begins to play as suddenly realizes that he is having trouble hearing the piano. (This is a far cry from when he could hear a little girl hundreds of feet up in the air requesting that he play “Chopsticks!”)

In an unintentionally hilarious sequence, he begins to sweat and fret over the impending hearing loss, his usually almost expressionless face starting to take on occasional moments of movement and emotion. He frantically tries to finish up the piece and get off the stage, even cutting the song short.

His hearing returns, but then – as luck would have it – THE night he is to perform at Carnegie Hall, he's all decked out (in one of his publicized 29 costume changes) and ready to go on, but then suddenly loses his hearing again! This time it doesn't come back.

Each time Liberace experiences hearing loss, he gets this odd, staring expression on his face. You can't exactly call him “wooden,” more like waxen... His already angular, semi-dark features sometimes take on a sullen, almost vampiric quality! Rather than clue the public in on what has happened to him, a story of his “injuring his hand” is released to the press.

Since his hearing loss is likely to be permanent (the only solution being a risky, very serious operation with no guarantee of success), Liberace takes refuge in his glorious, all-white penthouse apartment. He is visited by a man who instructs him in the skill of lip-reading, so that he will eventually be able to communicate with people, so long as he can see their mouths move.

Malone, who'd been off visiting her parents, races to see her fiance after his disastrous Carnegie cancellation, but is halted in the foyer by Dru who tells her as considerately as she can that Liberace is now deaf.

Malone writes messages on a pad for Lee to read and he can respond verbally. He feels it best that she go away for a while and allow him to work on his convalescence by himself. She reluctantly agrees to leave him, planning to return after a time.

In order to practice lip-reading, Liberace purchases a honkin' pair of binoculars and peers down the balcony into a park across the street. The first thing he sets his sites on is a gaggle of young boys playing football. He notices that one of the kids (Richard Eyer) is never allowed to play despite wanting to desperately. It turns out that the young boy has some sort of affliction and has to wear braces on his legs.

He also spies on a middle-aged woman (Lurene Tuttle) who keeps meeting her beautiful newly-married daughter (Lori Nelson) in the park. The daughter has married in to society and is apparently ashamed of her lowly mother's station in life. She deigns to meet her ever-so-briefly every now and again, shoving money into her palm to make up for the lack of face time she gives her. (Less observant viewers might momentarily think they are watching Malone since she and Nelson have similar coloring and physiques!)

Dru arrives and proceeds to inform Lee that she has written words to a song that he'd previously composed. The song is “Sincerely Yours” and there can be little doubt as to how she feels once he – stone deaf – picks up the lyrics and proceeds to sing the number as he's playing it for her. Rather than bring him around, though, this whole enterprise seems to deject him even further. (And I am ashamed to say that any time “Sincerely Yours” is played, at the end I am always reminded of the coroner from The Wizard of Oz who sings “she's really most sincerely dead!” in almost the same cadence and melody!)

She departs and he staggers out to the balcony (with dead leaves symbolically dotting the floor) and begins to contemplate jumping off!
Dru returns, having conveniently forgotten her purse and gloves (but not her glasses which have, by now, disappeared into oblivion... What is it with movie women who just suddenly give up their glasses because they are unflattering and never have need for them again?!?) She catches on to what Lee is doing and races to stop him, giving him a bit of a tongue-lashing in the process.

Despondent, Liberace heads to a nearby church where little Eyer and his grandfather (and no one else!) are present, praying. He lip-reads that Eyer needs an operation in order to have normal use of his legs. Afterwards, he informs Dru that he wants her to contact the grandfather and make arrangements to pay for the surgery himself.
He continues his binocular stalking of Tuttle and Nelson, with Demarest and Dru onhand to the point where the movie briefly becomes a pale imitation of 1954's Hitchcock film Rear Window, with Dru in the Grace Kelly part and Demarest in the smart-talking Thelma Ritter role!
Then out of nowhere one night, he awakes to find that he can hear the clock in his bedroom ticking! He can hear again! He darts from the bed and, naturally as his first act since regaining his aural attributes, proceeds to play his piano at full tilt. This wakes up Demarest (who lives there, too?!) who claims he is happy to sit there all night and listen.

Liberace's first order of business now that he's able to hear again is to don a trench coat and head to the park where he can listen first hand to Tuttle and Nelson. After Nelson pulls another one of her “I'm sorry, but here's some money” moments, Liberace decides to take matters into his own hands.

In another sequence reminiscent of a Hitchcock film (this one, Vertigo, yet to come! Maybe Hitch was inspired by this movie!), Lee takes Tuttle on an all-expenses-paid shopping and beauty spree, selecting just the right gown, shoes and hat for her and treating her to a nail and hair styling experience. We gays just love makeovers, so its a great and happy occasion in the movie to see Tuttle transformed from the dowdy, forlorn mom into a vivacious lady. (Lady for a Day or A Pocketful of Miracles anyone?)

Liberace has a charity event scheduled in which he's to entertain and raise money by taking song requests for $100 apiece. (Note that even after shelling out dough to gussy up Ms. Tuttle, there was no way he was going to be outdone himself. He's sporting a sequined tux jacket!) He utilizes Tuttle (who now looks like the 7th place finalist in a June Allyson look-alike contest) as a glamorous assistant.

Attending the event is Tuttle's daughter Nelson along with her new husband and her in-laws. Note that the husband is played by a young Guy Williams. Also note the presence, just at the back of Liberace, of The Underworld's favorite movie extra Leoda Richards! See here and here.

As Nelson is confronted with her all new mom, to the eventual delight of everyone present, Leoda Richards is placed to where her face is right in the sight line of anyone looking at the star. You will find this to be the case in movie after movie in which Ms. Richards was employed.

Things seem to be going along swimmingly now except, right as the evening is ending, Liberace loses his hearing AGAIN! As it's Christmas, he and his cohorts Demarest and Dru are decorating the tree, with Dru in another of those rich red costumes by Howard Shoup. She has decided to leave Liberace for parts unknown, knowing that Malone will soon be back to claim him for herself.

Little Eyer comes by, accompanied as always by his grandfather, and can now walk normally. He is given an appropriate present from Liberace while Liberace receives one from Eyer. Contained within it, though, is a St. Christopher medal that Eyer used in order to remain brave for his surgery. This sparks Liberace to consider going ahead with the high-risk ear surgery that may restore his hearing for good.

Things take another turn for the worst, though, when Lee is standing on his balcony and, once again with the binoculars, sees Malone arrive, yet not head up to his apartment. She instead goes to the park (how fortunate that everyone goes to the same park bench in the same section of the park for every telling moment of his or her life!) There she meets with the ex-G.I. Nicol and Liberace can see that she is only staying with him out of obligation and has fallen for Nicol romantically.

Once upstairs, Liberace explains what he's seen to Malone and frees her from her promise to him so that she can be happy with the man she truly loves. He then proceeds to go under the knife and see if he will ever hear again.
Once again, unintentional titters spring from the Norma Desmond-ish bandage get-up he is wearing. Even more chuckles come our way when the bandage comes off and he is left with an unruly mop of long salt-and-pepper curls that just out from his head against the crisp white hospital pillow.

I'm not usually one for spoilers, but if you thought this movie was going to end on a sad note, you must not be very familiar with 1950s musicals... Liberace finally gets to play Carnegie Hall and all of his old friends are on hand to celebrate with him. He actually plays a certain song for each one of them, indicating them with his hand as their turn arrives.

The biggest shocker of them all, though, is when he inexplicably pops up off the piano bench and proceeds to perform a flighty, flouncy dance routine! He begins whirling and hopping all over one side of the stage to the delight of everyone in the theatre (and in front of the TV!) Everything is neatly sewn up in time for the end of the movie.

In Sincerely Yours, Liberace provides a lackluster, painfully in-over-his-head performance in which the audience is simply asked to suspend its disbelief far further than they ought to have to. However, no one can deny that the man knew how to play the piano entertainingly. He plays (and plays and plays!) here deftly and compellingly and it's easy to see why people found him entertaining. It's just that a dramatic and romantic leading man he was NOT.
This film's failure was so pronounced that Warner Brothers would rather pay him off than actually proceed with the second picture he was meant to star in! Over the course of his colorful life, he had more than one occasion in which he “cried all the way to the bank,” whether it be scathing reviews despite sell-out houses, "slanderous" magazine articles that he fought over and won or this instance of being paid not to work! At one point, Liberace was making $300,000 a week to play the piano in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe!

Later, he made a memorably amusing appearance in 1965's satire The Loved One, as a funeral salesman, in a film that was proud of its claim to have something in it to offend everyone! His appearance on Batman as a guest villain in 1966 brought that series its highest-ever ratings. Of course the character was a criminal pianist called Chandell.

He eventually began to incorporate more and more glitz and glamour into his act, with staggering beaded costumes, oversized, elaborately decorated pianos and eye-boggling sets and festively-costumed supporting performers. He was over, over, over-the-top and the public loved it. He was also a deeply closeted homosexual who wanted his audiences to never know the truth, right up until his death from AIDS in 1987 at age sixty-seven.

The recent cable telefilm Behind the Candelabra (2013) features Michael Douglas in a rather astounding performance as the later-in-life Lee, a gold-plated, sexually controlling ghoul far removed from what he seemed like in the beginning with his simple black tuxedos and demure pianos. I will be very surprised if Douglas doesn't take home the Emmy, the Golden Globe and the SAG for his startling turn as Liberace.

Though Dru was an attractive lady (the older sister of Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall) who costarred in several notable films including Red River (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948) and All the King's Men (1949), I have never really been able to warm up to her. To me, she has always projected a very artificial type of acting that I can see right through, though maybe I have yet to see her at her best. Married first to singer Dick Haymes and then to John Ireland (and later to two other men, the last marriage a success), she died in 1996 of lymphedema at the age of seventy-four.

Conversely, I have always loved Malone. Having kicked around in movies since the early-'40s, it wasn't until she went blonde that things really began to click for her. Sincerely Yours was but only one of six movies she had released in 1955. And 1956 brought the delicious Written on the Wind, which scored her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. In 1964, she segued to TV with the highly successful primetime soap Peyton Place, eventually making her last movie appearance in 1992 with a cameo in Basic Instinct. She is still with us today at age eighty-eight.

Method-actor Nichol was a useful supporting player in many western and war films of the 1950s, with his villainous turn in James Stewart's The Man from Laramie (also 1955) a standout. He played Paul Anka's drunken father in 1961's captivating Look in Any Window, which was profiled here not too long ago, soon after moving to Europe for acting opportunities there. Back in the U.S. By 1970, he played Shelley Winters shiftless husband in Bloody Mama, but was retired by 1976. He died of natural causes in 2001 at the age of eighty-five.

Millions of TV viewers fondly recall Demarest as the cranky Uncle Charlie of Fred MacMurray's TV series My Three Sons (1965 – 1972), though he'd been a film actor since the mid-1920s! Having appeared in a small role in 1927's The Jazz Singer, he was years later nominated for an Academy Award for The Jolson Story (1946), all about Al Jolson, star of The Jazz Singer. He lost to Harold Russell of The Best Years of our Lives. A 1968 Emmy nomination was lost to Hogan's Heroes' Werner Klemperer. When he retired in 1976, Demarest had been acting on screen for fifty years. He passed away at age ninety-one in 1983 of prostate cancer.

Nelson had been a performer since her toddler years, ultimately winning a movie contract at age seventeen. She played one of the daughters in a couple of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies in 1952 and 1955 and costarred in the Black Lagoon sequel Revenge of the Creature (also 1955.) By the dawn of the '60s, she was working more on television, but abruptly quit to get married. Upon her divorce in 1971, she did one episode of Family Affair, but little else after that, marrying again in 1983 to a man she remains wed to now at age eighty.

Tuttle played many varied characters from caring confidantes to dithering idiots in many film and TV projects from the early 1930s on. She had diverse roles in films such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), Niagra (1953), Psycho (1960) and even Walking Tall (1973.) She was also an invaluable radio actress sometimes providing every female voice on a program. Her work on Diahann Carroll's Julia netted her an Emmy nomination in 1970, but she lost to Karen Valentine for Room 222. Tuttle died of cancer in 1986 at age seventy-eight.

Eyer had also done some Ma and Pa Kettle films in 1954 and 1956, but not the same ones as Lori Nelson. In 1955, he played Fredric March's young son in the hostage drama The Desperate Hours, but is probably best known for playing Gary Cooper's boy in 1956's Friendly Persuasion. After his agent died when he was sixteen, Eyer left the business and ultimately became an elementary school teacher. He's still alive today at age sixty-eight.

On hand as Liberace's doctor is familiar character actor Edward Platt, who worked in many films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), North by Northwest (1959) and Pollyanna (1960) before gaining fame as Don Adams' boss "Chief" on the comedic spy series Get Smart (1965 - 1970.) Sadly, Platt, who had played so many doctors, policemen and other helpful figures, suffered from depression for years and took his own life in 1974 at the age of fifty-eight.

Making an appearance early in his career as Nelson's society husband is Guy Williams. Williams had been playing bit roles for a few years and his part here is hardly substantial, but by 1957 things would change when he won the part of TV's Zorro, a role he played with much success until 1961, followed by Lost in Space (1965-1968), in which he was the show's patriarch. You can read more about Mr. Williams (and two other “Guys”) here and see more of him here! He died of a brain aneurysm in 1989 at age sixty-five.

Renowned as one of Hollywood's most awful movies, Sincerely Yours is certainly not terrific, but it contains a significant amount of vintage Liberace piano-playing, demonstrating a hint of the sort of thing that made him popular, and is a beautifully photographed, elegant sort of film with enjoyably campy situations and dialogue. 

Pains were taken to present this slightly sticky and more than a little smarmy fellow as a man two women were simultaneously pining over and it simply didn't come off. Look at this passionate foreign-release poster! Still, in The Underworld, film failures are often treasured more highly than the ones that turned out right!


Ken Anderson said...

Like you, I only saw this film recently (TCM played it a month or two ago)and wonder how anyone who knows me hadn't clued me in on what a terrible/terrific delight this film is.
All I kept thinking about is how much I would have loved seeing it in a theater when I had a chance when it screened at a camp film festival many years ago.
But better late than never, right?
Your post captures my exact thought on everything that's so cringe-inducing about the film, yet makes it so compelling. I just kept watching it wondering how anybody with a brain cell in their heads ever thought Liberace could be straight. Even in fiction you can't buy it! Thanks for letting me relive this awful(ly good) film with all your factoids, backstory, and pics I've never seen! Excellent job!

NotFelixUnger said...

Thank you for the Cliff Notes version! It is much more fun and enjoyable to read this post than to sit through the movie. To be frank, I would rather have my urethra catheterized with spikes thank see "Lee" as the "romantic lead" in any film offering much less sit through this again! Also, Michael and Matt ruined him for me two months ago!

However, I'm now hot after Nichol and "The Man from Laramie!" I can't wait to see that.


joel65913 said...

I remember sitting in slack jawed horror as this opus ran one day on TCM and wondering how the film makers could have possibly viewed the rushes of this stinkeroo and not realized from day one what a hopeless task they had set for themselves to try and turn Liberace into a movie star.

The movie does have a few pluses. The marvelous Malone, who as you do Poseidon I adore, the lush production design, slick cinematography, the beautiful costumes and one of my favorite character actresses Lurene Tuttle who always gave lovely performances. But it's all for naught when Liberace stripped of all his flash is on screen, a black sink hole from which the picture can't recover.

Poseidon3 said...

Thank you my three faithful friends for sharing your own thoughts and recollections about this film!

Sometimes I come upon pics of youngish Liberace, poolside and bare-chested (some of these are located elsewhere on my site) and he was in remarkable shape with a hairy chest, but I can just never get past that hideously nasal drone of a speaking voice he had and the creepy smile... all of which got worse as he aged (and I won't even mention the "hair.")

Unknown said...

I'll just ditto the comments here...I can't bear to look at Liberace -- pasty, soft, nasal, doughy...chills up my spine of the wrong kind. However, I adore the supporting cast, from Dru and Malone down to Platt and Demarest. And it's a pretty film to look at. Other than that, I'll grab the clicker and fast forward OUT of the Liberace scenes. The first gay joke I ever heard was about Liberace, my grandfather told me: "What do you call Liberace in a men's room? 'Stranger in Paradise'." Oh Lord, I hope that wasn't offensive to anybody, but I'll take the rap for it.

Pantheon Zeus said...

I Love Lurene Tuttle
She was the owner of Mr Chicken's boarding house in the Don Knotts film... And we all loved the color she picked out for Norma Bates funeral dress: periwinkle blue