Friday, February 24, 2017

This is All Very "Gallant" of Me!

Back in the late-'80s and early-'90s, one could turn on basic cable TV and see classic movies on several stations, not just TCM or AMC.  A&E would show them, as would TNT, USA and others. It was back in the early 1990s that I first watched today's featured movie, Lucy Gallant (1955), enjoyed it (for one special reason in particular, which I'll get to) and then never. saw. it. again! The movie just seemed to dive into a cinematic black hole from which I could never again retrieve it!

This was remedied recently when TCM - during a day-long salute to Jane Wyman, decided to unearth it once more. As you can guess, I was ecstatic after a twenty-five year blackout to finally get to revisit it again! It's not that it's some incredibly great movie... since when has that ever mattered around here?! We latch on to unintentional badness with glee. (By the way, at no point does Wyman wear this outfit, nor the hat, nor walk any dog...!)

What we really longed to see again was an aspect that draws us, like a moth to a flame, to this and several other movies (from The Women, 1939, to Back Street, 1961, to The Adventurers, 1970 to Mahogany, 1975.) Lucy Gallant features a climactic fashion show, with a passel of designs by Edith Head!

Few films who truck out this time-honored tradition will fail to win me over on some level or another. The more pretentiously the clothing is presented, the better! Amusing narration is key, too, in most cases and this movie scores a bit of a hit in that department, too, which I'll mention when we get there.

Our story begins in a fictional oil boom town called New City, Texas, where rancher Charlton Heston is carving out a living in the cattle business. One rainy night, he is helping the local train station operator with an issue and happens to look up into the window of one of the passenger cars.

Here, he spots Miss Jane Wyman and is instantly attracted (!) to her. Not that Miss W. couldn't sometimes pour on the charm and the glitz, but - seriously? - this particular glimpse of her is what set his heart afire right off the bat? Methinks he may have been spending too much time amongst his bovine pals on the ranch...

He decides to enter the train car and speak to Wyman in person. The car is loaded with obnoxious men and a screaming baby (with this, I could truly identify, having recently flown home through the Orlando airport with screeching Disney-drenched ankle-biters on all sides of me!) Heston tells her that with a trestle washed out up ahead, the train may be a long while and that she ought to come with him into town and get a room someplace.

He loads her into his pickup truck (carrying her at one point to avoid all the mud and gunk that's every- where.) She's burdened down with a downright ridiculous assortment of white suitcases and a large hatbox, but at least has the foresight to bring along some white rubber galoshes that will protect her feet from the onslaught of filth.

The hotel is teeming with people, completely overbooked and with no rooms available at all. The best they can do for Wyman is let her rest in the lobby, though it's bristling with all sorts of loud celebrants, drunkards and so on. A kindly black maintenance man Joel Fluellen assists her with her luggage.

Heston, having dropped Wyman off in the lobby, takes another look and sees that she is being heavily accosted by a local yahoo who's had a bit too much to drink. He comes over and breaks up the fun with Wyman drily remarking that the guy had wanted to celebrate his "gusher" with her. Ha!
With that, he tells her he knows of a place that likely has a room she can use and a bed to lie down in. Wary as she is, the hotel lobby is annoying enough that she risks it and joins him on a muddy trek down the "street" to the house he's referring to. The home belongs to crusty Thelma Ritter, who comes out onto the porch in a bit of a tizzy.

Ritter can't understand why Heston bothered to ring the doorbell at that hour. Come to find out, this is actually where HE lives and he's opted to let the hoity-toity Wyman spend the night in his bed while he bunks on the couch downstairs. She's so exhausted by this point that she barely puts up any argument with the gesture.

The following morning, Wyman sets out to the still mud-soaked town in (as one does...) a neatly tailored suit with a fur-trimmed hat and a matching purse made entirely of lined fur! Yet, she's still sporting her li'l plastic booties, much to the befuddlement of the locals. Ritter introduces her to a neighbor woman and her daughter (recent oil heiresses themselves), shown below, who marvel at the clothing and accessories that Wyman is wearing.
Next, we find that Ritter's husband Wallace Ford has struck oil himself! He rambunc- tiously ripsnorts around, happy to be part of the never-ending boom that this once-sleepy Texas town is experiencing.

Wyman comes upon an abandoned makeshift storefront as well as the friendly black man Fluellen again, who'd been pitching in there previously. She gets a sudden brainstorm and decides to sell every lick of her fancy clothing and accessories, including the white suitcases, to the newly-rich local ladies, turning the storefront into a fashion outlet.

Having sold out everything, she counts up her earnings ($2,500.00) and gives impromptu assistant Fluellen (whose name in the movie is "Summertime!") his fair share.  We soon find that her back-breaking assortment of clothing-filled luggage was actually intended to be her wedding trousseau.

She heads over to the bank after Heston has dropped in on her once again. He's surprised to hear that she's not leaving New City, nor depositing her stack of cash. She wants to borrow even more money and set up an actual store. Now that she's had a taste of just how hungry for quality merchandise the ladies of the town are, she intends to capitalize on it and make a name for herself.

The local banker William Demarest can hardly believe his ears when Wyman outlines her plan, but he's also powerless to deny her reasoning and initial success. Ever industrious, she even grabs hold of the man painting Demarest's offices and coerces him into changing the color of the walls!

She has her eye on a particular location, one that happens to already be occupied by a popular watering hole, The Red Derrick. It's owner, Claire Trevor, really isn't interested in selling it, but seeing that not only is Demarest behind Wyman's plan, but also that Wyman intends to play fair by offering Trevor 5% of all profits, she relents and sells the place. Before you know it, the building is being renovated into Gallant's ladies store!
Heston stops in during the remodeling and manages to spirit Wyman away from all the hubbub for lunch out on his ranch. Clearly still smitten with her, she remains detached to a degree, not ready to turn her back on this daunting but delicious new enterprise of hers.

Now, with so many of the residents well-to-do and with her store a rousing hit, Wyman is part of the newly-formed social elite and, though he doesn't have the money, so is Heston. Wyman heads to his place to drag him to a party, but he's not in the mood. He's going to allow drilling on his land and wants Wyman to settle down and marry him.
Despite her feelings for him, Wyman just cannot abandon her new career. She was jilted on the big day of her wedding by a fiance when her father's ques- tionable business practices led to a scandal. She's now out to prove herself and come out from under that upsetting legacy. (The characters' divergent worlds are made clear in this shot, with her cotton candy pink gown resting against a rugged mantel with hunting dog statuary and a rifle hanging above!)

After Wyman won't capitulate to his overtures of wedded bliss, Heston ties one on with Ford and some of the other boys, spending the night at Trevor's new digs. It's clear that the one-time bar owner (a brothel in the source novella!) has her own set of feelings for Heston, but he's pretty hung up on Wyman. (The lobby card below depicts the riveting scene of three actors standing on set between takes, perhaps thinking about the blocking...)
WWII breaks out and Heston joins up with the U.S. Army. Wyman (now matured and minus the slightly longer hair she once possessed - I absolutely HATE this style on her by the way...) now lives in an elegantly-appointed apartment and fixes up glitzy gift boxes for her faraway paramour.

Eventually she adopts the camellia as her signature motif and begins incor- porating it into her newest logo, decorating the boxes with them and, if one pays attention to detail, even starts wearing versions of them in and on her clothing! Heston doesn't get any guff from his fellow G.I.s when these frou-frou boxes arrive. They're all happy to share the contents! (And this is the sole bit of beefcake we ever see in the movie.)
Once the war is over, Heston returns to New City still in uniform and is amazed to see the neon sign of Gallant's dominating the block. He heads over to Ford and Ritter's place where a party is in full swing. Ritter pretends to be derisive of him for being a big shot war hero, but it's only to cover her inner tenderness towards him.

She reintroduces him to the local neighbor girl whose parents had earlier struck it rich. (The girl, played by Gloria Talbott, had earlier this same year portrayed Wyman's selfish, self-indulgent daughter in All That Heaven Allows, 1955, so this virtual walk-on role was quite a come-down in such short time!)

Finally, he is reunited with Wyman, whose been swimming in the pool and quickly dons a pink cover-up. They initially spar (this couple always seems to quarrel more than they canoodle) over something or other, but later he follows her home and they drop all their anger and begin to make out!
In just the time it takes for her to slip out of her damp swimsuit and into a satin robe, things have already begun to cool again, though. He is still hell-bent on marrying her and asking her to give up her dream of a major store just as she is on the cusp of opening another location, the biggest and best yet!

He storms out, then the next day she begins to think about the fight they've had and heads to his ranch. Only, just as she arrives, he's struck oil! Now he'll be wealthy beyond belief and he celebrates by guzzling booze out of a bottle. She pulls up to talk to him and instead gets an earful about how he believes she heard about his oil strike and thinks she can glom onto him to finance her new store! With this, she disgustedly tells him she hopes he enjoys his oil and tears off.

Things are about to head south for her, though. As she pulls into town, it becomes clear that Gallant's has caught fire and burnt! Fluellen has managed to rescue some of the company books, but otherwise the place is dead in the water. She tells Ritter that she still wants to proceed with the new location, but now lacks the collateral of the present store.
Heston, realizing (for once) what a jerk he's been to Wyman, instructs Demarest to put up his own money for her new store, then he leaves town on a whirlwind world tour that includes sightseeing, marriage to a hot model, drinking, gambling, divorce from the hot model and then back again! Meanwhile, Wyman is shown looking up at the sparkling new logo of her latest store (and sports a coat and glove combination that is highly representative of what Edith Head was dressing ladies in at that time. And why not, Head was the designer of the clothing in this film!)
Ever reliable Trevor picks Heston up at the airport. Since there is always a party going on in this town, Trevor brings him to the latest one. There he finds Wyman more duded out than ever, with an escort on her arm, and just on the eve of unleashing the newest version of Gallant's onto the public. A huge debut is scheduled for the following morning.
Wyman is, once again, handed some devastating news, though. While all the salesgirls are buffing and polishing the place, and the always-reliable Fluellen is dressed up and ready to let the public enter, Wyman holds a directors meeting and is informed that her escort from the prior night, her assistant Tom Helmore, is ousting her from her position as head of the company and taking over himself!
Now, she's forced to put on a happy face and head downstairs for the gala opening of a company that won't even be hers any more by the time the event is over... But what an event. The (real life!) governor of Texas at the time, Allan Shivers, is there to commemorate the televised occasion. Hilariously, though, the audience for this big deal seems awfully teensy... maybe it was a very stringently managed guest list!

Anyway, the fashion show gets underway and Wyman steps forward to introduce the special guest comment- ator, Miss Edith Head! (No matter how many times I see this - or, really, most any Head public appearance - I always marvel at the unusual way she stands. Her hips swivel a certain way and her legs dart out in a very individual manner.)

But the really odd thing is that Head appears as herself, a clothing designer, introducing clothes that she - in the movie - didn't design, but which - in real life - she did! Not to mention the fact that she's appearing as herself in this movie, but she designed all the clothes for the movie... but we're not supposed to be reminded this blatantly that we're watching a movie... Right?!  (LOL  "Tell yourself... it's only a movie!") Jesus...

Anyway, the clothes are so distinctively in her style for the most part. They are trotted out on a rotating, circular stage with the sleek models using a variety of props to suggest the outfits' usage. I love listening to Head describe the fabrics and colors of these allegedly international fashions.

The movie ends with Wyman at a crossroads with her company on the line and Heston standing in back at the fashion show with perhaps a helping hand. But at what price? The way the scenario is ultimately resolved is not likely to leave a good taste in contemporary viewers' mouths, but consider the year this was made: 1954.

This story, adapted from a novella called "The Life of Lucy Gallant," drew its inspiration from some degree of real life people and events. In particular, one Carrie Marcus who, with her husband Al Neiman and others, created the famous Neiman-Marcus department store chain in Dallas, Texas. The original store was even destroyed in a fire (like Gallant's) and the chain later incorporated luxurious weekly fashion shows on site.

Miss Wyman began playing dancers, chorus girls and other bit parts way back in 1932, earning bigger and better roles as the decade began to come to a close. During the 1940s, she came to star in some important films such as The Lost Weekend (1945), The Yearling (1946, earning an Oscar nom but the award going to Olivia de Havilland for To Each His Own) and especially Johnny Belinda (1948), which did her a Best Actress Oscar. Another nomination came with The Blue Veil (1951), but Vivien Leigh won that year for A Streetcar Named Desire.

She'd amasses a resume of surprisingly varied sorts of roles, but in the mid-'50s became known for a series of melodramatic movies such as Magnificent Obsession (1954, earning her a final Oscar nomination, the award of which went to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl), All That Heaven Allows (1955) - both of which costarred Rock Hudson - then Lucy Gallant and Miracle in the Rain (1956), thereafter segueing more into TV with an occasional Disney movie like Pollyanna (1960) or Bon Voyage! (1962.)

The 1980s brought her as much widespread attention as she'd received in her hey day, for not only was her ex-husband (wed from 1940-1948) Ronald Reagan elected President of the United States, but she held the leading role on a hit prime-time soap called Falcon Crest. She portrayed the stylish, but steely, vineyard matriarch Angela Channing who rode heard over her family (while disciplined Wyman reportedly ran heard over some of the cast!) After nearly a decade on that series, she made on final acting gig (on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) in 1993 before retiring. In 2007, complications from arthritis and diabetes claimed her at age ninety.
As one might guess from his second-billing here, Heston was not yet the cinematic powerhouse he would soon become during the '60s and '70s. Having held his own against several established stars in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), he had already begun to play the sort of larger than life roles he'd later be famous for such as President Andrew Jackson in The President's Lady (1953.)

He had just done a role fairly similar to this one in 1954's The Naked Jungle as a spoiled, chauvinistic plantation owner at odds with his mail-order bride Eleanor Parker and later admitted that he'd been a tad too surly in Lucy Gallant. He was already at work on his next role (one that would become legendary for him) of Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956.) His biggest triumph, however, came as the title character in the Oscar-winning Best Picture Ben-Hur (1959), for which he also took home the golden statuette.

Many historical epics and disaster movies followed as he grew more and more bankable (and, to many, more and more granite-jawed!) Ironically, he would also find himself headlining a 1980s prime-time soap of his own, The Colbys, though it wasn't a fraction as popular or long-lasting as Wyman's Falcon Crest. Heston died in 2008 at the age of eighty-four from pneumonia.

Trevor was a highly-valued character actress, often playing rough-edged dames or ladies in distress of some sort. Having begun acting in movies in the early-1930s, she scored an Oscar nomination for Dead End (1937) - which went to Alice Brady for In Old Chicago, then won one later for 1948's Key Largo. Just before Lucy Gallant, she'd earned a third and final nomination for The High and the Mighty (1954), though that one went to Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront.

Trevor retired in the mid-'60s, concentrating on theatre near her home, but after her husband's passing did work a bit more in the 1980s. When she died in 2000 at the age of ninety from respiratory failure, the University of California-Irvine renamed their school of the arts in her honor, for she and her husband had donated $10 million to its development.

Ritter, an indis- pensable supporting player, didn't even start acting until she was in her mid-forties (with an uncredited bit in Miracle on 34th Street, 1947), but soon became a busy, sought-after performer. Ritter never took home an Oscar despite being nominated six times. I won't list all the winners, but her nominated roles came for All About Eve (1950), The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953, in a role that Trevor would later essay in the remake The Cape Town Affair, 1967), Pillow Talk (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962.) A heart attack claimed her in 1969 at the age of sixty-seven.

Her husband in the film, Ford, was a successful Broadway actor who made the jump to films in the 1930s and was the leading actor in the bizarre Freaks (1932.) He kept very busy in movies until working alongside Henry Fonda on the TV series The Deputy in 1959. His final role was as Ole Pa in the searing A Patch of Blue (1965), the after which he passed away of a heart attack at age sixty-eight.

Demarest is yet another busy, familiar face lending support to this film. His screen career kicked off in 1927 and he remained an active performer, often in crotchety, cranky sorts of roles. He was Oscar-nominated for 1946's The Jolson Story, but lost to Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives. His greatest chance at becoming a household name, however, came in 1965 when he replaced William Frawley on My Three Sons as the cantankerous, but loving, Uncle Charlie through the series' demise in 1972. He worked a little bit more through 1978 before passing away from pneumonia and prostate cancer in 1983 at age ninety-one.

Hellmore worked in bit parts from the late-1920s on, later essaying businessman roles in various comedies or potentially shady romantic types. Fans of Vertigo (1958) will instantly recognize him as Gavin Elster, the old pal of James Stewart's who kicks off all the mystery of the story. He retired in 1972, but lived on until 1995 when he passed of natural causes at age ninety-one.

Talbott worked as a child actress before becoming very busy as a young lady in the 1950s. This was only one of the films she had in release in 1955 alone, the others being Crashout, All That Heaven Allows and We're No Angels along with no less than a dozen appearances on TV! She worked steadily, eventually segueing into sci-fi and horror movies, until 1966 when she retired. She lived until the year 2000 when kidney failure claimed her at age sixty-nine.

As one might expect from the era, Fluellen began his career playing waiters, bartenders and other such parts (including more than a few natives) from the late-1930s on. As the '50s continued, he found opportunities for parts in such films as Friendly Persuasion (1956), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). The Decks Ran Red (1959) and Porgy and Bess (1959.) He also appeared in Raisin in the Sun (1961), Roustabout (1964) and The Chase (1966) among other films and much TV, always striving for better roles for himself and his peers. He retired from a lengthy, busy career in 1986, but died by his own hand in 1990 at age eighty-two.

Lucy Gallant is directed capably enough by Robert Parrish, but this movie screams out for the more garish, florid style of Douglas Sirk, who'd done Wyman's earlier hits Magnificent Obsession and All that Heaven Allows. The passion is never quite heated beyond a light simmer and it remains, for the most part, a rather "buttoned-up" sort of occasion.


In this poster, something symbolically (and literally!) seems to be coming between them!
The original photo used for the above artwork may reveal that they were closer together in the portrait, then had their lower halves spread apart slightly to make room for the oil well (the gusher!) I think Heston's legs and Wyman's rear end are bent back further?

This movie fell into some marketing difficulty. After all, Lucy Gallant doesn't really tell us anything. So in some places the publicity photos were taped over with a new name for the film "Oil Town!" (See left.) The poor gents who headed into the theater to see a rugged oil-boom movie and instead were faced with Wyman and her fashion frills...

Foreign promotion was even more misleading at times. NOTHING about this lobby card (for a later re-release) apart from the inset still photo has a thing to do with Lucy Gallant...

This card has depictions of the stars that scarcely resemble them! I'm not sure who Wyman looks like in this drawing, but Heston resembles humpy Steve Cochran more than anyone, the dark hair and eyebrows not helping at all.

I love the artwork in this final foreign release poster, but note how the billing has been changed with Heston on top and figuring in the center while Wyman is relegated to far smaller typeface! (But even here, Heston looks more like George Peppard than himself...!)

If you ever get the chance to see this, you should do so. It could have been a better movie, but it does entertain in spite of itself and has an array of great character actors and a parade of interesting sets and clothes. It was a great relief to finally get to revel in it once again after such a long spate of it being locked away somewhere.