Thursday, December 27, 2018

Some Tra-La-Las for "The Road to Oz"

Next year will be 2019, the 80th anniversary of that much-heralded year for movies, 1939. (In just that year, the world was given Babes in Arms, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Drums Along the Mohawk, Gone with the Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Gunga Din, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, The Women, Wuthering Heights and even more!) A chief film of 1939 which will be celebrating its 80th birthday is The Wizard of Oz, a movie beloved by countless throngs of fans worldwide. And marking the occasion is a new book called "The Road to Oz: The Evolution, Creation, and Legacy of a Motion Picture Masterpiece" by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman.

These particular authors, incredibly devoted fans of the film, have already put forth three books pertaining to The Wizard of Oz including one on the many pieces of memorabilia and collectibles, one on the special effects magic of the movie and a 75th anniversary companion to the film, loaded down with beautiful photos and tidbits of information regarding the treasured classic. This time, they've put together an exhaustive, almost textbook-like account of how a series of children's books segued to the stage then to silent film and finally - after a long, rocky, yellow brick road - to a high-profile, highly-anticipated feature, the likes of which will never be seen again.

We do not write much about The Wizard of Oz here because generally our interest lies in digging up lesser-known people and properties to muse about, but there have occasionally been times we've grazed the subject. There was our brief, early tribute to the marvelous Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West to a fare thee well, an in-depth look at movie dogs which included the beloved Terry (who portrayed Toto) and a profile of Frank Morgan, who deftly played the title character (and a couple of others!)

It's not because we don't love and adore the movie that it doesn't get written about much here. It's because there are plenty of sites, books, docu- mentaries and so on that have already covered it in-depth, so there isn't much need for me to throw my tin hat in the ring. I absolutely love the film. Just when you think that there isn't anything that could possibly be dug up about it, though, the authors of "The Road to Oz" have done just that. Scarfone and Stillman have painstakingly gone through stacks and stacks of documentation, archival material and photos and transformed their findings into a dense, meticulously-researched telling of all the things that went into making the movie. (Also, persistent rumors and myths are addressed along the way!)

That's one Oliver Hardy of Laurel & Hardy as The Tin Man
Diehard fans know (or, in some cases, think they know) practically everything about Oz. I never claimed to be one of those, but I like to think I am up on a lot of the trivia. However, I was certainly not up to snuff on much of the pre-1939 information, such as the stage and radio adaptations or the silent rendition of the story. One thing I didn't know was that a 1955 Best Actress nominee had once played Dorothy Gale in a radio series of the tale. All of this is provided in detail and how certain parts of each project found their way into the MGM feature.

Cantor with Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch.
Speaking of, MGM only got hold of the property after Samuel Goldwyn had tried for a time to launch his own production. Eddie Cantor, a major 1930s film comedian, would have starred in that rendition had it seen the light of day. I also didn't realize at all how closely associated Walt Disney's Snow White was to the film, at least in the minds of moviegoers. Disney had his eye on the material for a time as well and his 1937 animated stunner Snow White was the benchmark for fantasy escapism. It never dawned on me that viewers might compare and contrast the two movies.
The elegant Queen from Snow White (based on the features of Miss Joan Crawford) even inspired the first look chosen for The Wicked Witch when she was to be played by Gale Sondergaard, but ultimately it was determined to go scary and craggy instead. When this happened, Sondergaard took a hike, not wanting to appear horrid and ugly, something she clearly got over by the time of 1976's The Return of a Man Called Horse, in which she played a heavily-wrinkled Indian woman!
Garland with her initial blonde locks.
Some movies are planned out to the last detail and filmed with barely a hitch. Some others are a harried, discombobulated mess all during filming and then turn out startlingly well (the 1942 classic Casablanca comes to mind.) For as polished and gloriously resplendent as Oz is, you'd hardly know just how much turmoil went on behind the scenes, particularly at the start. There were injuries, effects challenges (which brought about great innovation) and even a director change and the scrapping of some completed scenes (in order to completely overhaul the way Judy Garland looked as Dorothy!) This apart from sequences that were filmed, but later cut from the movie for either time or to avoid future anachronism (such as an entire musical number "The Jitterbug.")
Jitterbug, anyone? This sequence has never been rediscovered after cutting, only appearing in some grainy "home movie" type footage.
Was the floor of this set inspired by an earlier project?
It's a fascinating read and, while there are indeed photos included, some rarely if ever seen, this is not in any way a "coffee table" book. It's a very intensive look at the people and production components of one of the world's favorite movies. Thus, it may not be for the casual fan. However, for those who have a cinematic obsession, there can never be too much trivia or too much information. We want to know it all.

Also, at least as of this writing, the book has the rather considerable distinction of having nearly a dozen reviews on Amazon.com and they are ALL five-star rated! (On a personal note, I was excited that the authors included recognition of the Mego figures that came out in the early-1970s as I positively loved those toys!) Anyone wanting more information on this brand new book may find it right here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Sally, and How(es)!

Today's featured actress is predominantly known in the U.S. for one thing, though she has led a long and varied career for well over sixty years! A funny, feisty, fabulous songbird who is at home in both comedy and drama, Sally Ann Howes has been charming folks for practically her entire life. She came into this world on July 20th, 1930 in London, England.
Born to one of Britain's most popular variety performers, Bobby Howes, and his wife Patricia, a singer and actress in her own right, Howes was raised amid a virtual enclave of creative people. Adjoining neighbors were also employed in show business. Her mother's brother was an actor and her own older brother grew up to be a musician. Performing was simply in all of their blood (though her grandfather on her mother's side was a decorated sergeant for heroics in The Charge of the Light Brigade, so derring do was also part of her heritage.

Howes, who had performed at school and possessed a vivacious personality, suddenly got a major life change at age twelve when a visiting agent friend of her parents suggested her for the lead in an upcoming movie. Two hundred (!) girls had already been tested and rejected to play a young actress whose success disrupts her family life considerably. The film Thursday's Child (1942) offered her star billing right out of the gate.

Enjoying the acting process, she proceeded further with roles in The Halfway House (1944), which starred real life father and daughter Mervyn Johns and Glynis Johns, and Dead of Night (1945) also with Mervyn Johns, whose alphabetical billing put her atop Googie Withers and Michael Wilding on the posters.

By 1947, the lovely teen was working in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby as Kate and the following year was cast in Anna Karenina (1948) as Kitty alongside Ralph Richardson and Vivien Leigh. (She's pictured below with costar Kieron Moore.)
Having grown up to be a lithe, lovely young lady, she was either costarring along with major stars like John Mills (as in The History of Mr. Polly, 1949) or receiving top-billing in minor movies like Fools Rush In (1949), as a bride-to-be facing comedic complications prior to her wedding. In 1950, however, she terminated a contract with Rank Studios to begin work on the stage. (That same year she wed for the first time, but the marriage didn't last beyond 1951.)
She did the musical Caprice, followed by Bet Your Life. British TV offered some wonderful musical opportunities for her as well, such as when she won the title role in Cinderella (1950) and then did The Golden Year (1951), a musical production written specially for her. An unquestionable highlight came in 1953 when she was able to join her father in a West End production of Paint Your Wagon, which ran for a year and a half and was then presented on TV in 1954.
While already succeeding in stage musicals, she took a 180-degree turn with the "kitchen sink" drama A Hatful of Rain, winning over critics who enthus- iastically responded to her dramatic talents. In 1957, she appeared on movie screens again, as seen here, in The Admirable Crichton (known in the U.S. as "Paradise Lagoon.")
The 1902 J.M. Barrie stage play concerns a butler (Kenneth Moore) who saves the lives of his aristocratic employers after a shipwreck. The colorful film offers up visuals that seem to have informed future projects as diverse as Gilligan's Island and The Blue Lagoon (1980!) At the end of the film, Howes is shown to great effect in a white, silk,
form-fitting gown and an ornate hairdo. This was to be a bit of an omen for a whole new chapter in her life.
Howes had been offered the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady for the U.S. tour, but turned it down. A second offer was also turned down in order that she could make Crichton. A third offer - one that would allow the Broadway play's Julie Andrews to leave and do the show in London - was too great to turn down. She headed for the Great White Way to inherit the plum role (at a higher rate of pay than had been given Andrews.)
Her arrival was heralded by Life magazine, who placed her on their cover, and her interpretation of the role was a smashing success. Now opposite Edward Mulhare as Professor Henry Higgins, she was making her mark in The Big Apple and would soon be appearing in additional Broadway musicals.

But first, there was a big change in her personal life. She met and married Richard Adler, composer of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees!, who soon composed a television project catered to her voice, The Gift of the Magi. Her costar in this was glorious Gordon MacRae, though one Bea Arthur also popped up in it.

Adler attempted to fashion a musical for his wife (and now muse) from Of Human Bondage, but it didn't come to pass. However, he created another Broadway show for her which was more than unusual for its time. Kwamina was a gargantuan project with a story set in Africa and starring Howes as a female doctor who becomes involved with, in fact, in love with the black son (Terry Carter) of a chief. With Agnes de Mille in charge of hordes of dancers on an elaborate set, it was a spectacle, but was clearly ahead of its time and closed after a month. (Her father had also just endured a Broadway flop that year with a 12-performance revival of Finian's Rainbow.)

Better things were on the horizon, however. She appeared in a revival of Brigadoon which, while it too was a flop, was personally requested to be performed for President and Mrs. Kennedy at The White House and resulted in her getting a Tony nomination, the first one ever granted to a performer in a revival. (Ironically, it was Vivien Leigh, with whom she'd once worked, who won that year for Tovarich.)

Next on her plate was the 1964 musical What Makes Sammy Run?, opposite Steve Lawrence and Robert Alda. This one was, at last, a hit, running for 540 performances. One mishap occurred during the run that warranted a filmed interview with Howes afterwards. The steel door on her dressing room became locked and impenetrable, causing her to be stuck inside for a time and unable to make it to the stage for her next scene! Lawrence was forced to ad-lib for ten minutes until she could be freed and brought out to perform.
During this time period, the Broadway years, Howes became a frequent panelist on many of the hit (and, around here, immortal!) quiz shows of the day like I've Got a Secret, Password and, in particular, To Tell the Truth.
During a game of Password.
Always bubbly, with a daffy, self-deprecating sense of humor and ripe for ribbing by fellow panelist Johnny Carson, Howes was always elegantly dressed in a pretty gown and ever with just the right piece of jewelry pinned in camera range.

She also began appearing on practically every variety show of note, sharing songs of romance, comedy or longing with countless American TV viewers. When the mother of her husband's two sons passed away in 1964, she adopted them both. Sadly, her marriage to Adler ended just two years later, however. (One of the boys, Christopher Adler, grew up to be a Broadway lyricist until he was claimed by AIDS in 1984.)

A 1966 television production of Brigadoon made quite a splash for Howes. Starring Robert Goulet, Peter Falk, it was filmed partially outdoors (with rural California standing in for the Scottish Highlands) and showcased the still-lovely songstress as she and Goulet warbled the famous songs from the piece together and apart.

The program won five Emmys, including Best Musical Program, and was a ratings success, but astonish- ingly ABC never rebroadcast it and reportedly erased all their copies of it! Sponsored by Armstrong flooring company, some ragged videos still exist out there.

A reunion of sorts occurred in 1966 when Howes guest starred on Run for Your Life. Wearing a swirling hairpiece (practically every female guest on this show had glitzy clothing, hair and jewelry), her character was married to Edward Mulhare, her Broadway costar from My Fair Lady!
She also did a 1966 installment of Journey Into Fear with Jeffrey Hunter. A little-known fact (which was unknown to me prior to researching this post!) is that she and Hunter dated for a while and almost got engaged! One thing that may have led to the fizzling of this relationship was the fact that she was heading back to England for what would be more than a year of preparation and filming her next project...

Following the smash success of Mary Poppins (1964), it was producer Cubby Broccoli's intention to re-team that film's stars Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in another musical, with songs by the same duo, The Sherman Brothers. Andrews passed on the part, which next fell into Howe's lap. She immediately underwent dance training (for numbers to be staged by the same team who handled The Sound of Music, 1965) and met up with Van Dyke in England for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The title referred to a battered race car which was lovingly restored by a mad inventor and widower (Van Dyke) who is father to two children. He meets cute with the beautiful Truly Scrumptious (Howes), daughter of a highly successful candy magnate and they begin a relationship.

However, midway through the tale, things take a fantastic turn when the four of them wind up in a dictatorship called Vulgaria, wherein a buffoonish baron has outlawed the presence of children and has decided he wants the car for himself. It's up to Van Dyke and Howes (and, ultimately, the car itself) to rescue the kids and get outta dodge.

Part of the plan involves the couple dressing up as life-size toys to amuse the evil baron, with Van Dyke as a floppy marionette and Howes as a ratcheting, rotating doll on a music box. The deceptively complicated number required Howes to move her appendages to the beat while simultaneously singing through the song at a different tempo. She completed the performance in one-take, causing the extras to burst into applause.

While the film never came close to the staggering success of Mary Poppins (and some lamebrained critics like Leonard Maltin - who called it an "Edsel" and "tuneless" - were unimpressed), it was a decent-sized hit and eventually became a cherished favorite of many a child. True to form, it took a while before I truly appreciated the exquisite loveliness that Howes brought to the movie because as a kid I didn't get the heated conflict between Van Dyke at her at the start. (Remember, I used to hate The Baroness, too, when I was a child!) She was radiant in the role and sported a parade of frilly fashion confections throughout. Lastly, I, for one, was utterly petrified of Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher and didn't go near an ice cream truck for years!
This major musical movie led to more appearances on TV variety programs, including Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby.

She then appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, looking lovely and singing with her customary skill.Am I alone in seeing a little Princess Grace in her styling?
She also was in contention as a replacement for Barbara Bain (who'd left during a contract dispute involving her husband) on Mission: Impossible. She filled in, looking very glamorous in the show's opening moments, for a 1969 installment of the venerable spy show, but ultimately the series went with the surprising choice of young Lesley Ann Warren as a female regular. Howes had a third (very brief) marriage around this time as well.

She was still on hand for television games shows from time to time, as on What's My Line?, where she still brought all the same wacky enthusiasm she'd displayed a decade prior on other shows.
Several other TV appearances followed on Bracken's World, The Virginian and Marcus Welby, M.D. She also did a pilot called Prudence and the Chief, which was a wild west take off on The King and I! Rick Jason played an Indian chief while she was a schoolteacher. Soon enough, she'd be working on the real thing. Back in England, she joined Peter Wyngarde in a production of The King and I. (The shots below are from a TV appearance promoting the show.)
While away from movies and television for the better part of the mid-to-late '70s, she was nonetheless very active on stage. She did various perfor- mances of The Sound of Music, another The King and I - this time opposite Ricardo Montalban, I Do! I Do! and Robert and Elizabeth. In 1980, she returned to the screen in the positively dreadful Death Ship (as seen below), with Richard Crenna and George Kennedy.
Since this, she has continued to work on stage in such demanding roles as Queen Gertrude in Hamlet to musical ones like Desiree in A Little Night Music. In 2000, she made a belated return to Broadway in support of Blair Brown in a musical version of James Joyce's The Dead. Her replacement in the show was Marni Nixon.

Miss Howes has not worked in movies or on TV since 1992 since she was in the ensemble of a soapy show called Secrets with David Birney, Jaime Lyn Bauer and Peggy Lipton. She continued on stage, however, in Dear World and even played Mrs. Higgins in an American tour of My Fair Lady.

She wed for a final time in 1973 and she and her husband frequently make happy, elegant appear- ances together in Palm Beach and elsewhere. Always effortlessly tasteful and stylish, even now at eighty-eight, she has been part of various documentaries about Broadway and the children's film she co-starred in.
As of this writing, she and the incredible Dick Van Dyke (at ninety-three) are still with us and are happily aware of the long-term impact and success of the fanciful movie they made together.

We always liked Sally Ann Howes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but we grew to love her from her infectiously fun and personality-revealing appearances on To Tell the Truth. She didn't have the cinematic career that she seemed destined for, but clearly loved and adored the stage and so it mattered little to her in the long run. The only ones who suffered from her lack of filmed work from the mid-'70s on are those like me who always want to see more of her! She truly is scrumptious.