Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Dance Party: A Posh Life

The star of this week's Dance Party appeared in 70 films throughout his lengthy career, excelling at both the comic buffoon and the menacing villain. But his greatest achievements were in creating a children's film classic, and being in one.



His career took off in the 1950s, when he became a supporting star of the British film industry in such films as The Colditz Story, opposite Eric Porter and John Mills, and Two-Way Stretch opposite Peter Sellers. He offered a brute performance as the loutish Marquis of Queensbury in The Trials of Oscar Wilde, starring Peter Finch.

By age 19 he had lost his hair, and an ill-advised experiment with a toupee did not end well (he claimed it looked like a dead moth on a boiled egg). He attended RADA, as the only bald student, and was soon making stage appearances in Lorca and Giraudoux. In addition to a booming film career, he often returned to the stage, and appeared on Broadway in 1987, playing Pickering opposite Peter O'Toole's Henry Higgins and Amanda Plummer's Pygmalion.

In the 70s, he became a film writer and director of some note with his production of The Railway Children, considered by some to be a classic of the family film genre. (He bought the film rights at the insistence of his young daughter for 600 pounds.)

Jeffries is well-remembered for his appearances in two film musicals of the late 60s. He played King Pellinore in the all-star Camelot, opposite Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave, and in 1968, contributed a charming performance opposite Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It is from this classic children's musical that the following clip is plucked. You don't really need to know the details, do you? Surely everybody knows the story of the flying, floating, magic car, and the attempts by the evil Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria to steal the invention. Jeffries's performance as Grandpa Potts is a scene stealer, spending much of the film in an outhouse, which, as you can see, is being abducted by the villains in this clip.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had a score by the Sherman Brothers, working off the Disney lot this time, and was based on a fantasy novel by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame. Jeffries plays Dick Van Dyke's father in the film, though was himself six months younger than the star. It's a marvel what a bald head and a grey beard can do. Enjoy:

Lionel Jeffries died this week at the age of 83.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My One And Only Line

We had a crowded weekend of rehearsals for Lord Arthur Savile's Crime at the Washington Stage Guild; at this point in the rehearsal process, I usually need to actively disengage from the show during downtime; otherwise, I obsess. It was time for a road trip! And by that I mean, it was time to pop a movie into the player, and imagine a road trip.

Sunday, our rehearsal began late in the day, so I took the opportunity to sit down with a film which has been in my Netflix Queue for many months, My One and Only. Remember this one? It's not the Broadway musical of the same name (that one was a Tommy Tune hit built around Gershwin standards, and co-starred Twiggy, of all people). Anyway, this movie was released over a year ago, and starred Renee Zellweger as a divorced mother of two boys, who takes her kids on an adventure to find a rich husband. The story is based loosely on one summer of George Hamilton's life, when he was a teenager.

My One and Only was not a success, either critically or financially, and provided more proof that Zellweger should never be the headliner of a movie. I am not a big fan of hers, though I don't actively hate her as many others do; I certainly don't think she has any business trying to carry a major motion picture. She had some pleasant supporting players, including Chris Noth, Eric McCormack, and the lovely and talented Kevin Bacon, and the two young actors playing her sons weren't bad at all. But the movie does not hold together well, and the episodes look better on the page than on the screen.

When the film was released, over a year ago, it lasted only a week or two, at least in DC theatres. I enjoy Kevin Bacon, but was not impressed with the reviews this thing was getting, so I dismissed any thought of going to see it. The movie had come and gone before I remembered I actually had a good reason to see the film: I'm in it.

I don't do much film work (I wrote about my movie career, such as it is, here), but every once in a while, I get a call from Pat Moran, my favorite local casting director. Located in Baltimore, Pat has a national reputation, as she handled casting for Homicide and The Wire, two long-running TV series which were shot in Maryland. She also handled all of John Waters's films, which is how I landed in his Pecker years ago. The experience was a good one, and Pat occasionally calls me in for projects, but only when the role resembles that flamboyant character from Pecker.

Almost two years ago, when My One and Only was on its way to the area to shoot, Pat called me in to read for one of the dozens of day player roles she had to cast with local talent. A "day player" is an actor hired for a small role which is scheduled to take only a day or two to shoot, as opposed to a larger role which would require an actor to be hired per week.

As soon as I got to Pat's office and read the scene, I knew I was too old to play the character for which she had called me in. It was a good part for me, if I were a little younger or Zellweger was a little older (the role was an old boyfriend of her character's); I gave a nice reading anyway, though both Pat and I knew I was not right for this one. A week or so later, she called me in again, this time to read for a drama teacher who casts one of Zellweger's sons in a high school production. This was also a good role for me, and it included an absolutely hilarious speech about Othello or Oedipus or MacBeth or one of those guys, I don't remember. I DO remember that the reading went very, very well, and a day later, I was called by Pat's office and offered the part.

Several weeks later, I reported to wardrobe for fittings, and it was there that I discovered that I had not been hired to play the hilarious drama teacher, but had instead been cast in the dull role of Radford Teacher #2. (I wrote about that shoot here). I had exactly one line, in support of the young George Hamilton character, and it was a righteous bore. I don't mind admitting I was quite disappointed to get this decidedly less-important role.

I became so disinterested in the gig that I did not even notice that I was being photographed by Marco Pontecorvo, who had just finished the HBO series Rome, one of my favorite recent television programs. And if I had bothered to Google the film's director, Richard Loncraine, I would have discovered he was responsible for filming Ian McKellen's Richard III as well as one of my favorite TV movies of all time, My House in Umbria, starring Maggie Smith.
My One and Only spent several weeks filming in the Baltimore / DC area back in the spring of 2008, and I know many others who worked on the project. When I finally got the chance to see the movie this weekend during my precious downtime, I expected to see lots of local actors on that screen. But it didn't happen that way. When I sat down to watch this flick, I discovered that the first role I read for (the old boyfriend) had been cut completely. The second role for which I auditioned (the drama teacher) was also left on the cutting room floor. But my scene as Radford Teacher #2 was left intact, as was my one innocuous line (and I even got a very quick close-up).

When the final credits rolled, there were at least a dozen local names I recognized, though only one or two ended up in the final cut of the film. Apparently, many scenes were cut to bring this mediocre movie down to fighting weight, including those containing the bigger, brighter roles for which I auditioned. I didn't get to play anyone special, but still, it seemed somebody wanted me to end up in My One and Only, uttering these fascinating words:

"Tell us about your summer, George."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Back in the (Savile) Saddle

It's been about four weeks since we began rehearsal for Lord Arthur Savile's Crime at the Washington Stage Guild, though it hardly seems so. I had every intention of chronicling each step in the rehearsal process, but those good intentions fell to the wayside as outside forces (ie: SNOW, REPEATEDLY) intervened.

It was quite a while ago when our first week of rehearsal set the tone for the rather loosey goosey scheduling we have been dealing with. The cast for the show was finalized very, very late, barely a week or two before the first rehearsal. This is phenomenally unusual for the DC area, where shows are cast months, or even a year, in advance (I have an audition next week, for example, for a show which begins rehearsal a solid year from now). Because of the late casting, everyone had scheduling conflicts which had to be accommodated. Nobody can help this, it's just the way the cookie crumbled this time.

Our first week of rehearsal, we met several nights at the home of our executive director Ann Norton, where we did a bit of table work, and enjoyed full dining privileges (this is not unusual for Stage Guild productions, where the company believes a life in the theatre includes, you know, real life). A few days later, we gathered in a small rehearsal hall at Catholic University to begin blocking. Lord Arthur Savile's Crime is an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde story, so the emphasis here is on the language rather than the physical action. We completed sketching out the movement of the play before we adjourned from Catholic and moved to the new theatre.

I may have mentioned that the Stage Guild's new theatre is new to them, but is actually a pre-existing space. The Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church in downtown DC has had this stage for years, but only recently renovated. Apparently a community theatre or two worked in this theatre, but after the renovation, the church offered the new and improved space to the outside world, and after seeing the spot, the Stage Guild snapped it up.
If the Guilders had designed the building from scratch, they would have done a few things differently (they probably would not have used stained glass in windows, for example; no word on how effective we will be in masking outside light during matinees), but as a found space, it has some charm. Truth be told, it has provided a long-deserved sigh of relief for the Guild, which has been homeless and largely dormant for more than two years. WSG will be producing at least two full productions here, and if all goes well, may settle in for a longer spell. The theatre has some challenges, as it's incredibly short in height and thus difficult to light, and the acoustics have yet to be fully tested by the Guild's customary spoken word plays. The company has already installed a new lighting grid and new flooring, which should help ease some technical problems. (The bigger problem may be, the landlords don't allow alcohol anywhere on the premises, so WSG's opening night party will be dry. )

The acting company has been in the space for several weeks now, so we have some idea of the challenges we face. The auditorium is fitted with theatre-type chairs which are quite comfortable, but are positioned on the slightest of rakes, which may prove difficult for the audience's sightlines. (The theatre was clearly imagined as a lecture hall as well as performance space, as each seat has its own fold-down desktop.)

Onstage, the proscenium is very wide, but not very deep, and provides much more space than the troupe is accustomed to. No problem here: the Guilders have never had a problem with, um, filling the space. Let's face it, they're some of the biggest hams in town, and I'm proud to be joining them again.

We are heading into our final week of rehearsal, with preview audiences showing up Thursday. We have seen no costumes, no lighting effects, and only one or two props which are not facsimiles. But the acting company seems to be in very good shape, and I have no doubt we will soon be chomping at the bit to get in front of an audience. As we head toward Opening Night, I am sure I will write more about the talented folks with whom I am sharing this stage. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Dance Party: "She Put 'Em Down Like A Man"

So said Fred Astaire about the star of this week's Dance Party, Eleanor Powell. She was the dominant female tapper of the 30s and 40s, though is not as well remembered as other later hoofers such as Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers. She was considered the only star who could out-tap Astaire, and though he partnered with her several times, word was he was intimidated by her. Their dance routine to Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" is considered a classic.

She was ordained as a minister in the Unity Church in the early fifties, and on television, headlined a Sunday morning drama series called The Faith of Our Children. The program ran several years and won some regional Emmys; two of Powell's juvenile co-stars were her son Peter Ford (Glenn Ford was Powell's first husband) and John Stillman. Don't recognize the latter's name? He grew up to become porn legend Jack Wrangler, about whom I wrote when he died last year (bring your best bow-chicka-bow-wow here to read that entry).

I seem to have wandered off track here, how did that happen? Though she partnered with everybody, Powell was best known as a solo tapper. This week's Dance Party proves why. She rehearsed and shot this sequence in her own home, in order to get the best performance out of her co-star, who almost steals the show.

The 28th anniversary of Eleanor Powell's death was last week; she died February 11th, 1982, at the age of 69.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kathryn Grayson


Her dream was to sing opera, but Louis B. Meyer had other ideas. Born in North Carolina, Grayson's family moved to Los Angeles during her teens, at a time when MGM was looking for a young talent to rival Universal's Deanna Durbin. She was teamed with Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (playing the title role), in which she sang a bit of Strauss. Her clear, bell-tone soprano was used to good effect in Showboat, Kiss Me Kate, Desert Song, and a string of lesser operettas. She played opposite Gene Kelly in Thousands Cheer and Anchors Aweigh, but was better matched with stars with legit voices such as Mario Lanza and Gordon MacRae. With the decline of the movie musical in the 50s, she turned to the stage and the concert hall, often teaming with Howard Keel (with whom she had made several films). Together they played Vegas and toured widely with Man of La Mancha. Grayson hit Broadway as a replacement for Julie Andrews in Camelot, and headlined its first national tour. The 60s also provided her with opportunities to fulfill her life-long dream to sing opera; she played in La Boheme, La Traviata, and Madame Butterfly, among others.

Kathryn did a bit of television work, earning an Emmy nomination in 1956 for an episode of General Electric Theatre, and decades later, she appeared on Murder She Wrote several times.

I admit that Grayson was not one of my favorites, as I hold a general disinterest in the soprano voice. Give me the lower smokey tones of Garland any day. But Kathryn Grayson was a sweet presence on film, illustrated in the brief clip below from 1947. She is singing one of my favorites of the old standards (though I prefer the belty versions offered by Judy Garland and Karen Morrow); you will surely recognize a couple of Rat Packers in the scene:

Kathryn Grayson died yesterday at the age of 88.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Happy Talk

Here are a couple of local news anchors. You may not know who they are (I don't either), but they have a vaguely familiar look about them. They look very much like every news anchor team of every local television station in the country. They are pretty, personable, likeable, and rarely qualified to bring you the news. You have this guy to blame:

Frank Magid


His degrees were in social psychology and statistics, and the company he founded spent most of its years in Iowa, but his influence has been felt throughout the world. At a time when all local newscasts consisted of a single anchor reading the news, he revolutionized the genre with his "Action News" concept. He took random samplings from viewers and deduced that they wanted their hard news mixed with lifestyle segments and local crime stories, delivered by a team of good-looking, well-dressed performers whom the audience liked (attractiveness became a more important attribute than trust or journalistic competence). His concept, first adopted by TV stations in San Diego and Philadelphia in 1970, included personalizing TV news by encouraging mundane banter among the team. The changes improved those stations' ratings dramatically, and soon everyone was on board with the vapid chatter in which news readers indulged. They called this stuff "happy talk," and it remains a central aspect of all local news programs everywhere.

Magid's research also changed the early morning news show format when, in 1975, he helped create ABC's Good Morning America. Though the rival Today show had been around for years, it was this new concept which took hold of the genre: far less news, far more fluff, delivered, once again, by anchors who were more personable than journalistic. Hardly anyone now remembers that Good Morning America's first hosts were David Hartman and Nancy Dussault, both actors.
Later, Magid formed an actual school where aspiring on-air performers were coached on "relaxed intensity." The company also served as headhunters, helping stations locate the perfect personality to anchor their local news shows. Sadly, there is no better proof that the general public wants a performer, rather than a journalist, to deliver their news.

Magid's research was not always spot on. In the 80s, his surveys indicated huge audiences would watch football in the spring and summer months. The United States Football League was formed, and went completely bust after only three seasons. Magid died earlier this month from lymphoma at the age of 78.

Here's an innovator who gave us something better than "happy talk":

Fred Morrison


He and his wife used to toss a tin cake pan back and forth on the beach in California, and Fred was investigating ways to make the thing more aerodynamically sound when WWII popped up, and he became a pilot. By 1948, he was manufacturing his flying discs, and selling them at state fairs and beachfronts. He called the invention the Pluto Platter, but in New England, college students noted the toy's similarity to the cake tin, and, in honor of a local bakery, gave the plastic saucer a nickname. Thanks to the Frisbee Pie Company, the Pluto Platter became the frisbee; Morrison sold the invention to Wham-O in 1957. He died last week at age 90; his invention has sold over 200 million units.

I was sorry to hear of this guy's death a week or so ago:

Ian Carmichael 1920-2010

He trained at RADA, and appeared in a series of comic films in the late 50s, but it was his television work in Britain for which he is best known. After a disastrous foray on Broadway, in the original production of Boeing, Boeing in 1965, he returned to Britain and began a lengthy TV career. He played P.G. Wodehouse's upper-class twit Bertie Wooster in a well-regarded series, and Dorothy Sayers's charming amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey in another successful series. Those performances are why Carmichael is on my radar, as I used to enjoy the Wimsey whodunits when they were broadcast on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. A later series starred Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter, and my sister will claim that performance was closer to Sayers's original concept for the character, but as I never read any of the mysteries, I always preferred Carmichael's more jovial approach.

Ian Carmichael died February 5th at the age of 89.

Here is a death which is likely to affect the quality of our big screen entertainment from now on:



Brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein formed their film distribution and production company in Buffalo, NY, coming up with Miramax by combining Miriam and Max, their parents' names.

The studio became the leader in independent films in the 80s and 90s, with their first big hit, sex, lies, and videotape, and continuing with My Left Foot, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, The Grifters, Enchanted April, Reservoir Dogs, The Crying Game, The Piano, Trainspotting, Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Brown, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Aviator, The Hours, The Queen, and so many more. Miramax developed ongoing relationships with Woody Allen, Michael Moore, and Quentin Tarentino, providing these artists more freedom, and a wider audience, than the larger studios would have afforded them.

The Weinsteins really excelled at the promotional aspect of film distribution, and came under criticism for their blatant advertising during Oscar season. Their ad techniques worked, as the list of actors, directors, writers, and craftsmen who won Academy Awards for Miramax films is astonishing. In addition, the studio provided Best Picture Winners in The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, No Country for Old Men, and Chicago.

The brothers sold their company to Disney in 1995, but continued to operate it more or less independently for another decade. Eventually, studio interference increased, and the Weinsteins left the company. It was announced last month that the Miramax offices were being closed, a good indication that the brand is being fazed out by Disney. There are six Miramax films awaiting release, all of which are expected to receive short shrift from the House of Mickey.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Life's a Beach

Had enough of the snow? We in the mid-Atlantic have had our fill for a while, so in that vein, this week's Dance Party heads to the beach.

In 1963, American International Pictures, which specialized in lower budgeted films, produced a sleeper hit with Beach Party. With its antecedents in the Gidget series of films earlier in the decade, the original intent was to ape the Elvis Presley musicals of the time. They added pop music, bikini babes, and removed any mention of parental authority, and ended up created a new genre of movies. AIP produced seven of the films, and other studios quickly churned out other illustrations of the genre. The plots all had the basic premise of the young leading man and lady trying to make each other jealous by hanging out with others, only to find their way back to each other by the final song. Additional conflict was usually provided by an outsider (Harvey Lembeck had great success spoofing Marlon Brando in several of these films, playing an incompetent gang leader called Eric von Zipper), and as the films gained prestige, Hollywood stars popped up in guest and cameo roles. Peter Lorre, Elsa Lanchester, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Mickey Rooney, and Dorothy Malone made appearances, and comics Don Rickles and Paul Lynde played a leading role in various films. Elizabeth Montgomery contributed a cameo, spoofing her character from the sitcom Bewitched, which was a current hit (Montgomery's husband at the time was William Asher, who co-wrote and directed the AIP beach party films). Give a close look at the fisherman who appears at the end of the clip below; it's silent film clown Buster Keaton.

The premise of the films proved so successful that they eventually moved away from the beach, but nobody seemed to care. Thus, films set in a mountain resort (Ski Party), a haunted house (Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine), and at the race track (Fireball 500) are usually considered part of the "Beach Party" ouvre. There was even an attempt to marry the genre with science fiction, in Valley of the Giants, starring a very young and very blond Beau Bridges (that's him on the left, below).

Musical interludes were frequent in these films, and Stevie Wonder, Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, The Righteous Brothers, The Four Seasons, and The Supremes all stopped by in one film or another.

The cast always included a gang of twentysomething actors playing the teens. Sharp eyes can spot Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Linda Evans, Barbara Eden, Raquel Welch, Peter Lupus, James Darren, and Fabian in leading or supporting roles. Darryl Hickman, Deborah Walley, Tommy Kirk, and Shelley Fabares all played the leading couple in one or more of the films, but the undisputed stars of the beach party genre were Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

She grew up on television as one of the original Mouseketeers, and he was already married with children when they were paired in the first beach party movie, appropriately titled Beach Party. They had ongoing pop recording careers independent of the films, and because they appeared in the movie which spawned the genre, they are considered the dream team. They occasionally appeared with other partners, but the half dozen films in which the two star are considered the epitome of the beach party movie.

The genre sputtered out as quickly as it ignited, and by 1967, the beach party was dead. Twenty years later, Frankie and Annette reunited for Back to the Beach, a good-natured spoof of the genre, and the film was successful enough that there was talk of a sequel. Those plans were abandoned when Funicello's health (she has multiple sclerosis) began to decline.

Today's Dance Party was filmed at Paradise Cove in Malibu. Most of the beach movies were filmed here, during the dead of winter, which explains the gray sand and lack of brilliant sunshine. These actors must have been pretty chilled during the filming. But they are not as chilled as those of us on the East Coast who have endured some really nasty weather events this week. Get your twist on, and let's hit the beach!