Category Archives: Blogathons

LOVING LUCY BLOGATHON–Lucy’s Lasting Legacy

Lucille Ball is one of entertainment’s most enduring icons. She has been visible for nearly 80 years, and I would venture to say that there are very few people alive today who have not known and loved Lucy for the better part of their entire lives.

I myself discovered Lucille Ball when I was in early elementary school. My best friend and I became obsessed with “I Love Lucy” around the 2nd grade, and we subsequently watched every episode of the series, then moved on to the “Lucy/Desi Comedy Hour” and “The Lucy Show.” We just couldn’t get enough of her. And I think we weren’t alone in this–my dad also seemed to know a good deal about Lucille Ball as a person (he was the one who taught me, at the age of 7, that she had been a starlet and a model, and that at one point had gone by the name Dianne Belmont), so it was evident that he was in love with Lucy, too. She just had a certain something that resonated with people. And I don’t think it was just her comedic genius–there was something about HER that attracted people to her.

Since its series finale in 1957, “I Love Lucy” has proven to be a mainstay in syndication, and has essentially never gone off the air. 54 years after the show ended, it is shown in dozens of languages across the world and continues to get stellar ratings (in fact, the Hallmark Channel is so confident in the ratings of “I Love Lucy” that they are hosting an entire weekend-long marathon of the show in honor of Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday today). Can you imagine a show today still playing in 50 + years, broadcast in different languages all over the world? I can’t think of ANY modern show that will stand the test of time like “I Love Lucy” has.

Since this is a classic film blog, I would like to talk a little bit about Lucille Ball’s early film roles. Alas, they have been somewhat obscured by her absolutely blinding success with “I Love Lucy,” enough that whenever I see a film with Lucille Ball on the big screen, I hear mutterings from the audience “Is that Lucille Ball???” People are surprised that she had any career at all before “I Love Lucy,” and I think it’s a shame, because some of those early roles are very noteworthy and she could have had a monumental success in films had “I Love Lucy” not come along–in my opinion, she would probably have remained a character actress, because of that Eve Arden-esque wit and backtalk at which she was so clever. She did, however, have some good starring success in her early years with Dance, Girl, Dance, the film she made in 1940 with Maureen O’Hara, Du Barry Was a Lady in 1943, and in a number of other quality films at MGM.

Dancing “The Jitterbug Bite” in Dance, Girl, Dance.

She also had a good deal of success in radio, which is not surprising given that unique voice we all know so well. The character of Lucy Ricardo was, in fact, inspired by Lucy’s character on a radio program called “My Favorite Husband,” done in 1948 with Richard Denning.

It’s interesting to note that her voice essentially never changed, from her first moment on the screen straight through the 1960’s. It was then that the smoking caught up to her and gave her the distinctive smoker’s voice that became a trademark of Lucy’s later career. The uniqueness of her voice is something that people don’t often comment on, yet I would imagine that if people closed their eyes and watched an early Lucille Ball film, even if they didn’t know she was in it, they would be able to identify her instantly.

This interview, done in 1973, shows her not only as a lovely human being, but also her immense intelligence. She responds to each question carefully and thoroughly, and knows exactly what she is saying and why she is saying it. The thoroughness, perfectionism and business-savvy qualities in Lucille Ball are legendary. It is said that on the set of “I Love Lucy,” if she found a scene to not be funny, she she would often tell the director so, and proceed to argue with him until she got her way. She knew what was funny and what was not, and she was not about to sacrifice the show to an unfunny scene. Obviously, Lucy’s way always got huge laughs.

The famous scene from the episode “Lucy Does the Tango.” This scene contains the longest studio laugh in the history of the show, and one of the longest in the history of television.

Lucille Ball’s legacy has been strong for many decades, and it shows no sign of stopping now. With the huge amounts of “I Love Lucy” memorabilia being sold at high prices, with the show frequently on in syndication, the plethora of Lucy impersonators and the millions of fans devoted to her, I think we’re going to have Lucy for a long, long time to come.

Thank you to the people over at True Classics for hosting this wonderful blogathon.

VIVIEN LEIGH AND LAURENCE OLIVIER APPRECIATION BLOGATHON–The Cleopatra Plays and Vivien Leigh’s Second Oscar

On May 10, 1951, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier opened their first performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, part of their effort to perform that play and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra simultaneously, on alternating nights, at the St. James Theatre in London. Vivien had long wanted to play Cleopatra, and the plays were well-covered in the press, including a spread in LIFE magazine on December 17, 1951. By that time, the plays had closed in London and Leigh and Olivier had taken it to New York for a Broadway run at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Performances were just about to begin when the spread was issued.

 

 

 

 

 

And for the purposes of the blogathon, I am repeating an article I posted a few months ago following the Weekend With the Oliviers event. The article appeared in the March 29-April 5 issue of Paris Match magazine in 1952, and I have translated it from the French.

 

IN HER BROADWAY DRESSING ROOM, VIVIEN LEIGH RECEIVES HER SECOND OSCAR

By our special New York correspondent, Georges Pernoud

When reporters from the American press were admitted into Vivien Leigh’s dressing room at the Ziegfeld Theatre, an extraordinary event occurred: silence.

Where the press (specifically the American press) go, she usually expresses an energetic cooperative mood that would shock criminals and enchant politicians. This evening, though, in her small dressing room with mirrors covered in face powder, it was a different story. It was the usual tabloid braggarts, with their cigarette butts flattened on their lips, their felt pens and their hand-painted neckties, who seemed sheepish in front of their hosts. And it was the usual victims, Sir Laurence Olivier and Mrs. Olivier in this case, who had the upper hand. Dressed in dark gray with faint stripes, his coat halfway open to reveal a golden chain, impeccable from head to toe, Olivier stepped aside with the rigidity of an obelisk before the queen of Egypt, dressed in a black satin gown with a mischievous smile on a slightly weary face,  a bit too human without the effects of stage makeup and less striking than her two sets of three-string pearls , one set on her neck, the other on her wrist.

It was midnight. The curtain had long since fallen on the giant sphinx (5 m. 50 high and 4 wide), to the feet where Vivien Leigh dies of love three times a week, in the last scene of Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare. And at which, the other three nights of the week, she expresses her love for Caesar in the first scene of Caesar and Cleopatra by Bernard Shaw.

This evening, upon returning to her dressing room, Vivien learned that she had just won the 1952 Best Actress Oscar for her role of Blanche, the fallen coquette in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Journalists had been waiting for an hour in the wings of the Ziegfeld Theatre–the doors to Vivien’s dressing room were not opened until Vivien and her husband, Laurence Olivier, had finished washing the stage makeup off their faces and were ready to greet them properly attired.

“Maybe these gentlemen would like to drink something?” Vivien asked her publicity agent, Richard Maney, who agreed. This provoked a hustle and bustle among the reporters.

The glass having been broken, the photographers began their duties. “Would you like to kiss your wife?” one cameraman asked Olivier. Silently acquiescing, Olivier wrapped his arm around Vivien’s shoulders and gave her a peck on the cheek. “A big one!” protested the unauthorized photographers. Ever docile, Sir Laurence repeated the gesture, and considering his duty to the image-hunters done, he turned toward the reporters. Vivien served the drinks.

-”What effect does your second Oscar have on you, Miss Leigh?”

-”Exactly the same as the first one.”

-”What does that mean?”

-”I am humbled and honored.”

Apart from being rather a world unto itself, it is impossible to distinguish from her smile what her genuine mood is, and what is simply glamor.

-”And you, Mr. Olivier?”

-”He has three.”

Sir Laurence played with his golden chain.

-”And what do you do with them?”

-”We use them as table lamps,” said Laurence Olivier. “You see, we are very conventional people.”

Vivian approves absent-mindedly–”That’s right, they’re used as bookends.”

-”May I drive my wife home?” Olivier says abruptly, with a weary smile.

The camera flashes illuminated in the London couple a light of tragedy.

-”Bookends or lamps?”

-”May I drive my wife home?” repeated Sir Laurence, seriously. “You see, we are very conventional people.”

Outside the Ziegfeld, a taxi was waiting.While the journalists finished their drinks inside, Laurence and Vivien embraced each other as lovers. Behind the windows, at each entrance of the theatre, two large photographs shone in the lights of 6th Avenue. To the left, a sixteen-year-old Cleopatra, resembling Scarlett O’Hara, smiled at Caesar, while on the right, a forty-something Cleopatra gazed at Antony with a sad expression, recalling that of Blanche.

This couple is more difficult to approach than the royal family and even slight intimacies necessitate a retreat on horseback to their old abbey between Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire, Yet they are near slaves to the public, both of them having been born for the theatre. She came to the theatre through a longer route than he, but Vivien herself has said that ever since childhood, she has had no greater ambition than to become an actress. They apparently met by the merest of chances: waiting for a taxi at the door of the Savoy on a rainy day.

HOLLYWOOD PAYS FOR SHAKESPEARE

But Vivien’s destiny seemed to advance in zigzags. Nothing would suggest her status as a future movie star when she married barrister Herbert Leigh Holman in 1931–Vivien was 18, and had attended a few courses at the Dramatic Academy in London. But her strict education in an English convent between the ages of 5 and 14, then in a boarding house run by an austere Bavarian baron near Munich, had prepared her more than anything for the role of tender bourgeoise housewife. The end result was her leaving the marriage after 5 years, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Suzanne.

It was then that the theatre began to swirl in this Irish head, that came into existence under the Indian sun (her father was a senior officer in a cavalry regiment, stationed in Darjeeling in 1913). Vivien, in the calm of her London home, began to recall her childhood dreams.

When Mrs. Leigh Holman secretly met with a theatre director one day, he cast her right on the spot. The success of her first play, The Mask of Virtue,transformed the life of Mrs. Leigh Holman (who took her husband’s second first name as her stage name)–a nurse began to replace her duties in the care of little Suzanne, and at this point the two spouses were speaking only through correspondence. Each evening, Vivien left a ticket on her husband’s desk. She found another upon her return from the theatre, as the lawyer rose early and went to bed early.  And when Alexander Korda signed Vivien to a contract of 50,000 pounds per year, Mrs. Holman was effectively just Vivien. The divorce was finalized in 1939.

Within months, David Selznick, having embarked upon the most expensive production in Hollywood’s history, was searching in vain for a Scarlett, for that to which we now refer in cinematic capitals: GWTW (Gone With the Wind). Vivien went to California. Shooting had already begun on Gone with the Wind(they refer to it here by its French title, Autant en emporte le vent)and Vivien was invited to attend what would be the key scene in the film–the burning of Atlanta. As she was watching this tremendous scene, that of a city on fire, an assistant director named Fleming silently went over to Selznick and pulled on his sleeve.  He pointed at Vivien’s anguished and radiant face, a face that was the living image of Scarlett O’Hara…

It was then that Selznick decided to cast  Miss Leigh on the spot, for the best woman’s role in the history of cinema.

Between Gone With the Wind and Streetcar (her two Oscars) there was Shakespeare. Vivien’s career, like that of Laurence Olivier, is one of nearly all superstar roles, and Vivien always accepted popular roles to offset the costs of the difficult plays she wanted to perform. When Laurence Olivier brought her to Denmark to play in Hamlet on the desolate terraces of Elsinore, for a privileged audience of 500 people, she signed to play in Waterloo Bridge upon her return, opposite Robert Taylor. Anna Karenina paved the way for Romeo and Juliet. And Cleopatra, with the veritable Caesar of a producer/director Gilbert Miller, only brought in the $75,000 that Cleopatra cost, that the years of performances at the tiny St. James Theatre in London, would barely cover.

The St. James Theatre is closed, in its own way, like the Oliviers’ country house Notley Abbey. It is at this theater that Olivier cut his teeth as a director and to which the list of those invited included Anouilh, Menotti, and soon Marivaux and Claudel introduced by Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, and was the permanent home of Shakespeare.

The daily life of the number 1 couple of the English stage? It is that of all the heros of the theatre. A friend of the Oliviers, the critic Alan Dant, told me of a few times, upon coming to spend the weekend at Notley Abbey, seeing one or the other of them gesticulating with a sublime furor, hurling invectives against an invisible enemy. In other moments, you would see Sir Laurence doing imitations, telling stories of the theatre. He made Churchill laugh hysterically one day by telling him a story of Lucien Guitry and Sacha, when he was little–”They saw a blind beggar, and Lucien gave a sou to his son to put in the beggar’s collection bowl. ‘You should have tipped your hat,’ said Lucien. ‘We must be polite to beggars.’ ‘But papa, he is blind.’ ‘And what if he were an imposter?’”

NECK TOO LONG, HANDS TOO BIG, VOICE TOO SMALL

The Oliviers have few intimate friends: Danny Kaye, Orson Welles, and Noel Coward (at whose Santa Barbara home they married in 1940) are the only ones with famous names.

If their passion for the theatre is exclusive, their tastes are diverse. For Vivien: gardening, canasta, Charles Dickens, and Siamese cats. For Laurence: Handel, and Bourgogne wine.

Vivien is 37. She fiercely guards her beauty secrets, and only one person knows her secret number 1: her mother, Gertrude Hartley, who had a beauty salon in Knightsbridge that she closed to devote herself to one client, Vivien.

-My neck is too long, my hands are too big, and my voice is too small,” Vivien said one day. Her dresser, Audrey Cruddas, is responsible for the neck. For hours, Vivien lets her dress her neck until her head and her shoulders are proportioned correctly. Her voice demanded, and still demands, patient exercises and causes her constant worries about her vocal cords. In regard to her hands: “I have learned,” she says, ” from a great actress, Ellen Terry, that one should never cover large hands. People notice much more when you try to cover them, than they do if you leave them bare.”

The public, although much more fabulous and more in charge of the prestige of superstars, who are not superstars in their own eyes, Vivien is sometimes “fed up,” she says disgustedly. Despite a weak constitution, she always chooses exhausting roles. The hysterical Blanche of Streetcar that she played for months in London, seriously affected her health.

Sometimes, when the audience is not enthusiastic, the actors close to her hear Vivien grumble curse words that are anything but classical.

To an admirer who saw her die on stage the other evening and said to her “You are the most beautiful Antony and Cleopatra that we have seen since Antony and Cleopatra themselves,” she replied: “Yes, darling, and we are almost as tired.”

A TRIBUTE TO JUDY GARLAND

June 10 marks the day that Judy Garland would have been 89 years old. If you have been following my blog at all, you already know that I am a huge Judy Garland fan. She has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and the really serious fandom started when I was about 10, when I heard a compilation of her Decca recordings–I fell immediately in love, and it’s all been uphill from there.

It is no secret that Judy Garland is the quintessential queer icon of the century. There have been many theories about just why the gay community is so drawn to her–among them that the early passing of her father (who was indeed gay) led her to seek out similar men, and that her status as a “tragic” character led the gay community to identify with her troubles. I don’t pretend to understand just what exactly it is that makes Judy such a lasting icon in the gay community, but I think that the renowned playwright and drag performer Charles Busch articulates her appeal very accurately:

I think it’s just facile to think that ‘Oh, because she’s so pathetic, that gay people whose lives are so pathetic identify with that,’ I think that can get a little tiresome. I think it’s more that despite her problems, she was able to dredge up this…energy that was very infectious.”

I am going to compile here some of what I consider to be her best work, and that which seems to encompass her as a person. Happy birthday to Judy!

As a child.

Singing “Blue Butterfly,” at age 7.

Publicity photo for MGM, shortly after she signed with them in 1935. This shoot was done within days of her father's death.

“It’s Love I’m After,” from her first feature film, Pigskin Parade. She was 14.

 

With Allan Jones and Fanny Brice, publicity photo for "Everybody Sing."

 

This is a series of home movies shot on the set of The Wizard of Oz, by songwriter Harold Arlen.

 

On the set with "Toto," a female Cairn terrier whose real name was Terry.

Publicity photo for "Presenting Lily Mars," 1943.

 

 

With daughter Liza, in "Photoplay," May 1947.

With Gene Kelly in The Pirate.

Again showing her skills as a dancer with Gene Kelly in Summer Stock. After this film, she was fired from MGM and embarked on a highly successful concert career.

Judy at the Palace, where she played for a sold-out record 19 weeks in 1951, earning her a special Tony Award for her revival of the vaudeville scene.

 

Accepting her Tony Award for the Palace engagement from presenter Helen Hayes.

A Star is Born in 1954 was Judy’s comeback film, and it garnered her an Oscar nomination, sparking outrage in the community when she lost to Grace Kelly.

Giving another Oscar-nominated performance in Judgment at Nuremberg.

The poster for what is considered to be Judy's best concert, and one of the best concerts of all time, done at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961.

The overture to the Carnegie Hall concert.

Judy provided the voice for "Mewsette" in the 1962 animated film "Gay Purr-ee."

One of my favorite scenes from Judy’s last film, I Could Go On Singing in 1963.

Here are some scenes of Judy with celebrities from Judy’s TV show in the 1963-64 season:

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ONE OF MY FAVORITES.

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Album cover for Judy and Liza at the London Palladium

With daughter Lorna onstage at the Palace, 1967.

Judy’s last interview in Copenhagen, 1969.

Part 2.
A special thank you to Caroline at Garbo Laughs for hosting the Queer Film Blogathon, of which this post is a member!

YAM Magazine’s LGBT Blogathon–VICTOR VICTORIA

This is definitely one of my all-time favorite feel-good movies. Going against all possibility of typecasting, it stars Julie Andrews as a struggling singer, Victoria, who, under the tutelage of a gay cabaret performer (Robert Preston) ends up making it as “Count Victor Grazinski,” a drag performer in a gay club. So basically, she is a woman, but everyone thinks she is a drag queen. Fabulous, right? I think so.

Essentially, this movie is an exploration of gender that both examines the position of gender in society and pokes fun at mistaken gender identity. In stark contrast to Some Like It Hot, which might be called the quintessential drag movie but was also a definite product of its time, Victor Victoria affords drag a good amount of dignity. It doesn’t regard the prospect of dressing as the opposite gender as inherently funny, nor does it mock either gender as Some Like It Hot tends to mock women. It treats drag as a respectable performing genre, and it is also worth noting that the venue at which Victor/Victoria performs is noticeably a high-end Paris club, and does not conform to any stereotype of what a gay club might be.

I think this movie is also a commentary on the times–Victor Victoria was made in 1982, right at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. With the increased fear of the disease, and the public perception of it as a “gay disease,” a movie like this seems an effort to show the often misguided prejudices in society, by showing the fluidity of gender, sexuality, and identity in an otherwise light, funny movie.

The songs are written by Henry Mancini, also Blake Edwards’ collaborator on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and are very memorable–especially the epic “Le Jazz Hot” sung by Julie Andrews as “Victor,” the drag queen:

Another of my favorites is this one, sung by Robert Preston as Toddy, the gay performer who becomes Victoria’s mentor. The first time I heard this song I was so thrilled I could barely stand it.

This movie is a very fun one to watch, is hilariously funny and I think makes some very good points about gender while it’s at it. I’m actually surprised at how many people, classic film fans included, haven’t seen this movie. It’s widely available and I recommend it to anyone looking for a light, funny and engaging romp with Julie Andrews.

Woody Allen Blogathon–WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY?

For my second installment in the Woody Allen blogathon, I am going to profile one of my all-time favorites–Allen’s first directed film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

After the success of his script What’s New, Pussycat the previous year, Allen was ready to try his hand at directing. For his next project, he chose to not work so hard, and rely on the very simple comedy that comes from turning off the volume on a video and adding your own dialogue.

This movie is so ridiculous I feel like I can’t even communicate it properly. Basically, the premise is this: a secret agent, Phil Moskowitz, is hired by a king of a strange country (“nonexistent, but real-sounding”) to find the world’s best egg salad recipe that was stolen from him. The catch (as though there had to be more of a catch than that) is that this movie was not filmed or created, per se, by Woody Allen–it is simply a series of clips from a very serious Japanese spy movie, with all the dialogue cut out and replaced with Allen’s own.

The characters traverse all over the globe in search of this egg salad recipe, and in the process they get stuck in a safe, stuck on a boat getting shot at, and other ridiculous circumstances that could only happen in a movie like this.

The plot is so crazy that it’s quite hard to follow, if it was supposed to have been followed at all, which is doubtful. The jokes are silly and often quite dumb, which is part of its charm–to say this film doesn’t take itself seriously is a massive understatement. Actor Tatsuya Mihashi plays Phil Moskowitz (yes, I know), and his character is all over the map all the time. In fact, none of the characters have any sort of development, which makes it markedly different from the previous  Woody Allen film I profiled, Annie Hall, but it gives the movie a feel of improvisation. Given the subject matter, that makes it all the more hilarious.

Interspersed in between scenes are oddly-placed musical numbers performed by The Lovin’ Spoonful:

These were added against Woody Allen’s wishes, and I really don’t know who had the strange idea to have a folk group appear in a movie like this. The songs are catchy and great, but they really don’t fit.  After this experience, Allen sought to have creative approval for the rest of his films, which was probably a smart move.

The end credits may be the best part of What’s Up, Tiger Lily. They have nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but instead feature a striptease:

If the movie has a flaw, it would be that the general insanity of the plot makes it either absolutely fall-down funny, or very puzzling and boring. Especially with the interspersion of the Lovin’ Spoonful numbers, the movie has an air of being unfinished or badly edited, which might be a turnoff to some viewers, but in all honesty, if it had a real structure it would be a completely different film and probably a whole lot less funny.

If you would like to see What’s Up, Tiger Lily and you don’t have Netflix, you might have some trouble finding it. I know it’s available to buy on Amazon.com and to view on Netflix, but I have never found it in any mainstream video stores. I wish it were more widely available, because I think it’s a Woody Allen treasure that not a lot of people are familiar with.

Happy watching!

Woody Allen Blogathon–Annie Hall

And so starts Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s classic examination of love in the modern world.

I consider this to be his masterpiece–a very funny, smart, and often poignant look at modern relationships, from the perspective of a neurotic New Yorker. This movie has been a part of my life for a very long time, lines from it have been appropriated by my family and I know just about every scene by heart. Coming from a rather neurotic Jewish family myself, the main character is essentially a composite of every person in my family. And as such it is very much beloved.

The story concerns itself with Alvie Singer, a comedian who insists that he grew up in Brooklyn underneath the roller coaster, though his analyst says he exaggerates his childhood memories. He recalls being neurotic as a child about the universe expanding:

All this serves to strengthen Alvie’s character for the duration of the movie. Despite his neuroses (or perhaps because of them), Alvie is a VERY strong and well-developed character. In fact, I believe that the character development in this movie, of all the characters, is perhaps one of the best in the history of film. Even the minor characters that only appear in one scene (Annie’s grandmother, for example, who Alvie refers to as a “classic Jew-hater”) have a real biography and history behind them. The scenes with Alvie’s other relationship partners are also wonderful examples of this:

Carol Kane as “Allison Porchnik”

Shelley Duvall as “Pam”

The character of Annie Hall herself is established very skillfully right away, partly due to Allen’s brilliant writing, partly to the masterful direction and I think the majority is due to Diane Keaton’s completely natural ability in the character of Annie. It is said that Annie Hall was based on Keaton herself–she had dated Woody Allen in the early 1970’s, and if one is aware that her original last name was Hall and she was called “Annie” as a child, it certainly seems more than likely.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks, and the flashback sequence where Alvie meets Annie for the first time is a true testament to Keaton’s brilliance in capturing the character:

From this scene, we begin to see the relationship between Annie and Alvie develop, through a series of revelatory scenes that connect the two characters psychologically and develop their characters as they relate to each other. Their relationship is more one of “opposites attract” than a true kinship, and their status as an “unlikely couple” gives the film much of its quirky charm.

Another recurring theme in this movie is intellectualism, with an almost incessant dropping of names and references to major figures in literature, popular culture, and psychology. In a classic scene, at the very beginning of the film, we really see what intellect means to Alvie, for better or for worse:

Alvie, as we are reminded multiple times throughout the film, has been in therapy for 15 years and wants Annie to go, too. He pays for her sessions, and this concept of their both being in therapy paves the way for lots of intellectual discussions about the nature of psychology. Alvie seems very concerned about Annie and her lack of depth, as he perceives it, and he tries to get Annie to expand her intellectual horizons by going to adult education courses. When she does, and begins to crush on her professor, Alvie ridicules intellectualism in general because it interferes with his own intentions with Annie.

The whole film is really a game, playing with the audience in regard to the characters, their insecurities, and their general humanity. It lacks a traditional ending, with Allen preferring, I think, to keep the movie entirely real and more like an examination of characters rather than just a piece of entertainment. It certainly succeeds, and it won Best Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture at the 1977 Oscars.

Here is Diane Keaton giving her Oscar speech:

Annie Hall is a favorite of film fans and is widely available. You might have a tougher time finding it at the huge movie outlets, as it’s still considered an offbeat movie appealing only to certain audiences (because it’s so intellectual), but Netflix has it, and most independent movie outlets have it, and you generally shouldn’t have too much trouble finding it at all. It’s VERY funny, very quirky, the writing is impeccable and it is a truly joyful movie experience.

Thank you to Marya at Diary of a Film Awards Fanatic for hosting this blogathon!

1939 Blogathon–THE WIZARD OF OZ

Well, no one saw this coming, did they? Those of you who know me know that The Wizard of Oz (or, more accurately, Judy Garland) is very special to me. When I learned there was to be a 1939 blogathon through YAM, I actually got a bit concerned because I didn’t know if my computer battery would last for an entire Wizard of Oz post and I thought of profiling other movies. But it would be sacrilege for me not to, so I am attempting it now.

The Wizard of Oz has been a part of my life since the age of 2. I watched it, wide-eyed, with my parents and apparently (though I don’t remember) wasn’t scared of anything and was more interested in watching the pretty colors and hearing “Over the Rainbow.” Two years later, when my grandmother showed me “Meet Me In St. Louis,” I became a full-fledged Judy Garland fan and have never turned back. I regularly attend the Judy Garland Festival in Grand Rapids, MN (about 3 hours plane ride from my home), and at the age of 13 I won a trivia contest there and was interviewed for NPR. Yeah. It’s pretty serious. Knowing that background, you can understand how The Wizard of Oz might be very important to me. Judy Garland’s signature film (though we’ll go into that later), and one that stayed with her right up until her very last concert, it has a place in the hearts and minds of everyone, whether they like it or not. It has had a place in our collective consciousness for 3 generations, and it showing no signs of stopping for the next, especially with the multi-annual showings on TBS that make it even more accessible for the younger generation. Its themes are timeless, and it has something for everyone, at every age.

In the interest of space and readability, I am going to refrain from doing too much analysis of the movie here. I will focus on biographical aspects of the actors, and some trivia–I could write for hours on end about this movie (and I have–I once wrote a paper on the themes of transference from child to adult in The Wizard of Oz and it was about 25 pages long), but for the purposes of this blog and this blogathon, I’m keeping myself back a bit in the interest of space and readability.

I’ll start with the casting and general information about the actors and their roles in this movie: The Wicked Witch of the West was played by Margaret Hamilton, who in my opinion deserved to win Best Actress (or at least Best Supporting Actress) for this movie. A former housewife turned movie actress to support her family, she was well-loved and a sweet person by all accounts. To demonstrate the kind of person she was, it is sufficient to say that throughout her life, both before and after her acting career, she taught Sunday School and kindergarten. After Oz, Hamilton continued her career in radio and television, before retiring in the late 1970s. She died in 1985.

Hamilton is often remembered for her commercials for Maxwell House coffee:

Another reason I think she should have gotten some kind of award for this role is the scene where she disappears after the famous line “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!” For this scene, Hamilton was to step onto a hidden elevator, and be carried down under the scenery. During a rehearsal, when she stepped on the elevator door, there was an electrical malfunction and since Hamilton’s makeup was copper-toned, she ended up with horrendous burns on her face and had to be taken out of the picture for a number of weeks. If that doesn’t put you in the running for an Oscar, I don’t know what does.

The lovely Jack Haley was not the first choice for the Tin Man. The original choice was actually Ray Bolger, who ended up playing the Scarecrow. Bolger expressed his preference for the Scarecrow due to his idol, Fred Stone, having played the role on the stage, and an actor by the name of Buddy Ebsen (Beverly Hillbillies, anyone?), who was originally slated to play the Scarecrow, was switched to the Tin Man. He was all set to do the picture until the aluminum powder in his makeup got into his lungs and lay him up in the hospital, putting him out of the picture.

Are you sensing a theme? Forget “Poltergeist,” I swear this film had a curse.

They brought in Jack Haley, a vaudeville actor who had done a number of musical pictures in the early 1930’s, to replace Ebsen, and the brilliant men in the makeup department decided to change aluminum powder to aluminum paste, thereby rendering Haley presumably safe. Phew. But then he got an eye infection. See what I mean? Haley’s work in Oz was his true masterpiece, and though he continued to act in pictures and in television and radio, he never quite matched what he did with Oz. He died in 1979.

Ray Bolger’s preference for the Scarecrow, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, was due to his idol, Fred Stone, having played the role on the stage. A brilliant dancer, he had been on Broadway in the early 1930’s, and signed with MGM in 1936. Prior to making The Wizard of Oz, and he had portrayed himself in The Great Ziegfeld, and in 1946 Bolger went on to do another film with Judy Garland, “The Harvey Girls,” and also made an appearance on Judy’s television series in 1963. He was the last surviving main cast member of Oz, until his death in 1987.

Bert Lahr was a successful actor in vaudeville and on the stage, who had worked with the great British comedienne Beatrice Lillie in The Show is On. He was chosen for this role early on in the film’s planning stages, likely due to his lion-like looks and charm. His costume was composed of real lion fur and was said to weigh upwards of 50 pounds, prompting him to complain outwardly of the heat under the hot MGM lights. He continued to act on the stage through the 1960’s, participating notably a rather disastrous run of Waiting for Godot in 1956,  and passed away due to cancer in 1967.

A trivia bit about the scene with the Cowardly Lion: during rehearsals, Judy, then 16, was known for bursting into adolescent giggles. At one particular one, when the lion makes his first entrance and Judy slaps him on the nose, she couldn’t get a take without laughing. Apparently, Victor Fleming came down and, in an event that could never happen today without Fleming getting indicted for child abuse, slapped Judy across the face to get her to stop laughing. During the next take, Judy did not outwardly laugh, but you can see that Fleming had not completely won–Judy pushes Toto in front of her face to cover a visible smile. Watch for it.

Billie Burke, who had been married to Florenz Ziegfeld until his death in 1932, seemed the perfect choice for the gentle, slightly dotty Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. After a wonderful career on Broadway, she had played very successfully opposite Jean Harlow in 1933’s “Dinner at Eight,” and had made “Everybody Sing” with Judy Garland in 1938 (which, by the way, is one of my favorites). Typically playing dizzy, slightly neurotic women, she was nominated for an Oscar in 1938 for Merrily We Live. She made a number of other MGM films and acted on the stage until her retirement in 1960. She died in 1970.

The Munchkins are credited in the film as “The Singer Midgets.” A good portion of the munchkins were indeed performers with Leo Singer, a showman from Vienna who had a troupe of little people working in entertainment there. However, as Singer’s troupe only comprised about 30 little people, MGM hired him to find more to put in the film. There are a grand total of 124 munchkins in the film, along with a few children. 4 of the original little people are still living today, and received a star on the Walk of Fame in 2007.

Some friends of mine and me at the Judy Garland Festival, with Jerry Maren (the Lollipop Kid munchkin) and his wife Elizabeth.

Some friends of mine and me at the Judy Garland Festival, with Jerry Maren (the Lollipop Kid munchkin) and his wife Elizabeth.

And last but not least…

Judy Garland came from a vaudeville family, making her stage debut at the age of 2 and a half, singing “Jingle Bells” at her father’s theater in Grand Rapids, MN. She continued acting with her sisters in their vaudeville routine until 1935, when she was signed to MGM at the age of 13. She began her MGM career with a number of small films, and then began to take off with a succession of films with Mickey Rooney, namely Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry in 1937 and Love Finds Andy Hardy in 1938. The Wizard of Oz was her 16th film with MGM.

True to Wizard of Oz fashion, Judy was also not the first choice for Dorothy. It’s rather well-known that they originally wanted Shirley Temple, who was quite a bit younger, but 1) Fox wouldn’t let her out of her contract, and 2) she couldn’t sing. The musical arranger at MGM, Roger Edens, had been working with Judy since her arrival at MGM 3 years before, and they had grown quite close. He was overwhelmed by her talent, and he supported her being cast in the role of Dorothy when Shirley Temple was unavailable and unfitting. The Wizard of Oz, and specifically “Over the Rainbow,” stayed with her until her death. It seemed to be an anthem for her, in a life that was often difficult, this song, with its themes of flying over the rainbow to a land “where troubles melt like lemondrops” seems fitting. Here are some other notable clips of her singing “Over the Rainbow throughout her career:

Command Performance for the troops, 1943

Ford Star Jubilee, 1955.

Performing with daughter Liza at the London Palladium, 1964.

And Judy’s very last performance of “Over the Rainbow,” on March 25, 1969 in Copenhagen. She died less than 2 months later.

Shortly after the filming of The Wizard of Oz, MGM began supplying Judy with a cocktail of pills, to put her to sleep, wake her up, and make her lose weight. She soon became addicted, and her addiction to pills is now what many people think of when they think of Judy’s private life. Due to her addiction and growing difficulty with the side effects in her private life, Judy began to become unreliable on the set and was fired from MGM in 1950. She began a very successful concert career, and made a comeback to films with A Star is Born in 1954, which garnered her an Oscar nomination.

Now, people say that The Wizard of Oz is Judy’s signature film. Though I think for most audiences it is, I don’t believe it’s her best. That honor, in my book, would have to go to “A Star is Born,” her comeback in 1954. But “Over the Rainbow” saved her. I don’t think she would have lived as long had she not lived for this song. She died of an accidental Seconal overdose at her home in London, on June 22, 1969, aged 47.

The Wizard of Oz is literally available everywhere. But I would venture to say that there is not one person reading this who has not seen it, multiple times. It is a true institution in this country and the world, and it holds a very important place in the history of film.

Thank you to YAM for hosting this 1939 blogathon, and happy watching!

Queer Film Blogathon–“Cabaret”

My good friend Caroline over at GARBO LAUGHS had the brilliant idea of putting together a blogathon, in which various film blogs are invited to participate in celebrating LGBT presence in films. As a longtime proponent of all things both film and gay, I have decided to have Backlots participate in this blogathon, and the film I have chosen to profile is that always classic, always relevant winner of 1972’s Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor Oscars (along with 5 more for cinematography, editing, art direction, song, and sound)–the immortal “Cabaret.”

If I could talk about “Cabaret” every week, I would. It is one of my favorite musicals (though as I will discuss later, I call into question its status as a legitimate musical), and it’s really no wonder why. Not only is it a brilliantly constructed film on every level–scenery, costumes, sound, visual effects, acting, singing, dancing, the list goes on and on–but it has the added bonus of having Liza Minnelli (gay icon, reason #1 for my choosing this movie), at the peak of her career, bringing the house down with her powerhouse vocals and dancing ability. Now, I am a big Liza fan. I have seen her in concert 4 times, seen all her movies, and just generally adore her, so when one is a big Liza fan, it generally follows that one is also a big “Cabaret” fan. This movie IS Liza. In fact, at the last concert of hers that I went to, there was a little girl, no more than 6, who was dressed as Sally Bowles from Cabaret. Liza pulled her out of the audience, stood her onstage, and had her take a bow. And everyone knew exactly who she was supposed to be.

The second reason I chose this film for the blogathon is that the male lead (Michael York) is gay. Or, more accurately, “doesn’t sleep with girls.” We become aware of this fact early on in the film, during a scene in which Sally has been trying unsuccessfully to come onto him. She mutters “Maybe you just don’t sleep with girls…” and noting his silence, she changes her tone and says “Oh….you don’t…!” We come to learn that he has slept with three girls, and all 3 times were disastrous, prompting him to forget all about them and switch to men. His sexuality is regarded as simply a fact, and throughout the film it is not called into question too often. There is, however, a very strong chemistry between him and one of the other male characters. It’s misleading (so to speak) to call this second man a lead, because he doesn’t have too much of a role other than as the sometime boy toy of Michael York. As the film progresses, Sally manages to bring him around to women, or more precisely, HER, until she realizes that they both have been sleeping with the same man, this second lead character.

A bit about the history of homosexuality onscreen, as it relates to this movie and its visibility: in the wake of the breakdown of the Hays Code in the late 1960’s, the liberation movement, and the Stonewall Riots, which occurred 3 years before the release of “Cabaret,” gay characters and situations were becoming more and more prominent onscreen. Under the code, the only way for a filmmaker to incorporate a gay character or scene into their film would be to resort to subtle innuendo–films like “Rebecca” (1940, my second choice for this blogathon) succeeded in showing a character’s sexuality by way of very strong innuendo, which proved effective in skillful hands. But more often than not, any sexual content would be nixed by the censorship board and the film would end up on the cutting room floor. Fortunately, the Hays Code broke down in 1968 in favor of the Motion Picture Association of America, which devised the current ratings system. Due to its themes, “Cabaret” is rated R, and my mother wouldn’t let me see it until I was 13. The themes were not so much the problem in my family, but instead the issue was scenes like this:

As the opening credits tell us, the story begins in Berlin in 1931. The Nazis were just coming into power, and the cabaret was the place where people retreated when “life was disappointing.” In the first scene, we are introduced to the character not named in the film, but who is known as “The MC.” Playing him is the brilliant Joel Grey, who came to the film from the Broadway production (interestingly, Grey is one of only three performers to have won a Tony and an Oscar for the same role, along with Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner).

Sally Bowles, an American chorus girl at the cabaret, meets Brian, a young English teacher newly arrived in Berlin, and offers him the spare room in the boarding house where she lives. They promptly become great friends and she attends an English lesson of Brian’s, only to make snarky remarks and teach the two students how to say naughty words. One of the students at the lesson is a young Jewish girl, Natasha, from a prominent Berlin family, and it is obvious that the other student, Fritz, is very taken with her. He ultimately falls in love with her, which proves problematic as the Jews face more and more persecution as the Nazis gain more power. Fritz also has a dark secret of his own, which complicates his feelings even further.

Sally and Brian remain friends, despite Sally’s attempts to make him fall for her, and when Sally meets a new friend named Maximillian, Brian feels left out. Ultimately, however, Brian and Maximillian begin sleeping together, Brian not knowing that Sally was doing the same.

A love triangle emerges, resulting in Sally’s pregnancy. Brian urges her to keep the baby, but Sally decides otherwise and terminates the pregnancy. This ruptures their relationship and the film ends as Sally leaves Brian at the train station, before going back to the cabaret to sing the final song, the triumphant “Cabaret.”

All the action takes place against the backdrop of the Nazis’ ascent to power, juxtaposed with the seemingly oppositional scenes at the cabaret. Interestingly, all the songs in this movie are incidental, performed either at the cabaret or in other appropriate places. The closest we get to an actual impromptu musical sequence is the chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” performed at a Nazi rally in a park. Here we see Brian and Maximillian courting as the Nazis have a rally in the background.

This is why I hesitate to classify “Cabaret” as a traditional musical. There is no “breaking out into song,” only music in places where it would exist in real life. This is similar to the masterpiece of Liza’s mother, Judy Garland (we’re going to discuss Judy later, because I can’t rein myself in when talking about her), “A Star Is Born,” which prompts similar questions about its status as a musical.

The character of the MC is eerie from the start, and through various songs he performs at the cabaret, we can deduce that he has some questionable leanings.

My general analysis of this film is that the MC represents Nazism itself, permeating all aspects of life and contaminating everything it touches.

After Liza’s triumph in “Cabaret,” the film abruptly ends, with the MC singing “Auf wiedersehn…a bientot…”, bowing, and exiting. The camera then rolls across the audience in a mirror, freezing on a Nazi soldier. The credits roll.

Chilling, right?

Cabaret is available just about everywhere, in movie stores, on Netflix, on TV, it’s very accessible. You won’t have any trouble finding it at all. And please do find it, it’s officially one of the best movies ever made, as the AFI regularly lists it in the top 100 films ever made.

To close, here is a clip of Liza accepting the Oscar for Best Actress of 1972:

Thank you, Caroline, for allowing me the opportunity to write for the Queer film blogathon! Everyone go check out http://garbolaughs.wordpress.com, she is absolutely marvelous.

Happy watching!