Opera haters, you’re missing out.

I went on a crazed movie purchase binge recently, and now the 1955 film Interrupted Melody sits atop my T.V. (Does anyone put their DVDs back in the cabinet? Really? Okay, never mind). Finally! This film is seriously underrated. Based on opera singer Marjorie Lawrence’s  memoir, it recounts her rise to, and later, her fall from fame after she contracts polio.

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Eleanor Parker was nominated for an Academy Award for this role, and with good reason: her performance was gripping, emotional, inspiring.

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Parker as Dalila in a scene from Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila.

Parker’s voice was dubbed by Eileen Farrell, who insisted on going uncredited for the score.

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Opera singer Eileen Farrell.

Something to do with Marjorie Lawrence wanting to sing the score, and the producers not, and Farrell not wanting to steal her thunder. Pretty selfless if you ask me.

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I read that Parker actually sang on set to make the scenes more realistic. It worked. All of the opera scenes are spectacular, but their collaboration on Carmen was my favorite.

Glenn Ford also delivered an excellent performance as Thomas King the doctor, Lawrence’s love interest.

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But his character grated a little on my nerves. He bordered on sexist at times, wanting her to stay home as much as possible and make babies, wanting her to sacrifice her 6 month tour (which isn’t that long), the opportunity of a lifetime, to keep him company. And the film seems to agree, because she contracts polio during the tour. “I’m such a fool,” she says, weeping, as Tom gazes down at her immobile form. As if to say, if she had just stayed home and made babies with Tom like a good wife should, instead of gallivanting all over South America, this would have never happened. Hello! When you’re a world-renowned opera singer at the height of your career and love what you do, some compromises have to be made. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s challenging being spouse to a celebrity. She made sacrifices. He just didn’t appreciate them. 

But I digress. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know when she contracts polio. Therefore, I can’t assume anything. Plus, later on he makes up for being a jerk.

On doing research, I discovered that Eleanor Parker passed away this past December. She was 91. The Baltimore Sun wrote a short but warm tribute on her passing.

Classic Movie Actor Spotlight: James Stewart

Most people think of James Stewart as the upright, fight-for-your-ideals, invite-to-the barbecue-for-a-beer kind of guy. But the iconic actor did play a villain. Twice. Yes, all of TWO times. Not surprisingly, he played the roles early in his career. The films hit the box office in 1936, two years after his debut in the short Art Trouble. In both, he’s so overshadowed by ridiculously famous on (and off) screen couples that he appears as a mere whisker on the cinematic canvas.

Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy fans will remember Rose-Marie, in which Eddy plays a dashing Canadian Mountie pursuing MacDonald’s no-good, on-the-lam brother played by – guess who – James Stewart.

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Stewart led in handcuffs by Eddy, who proves that no one looks good in Mountie breeches.

Then there’s After the Thin Man, a William Powell/Myrna Loy collaboration, but I won’t say more about it, given that it’s a mystery film and all …

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Did I say too much?

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On the set of After the Thin Man with a tall glass of milk and looking … not quite so villainous.

Now for all his good guy films. Everyone knows about It’s a Wonderful Life, thanks to the film’s copyright issues, or rather, lack of them…

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This is the scene I remember most vividly — when realization sets in and he stares into the camera. Creepy.

That and the pool/ensuing camellia bush (?) scene.

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“I could sell tickets!”

Of course there’s his brilliant work in Hitchcock’s films: Rope (’48), Rear Window (’54), The Man Who Knew Too Much (’56) and Vertigo (’58)

And my favorites, both Capra films co-starring Jean Arthur: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (’39) …

The filibuster scene. Capra was a genius.

… and the screwball You Can’t Take it with You (’38).

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Stewart discussing photosynthesis and the possibility of solar energy (really!) in You Can’t Take it with You.

Stewart also starred in The Shop Around the Corner (’40), on which In the Good Old Summertime (’49) and You’ve Got Mail (’98) were based. I didn’t care much for it. Due to the bickering star couple, cheating spouses and — spoiler alert — an attempted suicide, I found it pretty downbeat (is that a word?) for a romantic comedy.

For big-band lovers like myself, I recommend the delightfully music-saturated film The Glenn Miller Story (’54).

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Stewart accompanied by Louis Armstrong in The Glenn Miller Story.

And Harvey (’50), the hilarious, thought-provoking, poignant film about a rabbit and his visible human companion nominated Stewart for an Oscar (which I think he deserved).

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They had such great chemistry.

As for his personal life, Roger Ebert wrote this tribute on Stewart’s passing in 1997 (Interestingly, Ebert neglected to mention the villainous role in Rose-Marie).

Stewart also starred in a bajillion other movies — including his Oscar-winning film The Philadelphia Story (’40) — of which you and I have neither the time nor patience to read/write about. Suffice it to say, Jimmy Stewart was awesome.

Classic Movie Actor Spotlight: Donald O’Connor

Actor Spotlight: Donald O’Connor

O'Connor,_Donald_01Liz: I enjoyed watching several Donald O’Connor movies over the Christmas holidays, and since several of the movies were new to me, I thought it would be a good idea to share them with you. O’Connor was a very talented actor/dancer/singer whose movies are good family fun, generally hilarious, and have at least one really good dance number.

Singing in the Rain (1952) A favorite that most of you are probably familiar with. Jaz and I talked about it here.

Double Crossbones (1951) Hilarious tale of a clerk in colonial America who accidently becomes a pirate and then has to save the Carolinas from the man who’s a greater thief than the pirates.

Donald O'Connor as Bloodthirtsy Dave in Double Crossbones

Donald O’Connor as Bloodthirtsy Dave in Double Crossbones

Something in the Wind (1947) Deanna Durbin (so you know it has great music) is mistaken as the mistress of a recently deceased wealthy man and is kidnapped by the man’s grandson in an attempt to hide the scandal and get her to relinquish her annuity. My only complaint was the hero–it should have been Donald O’Connor.

The Milkman (1950) WWII vet and son of a wealthy dairy company owner, O’Connor suffers from a peculiar form of PTSD–he quacks like a duck when upset. When his father won’t let him go to work because of it, O’Connor gets help from friend Jimmy Durante and secretly goes to work for the rival dairy company as a milkman. Quite funny and has a milk truck that responds to whistles.

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O’Connor with Gene Kelley in Singing in the Rain

Anything Goes (1956) Bing Crosby and Donald O’Connor are to star in a show. They promise the female lead to two different ladies. I actually didn’t care for this one.

Chip Off the Old Block (1944) O’Connor plays Donald Corrigan, a young man in officer training school for the Navy, who falls in love with the daughter of a family of actresses who believe the Corrigan men are bad luck. As you would expect from an O’Connor film, it’s funny.

Beau Geste (1939) A teenage O’Connor plays a young Beau Geste (the grown Beau is played by Gary Cooper). Three brothers join the French Foreign Legion to escape a secret at home. Rather sad.

Feudin’, Fussin’, and A-Fightin’ (1948) O’Connor plays a salesman who is kidnapped off a stagecoach by the leaders of a small town out west. They want him to run in their annual race against a neighboring town with which they have placed large bets. Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride of Ma and Pa Kettle fame also star in this fun film.

Francis (1950) Solider O’Connor gets help from a talking Mule named Francis and is too truthful to lie about his source. Hilarious, as are its sequels: Francis Goes to the Races, Francis Goes to West Point, Francis Covers the Big Town, Francis Joins the Wacs, and Francis in the Navy.

O'Connor with Francis the Talking Mule

O’Connor with Francis the Talking Mule

Seen any Donald O’Connor movies I haven’t? What did you think of the ones you have seen?

Summer Stock (1950)

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Jaz: Summer Stock makes a great case for saving the newspaper industry. And recycling. Because not only does Gene Kelly make glorious music with newsprint, he also reads the articles AFTER dancing all over them. After which I’m sure he lined the canary cage … and then composted it. If that’s not love for paper-based media, I don’t know what is.

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I’d like to see YOU tap dance on your Kindle!

I love musicals, Gene Kelly, and Judy Garland (excepting a brief period when my sister played Garland’s music nonstop — for months I couldn’t listen to “The Trolley Song” without wincing). To see all three of them joined in technicolorful harmony was bliss. It makes me want to watch Meet Me in St. Louis and For Me and My Gal again.

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Judy Garland singing “Friendly Star”

Perhaps nostalgia has something to do with it: a part of my childhood is punctuated by the sound of the Summer Stock soundtrack on scratchy vinyl. My personal favorite? The Gospel-inspired song, “Dig for Your Dinner.”

As for plot, if it’s depth you’re going for, brush off that copy of Moby Dick. But if you want to see whether or not the theater group pulls off their barn-staged musical, Gene Kelly tap dance on the dining room table, and Judy Garland get happy — in a strange, albeit wonderfully artsy choreographed act — leave the dust bunnies undisturbed.

summer-stock-judy-garland-1950_i-G-67-6719-ELVA100ZBeaver and I give it four carrots (out of five).

Note: This post is in no way meant to discourage the reading of Moby Dick. In fact, I fully intend to finish it myself. Right after I watch Meet Me in St. Louis.

Liz: I was unsure about the movie for the first few minutes, but then Gene Kelly showed up and it got a whole lot better.
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I liked the overall story–hard-working girl trying to save her farm gets shackled with her irresponsible sister’s boyfriend’s acting troupe. Trouble of the heart then arises when her paternally dominated fiancé (and his father) objects to the show being put on in her barn and when she falls for her sister’s boyfriend as he begins to learn where on the family tree the leading lady characteristics really are.
The cast includes numerous familiar faces beyond the main stars, which always makes me happy. The musical numbers were okay. Nothing spectacular, but not bad, though I wasn’t sure what to make of the semi-religious ones, such as the one where Judy Garland dances around in a suit jacket and stockings.
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I usually don’t like romances between two people already involved in relationships, but I liked this story. It was a bit cliché with the oft used circumstance of one character being in a lackluster engagement with a likable-but-not-romantic-hero-type and the other being in a relationship with a beautiful but spoilt and selfish woman. Predictable, but was cute nonetheless.

Overall conclusion: Enjoyable and worth the watch.

Austenland: Leave the tea and biscuits at home

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Jane Hayes has a problem. She suffers from a severe case of Austenmania, and I mean mania. Her bedroom, littered with porcelain teacups, stuffed dolls, and a life-size cardboard cutout of Colin Firth in Darcy regalia, looks like a 5th-grader’s shrine to Pride and Prejudice. That this woman managed to go on dates boggles the mind. So it comes as no surprise that when Jane sees a commercial for Austenland, a themed British estate with period actors that promises romance with an Austen-type hero, she cashes in her life savings and flies her sad, sad self off to England.

Hayes gets a rude awakening on her arrival. The “bronze” package she bought — the cheapest available — seems reserved for Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. The management snubs her, gives her drab gowns, a tiny bedroom on the top floor, and excludes her from fun activities. To make matters worse, the Darcy-type period actor, Mr. Henry Nobley, is in the extreme pre-Elizabeth Bennet stage. still-of-jj-feild-in-austenland

Mr. Henry Nobley (J.J. Feild) looking haughty.

Luckily, Jane can vent her frustrations with Martin, the handsome stable hand. Their relationship develops quickly — a little too quickly. One minute he’s pitching hay in the barn and the next they’re making out to the strains of a cheesy 80’s pop song.

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Jane (Keri Russell) and Martin (Bret McKenzie)

None of the other relationships evolve smoothly, either. Character development in this film sacrificed itself on the altar of time in favor of farcical scenarios. I found myself thinking, “When did that happen? And why?” I assume Jerusha Hess’s book, on which the film is based, elaborates more on this and Jane’s troubled romantic past, which is mentioned but never explained.

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Austenland tries too hard, but isn’t completely lacking in charm. That’s largely due to the cast, who strove to make this a watchable film. In the end, the plot good-naturedly pokes fun at “Janeites,” only to fall short of its potential and succumb to Hollywood rom-com predictability. If you enjoyed the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, though, you may find the film’s occasional nods amusing, as I did. Also if you’re a fan of Nelly. And that’s all I’m saying.

Beaver couldn’t make it to the showing, sadly, so I’m rating it by myself: 2 carrot sticks (out of five).

On the Waterfront

After weeks of procrastination (and a few legitimate excuses), here is the Mafia-related movie post. Sorry, Liz!

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 I love this poster — it’s so over the top. 

Liz: Waterfront workers line up every morning to unload cargo on the docks, but only those favored by union controller and mob boss Johnny Friendly get work. Those who stand against the mob end up dead. After the murder of a teen, a priest and the boy’s sister seeking justice find help in an unlikely source: Terry Malloy, kid brother of Friendly’s right hand man.

So, did Karl Malden ever play anything other than a priest? On the Waterfront, Poseidon Adventure, Pollyanna…

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Seriously though, he did a great job. And he was no quiet spoken priest with a tender touch. I loved his tough, not-too-polite, cigarette smoking, hit-you-when-necessary character as much as Marlon Brando’s simple, but charming in a diamond-in-the-rough way, Terry Malloy.

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Brando’s reaction when realizing he’d set up a kid for his death seemed underplayed to me. There wasn’t much reaction at all at first. Otherwise, I thought he did a great job, as did the other actors.

On the Waterfront is not my typical movie choice, but I enjoyed it. People standing up for what’s right is always encouraging, though the thought that people were actually living in such poverty and fear is rather shocking.

Conclusion: Definitely deserves all the awards it got.

Jaz: I have a confession to make: I didn’t know that the quote “I coulda been a contender” originated from On the Waterfront.

Go ahead, judge me. All those years of hearing my father quote it (along with “I thought you was hungry so I brought you a stick of gum” – no idea where that’s from), and me a self-proclaimed classic film fan!

Another confession … You know those movies you enjoy watching, then forget about? On the Waterfront was one of those for me. It’s poignant, well done, based on true events, and Brando and Eva Marie Saint delivered superb performances, blended with perfect chemistry.

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In spite of all this, it didn’t resonate with me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this or different genres – I watch everything from martial arts films to sappy chic-flicks to mystery/suspense to Westerns to gangster films. Most everything except horror. If I want horror, I’ll just eat a MacBacon-CheeseLovinWhopper right before bed, no monthly Netflix fee required.

But back to the film. Beaver disagrees with me. He feels I’m not reading deeply enough into the film to appreciate its characters and nuances – it’s so much more than black and white. He’s right, I know. Later I’ll re-watch On the Waterfront … in addition to making that felt fedora hat the Beav’s been clamoring for since we watched it.

We give this 4 carrot sticks (out of five).

We visit historic Mafia towns …

If you’ve wondered why the blog’s been kinda silent for a while, Jaz and I have both been doing a good bit of traveling. To places connected to the mafia, no less. Destinations: Chicago and Hot Springs, Arkansas.

We’ve all heard of the mafia in Chicago and New York, but Hot Springs? That little tourist town? Yep.

When the mob bosses, like Al Capone, needed to get away from the cops, they’d skip on down to the secluded, picturesque, but far from Hallmark-movie-little-town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Full of illegal gambling, prostitution, and corrupt government, Hot Springs was just like a home away from home for them. It even had its own local competing gaming bosses, the Flynns and the Dorans (they had a famous shootout in 1899, so I’m not sure if they were still around during the peak of the big city mafia visits in the 30s). Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, and Lucky Luciana were among its notorious guests. (http://www.hotsprings.org/pages/history/)

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Don’t be deceived by its adorable cutesy-ness. 

Hot Springs is now known for its natural hot springs and old bath houses, but it still has a relics of its past, including The Gangster Museum of America (Jaz: sadly, we didn’t visit). http://www.hotsprings.org/pages/history/

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Unexciting photo of a historic Hot Springs bathhouse.

Chicago. The Windy City was amazing. (The Calamity Jane song reference doesn’t really go with our theme, but I couldn’t help it.) The food, the architecture, the tour of Al Capone’s house and all the mafia-related spots (just kidding) (Jaz: You should have!). I did go to Union Station, however, location of the mafia shootout on which the Kevin Costner movie The Untouchables was based.

I may have even seen one of the bullet holes . . .

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Bullet hole at Union Station! How cool is that?

Since this is a classic book and movie blog, not a vacation blog, our next post will be on a mafia-related movie. Care to guess which one? And no, it’s not The Godfather.