Saturday, September 04, 2021

Elizabeth Taylor Answers BUtterfield 8's Call with Style

         An ideal example of what constituted a commercial property circa 1960, MGM knew exactly what they were doing when adapting John O’Hara famous 1935 novel BUtterfield 8 to the screen, forcing Elizabeth Taylor, their societal rule-breaking but major box-office draw/mega-star to play right into her current bad-girl image as the wayward Gloria Wandrous, who in one of the film’s more florid moments proclaims “I was the slut of all time” to her aghast mother, while still toning down the material enough to not make Gloria too controversial, in order to safely stay within the confines of the Production Code, even if as the decade turned the masses were starting to indicate a taste for more adult material onscreen, with sexy foreign fare such as La Dolce Vita as well as Psycho making a substantial impact with audiences. Although the throngs who turned out for 8 in late 1960 may have anticipated seeing a racier Taylor on film, MGM shrewdly crafted a star vehicle hinting at Taylor’s (at-the-time) scandalous off-screen exploits with Eddie Fisher (who the studio had no qualms casting in the film), while allowing their heroine to maintain an air of decency and class; in the film, the liberated Gloria’s been around the block, but is first hurt, then indignant by the notion someone might attempt to pay her for sex, as illustrated in the film’s memorable opening sequence.

         Ably directed by Daniel Mann, who wisely keeps his leading lady front-and-center in scenes throughout the movie, this introduction to Gloria also serves as a showcase star entrance for Elizabeth Taylor. Although Taylor (probably knowing what the studio was up to in using her scarlet reputation to help sell the film) hated the material and the resulting movie, she was possibly at her peak as far as “Elizabeth Taylor- Movie Star and Thespian” goes during the shooting, and you can’t keep your eyes off of her violet ones from 8’s first frame to its last. The leisurely outset of the film has Gloria rousing herself out of bed and, after calling out for her departed paramour, roaming around a luxury apartment, wherein evidence of the preceding night’s ribald events are discovered, before Gloria comes across a note with money left by her suitor, the affluent Weston Liggett, whereupon Gloria grabs a previously-inspected mink and heads uptown to Fisher. Throughout this passage, Taylor indicates Gloria’s every thought with straightforward, precise reactions and gestures, making it clear the romantic-yet-tough Gloria is no pushover or lady of ill-repute. As Gloria leaves the apartment in a huff, Taylor’s assured the audience is already firmly with her for the rest of the movie based on her smart, charismatic playing. Although Taylor in general (at the time and in retrospect) received greater plaudits for her impressive if more forced and obvious acting in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the big revelation/breakdown scene during Suddenly, Last Summer’s jaw-dropping finale, she manages to achieve a maximum impact as Gloria without seeming to push the emoting as much- a more natural, relaxed and instinctive method of playing is in evidence throughout 8, and Taylor is ideally in tune with Gloria every step of the way.

        What Taylor pulls off in creating a full, wholly believable portrait of Gloria is no small feat, as the scriptwriters John Michael Hayes and Charles Schnee have trouble deciding exactly how to depict Gloria’s sexual liberation, painting her as both harlot and ultra-romantic heroine depending on whatever scene is unfolding. Therefore, you have moments such as Liggett’s creepy colleagues welcoming him to the “Gloria Club” as they talk about what a great lay she is mixed with one wherein Liggett states Gloria is good because she was seeking respectability despite her wild sexual nature (going by the mores of the times, a woman couldn’t simply have an active sex life outside of marriage and still be considered nice, additionally having to pay for her lusty behavior before the final fade-out- it’s amusing how often Code-area films appear to be completely obsessed with sex via constantly hinting at or suggesting ribald behavior as opposed to, for example, the casual, humorous and direct approach Mae West took to the subject in her pre-Code romps). 

       Despite contrivances surrounding the characterization, Taylor is in sync with Gloria’s passions and pitfalls, leading to the fantastic, emotionally-charged “I Was 13” confession, which certainly played into Taylor gaining her fourth consecutive Oscar nomination (this sequence would possibly raise even more eyebrows today, particularly when Gloria mentions she “loved it” despite clearly being taken advantage of by an older man after just entering her teens). Taylor pulls out all the stops as Gloria recounts her seduction at a tender age, and the dedication, conviction and professionalism Taylor demonstrates throughout the shocking speech is deeply moving and endearing.

        Regarding the famous Oscar win, it’s part of pop culture history that Taylor won the award for 8 simply because she nearly died during the voting process, leading to the Academy granting her the Oscar while Hollywood and the world simultaneously forgave her for any past discretions. Taylor herself supported this notion, while also stating (regarding the merits of 8) something to effect of “I still think it stinks” after winning the golden statue. Although Taylor faced quality opposition, particularly in the case of Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners and Shirley MacLaine’s seminal work in The Apartment, either of which could have also merited the award, it bears mentioning Taylor was nominated before any ill-effects entered the picture and, watching that climatic revelation speech, it’s difficult to place Taylor’s acting abilities below her contemporaries in the race, whatever the rest of the film’s assets or liabilities may be. Taylor was in peak form as both star and performer in 8 and, rather than merely a sympathy award, the win may more accurately fall in the category of exceptional work in a formulaic picture, which should possibly be recognized by the Academy more often, not less, as it might be harder to pull off great acting without much in the way of A-one support to be found elsewhere in the movie.

       It’s also wonderful to see Taylor given an opportunity to play some lighter material in 8. Taylor has a gift for putting over low-brow humor onscreen with great aplomb, witnessed by her lively work as the vain Amy in Little Women or Fred Flintstone’s haranguing mother-in-law, Pearl Slaghoople and, especially, in her robust work as X, Y and Zee’s free-spirited protagonist. However, based on her beauty and position as one of the cinema’s top female stars throughout her career, Taylor more typically was held to portraying more traditional, serious-minded leads. In 8, Taylor really comes alive whenever Gloria is afforded a good comeback line, and she’s great at sarcastic, wide-eyed reactions after a disrespectful barb is thrown Gloria’s way, conveying the idea Gloria would be a great gal to hang out with for lunch or a night out on the town based solely on her good-natured sense of humor, as opposed to the more evident sex appeal sought by men in the film, which the movie showcases via lush, glamourous MGM close-ups of Taylor, wherein Gloria appears to be a sensual icon for the ages.

      Concerning other 8 players Laurence Harvey, on a high after breaking through in the previous year’s Room at the Top, is a fairly good fit as Weston, the cool, somewhat oily 5th Avenue businessman who, in the manner of Top’s on-the-make Joe Lampton, has risen through the ranks based mainly on marriage to an affluent society girl. Although Harvey’s trademark stoicism and stiffness is well-placed as Weston (although not nearly as impactful as when utilized in his indelible, masterful work in The Manchurian Candidate) and he’s unafraid to depict the sometimes unhealthy nature involved in his attraction to Gloria, Harvey works at the romantic angle proficiently, showing Weston is torn by his desire for Gloria and guilt for straying from his compassionate, beautiful wife. In the other main male role Eddie Fisher, as Gloria’s lifelong friend, the composer Steve Carpenter, clearly was cast for his name value in connection with Taylor, featuring in scenes wherein she playfully attempts to flirt with and (at least in a pseudo sense) seduce the unwilling Steve, who is attracted to Gloria but, with his girlfriend Norma often in mind and in tow, is determine to nobly remain just friends. Fisher’s low-keyed, unenergetic playing tends to not linger in memory, but it’s intriguing to see maybe the world’s most infamous couple of the time onscreen; regarding the Taylor/Fisher notoriety, MGM unsurprisingly plays up this art-imitating-life angle, with the somewhat unadorned Gloria (clad in only a tight white slip) standing over Steve asking if she can do anything for him in teasing, mock-serious fashion, and the nature of the triangle existing between Gloria, Steve and Norma given considerable play during the film.

         The ladies in the cast often tend to have more fun than the guys, and make strong impressions in the process. Mildred Dunnock, who had thrived throughout the 1950’s with a number of key roles in important films and a couple Oscar nominations after starting her career with an ignoble boost down a stairway by Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, is in fine dramatic form as Gloria’s understandably jittery, in-denial mother, and in her reliable fashion Dunnock manages to mine some pathos and individuality out of the part, resulting in some touching mother-daughter connections with Taylor. As Steve’s perturbed-yet-patient and remarkably understanding girlfriend (given Elizabeth Taylor is often lounging around Steve’s apartment whenever Norma shows up) Susan Oliver does alert, solid work and has a chance to engage in a little lively, catty repertoire with Taylor, while Betty Field as Mrs. Thurber, the knowing, caustic best-friend of Mrs. Wandrous, is given even more ample opportunity to spar with Gloria regarding her unconventional lifestyle, and her wry, acerbic exchanges with Taylor account for some of the film’s most entertaining moments; in addition, Field is able to enrich her role by emphasizing the great compassion Mrs. Thurber displays towards Gloria’s sensitive mother (there’s a wonderful moment wherein Gloria and Mrs. Thurber agree to bury the hatchet in order to appease a weeping Mrs. Wandrous, who’s been disturbed by their casually off-handed, not-so-good-natured digs at each other).

        As Weston’s wife Emily, Dina Merrill makes an entertainingly unorthodox entrance in the film via a skeet-shooting contest with her husband, but this gun-toting Mrs. quickly falls into the understanding-wife mode to even a greater degree than typically found in films at the time, with Emily forgiving her meandering husband anything, conveniently putting blame elsewhere; however, the lovely Merrill plays the role with grace and dignity, allowing Emily to be more believable in her convictions than might have been the case with just about any other well-breed leading lady in the role. Rounding out the cast, Kay Medford provides some additional and welcome comic relief as Happy, the proprietor at the motel wherein Weston and Gloria tryst their best, while also using her wonderful world-weariness to fine dramatic effect in her sole monologue wherein she recounts to Taylor her not-so-happy life’s misfortunes.

MGM got what they were after upon BUtterfield 8’s release as, regardless of reviewers’ responses, which garnered some praise for Taylor amid largely unimpressive reactions to the film’s other aspects, the film became the biggest box-office hit for the company since the mammoth returns of Ben Hur. Taylor also gained release from her MGM contract by fulling her obligations via 8, returning to the studio in triumph and on her own terms via 1963’s The V.I.P.s, which provided another financial lift to the studio as Fox’s Cleopatra loomed very large in the wings, thereby allowing MGM to beat Fox to screen with the first profitable Burton-Taylor pairing. 8 served as a fitting end to Taylor’s lengthy initial tenure at MGM, which spanned her initial rise to stardom via her wonderful work as Velvet Brown to a place at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy, with Taylor named the #1 box office draw by the renown Quigley poll the year following 8’s release (and with no 1961 release to her credit, the success of 8 must have factored heavily in Taylor’s #1 ranking); the film also offered its star the chance to pull off an indelible, substantive performance that ranks among her best, single-handedly pushing the movie outside of the realm of trashy melodrama (as phenomenally entertaining as that genre can be) into something considered worthy of more serious merit, at least in the case of Taylor’s distinctive work as Gloria.

And a fond adieu to Michael Nader, who passed away August 23rd at 76. Nader became well-known during the 1980’s via his work as Farnsworth Dexter on the smash Dynasty and on All My Children thereafter (after his introduction to soaps via As the World Turns in the 1970’s), but for at least one classic movie buff it’s his early cinematic work as possibly the most dashing and charismatic surfer boy in films (as Mike Nader, following his uncle George into the movies) via 1963’s Beach Party and several follow-up offerings of the same ilk that assures him a place in memory. I happened to watch Party, Muscle Beach Party and the all-time classic Beach Blanket Bingo just before Nader’s passing, and it was endearing to see how impressively Nader, although usually featured as one of the crowd of kids surrounding Frankie and Annette, stood out in these lighted-hearted excursions. It doesn’t hurt that, with his perfect tan and mega-watt smile, he could serve as the blueprint for the dreamy teen beachcomber of Gidget’s dreams (a role Nader went on to play on television opposite Sally Field), but Nader also invests a considerable amount of energy and focus into his scenes; whether he be interacting in flirtatious fashion with the girl he’s paired with (working especially well with Donna Michelle in Bingo), twisting, shaking and go-go-ing his way through any number of Dick Dale (and others) tunes, or doing a daring in-air flip into the sand in Muscle Beach Party, Nader is the emblem of carefree youth during the glorious days of summer.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Sandra Dee Rides the Wave to Stardom as Gidget

            As the jumping-off point for a slate of genre pictures to come in the 1960’s featuring sand, surf, music and romantic interludes, 1959’s Gidget provides a nostalgic look back at coming-of-age in a more innocent era (at least on-screen), including a generation gap theme much milder than the adolescent/parental conflicts found in such fare as Rebel Without a Cause or a couple of star Sandra Dee’s other 1959 offerings. Based on Frederick Kohner’s same-name novel, whose title character was influenced by Kohner’s daughter Kathy’s experiences as she strove to be accepted among the surfing set, Gidget handles both dramatic and comedic elements in an enjoyably straightforward manner, maximizing its appeal to audiences in the process, who must have found the charmingly uncomplicated Gidget a refreshing change-of-pace from the more disturbing, complicated themes highlighted in most teen-age dramas of the period. Gidget does flirt with a few adult topics, such as a possible May-December romance for the young heroine, but director Paul Wendkos and screenwriter Gabrielle Upton adeptly keep the film’s tone genial throughout, while also managing to detail Gidget’s many escapades on-and-off the beach in admirably compelling fashion.

                1959 proved to be a banner year for Sandra Dee, with three major offerings to her credit, including the classic tear-jerker Imitation of Life and one of the more memorable melodramas of the period, the florid A Summer Place. Although Dee showed dramatic prowess starting with her fine film debut (after years as a top child model) in 1957’s Until the Sail, wherein she handles a New Zealand accent with impressive aplomb at about 13 or 15 years old, depending on which biographical data one follows, and in some riveting dramatic moments in showdowns with Lana Turner in Life and Generation-Gap-Mother-from-Hell Constance Ford in Place, more typically Dee found herself playing wholesome young ladies offering less opportunities to show real dimension, leading to Dee being sent-up (and immortalized) in this Goody-Two-Shoes mode post-career by Stockard Channing in 1978’s Grease (even if it’s hard to believe Channing’s Rizzo would know much about what Troy Donahue wanted to do, with his star-making A Summer Place coming out later in 1959, sometime after those crazy Rydell High 20 (or 30)-something kids would have graduated and experienced Grease’s happy “We Go Together” finale).

                Although Gidget may serve as the blueprint for Dee’s sweetness-and-light image, this “Girl-Midget” at the crossroads between adolescence and young adulthood offers more facets than most ingénues and, as well as physically matching the requirements for the gawky (then blossoming) heroine, Dee is pitch-perfect throughout in displaying the character’s intelligence, independent mindedness and romantic longings. It’s nice to see a screen teen actually played by someone of the same age; Dee has no problem conveying a great deal of energy and spirit in a charming, unforced manner, possibly because she doesn’t appear to be performing traits that would be natural for a 17-year-old. Dee does show considerable acting ability and professional verve throughout the film though, working hard to stay present in each scene- she’s onscreen nearly every moment and remains endearingly earnest and positive, without becoming belabored or cutesy. Many other Gidgets would come, but this is a case wherein the original model is hard to improve upon.

                After a few years working his way up at Columbia Pictures, the ideally-cast James Darren scored a breakthrough as the clean-cut “Moondoogie,” spending a pivotal summer weighing the advantages of college in the fall over ditching convention for the seemingly idyllic life of a beach bum. Darren does a nice job displaying the calm, rational demeanor behind an often-brooding nature that indicates what a responsible, fitting mate Moondoggie would be for the smitten heroine enraptured by his considerable charms. Adding hugely to this is the fact that, in both in temperament and physical stature, Darren and Dee are a match made in cinematic Heaven, and when Darren smoothly sings the title song and later, a love ballad to his receptive costar, or shows a protective instinct when his pert intended appears to be coming dangerously close to adulthood (as in “a fate worse than death” lingo), the ultimate in wholesome 1950’s teen-age romance results. Launching off his success in Gidget, Darren would go on to quite a career after Gidget, with outside-of-Moondoggie highlights including 1961’s The Guns of Navarone, a wealth of success on television, and one of the catchiest pop hits ever, “Goodbye Cruel World.”

Cliff Robertson brings some welcome dramatic grit and maturity to the proceedings as Kahuna, the elder statesman among the surfers. Robertson admirably never plays down to his character in a condescending manner, fully committing to the part to depict Kahuna, an anti-establishment Korea War veteran who’s turned to a life on the beach with little responsibility for refuge, as a compassionate, conflicted soul trying to guide the younger surfing set who idolize him on the right path, as he tries to resolve his own destiny. Honing his craft at the Actor’s Studio, Robertson was soon thereafter on the path to major stardom following his debut in 1955’s smash film version of William Inge’s Picnic and his terrific work on television in Days of Wine and Roses; it’s admirable at a critical career juncture Robertson risked taking a change-of-pace, offbeat role in a movie clearly aimed at the teen-age set, as opposed to opting for a more typical white-collar leading man role that would befit a logical next step for a burgeoning leading man. With Robertson investing his considerable dramatic talent in the part (he particularly does a great job illustrating Kahuna’s strong fraternal instinct towards Gidget), while also allowing himself to loosen up during the character’s more uninhibited moments (catching pseudo-waves with the gang while wearing a perfect, irresistible straw hat, or grooving away at the beach luau), the caught-between-youth-and-adulthood Kahuna comes across as a highly original and refreshing counterpoint to the stoic, responsible male figures leading the way in most movies of the era.

Arthur O’Connell, who was achieving phenomenal success in hit 1950’s films, among them Oscar-nominated roles in Picnic and Anatomy of a Murder, does his patented befuddlement with ease, and his lighter “Dear-Old-Dad” take on fatherhood is in sync with the film’s overall jovial tone. Mary LaRoche, a prime example of the well-groomed, practical housewife during the era (see also Bye, Bye Birdie), has an uncanny ability to project warm understatement in her idealized mother role, and has several touching mother-daughter interactions with Dee. It’s wonderful to see two parents not portrayed as monsters because they don’t always agree with their offspring’s actions; although not always in accord with Gidget’s ideas to gain acceptance by her peers, these understanding elders actually listen to their daughter’s concerns and works with her to resolve problems relating to adolescent strife, instead of doing everything they can to wield authority and remain in control in bulldozer fashion. The film is as close to an anti-generation-gap movie as anything outside of Disney’s family-friendly output during the period, and O’Connell and LaRoche do fine work in illustrating the benevolence and love central to their characters’ parental nature.

Among the surfer dudes who razz Gidget before adopting her into their sector are Doug McClure, a far cry from his The Virginian stardom a few years later and Tom Laughlin, a galaxy away from his career-defining work as Billy Jack. Pertaining to Gidget’s girlfriends who try to catch the boys’ eyes less successfully than the waves manage to, Yvonne Craig represents the chief on-the-cusp of greater fame starlet, with several years to go before teaming up with Elvis in a couple of his lighter fares then, iconically, with Batman and Robin on television. Joby Baker also makes an endearing impression as Stinky, who runs a surfboard business in between hitting the water with the gang; in general, all the young cast and extras maintain a sense of light-hearted fun and appear to be enjoying the ride on-and-off the surf.

The popularity of Gidget spawned a franchise as the spry, knowing teen went on to travel to Hawaii and Rome in the 1960’s with Darren/Moondoggie in tow but, alas, without Dee, who was tied up with home studio Universal as one of its top players after her smash 1959 cinematic year suddenly turned her into one of the top-ten box office stars for several years. The influence of the film had much to do with the iconic 1963 introduction of Frankie and Annette in American-International’s Beach Party, which likewise resulted in franchise success, while Gidget moved on to television in 1965, providing Sally Field a career lift-off in the process, with many Gidget t.v. offerings to follow. However, the initial screen incarnation of this enduring and endearingly optimistic, action-oriented teen offers a perfectly blended mixture of exceptionally-cast leads performing with charm and dedication, an entertaining and compelling character-driven script and smart, efficient direction that places the 1959 Gidget in a class by itself.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Pros and Cons of a Woman's World, circa 1954

       Offering a twist on the popular cinematic trend of “trio” films centering on the exploits, romantic and otherwise, of three female stars (dating back to 1925’s Sally, Irene and Mary, at least), 1954’s Woman’s World (based on Mona Williams’ novelette May the Best Wife Win) technically concerns the corporate world and the three men vying for a top position as General Manager at the NYC-based “Gilford Motors.” However, 20th Century Fox had recently struck gold with the femme-helmed How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Coins in the Fountain and therefore, guided by the sure hand of director Jean Negulesco (who oversaw both Millionaire and Three Coins), the wives of the three G.M. candidates are detailed with as much (okay, more) emphasis as their male counterparts, offering an interesting take on some of the era’s prevailing views of both sexes in relation to big-business endeavors.

                Of the female leads, June Allyson as wholesome Midwesterner Katie Baxter is possibly the most prominently featured, but her character’s frequently-detailed ineptitude as a small-town doe lost among the sophisticates in the Big Apple grows tiresome quickly, and it’s disconcerting to see, based on other characters’ reactions to her, the audience is clearly meant to view the often-inane Katie as the most appealing wife, as she doesn’t pose a threat to the men by, you know, coming across as intelligent and/or ambitious- happy with domestic bliss, Katie doesn’t want her husband Bill (Cornel Wilde) to win the position and uproot the family from Kansas City. Allyson was having quite a career surge at the time playing variants on the idealized American housewife, with the same-year’s smash-hit The Glenn Miller Story really upping her stock in this vein (and her patented good wife in the same year’s all-star Executive Suite also helped- damn, June was busting out all over in 1954), but her best work may have preceded this Golden Era, with her lively gregariousness in 1947’s Good News and her sly take on “Thou Swell” pretty much stealing the show in the all-star Words and Music in particular showing off Allyson’s unique musical talents. Allyson also occasionally demonstrated she had seldom-tapped dramatic abilities outside of her perfect housewives (check out her tense performance in The Shrike, or Allyson’s breakdown scene in Strategic Air Command, which briefly shifts the tone of that Vista Vision aerial epic into darker psychological territory).

                As Elizabeth Burns, the most practical and perceptive of the wives, Lauren Bacall has on paper a more straightforward role with less opportunities for big moments, but Bacall is fascinating to watch in possibly her most pitch-perfect performance this side of her remarkably–assured debut in To Have and Have Not and the terrific follow-up, The Big Sleep. Bacall is clearly “on” in some of her performances, which ended up suiting her just fine once she hit (and then conquered) Broadway, but this overt style could come across as forced on-screen; however, in this World she tones down her playing significantly and maintains an element of intrigue and subtle depth that makes the audience stay focused on Elizabeth as she ponders marital issues brought about by a workaholic husband Sid (Fred MacMurray), and challenges him regarding the promotion that could cause irreparable damage; Bacall is great at conveying Elizabeth’s independent spirit, while still indicating the conflict she faces over her love for Sid and doing what she feels is right in order to save him at the expense of their marriage. She’s also very likeable interacting with Allyson as she helps (or, well, tries to help) Katie find her footing among the NYC elite, offering evidence that Elizabeth possesses enough social skills and Big City know-how to possibly aide the men both in and outside the boardroom.

                Although Bacall’s Elizabeth may hint at being equipped to handle the pressures of the business world, Arlene Dahl’s Cathy Talbot, in direct contrast to the supposedly more appealing Katie, shows the most overt ambition in wanting husband Jerry (Van Heflin) to climb the business and social ladders, and is willing to assist him in highly unorthodox fashion. As was typical during this period, a woman in film demonstrating she might want something better than an idyllic life at home (normally with kids) has to be revealed as unbalanced at the least (see Jennifer Jones in The Man in the Gray-Flannel Suit for the all-time neurotic example of this type) and a heartless villainess at worst. The script does Dahl no favors in painting Carol’s least-admirable traits at the expensive of any good qualities but Dahl, in addition to her phenomenal beauty (which is used to somewhat nefarious purpose in World) had considerably more charm and skill than she was given credit for (probably due to her incredible looks stealing the spotlight from her performance abilities). Yet, watching Dahl in something like Three Little Words performing “I Love You So Much,” after you get past the jaw-dropping opening close-up of her looking magnificent in an MGM Technicolor glamour shot for the ages, the playful sensually she incorporates throughout the rest of the number as she cavorts up, down and around a staircase with a group of eager suitors, sashaying along while trilling (in her own voice) “La-Dee-Da-Da” as memorably as Diane Keaton would later (almost) say it, suggests Dahl had magnetism worthy of better cinematic opportunities. At least among largely-decorative parts Dahl did get a few chances in movies, such as her disturbed sibling in Slightly Scarlet, ideally teamed with her chief 1950’s cinematic sister, Rhonda Fleming, or her adept, bemused work in one of the last of the 1950’s big hits, Journey to the Center of the Earth, wherein she pairs up wonderfully with James Mason, to illustrate what a fine, professional talent she possessed. In World, the part may be deprived of much depth but there is meat to be found in the role, and Dahl plays the largely unsympathetic Carol with flair, energy and yes, seductiveness, making some audiences members view the character in a more acceptable light (as in, “Man, this is a fearless gal who knows what she wants!”) than the disapproving onlookers in the film (and, probably, in 1954 theaters).

                Although the female stars are allowed the most ample chances for stand-out emoting, the male leads perform in a reliably stalwart fashion fitting to the chiefly male-driven professional business world of the period, “driven” by Gifford Motors in a literal sense in the movie, affording the filmmakers a chance to showcase a few awesome Ford Models of the period at the story’s outset. As Ernest Gifford, who stands as judge and jury regarding who the next G.M. will be, Clifton Webb is his usual quick, acerbic self, and he fits the role as a world-weary tycoon with becoming ease. As Bill, the youngest and frankest candidate, Cornel Wilde plays in the earnest, laid-back manner that served him well throughout his career, especially when supporting more theatrical ladies whose characters witnessed much ado about them (Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, Linda Darnell in Forever Amber, etc.). Wilde’s calm, reassuring masculinity has great appeal, and Wilde never appears to be trying to force the limelight onto himself, opting instead to perform in a direct, no-nonsense fashion that helps move the sometimes complicated or far-fetched material (specifically in the Bill/Katie scenes) along with a minimum of fuss.

                After achieving stardom with an Oscar for fantastic, edgy work in 1942’s Johnny Eager and cementing himself as a valuable Noir player throughout the 1940’s in riveting fare such as The Strange loves of Martha Ivers and his memorably cold, caustic cad who (unwisely) shuns Joan Crawford in Possessed, by the mid-1950’s Van Heflin was settling into a productive period wherein his proficient professionalism was put to great use in a variety of mature roles, such as the homesteader in the previous year’s smash Shane, or his easy command as Major Huxley in a 1955 blockbuster, Battle Cry. In Women’s World Heflin does a nice job demonstrating Jerry’s staunch belief that he can only accept the G.M. position on his terms, as well as illustrating the character’s growing wariness regarding Carol’s extroverted efforts to gain him an advantage with Gifford; Jerry has cause for concern, but the chauvinistic view of the time deeming a woman can’t help a man in business is also front-and-center, and Heflin doesn’t shy away from portraying Jerry as something of an immoveable ass in this area (cue the film’s sophomoric tagline: “It’s a great big wonderful Woman’s World- because men are in it!”).

 Fred MacMurray’s gets a chance to show his great aptitude at conveying sweaty shiftiness as Sid, the man initially most eager for the position. Although among all his leading men and idealistic father roles he seldom was allowed to play ignoble parts, MacMurray’s skill at portraying nervous, spineless guys you can’t trust really has few equals onscreen and, as he did with even greater impact in the same year’s The Caine Mutiny, MacMurray seems to relish being the least-likable character in any room. Sid does manage to have some redeeming attributes, which MacMurray reveals particularly during a touching dinner/reunion scene between Sid and Elizabeth, but even then the audience can be forgiven for speculating how honorable Sid’s next move will be, as they wait for the worm to turn yet again.

Director Jean Negulesco had an uncanny knack for deftly crafting these slick, hard-to-resist all-star entertainments, and he keeps the various plotlines flowing throughout a brisk 94-minute running time, allowing each star key moments to shine (in close to career-best fashion in the case of Bacall and MacMurray) without throwing off the tone of the piece, in most cases (only Katie possibly overstays her welcome, and could’ve caught a Greyhound back to the kids in Kansas City mid-film with a quick “adieu” to Bill). Throw in lush 20th-Century Fox production values (including Cinemascope, Technicolor and the Four Aces singing the title song with their typical aplomb) and voila!- the perfect recipe is created to serve up a prime, flavorful piece of 1950’s drama with an industrial slant.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Crop of Uninhibited Talent Has a Field Day in Caged

           The grandmother of all subsequent women prison dramas, 1950’s Caged fittingly was produced at Warner Brothers, as the tough, uncompromising nature found in the studio’s bread-and-butter genre, the gangster film is evident throughout this prime example from its sister genre. Director John Cromwell, screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie (who knows exactly how to compose all those shadowy prison bars) and a truly incredible cast proudly maintain a rich melodrama flair throughout, which somehow proves more powerful and unforgettable than a realistic depiction of the events might have- every one of the movie’s many conflicts are delineated with a vividness that makes it difficult to pick out one most memorable moment, as nearly every scene features a dramatic highlight that would serve as the sole, buzzy “remember that scene?” topper for many other classic movies. However, the film does attempt to make viewers aware of the serious problems and injustices found in the prison system at the time in an intelligent, straightforward manner which, along with the film’s more sensational aspects, helps the sharp Caged remain relevant and riveting viewing.

Cromwell proves masterful at guiding his strong ensemble; the veteran director instinctively seems to know when to offer a trenchant close-up showcasing a great moment, or when to emphasize a more subtle approach in order to feature each player at her thespian best. Cromwell also does a great job setting up exciting showcase scenes such as the “girls gone wild” cell block riot. Kellogg makes an equally valuable contribution with a smart screenplay featuring solid, entertainingly florid dialogue (“Kindly omit flowers” is one of many killer lines) and scenes illustrating Kellogg’s substantial gift for creating arresting plot points which grant the players a treasure trove of unforgettable moments to play, which they do with sublime verve (each cast member deserve a pardon for knocking her role out of the cell).

Eleanor Parker had slowly worked her way up the ranks at Warners during the previous decade but, despite several prime assignments, including a very interesting, underrated take on Mildred in the 1946 version of Of Human Bondage, by 1950 she was still waiting for the major career breakthrough Caged would afford her. Parker took a risk accepting the role of Marie Allen, as there was an unknown variable concerning how much critics and the public would rate and embrace the heretofore uncharted subject matter, but she must have recognized one of the richest character arcs available to an actress when she perused the script, and Parker admirably ran with it, resulting in a Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival and a well-deserved Oscar nomination in a legendarily competitive year. Parker masterfully employs a quavering voice and nervous, wide-eyed quality at the outset, as the naïve 19-year-old Marie finds herself put away after serving as an accessory to her husband’s robbery, then shifts gears as the policies and politics of the system wear Marie down and she becomes more immoveable. But before that, Parker handles Marie’s riveting emotional outbursts in astounding fashion (just as she would ace her highly dramatic role, and gain another Oscar nod, in the following year’s Detective Story) and due to Parker’s committed, convincing playing, the audience is pulling for Marie to come up aces throughout the film.

As Evelyn Harper, the calm-yet-caustic prison matron, the imposing Hope Emerson has a rare talent of making every line sound like a sneer, and she’s pretty magnificent at portraying each of her character’s vicious actions with a disturbingly sedate vindictiveness. Evelyn could serve as a blueprint for all the subsequent depictions of cold nasty pieces of work overseeing inmates (paging Nurse Ratched), but Emerson adds great originally to her meaty role by often playing the character with a cool detachment, signifying Harper is completely confident of how much power she wields, and of the ignoble, unorthodox methods she can employ to keep these gals in line. Emerson’s deliberately casual playing of such a rotten tomato actually makes her even creepier and more formidable than a more aggressive approach, as Harper appears to be able to effortlessly work the system to her advantage while wreaking havoc on her supervised environment and the prison system in general, without being hindered by attributes such as scruples or feelings of guilt regarding her tyrannical actions.

In most films these two performances would dominant the other players, but Caged proves to be an all-timer in regards to perfect casting. One tagline on the film’s poster (also found in the movie’s trailer) mentions “a brilliant cast you’ll long remember,” and in this case the hype is apt. Over seventy years on, it’s amazing to watch so many performers make such a strong impression- the film is a feast for high-powered emoting, offering a wealth of colorful, multi-faceted roles, and the cast rises to the occasion in each instance. In some cases, such as Gertrude Michaels (the likable waitress Joan Crawford befriends in the previous year’s Flamingo Road) as a well-to-do inmate who goes stir-crazy in one of the most vivid early scenes, or Lee Patrick as Elvira, the powerful vice queen who takes a very clear shine to Mary (Elvira is one of the more forthright portrayals of a lesbian found in an American film up to that time), their perceptive work in against-type casting is so different than their other lighter roles one may feel compelled to double-check the cast list to confirm their involvement in Caged.

Agnes Moorehead gives one her most controlled and intelligent performances as Ruth Benton, the prison superintendent working hard to make a better life for the inmates. Moorehead does a great job at illustrating the strength of character that drives Ruth to take on the bureaucratic red tape (and the men behind it) hindering progress, or to challenge Evelyn’s nefarious agendas as Ruth tries hard to give a well-earned sack to Harper, but she also suggests the resignation and compromise involved in such a demanding job. Ruth has to pick her battles, and although she demonstrates a caring nature towards the inmates, Moorehead makes it clear Ruth understands there’s not room for a sentimental demeanor in her position- she has to stay as tough as her foes to have any hope of achieving positive change for the prison.   

Jan Sterling offers some welcome lighter moments as Smoochie, the easy-going, wisecracking prostitute who relates her letters home from mother, and the audience eagerly looks forward to each of her “I got news for ya” utterings as Smoochie comments on the action and her fellow inmates various personalities. As the sad-but-hopeful June, Olive Deering, with her low voice and melancholy eyes, conveys a haunting presence that is hard to shake off, even years after viewing (when I watch The Ten Commandments, as soon as Deering appears, thoughts of June in Caged spring to mind). Gertrude Hoffman as the oldest and sagest inmate has a very satisfying moment challenging the bullying Harper (you believe this “lifer” is up to the task of cutting the evil matron down to size, thanks to Hoffman’s sedate-yet-ominous tone that proves an ideal match to Harper’s calm malevolence) and, in a larger role as the awesomely-named Kitty Stark, a leader among the inmates, Betty Garde has an equally memorable confrontation with the tormenting Harper that makes one want to cheer (I would love to catch a showing of Caged with a packed house of appreciative fans). Smaller roles are filled by the likes of no less than Ellen Corby and Jane Darwell, indicating just how rich the field of players was for this once-in-a-lifetime cast.

Many women-in-prison-peril movies have followed, but rarely in this distinct film genre (or any other) has a cast made an impact with the potency the talented roster of players in Caged manages. Drawing an audience in from the first scene as the innocent Marie is indoctrinated into her brutal new world, Caged never lets down during its mesmerizing 96 minutes, thanks to the resolute efforts of Cromwell, Kellogg and an astonishing cast clearly intent on revealing every facet driving their characters’ actions, leading a to a wealth of grim but extremely compelling scenes. Other films of its era may be regarded in a more respectable light as a venerated classic movie, but few have dated less or offer such a richly rewarding viewing experience as the down-and-dirty, take-no-prisoners Caged.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Lolita Makes the Grade as a Kubrick Classic

 

         Helping to usher in a more permissive era in America films, Stanley Kubrick’s smart, richly entertaining 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the legendary and controversial 1955 bestseller, provides a fascinating example of how far a mainstream studio film could go during the pre-ratings board era in offering heretofore forbidden adult themes to the public in a manner deemed acceptable. Nabokov’s ingenious screenplay suggestively manages to address the novel’s primary plot points involving sexual obsession and murder without falling into a distasteful realm. The top-flight, perfectly chosen lineup of James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers and Sue Lyon fully invest their considerable talents to bring off performances of style and wit. One of the few Kubrick films to fall mainly in the comedy genre, the director’s skillful, remarkable work in crafting an engrossing Lolita for the masses suggests Kubrick could have excelled more often in lighter fare with the same success he found in other genres. 

           Although some of the novel’s racier aspects had to be toned down in the film adaptation, Kubrick and Nabokov were able to keep matters remarkably adult for 1962, incorporating sly, skillful methods to address mature themes in the unfolding of the story. The audience might have to read between the lines regarding the more salacious content, but (for example) when Lolita inaudibly whispers in Humbert’s ear about a game she played with a boy during summer at “Camp Climax,” anyone who read or didn’t read the book knows the score. Armed with Nabokov’s crafty script, Kubrick turned the censorship which prevented sexual matters from being overtly presented on film into an asset, by having characters address desires in an indirect, funny manner, such as Clare Quilty, with a Cherise cat grin, suggestively saying “Did I do that? Did I?” after information involving a tryst is whispered in his ear by a former flame, or during the in-disguise Quilty’s provocative-yet-indirect discussions with an increasingly unhinged Humbert Humbert. Over the lengthy 2.5 hour running time, Kubrick shows a deft touch in combining these entertaining lighter scenes with more profoundly dramatic ones, without ever losing a consistent overall tone. It makes for a fascinating watch, and Kubrick respects and trusts the audience, never playing down to them or trying to over-emphasize points for fear viewers won’t “get it” otherwise.  

           Kubrick is greatly assisted in his endeavors by a remarkable quartet of stars. The always-compelling James Mason adds another impressive portrait to his many fine screen characterizations. Humbert Humbert, the professor with a yen for pubescent girls, is a tricky role to bring off but Mason, with his cultured, melodic voice, manages to believably blend a great deal of style, humor and class with a darker emotional resonance fitting for a man torn by his desires. Mason could go as deep into a character as any actor of his era, as witnessed by his Norman Maine for-the-ages turn in A Star is Born and his conflicted Captain Nemo 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954 was a good year for Mason) or his drug-addicted, delusional father in 1956’s Bigger Than Life, wherein Mason greatly aided director Nicholas Ray in lending a horrific twist to the image of an ideal 1950’s suburban family. In Lolita Mason also gets a chance to show his comic adeptness, such as the scene wherein Humbert’s nonplussed, inebriated  demeanor in a bathtub shows how little he is shaken up by a dire turn of events, when a crestfallen reaction appears more apropos. The manner in which Mason is able to seamlessly switch from farcical to tragic moments is acting of the most proficient caliber, and Mason never puts a foot wrong while appearing in virtually every scene of the film, keeping the audience on his side throughout; it’s hard to picture another actor pulling off Humbert as memorably and endearingly as what Mason accomplishes in the role.

          For Shelley Winters the role of Charlotte Haze, an affluent widow who firmly sets her sights on Humbert once he takes up lodgings with her and her daughter Dolores (a.k.a. "Lo"), provided her with one of her best opportunities to shine. She plays Charlotte in a florid manner, yet her richly overt playing is far from one-dimensional, as Winters reveals the many facets (desperation, good-humor, jealously, lustiness, rage) that comprise Charlotte’s personality. This woman is full of life, and Winters has no problem playing Charlotte’s pretentiousness with a glorious abandon that somehow doesn’t cross over the line into the ridiculous, nicely tempering the character’s general joie de vivre with some touching moments wherein Charlotte reveals a more sensitive nature. Humbert may view Charlotte as obvious and silly, but Charlotte believes in her romantic convictions, ultimately showing Humbert (and the audience) she possesses a level of pride and intelligence far beyond his lowly assessment. Winters was always great at illustrating domineering behavior with a comic twist and admirable liveliness, such as in her old-fashioned-yet-sage Jewish mother in Next Stop, Greenwich Village, and in her iconic role as the former “underwater swimming champ” in The Poseidon Adventure, who in the eleventh hour becomes a force of nature to match any tidal wave, thereby saving Gene Hackman and the day. In Lolita Winters tackles Charlotte’s many colorful, forceful actions with aplomb and conviction (such as teaching Humbert to Cha-Cha-Cha, or attempting to barrel through the generation gap during her conflicts with her mature, independent-minded daughter); with Winters in the part, it just seems natural Charlotte possesses such free-spirited vigor, and you believe Winters throughout, where another performer might give one pause during some of Charlotte’s more flamboyant scenes (such as Charlotte’s discussion with her dead husband, which Winters manages to make both pathetic and funny).

          Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty, the mysterious writer who proves to be a constantly ominous and evasive presence during Humbert’s travels and travails, gives one of his most original, daring performances. Sellers’ confidence as an actor must have been peaking as shooting commenced, as he portrays Quilty in a fearless, spontaneous fashion that is riveting to watch. From the sensational opening showdown scene between Humbert and Quilty, Sellers makes it clear he is not going to be risk-adverse concerning character choices, as he switches voices and attitudes seemingly at random while Quilty attempts to distract the purposeful Humbert, finishing off the scene with a weirdly comical “ooh, that hurt!” exit line for the ages. It’s admirable to watch a major talent run like this with a role without worrying about the possible disastrous results if wrong choices win the day. Sellers somehow manages to keeps the characterization whole and on track though, making his irregular playing an intrinsic part of Quilty’s quirky demeanor. Sellers’ greatest moment in the film is perhaps the bizarre monologue Quilty delivers at a hotel to Humbert containing references to his “normal face” and the “lovely little girl” with Humbert. Sellers adopts a nervous, rambling manner as he races through the dialogue, leaving the awe-struck audience to wonder just what the hell this guy is up to. Sellers gleefully offers the same can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him-type of surprising behavior in all his scenes and, similar to Winters, it’s a constant pleasure to see just how far Sellers will go in vividly enacting Quilty’s every perverse move.                 

          With her simultaneously placid, alert and amused demeanor Sue Lyon proves ideal casting in the title role. Although it was mentioned upon the film’s release Lyon appeared a lot older than the book’s 12-year-old heroine (Lyon was 14 during filming) her knowing gaze and nonchalant, coolly detached air not only allowed her to perfectly blend in with her more experienced co-stars, but also made the film more accessible to the masses (and censors) in 1962, who could handle a more mature Lolita, wherein a pre-teen would have possibly been too unsettlingly provocative. Lyon manages to walk a fine line between adolescence and sensuality and she keeps her balance all the way, instilling both a youthful freshness and a sage world-weariness into the role that is suitable for this Lolita. Kubrick works extremely well in bringing out Lyon’s natural, intuitive approach to acting, and she handles the character’s development with impressively unforced style. Watching Lyon in her high-profile follow-up, 1964’s the Night of the Iguana, she appears well-cast as far as age and looks are concerned, but gives a more uneven, conventional performance. In Lolita, she easily holds her own among some major players, and is consistently interesting to watch (one example: I love the way Lyon, as the older Lolita, spits out the line “. . . you know, an ‘Art’ movie” to Humbert, making it clear to him and us exactly what kind of film she didn’t star in). Lyon is especially good at projecting slyness, such as her reaction shots as Lolita listens to Humbert and Charlotte discuss his moving in, wherein she shows this nymphet clearly gets what Humbert’s intentions are at first sight, or the self-possessed manner Lolita saunters in to say goodnight (backed by Bob Harris’s unforgettable theme, lively conducted by Nelson Riddle) and pecks Humbert on the cheek with a bold look and suggestive “goodnight” beyond her years. Lyon may never again have made the same impact onscreen, but her assured, composed work in Lolita guarantees her a place in cinema history among the most indelible coming-of-age performances.

        The sophistication, intelligence and creativity in evidence throughout Lolita has allowed the film to remain fresh and intriguing for contemporary audiences, just as it proved enthralling to cinemagoers over 50 years ago, wherein it gained healthy grosses (4.5 million in U.S./Canada film rentals, placing it 12th for the year, according to Variety) and a measure of critical acclaim, with several major Golden Globe nominations (including a win for Lyon as Most Promising Newcomer), and a well-earned British Academy Award nom for Mason and Oscar nom for Nabokov’s screenplay. With its fusion of ace direction, perfect cast, and clever, trenchant screenplay, Lolita serves as a quality example of how inventively and entertainingly adult matters could be presented on-screen in a less-permissive era, and offers a template to modern filmmakers of how to memorably depict questionable material with class, humor and skill. 




Friday, April 23, 2021

A Star-Studded Eternity for the Cinematic Ages

         In 1953, Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn and director Fred Zimmerman had a tall order in attempting to bring the adult themes driving James Jones’ epic 1951 novel From Here to Eternity to the screen. In addition to addressing the story’s controversial passages, obstacles such as the logistics involved in on-location filming in Hawaii and the clashes involved in finding the perfect cast suggested a possible bad return on a troubled investment, but Eternity represents one of those rare occasions wherein a film’s various elements appear to seamlessly mesh together in a satisfying and riveting whole. Detailing the plights of several serviceman stationed at Pearl Harbor circa 1941 and the women they become involved with, Daniel Taradash’s intelligent, superbly crafted script, which manages to successfully incorporate most of the novel’s mature elements while carefully dodging the ever-looming production code restrictions, clearly delineates each character and their motivations and condensing the lengthy novel’s major plot points down to a reasonable running time of 118 minutes without losing the impact of the overall storyline.

         Fred Zinnemann, fresh off his success with 1952’s High Noon, again proved to be an ideal fit for handing a first-class production with characteristic taste, sensitivity and maturity. Zinnemann had a great track record with actors, and his adeptness with and support of each principle player is apparent as the film moves from one memorable scene featuring vividly-depicted portrayals to the next. Zinnemann also maintains sublime pacing during the film’s nearly two-hour running time, skillfully covering a wealth of interconnecting storylines and characters without losing focus of any of them; his staging of the Pearl Harbor attack is very impressive and help lend an “epic” feel to the film, but the quieter, reflective moments between players is perhaps a better indication of Zinnemann’s distinctive directorial gifts, staying with the viewer long after the attack and film have ended.

          Of all the intelligent, vulnerable portrayals Montgomery Clift created during a remarkable run from his impressive 1948 screen debut in Zinnemann’s fine post-war drama The Search (although Clift’s also-standout work in the smash Red River was filmed first, but released later in 1948) through Eternity, his intense, emotionally-driven, honest and highly principled approach to acting perhaps found its most perfect outlet in a character sharing many of these same qualities- Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a disciplined, dedicated private intent on making the Army a career while stoically refusing to give up his individualism, which causes frequent clashes with superiors and colleagues holding a more traditional view towards Army life. Preferring to express himself through his keen trumpet-playing skills as opposed to using his expert boxing abilities to aid his unit after a tragic bout, Prewitt stubbornly refuses to compromise on any of his beliefs, and Clift’s work is so heartfelt (he truly stays “in-the-moment” every second on-screen and fully connects with each costar) he convinces the audience Prewitt’s introverted, noble manner is worthy of the upmost respect and admiration. It’s great Clift managed a career peak of Eternity’s magnitude during this prime period (which also included A Place in the Sun and fascinating, carefully thought-out work in The Heiress), as afterwards he took time away from the screen before suffering a horrible auto accident while making Raintree County, after which Clift gave some moving performances, but never quite equaled the unique appeal found in his earlier output.

           Top-billed Burt Lancaster gained new stature as an actor with his finely modulated work as First Sergeant Milton Warden. Although already a popular star, specifically in the action genre via such entertaining fare as The Flame and the Arrow and the also perennially enjoyable The Crimson Pirate, both which showcase Lancaster’s impressive acrobatic skills as he cavorts through adventures with former circus partner Nick Cravat, Eternity, which followed closely on the heels of Lancaster’s subdued, ultra-serious work as the alcoholic Doc in the previous year’s Come Back Little Sheba, signaled a continued effort to move into a more serious vein, with Lancaster managing to his combine his ever-imposing presence with a firm self-control that makes the Warden a more mysterious and equally-fascinating counter to the flamboyant, awesome figures Lancaster cut as the colorful, rousing anti-heroes of 1956’s (underrated) The Rainmaker and his Oscar-winning work as the bible-thumping Elmer Gantry. Lancaster infuses a still, calm quality into the Warden, therefore making it all the more impactful when the Sgt. does suddenly become more explosive, such as in the memorable moment he steps in to break up a fight at a bar, making the audience firmly believe no one would dare ignore Warden’s demands to behave, or during the climax of the film, when it looks as though the Sgt. might possibly be able take on the entire enemy single-handedly, before he capably leads his team on a counter-attack. For his mature, formidable work, Lancaster managed to garner his first New York Film Critic’s Award, although both he and Clift missed out at the Oscars, with William Holden taking home the gold for Stalag 17 (I’d back Clift, but 1953 was quite a year for Best Actor, with Marlon Brando lending his distinct to Julius Caesar and Richard Burton in The Robe also in the mix).

           Deborah Kerr’s provocative work as Karen Holmes who, as the disenchanted wife of an unscrupulous Captain finds solace in a torrid relationship with Lancaster’s Warden, was considered out-of-left field casting at the time (Joan Crawford was slated for the role at one point, which makes perfect sense if you read the novel’s depiction of the tough, bitter Karen), based on the string of proper ladies that had brought Kerr fame at MGM and elsewhere. However, closer inspection shows Kerr was no stranger to offering erotically-charged portrayals when appropriate- check out her restless nun in Black Narcissus or her adventurous heroine frequently disquieted by Stewart Granger’s sexy Allan Quartermain in King’ Solomon’s Mines for pre-Eternity proof of Kerr’s knack for vividly depicting sensuality in a bold manner that somehow also managed to find acceptance among the strict production code mores of the time. Kerr proves extremely adept enacting Karen’s tense-yet-direct sexuality, manages a nice American accent and of course has a wonderfully steamy chemistry with Lancaster, specifically in the beach love scene of its or any era, which was considered very racy in 1953 and still generates plenty of on-screen heat. Kerr and Lancaster’s committed work in their scenes make one believe in the couple, and helps keep their risky romance from moving too far into melodramatic territory.

            Of all the players gaining hefty career boosts via Eternity, none benefited from the monumental success of the film and individual praise for their work therein than Frank Sinatra, who was famously at a low-ebb, both on film and records, before launching possibly the biggest showbiz comeback of them all. Stepping in for Eli Wallach, who opted out to do Camino Real on Broadway, and aided by wife Ava Gardner’s pitching to Harry Cohn, Sinatra landed the ideally-suited-for part of Angelo Maggio, the slight-in-stature but imposing-in-personality, grit, loyalty and humor private who befriends the troubled Prewitt and before facing substantial obstacles of his own. Reportedly after reading the novel Sinatra knew the role was made for him, and he charismatically plays the role with seeming ease, proving some valuable lighter moments in the process, while also coming across forcefully in his main dramatic moment, which he pulls off with a quiet grace not seen in Maggio beforehand. Sinatra would reach his apex as an actor a couple years later as a drug addict in The Man with the Golden Arm and also impressively anchored 1962’s classic The Manchurian Candidate, proving himself to possess a screen presence equal to his imposing vocal abilities when the spirit moved him, as it certainly did in Eternity.

           Donna Reed, back by Cohn for another against-type casting in the other leading female role sought after or considered for others (I’ve heard Carolyn Jones, Shelley Winters and Kim Stanley were possible candidates), the tough “hostess” Lorene (aka Alma Burke), comes through with her best work since It’s a Wonderful Life. Although Alma’s job has been sanitized from the oldest profession she occupied in the novel, Reed conveys a hard-bitten, jaded quality suggesting Alma is determined to achieve her financial goals by whatever means necessary, whether or not they can be clearly stated on-screen. Reed is unusually and intently focused in her scenes with Clift, and their rapport accounts for some of the most emotionally compelling moments in the film, as conflicting dynamics threaten the couple’s unorthodox romance. Reed is also impressive in the scene wherein Alma relates to Prewitt she’s working hard to save enough funds to return to her hometown and gain a “proper” position in society- Reed does a great job of balancing cynicism with a sense of wounded pride to show how strong Alma’s independent spirit is, and how serious and driven she is to accomplish her plan, even at the risk of losing Prewitt.

          Among the rest of the first-rate players, Ernest Borgnine shows his adeptness at villainy a couple years before Marty made him a star. Playing James “Fatso” Judson, a Staff Sergeant who comes in conflict with Maggio in ongoing fashion, Borgnine underplays in a calm manner that makes his hateful intent fascinating to watch, and creepier than if Judson came across as a more-explosive monster; for example, Judson matter-of-factly telling Prewitt Maggio deserved the torture Judson put him through, as if constantly beating up someone is the most rational thing in the world and something to do daily at random, is an unsettling moment that carriers more power than most of the forceful bullies Borgnine played at high-pitch during his later starring years (although I’ll always love Borgnine’s shouting matches with Gene Hackman up, down and throughout The Poseidon Adventure). Rounding out the cast, Philip Ober is appropriately underhanded as Karen’s ignoble husband, who also finds time to give Prewitt plenty of trouble, and Jack Warden, George Reeves, Claude Atkins and Mickey Shaughnessy have some good moments as various enlistees.

             Upon its release in the summer of 1953, Eternity became of the decade’s biggest critical and commercial successes, with raves reviews singling out Zinnemann, Taradish and each of the five stars with a wealth of accolades, leading to the film sweeping most of the year-end critic’s prizes before gaining one of the biggest Academy Award payoffs ever in 1954 (13 nominations and eight wins- including victories for Picture, Director, Screenplays, and Reed and Sinatra for their supporting efforts). At the box-office, the small-screen, B&W Eternity placed second only to the introduction of Cinemascope via The Robe, amassing $12 million in rentals in the U.S. and Canada during its first run, according to Variety. With seminal direction, work rating at or near career-best for most of the actors, and that exceptional Taradash screenplay, Eternity offers a seminal example of what 1950’s audiences looked for in a top-flight drama, and it remains an entertaining testament to the significant virtues of its talented cast and crew.