Sunday, May 07, 2023

Bette Davis Brilliantly Runs the Gamut in Mr. Skeffington


Providing an ideal example of how entertaining a star vehicle from the Studio System’s Golden Age could be, Warner Brothers’ engrossing 1944 hit Mr. Skeffington allows a peak Bette Davis to emote with great vivacity and skill, while also providing costar Claude Rains yet another rich opportunity to justify his place among the greatest character actors ever. Director Vincent Sherman also shows impressive flair in helming the proceedings, keeping the episodic, 145-minute narrative covering several decades, starting at the outset of WWI up until the present day, moving along with inspired pacing that adeptly switches between the comedic and dramatic aspects of the terrific screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein (based on the 1940 novel by “Elizabeth,” aka Elizabeth Von Arnim) without allowing the overall tone of the piece to become jarring. Opulent set and costume designs (by Fred Maclean and Orry-Kelly, respectively) and a florid Franz Waxman/Paul Dessau score also mark this Mr. as a first-class “A” production, and aid in drawing the audience into a most captivating, satisfying viewing experience.

Bette Davis was in her tenth year as a top star, after her striking breakthrough as the spiteful, magnetic Mildred in Of Human Bondage, and was largely considered the screen’s leading dramatic actress by 1944. In Mr. Skeffington Davis lives up to this assessment. The poster’s tagline declared “Bette Davis at her very greatest,” and for once the hype doesn’t seem hyperbolic, based on Davis’ dazzling work in the movie. Portraying the vain-yet-beguiling Fanny Skeffington, considered one of the great beauties of her generation and well-aware of this asset, Davis gives a performance unlike anything else she ever did. The star was in the midst of a phenomenal run, in the process building a loyal following playing a series of tough, independent, and sometimes devious women in a slew of hits (Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes and Oscars for Dangerous and Jezebel among them), but in Mr. Skeffington she thrives in an entirely different manner, while losing none of her uniquely riveting screen presence. Raising her voice an octave and using those hypnotic eyes to display Fanny’s wide-eyed innocence regardless of the passing years, Davis allows what could be an egotistical, abrasive character to come across as charming and sweet, but never saccharine as, in Davis’ hands, Fanny’s naivety is clearly mixed with a strong will, making it believable Fanny could lure countless suitors over a 30-year period, while maintaining the loyalty of the title character throughout as she deftly handles any obstacle that threatens to disrupt her role as the loveliest figure in New York society.

It’s great to see Davis allowed to play in a lighter mode than usual during most of the film, while remaining as emotionally compelling as ever; also, aided by ace cinematographer Ernest Haller, makeup maestro Perc Westmore and some truly elaborate hairstyles by Maggie Donovan, the often-deglamorized-on-film star is refreshingly made up to appear her loveliest during much of the film, as suits Fanny’s beatific character. Davis’ ample and virtuoso acting talent is also on full display, resulting in viewers eagerly following each of Fanny’s whims without ever tiring of her sometimes selfish and vapid demeanor, as Davis skillfully illustrates Fanny doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, therefore making it easy for one to want Fanny to gain any motive she seeks. Also, due to Fanny’s general kind deportment Davis so expertly conveys, when the dramatic moments come, such as Fanny learning of a death in the family, or the ending between Fanny and her husband, they hit with incredible force. Sure, it’s enthralling to see Davis putting over a scene with gusto in her trademark “Bitch Mode” (check out 1942’s amazing melodrama In This Are Life for several wonderful examples of this), but one feels a different level of emotional involvement when the extraordinarily likable Fanny faces hardship and breaks down, resulting in some of the most mesmerizing and moving moments found in a Davis film. It’s a rare performance and, with the star instilling the role with all her formative thespian skills and energy, one that any Davis fan or movie-lover should place on their “Must Watch” list.

Claude Rains was also witnessing a peak period of popularity during the mid-1940’s, after following his memorable film debut in 1933’s The Invisible Man with, among many other significant roles, adroit acting and Oscar nominations for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the all-timer, Casablanca, as well as excellent work alongside Davis in 1942’s ultra-romantic Now, Voyager and a lead in the previous year’s The Phantom of the Opera. As the title character, Job Skeffington, Rains fully depicts the aptly named character’s patient, compassionate nature that prove to be guiding forces in his ongoing devotion to the coquettish, inattentive Fanny, whose roving eye seldom lands on Job. Rains’ uses his melodious-but-commanding voice and, as Fanny refers to them, “puppy dog eyes” to paint a sensitive portrait of a man unable to break free emotionally from Fanny’s charms, even when he experiences full exasperation over the knowledge that she doesn’t return his affections. Due to Rains’ acute playing, the viewer is with Job all the way, hoping he will somehow obtain a happy ending with Fanny by the film’s final fadeout.

The stalwart supporting cast does an exceptional job in keeping pace with the dynamic Davis and Rains. Walter Abel possibly makes the strongest impact as Fanny’s loyal cousin George, investing the role with warmth and humor, specifically making George’s bemusement over Fanny’s constant flirtatious manner an endearing trait that helps the audience fully identify with George and, as seen through George’s perceptive eyes, Fanny. Richard Warning intriguingly imbues both stoicism and vexation into his role as Fanny’s beloved-yet-wayward brother Trippy, while John Alexander, Bill Kennedy, Peter Whitney and irreplaceable Warner Brothers’ staple Jerome Cowan provide effective comic relief as a batch of suitors who never tire of waiting on and for Fanny over the years. Rounding out the formidable cast, George Coulouris also scores as the direct psychiatrist who cuts right through any pretense Fanny throws his way, while young Sylvia Arslan shares a touching scene with Rains as the neglected daughter desperate to stay with Job during her formative years.

Mr. Skeffington proved yet another major success for Warners and Davis, allowing her to return to the top ten box-office stars (according to the annual Quigley Publications poll for 1944) and eventually gaining richly deserved Oscar nominations for Davis and Rains. First-rate production values, expert direction and dedicated, unforgettable work by two stars at the top of their game assures Mr. Skeffington a place among the most diverting films of its era, fully earning status as a cinema classic guaranteed to entrance fans of the “Woman’s Pictures” genre the film is often ascribed to, as well as any other audience member looking for a marvelous viewing experience.

P.S. After many years of mulling over how to approach it, I recently completed a tribute via You Tube to Ms. Davis’ remarkable career, which includes clips from Mr. Skeffington and forty other Davis films. The video can be viewed here.

And a fond farewell to Harry Belafonte, who recently passed away at 96. The legendary performer gained great success as one of the leading recording artists of his generation, with his 1956 album Calypso logging an astounding 31 weeks at #1 (according to Billboard), while also, along with friend Sidney Poitier, who was born just nine days before Belafonte in 1927, doing much to establish the African American male as a major presence in Hollywood films. Although his output onscreen wasn’t as prolific as Poitier’s, which is understandable given Belafonte’s other activities as one of the major musical stars and activists of his time, he established himself as a serene, vibrantly charismatic and handsome figure in several major films, including his debut alongside Dorothy Dandridge in 1953’s Bright Road, Carmen Jones, the 1957 smash hit Island in the Sun (with its beautifully-sung-by-Belafonte title song), one of the first major Hollywood films to attempt to address interracial romance, and 1959’s entertaining one-two punch of Odds Against Tomorrow and the intriguing apocalypse drama The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Belafonte went on to successfully costar with Poitier in the 1970’s in Buck and the Preacher and Uptown Saturday Night, then in his later years scored a New York Film Critic’s Award for indelible work in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, before ending his screen work on a high note in Spike Lee’s 2018’s BlacKkKlansman. Belafonte’s substantial, singular talents and admirable progressive efforts to make the world more enlightened as a leading figure in the Civil Rights movement will be sorely missed; may he R.I.P.

Friday, April 21, 2023

James Cagney Scorches the Screen in White Heat

From 1949, Warner Brothers’ blistering, noir-laced White Heat served as James Cagney‘s return to the crime dramas he gained fame in during the 1930’s, while establishing his career as one of the screen’s preeminent tough guys. After a decade away from the genre, largely to help the WWII effort in a series of patriotic films, including his biggest success in Yankee Doodle Dandy, wherein his indelible portrayal of George M. Cohan led to his sole Best Actor Oscar, Cagney’s forceful presence as an anti-hero proved undiminished in Heat. Director Raoul Walsh expertly helms the production, maintaining a riveting pace that utilizes a taut, first-rate screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (with an uncredited Cagney also possibly contributing to the adaptation of Virginia Kellogg’s original story) which blends exciting set pieces with a good deal of detail concerning police procedures of the era, allowing viewers to gain both a time-capsule view of the technology and methods involved in fighting crime circa 1949, while witnessing a prime example of how effectively the Studio Era could properly showcase a star in his top form and genre.

After a few lackluster years in film following his Dandy peak, Cagney geared up for one of his most remarkable and daring performances as the tough, unbalanced gangster Cody Jarrett. Unlike earlier Cagney criminals found in his star-making turn in The Public Enemy and his fantastic Oscar-nominated work in Angels with Dirty Faces, the star fearlessly projects nary a trace of likable characteristics, holding nothing back in depicting the psychotic mindset that guides Cody’s appalling actions. Cagney’s intensity throughout the film is frightening, allowing him to make Jarrett one of the most unsettling and hard-to-forget villains in the cinema, with scenes such as Cody jovially eliminating an adversary or, in one of the movie’s great moments, becoming unhinged in prison after learning of his mother’s death. Watching Cagney in Heat, one can deem Cagney an ideal fit for Hannibal Lector, if the part existed a few eras earlier; his spellbinding work as Cody aptly leads to one of the most spectacular, famous and (literally) explosive exits in the movies.

Virginia Mayo spent the majority of her career as a highly decorative, competent leading lady in a series dramas, comedies, musicals and action/adventure films, but there’s a special spark found in her work on the rare occasions she was granted the chance to play against type as a bad girl. Similar to her expert, impactful performance as Dana Andrew’s cold wife in The Best Years of Our Lives, as Verna, Cody’s self-serving mate in Heat, Mayo again vividly displays her knack for depicting ruthlessness in a memorable, unabashed manner. Unlike many of her contemporaries, who would shy away from delineating the more odious aspects of a Verna and try to instill some likable traits into such a role, Mayo appears to thrive playing up Verna’s insensitive nature with a great degree of skill and creativity. She clearly illustrates key attributes of Verna’s persona, such as her at turns playful, comic, sarcastic and conniving behavior, allowing Verna her lasting place among film noir’s great vixens.

After starting in films a decade before, Edmond O’Brien continued his upward career trajectory with strong work as Hank Fallon, who goes undercover with Jarrett’s gang in an attempt to stop their nefarious activities. It’s a tricky role, in that the actor has to convince the audience he could go toe-to-toe with Jarrett and also fool him regarding his true identity in the process, with Cody played by a never-more-in-his-element Cagney, but O’Brien conveys the proper amount of stoicism and intelligence to bring the role off with admirable aplomb. Steve Cochran also makes a vivid impression as “Big Ed,” a co-gangster who carries a dislike for Cody and a strong, reciprocated yen for Verna, leading to complications for all three. Cochran has a knack for mixing boyish charm with a charged sexuality in his unsympathetic roles (on paper at least- see Storm Warning for possibly Cochran’s most definitive work in this mode), somehow allowing him to convey both danger and sensitivity in a distinct, beguiling fashion. Margaret Wycherly also scores heavily in perhaps her most definitive role as “Ma” Jarrett, vividly depicting the tough, immoral nature that would influence her son to choose a career path as a hardened criminal, while also working in synch with Cagney to illustrate the tenacious, unnatural mother/son bond that ties Cody to Ma in a highly loyal and emotional manner.  

The popular and critical success of White Heat allowed Cagney to return to his rightful place among the screen’s most gifted and exciting stars, as well as convincing him to take on further roles in the gangster mode, specifically in the following year’s also-intense and lurid Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and his terrific, Oscar-nominated work opposite Doris Day in 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me. As for White Heat, it remains a supreme potboiler of substantial merit: fueled by one of the key performances of Cagney’s career, inspired direction by Walsh and committed, superb work by the talented cast and crew, this landmark of 1940’s cinema holds up as one of the finest examples to be found among Warner Brothers great crime dramas; lovers of film noir and classic movies can’t go wrong adding White Heat to their “Most Wanted” lists.  

 P.S.: I recently completed a YouTube tribute video to the awesome screen accomplishments of James Cagney. The video can be viewed here.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Dual Jerry Lewis’ and Stella Stevens Ideally Mesh in The Nutty Professor

          Upon hearing of the recent passing of Stella Stevens, one sweet cinematic memory immediately crossed my mind: Stevens’ beautiful work as Stella Purdy in what many deem Jerry Lewis’ greatest film, 1963’s The Nutty Professor. As Stella, Stevens takes what could have been a stock ingénue role and invests it with freshness and individuality, including a serene comic sensibility that proves a perfect contrast to Lewis’ more overt, patented approach. The compelling sensitivity Stevens also brings to Stella is very moving in key sequences, allowing Professor to honestly earn its sentimental stripes. Stevens has much to do with Professor’s ongoing popularity and status at the forefront of Lewis’ film output, and was rightfully very proud of her work and the film itself. With grade-A Paramount production values throw in, such as gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by W. Wallace Kelly that highlights the ace Art Direction by Hal Pereira and Walter H. Tyler and Set Decoration by Robert Benton and Sam Comer (particularly the aptly named Purple Pit hangout that serves as a striking centerpiece for much of the action) and a lush score by Walter Scharf that beautifully incorporates different variations of Victor Young’s haunting “Stella by Starlight” throughout, both as a homage to Ms. Stevens’ character and for the film in general, and typically spot-on Edith Head costumes, the team surrounding star/director/writer Lewis helped enable the multi-talent to achieve his full potential as an original, highly adroit screen artist.

           Professor serves as the peak of Jerry Lewis’ solo career as Paramount’s top comic star, after starting out with tremendous success alongside Dean Martin from 1949-1956 as filmdom’s biggest duo act. Upon the breakup of the team, Lewis continued to prosper with hits such as The Delicate Delinquent, The Bellboy, Cinderfella, and The Ladies Man, in the process developing his own projects as not only star but also screenwriter and director, as well as having much to do with the implementation of the video assist camera (which Lewis first used while filming The Bellboy) as a regular part of film production. Although the inventive Lewis creatively dreamt up original concepts for scenes, resulting in some classic comic bits and set pieces (check out his dance down an elaborate staircase in Cinderfella or how he adeptly utilizes that massive Ladies Man set), he normally played in his famously broad manner, which often allowed the shtick to grow tiresome long before the final fadeout. However, Lewis took great care in adapting his update of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (with Bill Richmond co-writing the inventive screenplay), and in Professor one can see Lewis maintaining a tighter control both in front of and behind the camera as he crafts his passion project for an avid fan base, giving them plenty of the trademark Lewis comedy, while also providing the film with serious and even eerie aspects (the transformation scene comes to mind) unusual in a Lewis offering.

            In the dual role of the nebbish title figure, Julius Kelp, and his ultra-suave and slick creation/alter ego, lounge lizard Buddy Love, Lewis has a field day depicting both of possibly his best performances (with his later brittle, no-nonsense work in The King of Comedy also in the running), vividly illustrating the lovable Kelp as he fumbles from one mishap to the next, and not shying away from making Buddy Love one of the most revolting cads yet seen in a major release. Although there are some of the stereotypical “out-there” Lewis moments, the star shows much more restraint than normally found in his work, as he appears to embrace the idiosyncrasies found in each role with great zeal and with a commitment to stay focused and true to Kelp and Love, adding plenty of nuance to both roles to make then distinctly different, thereby allowing credibility to the idea onlookers wouldn’t soon recognize they are one and the same man. Lewis reportedly adapted the famous nerdy Kelp voice from a fan he’d met years before, and he clearly relishes adopting the accent as a key component in demonstrating the befuddled-yet-lovable nature inherent in Kelp, while using an amusing stream-of-consciousness, verbose delivery style to also indicate Kelp also possesses a highly intelligent, thoughtful mindset behind his fumbling nature.

After setting up a great intro for Buddy Love through reaction shots of those witnessing him walking to and entering the Purple Pit, Lewis does a stunning job in indelibly portraying the arrogant self-satisfaction and hateful self-loathing driving Love’s egomaniacal behavior. Lewis admirably makes no attempts to show Love as possessing much of any redeemable qualities, which he sometimes uses for comic effect amid the character’s darker aspects (Lewis is at his sarcastic best during Love’s exchanges with a couple Purple Pit employees), while also adding tension and uncomfortable dimensions to Buddy’s relationship with Stella. For example, during his speech to Stella regarding his feelings for her a viewer senses (as Stella does), there is a lot of truth in Buddy’s sweet talk about developing something really special with Stella, but one wants to protect Stella from being used by Love, which Lewis makes all-too-evident would be the outcome for anyone who invests any emotional involvement with this magnetic but ignoble rapscallion.

            Starting life as the awesomely named Estelle Eggleston in Yazoo City, Mississippi (not Hot Coffee, as was frequently reported) and following several years as an up-and-coming talent in both comic (Lil’ Abner) and dramatic fare (Too Late Blues), as well as biding her time alongside Elvis Presley as one of the title figures in Girls! Girls! Girls!, Stella Stevens was primed for a major movie breakthrough by 1963, and Professor provides an ideal showcase for her burgeoning, highly individualistic talents. In particular, Stevens does a terrific job in clearly illustrating Stella’s perplexity concerning the dual nature of Kelp and Love’s personalities during her interactions with them, specifically when Love starts to morph back into Kelp while performing for the college kids at the Purple Pit. Stevens handles these moments, as well as her blossoming attractions to Kelp and Love, in a remarkably skillful and believability subtle manner, allowing the audience to both follow and buy into the fantastic premise playing out onscreen. She’s also deeply moving while comforting Kelp at the film’s conclusion, making it clear this oddball coupling has the strong connection necessary to make their union last.

            Stevens had a landmark year in 1963, stealing the show prior to the release of Professor in director Vincente Minnelli’s engaging comedy/drama The Courtship of Eddie’s Father playing yet another alluring bombshell with a captivating fragility and a light, perfect comic touch; as Dollye Day, a dreamy redhead with aspirations in the music field, Stevens has the film’s most memorable moment putting over a mean drum solo in an amusing manner, as Dollye starts out tentatively before working her way into the number to get the joint jumping.  Stevens would again display ace comic timing as the klutzy, beguiling sidekick to Dean Martin’s Matt Helm in one of 1966’s big hits, The Silencers. The early seventies brought continued success, with Stevens doing fine work in Sam Peckinpah’s acclaimed sleeper The Ballad of Cable Hogue before memorably appearing in one the decade’s biggest blockbusters, The Poseidon Adventure, wherein alongside a slew of top names Stevens makes a strong impression as Linda Rogo, a tough former prostitute whose street smarts and survival skills come in handy after a topsy-turvy New Year’s Eve at sea. After this high point Stevens made many television appearances and continued in films of varying quality, with her superb work in Professor remaining a high point that gained her new fans as the movie attained classic status over the decades.

 Beloved character actress Kathleen Freeman served as a “Girl Friday” to Lewis in thirteen of his films, and she’s in peak form in Professor as the kind, concerned secretary Millie Lemmon. Freeman deftly knew her way around a site gag or double-take, and Lewis grants her several funny bits the veteran puts over with aplomb, while also delivering very touching reaction shots during Kelp’s speech at the prom near the films conclusion, which provides additional depth to Millie. With his rich, commanding speaking voice and flair for zany comedy that does Lewis proud, Del Moore also makes a big impact as the stern Dr. Warfield, who has plenty to contend with as president of a university wherein the hapless Kelp manages to wreak havoc with each new experiment. In his biggest scene with Lewis, Moore fearlessly allows himself to appear progressively more ridiculous in riveting fashion, as the insincere Love spitefully pushes Dr. Warfield to recite Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” in order to gain Warfield’s favor. As Kelp’s always-at-odds parents, who prove opposites don’t always attract, Howard Morris and Elvia Allman add abundant color to the film’s proceedings, and among other well-known names that can be spotted are Les Brown, leading his orchestra at the climatic prom, Marvin Kaplan, Henry Gibson, Seymour Cassel and, years before his iconic role as “Jaws” in The Spy Who Loved Me (and beyond), Richard Kiel as one of the towering he-men Lewis literally runs into at a gym.

Following the pattern of most Lewis output of the period, upon its June 1963 release Professor found instant success with the public, becoming a summertime hit that saw 3.3 million in film rentals by the year’s end (according to Variety). Foreshadowing the movie’s eventual esteemed status one of the top comedies of its era, Professor also enjoyed better-than-average reviews from critics, who praised the singular performances of Lewis and Stevens, while also (in some cases) giving Lewis proper respect for his terrific all-around efforts in making the film such a rich entertainment, which adeptly blending aspects of comedy, drama, fantasy and romance. Over the years the movie’s profile has risen, helped by a smash 1996 Eddie Murphy remake and popularity on home video, DVD, and Blu-ray (which really makes the Technicolor pop), leading to its placement in 2000 among the American Film Institute’s Top 100 comedies (at #99) and a 2004 entry into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The Nutty Professor also endures as a fitting testament to the exceptional comic and dramatic talents of Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens, allowing fans the perfect venue to see them at their comic, dramatic and cinematic best.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Raquel Welch Shines Bright in B.C. and The Three Musketeers

And a fond farewell to the iconic 1960’s (and beyond) screen goddess, Raquel Welch. Although Welch was more renown over the decades for her incredible, lasting beauty and physical attributes, from One Million Years B.C. on audiences looking past that fur bikini could witness a true pro plying her craft. As Loana in B.C., the role may not place the biggest demands on a starlet, but an engaged Welch maintains admirable focus and conviction in each scene with a verve not normally found in a prehistoric fantasy, bringing a lot more to the part than her obvious charms. Her success in B.C. followed a breakthrough in another 1966 hit, the sci-fi opus Fantastic Voyage; after this one-two punch, Welch was quickly established the era’s top sex symbol, and she never looked back. She does nice work opposite Dean Martin and Jimmy Stewart in Bandolero! and achieved some good notices for other dramatic fare, such as her turn as a roller derby whiz in Kansas City Bomber, but possibly achieved her best results in comedy, which she played with relish whenever the opportunity arose. She’s both arousing and sly as “Lust” in Bedazzled, made a game effort as the heroine in the disastrous cult classic Myra Breckenridge (“. . . and there goes the career,” Welch later amusingly recollected), brightens up the otherwise lackluster Bluebeard opposite Richard Burton and possibly reached her cinematic peak as the klutzy and good-hearted Constance in 1973’s The Three Musketeers.

Watching the never-lovelier Welch in Musketeers tackle each bit of physical comedy thrown at her with aplomb was an endearing moment among my early childhood movie-going excursions, and I always wished thereafter Welch had gained more chances for great comedy roles in grade-A films.  As Constance, Welch is incredibly likeable, and also gets the chance to display a warmth and kindness not often found in roles more in line with her sultry image. Welch gained a Golden Globe for her lively efforts in Musketeers and reprised the role in a sequel (filmed at the same time as Musketeers, unbeknownst to some of the cast!); however, worthwhile screen roles became rarer after her Musketeers triumph, and she found greater success on stage, performing a one-woman show in Vegas and elsewhere, and appearing on Broadway in the 1980’s and 1990’s via Woman of the Year and Victor/Victoria, respectively.  More recently, Welch maintained a high profile via her 2010 book Beyond the Cleavage and as the creator of a highly successful line of wigs. Fittingly, Welch’s final foray into films came via 2017’s amusing How to Marry a Latin Lover, with the still-vibrant Welch serving as one of the title character’s objects of affection. RIP, dear Ms. Welch.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Lancaster, Lollobrigida and Curtis Fling Their Way to Success in Trapeze

A literal highlight in the filmography of one of the 1950’s biggest Italian imports, 1956’s smash Trapeze offers the recently departed Gina Lollobrigida an ideal role for her American film debut. Under director Carol Reed’s expert, fluid guidance, as “Lola,” an ambitious aspiring aerialist determine gain fame under the Big Top, the charismatic Lollobrigida demonstrates confidence and skill, easily holding her own in the triangle she forms with her first-rate, imposing costars, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and adding plenty of intrigue to what could have been a standard melodrama concerning entangled lovers caught in a trap, or net in this case. However, the star-powered trio, along with an assortment of other colorful circus entities, prove riveting to watch throughout, and Reed’s aspired helming of the involving, tight adaptation and screenplay by Liam O’Brien and James R. Webb (based on Max Catto’s 1950 novel The Killing Frost) keeps the pace moving and florid plotline entertaining, assuring audiences remain involved as each new development arises, both on the ground and in midair.

                Reed takes to his challenging directional assignment with great verve and a keen eye for displaying the proper carny milieu. Wisely filming on location in Paris at the Cirque d’hiver and surrounding areas as the story involving the now-hobbled circus veteran Mike Ribble (Lancaster) efforts to hone eager newcomer Tino Orsini (Curtis) into a top trapeze artist, while Lola works her wiles on both men, Reed appears to relish setting up each shot for maximum impact, with plenty of action seen both in the foreground and among the various acts working on the sidelines. For example, early in the film Lola can often be seen in the background discussing her act with a trio of male colleagues, instead of more obviously keeping Lollobrigida front-and-center, convincingly blending in with the other carny performers as they prep for the big show. It’s clear Reed carefully worked these moments out to illustrate the general chaos found in this compelling, adventurous environment, and he beautifully captures the rich locales and terrific aerial shots wherein much of the drama unfolds with memorable style.

Burt Lancaster, a skilled trapeze artist both off-and-on-screen, not only flies high in the film with great aplomb, but during this period he also found his career soaring, with great early 1950’s output including plenty of Lancaster derring-do in The Flame and the Arrow and fantastic The Crimson Pirate, along with fine dramatic work in Come Back, Little Sheba and one of the decade’s big ones, From Here to Eternity, with that eternally iconic scene of Lancaster and Deborah Kerr canoodling in the Hawaiian surf. In Trapeze Lancaster, the perfectly-cast star tones down the imposing larger-than-life yet plausible persona he employed so memorably elsewhere, including a beautiful job as the title figure in the same year’s The Rainmaker, and you sense the vulnerability and fear of Mike as he ponders his future as a carny worker. Lancaster has some nice moments with the equally-formidable presence of Lollobrigida, wherein Mike and Lola struggle with coming to terms concerning the burgeoning passion that threatens to break up the act. Scenes of Mike teaching Tino the tricks of the trapeze trade also provide a lot of intrigue, as the viewer ponders how Lancaster may have used his own background as a top aerialist to inform these moments, while performing most of Mike’s trapeze maneuvers himself.

Lancaster also served (in partnership with Harold Hecht and James Hill) as a producer for the film’s United Artists release, not long after the Hecht-Lancaster team scored the Best Picture Oscar for Marty, and the financial success of Trapeze kept the team going for several more years, with a creatively-rewarding reunion with Curtis in one of the key 1950’s films, the trenchant Sweet Smell of Success, which failed at the box-office and was largely dismissed by critics in 1957 (the film’s less-than-rosy delineation of the ruthlessness found in the journalistic field)  but has achieved astounding and deserved praise in the decades to follow, and a better-received (at the time) 1958 offering starring Lancaster, Separate Tables. Lancaster himself would of course continue on as one of Hollywood’s most riveting leading men, with an Oscar for Elmer Gantry and great work in Birdman of Alcatraz, The Leopard and his late-career comeback in Atlantic City among other highlights in an incredible career.

                Along with great success in Italian films, specifically opposite Vittorio De Sica’s in 1953 Love, Bread and Dreams, Gina Lollobrigida had received a large measure of fame with U.S. audiences in the years leading up to Trapeze, including the cover of Life magazine in both 1951 and 1954, after she made the most of her successful comic pairing with Humphrey Bogart in John Huston’s cult classic Beat the Devil. However, a contract with Howard Hughes stalled her introduction in a major “A” American picture, and she was only allowed to play the prime role of Lola due to Trapeze being filmed outside the states. It’s impressive how adeptly Lollobrigida lives up to all expectations the public may have harbored going into Trapeze, intent on seeing the newest screen goddess, and nothing less. Although she handles the glamour and seductive components of the role with apparent ease, the multi-talented Lollobrigida brings much more than truly stunning physical attributes and allure to the screen. As Lola, Lollobrigida is earnest and completely focused during each scene while interacting with her costars, allowing the often self-serving character to remain believable and sympathetic due to the level of skill and charisma she brings to the screen. At one point the world-weary Lola explains how her poverty-stricken past is driving her to find success at any cost, and with Lollobrigida’s earnest playing one fully comprehends her dilemma in wanting a way out of her humble beginnings, even at the risk of jeopardizing the professional partnership she’s formed with Lancaster and Curtis. She also does a fantastic job in creating great sexual tension with both Curtis and Lancaster, allowing for an eroticism that, although not overtly depicted, heats up the screen much more effectively than in scores of more blatantly-depicted encounters to follow. Lollobrigida also impresses while airborne, as she clearly is taking flight for herself in many of Lola’s aerial shots.

                The worldwide success of Trapeze gave a substantial boon to Lollobrigida’s career and established her as a top name, both in American films and elsewhere. During the next decade “La Lollo” continued to increase her popularity in a variety of movies, with standouts including enticing work as the title temptress in Solomon and Sheba, a charming union with Rock Hudson in another big hit, 1961’s Come September, and excellent comic work in an enjoyable all-star romp, Bueno Sera, Mrs. Campbell (which later served as the basis for the plot of Mamma Mia!). After her reign as a top international film star, Lollobrigida would thrive in other venues, finding major acclaim as she fulfilled a lifelong dream to hone her craft as a noted sculptress, as well as becoming a top photojournalist who famously met with Fidel Castro in 1974 for an exclusive interview/photoshoot scoop, and as recently as 2022 launched an unsuccessful bid at 95 to gain a seat in the Italian Parliament, just prior to her passing in January 2023, after a rich, memorable life that can truly be called “fully lived.”

                Trapeze also allowed Tony Curtis the venue in which to graduate to more substantial leading man roles, after serving for years in beguiling escapist fare such as The Prince who was a Thief and 1953’s Houdini, wherein he was paired charmingly with wife Janet Leigh of the first time onscreen. As Tino, Curtis displays a blossoming strength and maturity onscreen and works in fine synch with Lancaster, with the somewhat adversarial nature of their characters’ relationship serving as a perfect warmup to the following year’s Sweet Smell of Success, which possibly contains Curtis’ greatest dramatic performance. After Trapeze Curtis had a dream run of critical and commercial hits over the next few years rarely seen by a star, with 1958 bringing The Vikings (again nicely pairing with Leigh in their biggest hit and possibly best picture together) and The Defiant Ones (with an Oscar nod for Curtis to boot), followed up by the legendary Some Like It Hot (with Curtis doing his famous dead-on Cary Grant impersonation), then a smash success with Grant himself in Operation Petticoat and Spartacus placing Curtis firmly at the forefront of the top stars of the era. Curtis would remain a top draw throughout the 1960s before moving successfully into character parts, as well as finding surprising success outside of films with his painting endeavors.

In support, Katy Jurado makes a fine impression as Rosa, a returning player in the circus who also has a past romance with Mike. With her unforgettable soulful eyes and rich, deep speaking voice, Jurado again demonstrates the strong, unique presence that proved so effective during her excellent run in 1950’s American films after gaining fame in Mexican cinema in the 1940’s. Trapeze followed stellar work in her U.S. breakthrough, High Noon (for which she won a Golden Globe), an Oscar-nominated role alongside Spencer Tracy in 1954’s Broken Lance and another first-rate offering in the previous year’s Trial. Jurado is particularly appealing in scenes with Lancaster, as in her hands Rosa is the character who comes across as having the strength and compassion to best deal with the moody, often tormented Mike. As Bouglione, the manager of the show, Thomas Gomez is appropriately shrewd and stern while conspiring with Lola to assure his show’s biggest act remains within his control, and shows Bouglione also at times carries a seen-it-all sense of humor regarding all the vibrant activity surrounding him. Gomez had built a rich list of film credits prior to Trapeze (including an Oscar nod for 1947’s Ride the Pink Horse) and Bouglione would offer him one of his best latter-career roles, before his output slowed down in the 1960’s. As for the rest of the cast, Reed nimbly peppers scenes with a variety of carny types to enhance the overall authenticity in creating an authentic “Under the Big Top” aura.

Trapeze achieved major box-office returns in 1956, with $7,500,000 million in U.S./Canadian rentals placing it third among the top grossers at the end of the year (according to Variety). It’s easy to understand the robust appeal the engaging film had upon initial viewings, and today Trapeze holds up as possibly the best of the popular circus pictures of the period (The Greatest Show on Earth, The Big Circus, Circus World, etc.), thanks largely to the outstanding contributions of director Reed, who received a well-deserved nomination from the Screen Director’s Guilds of America for his sterling efforts, and an inspired trio of top stars convincingly depicting their characters’ plights, both on and off the ground (Lancaster would go on to win Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival and Lollobrigida won a Bambi Award for Best International Actress). For modern audiences, Trapeze serves as both a high-flying, entertaining example of the excitement, romance and conflict that can be found among a circus backdrop, as well as a fitting homage showcasing the lovely and adept Gina Lollobrigida at her cinematic best.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Peerless It Happened One Night Cements Superstardom for Gable and Colbert

             One of the granddaddies of the romantic comedy genre, It Happened One Night constitutes one of those happy accidents in film history wherein, setting out to produce a modest studio picture with a minimum of fuss, all the filmmaking elements seamlessly meshed to instead create a timeless masterpiece possessing its own unique style and individuality. Expertly helmed by Frank Capra, the 1934 Columbia film represents an early cinematic example of a sleeper hit, with Depression-weary audiences immediately connecting with the beguiling storyline and charismatic stars, and word-of-mouth allowing the film to go on to achieve great success with both critics and public. Relaying the exploits of spoiled heiress Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and her encounter with freewheeling reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) during a lengthy bus trip which provides several mis-adventures, the adept screenplay by Robert Riskin (based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams) does a fantastic job of blending romantic-comedy elements into settings easily-identifiable by the common moviegoer, providing a nice twist to much of the escapist entertainment of the period dealing with more upper-class scenarios. Here, the upper class as represented by Ellen is firmly brought down-to-earth by both Peter and her surroundings in an ultra-satisfying manner, such as when Ellen is made to wait in line for her shower at a camp, or has to cavort around the countryside with Peter later in the film. Sequences like these strongly resonated with filmgoers of the period and have a similar impact on modern audiences, such is the enduring appeal of this signature comedy.

Frank Capra would go on to a great degree of success making pictures celebrating the trials and tribulations of the everyman, but he possibly never again achieved the level of freshness and charm on display in this earlier classic. The narrative stays straightforward and the playing unforced throughout the film, with no attempts at overt sentimentality or deliberately-lovable characters allowing It Happened One Night to become dated and unconvincing. Capra does a wonderful job maintaining an appropriate easy-going tone while introducing the array of colorful characters Ellen and Peter meet during the trip, with a naturalistic approach seldom found in his later work. A prime illustration of this is the famous “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” sequence, wherein the bus passengers take part in an ensemble rendition of the song in a seemingly spontaneous, lovely fashion. The disarming simplicity Capra incorporates in his direction allows viewers to establish a vivid rapport with each scene and character, allowing the film to linger in the memory as a cherished favorite.

The two stars also have a great deal to do with the movie’s ongoing status as one of the key films of the 1930’s. Although Clark Gable was loaned out by MGM to Columbia to curb his ego in the face of his burgeoning career and Colbert was firmly focused on the rich payday the movie afforded her, the stars (literally) aligned to ensure two players were given roles exquisitely suited to their talents. For Gable, Peter Warne offers one of his best showcases for utilizing his sly, sexy glamour against the persona of a tough but decent, relatable guy for the masses. There’s also a playfulness to his work that immensely adds to his and the film’s likability factor, and in scenes such as Peter explaining to Ellen his method for undressing as he proceeds to do so (sending the sales of t-shirts plummeting in the process), one fully comprehends how the film sent Gable’s already-established stock as Moviedom’s chief male star into the stratosphere, with him deservedly earning the title as Hollywood’s “King” in the process, as he continued with a stunning run of hits and classics during the next decade (Mutiny on the Bounty, San Francisco, Gone with the Wind, etc.) before Gable went to serve during WWII, then returned post-war for success in a more sporadic vein, with 1953’s Mogambo opposite Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly and excellent work in his final film, The Misfits, alongside Marilyn Monroe providing two peaks for Gable in his latter-career stage.

As Ellen, Colbert possesses plenty of presence and charm of her own. Starting in movies during the silent era, by 1934 Colbert had honed a calm, confident skill on camera, and she goes about her work in an alert, completely unpretentious manner, with no hints of the showy emoting often seen in the early sound era. And as with Gable, Colbert appears focused and spontaneous while interacting with her costars, in the process creating in Ellen a fully-rounded character, indicating the class and breeding of a socialite, while remaining amusingly game for whatever life on the road has to offer (with Colbert in the role, you believe Ellen when she tells Peter, who has just show her how to dunk a donut in one of the film’s more memorable bits, that she’d “change places with a plumber’s daughter any day,” or when she impulsively sticks her tongue out, then smiles at, a bratty girl (who started it with her own tongue-lashing out) in that shower line). Colbert comes up aces at every turn in detailing Ellen’s sometimes flighty, sometimes more personable, but always good-natured behavior, and it’s easy to see how she became a leading-lady mainstay and top box-office draw during the next two decades, with Oscar-nominated work in Private Worlds and Since You Went Away, along with hits such as 1939’s amazing Midnight (which makes for a great double feature with It Happened One Night), The Palm Beach Story, So Proudly We Hail, The Egg and I and her movie swansong, wherein she outclasses the field in 1961’s Parrish.

Gable and Colbert are beautifully in synch throughout their iconic pairing, and although in appearance they clearly rate as an idealized romantic team, their direct, no-nonsense interplay possesses a contemporary vibe, nearly 90 years after the movie’s release. Unlike most romantic comedies (both then and today), wherein the audience knows from the outset the two leads are destined to end up together after initially sparring in “meet cute” fashion, Gable and Colbert play their chance encounter without a trace of adorability, only indicating a casual interest, which makes the eventual deepening of their relations all the more satisfying. Whether at-odds or warming towards each other, Gable and Colbert maintain a believable, easy chemistry, leading up to their most famous interaction, wherein each exhibits their method for hitchhiking, with Ellen providing the more fruitful system for hailing a ride, after Colbert first drily states “Oh, that’s amazing” in hilarious deadpan manner in response to one of Gable’s more elaborate “thumbing for a ride” gestures. Based on their adroit byplay and phenomenal success in this landmark film it was inevitable they would be teamed again and, via 1940’s smash Boom Town, Gable and Colbert were pleasantly reunited, abet with a more traditional romantic angle involved.

Among the rest of an indelible cast, several reliable character actors make strong impressions, as was the wont among the era’s awesome pool of supporting talent. Walter Connolly is alternately terse, funny and spry as Ellen’s understandably-perturbed father, while Roscoe Karns scores heavily as Oscar, the oily bus mate who proves annoying to both Ellen and Peter. Charles C. Wilson also makes a strong impression as Peter’s exasperated newspaper editor, and in smaller roles Ward Bond stands out as the gruff bus driver who memorably states “Oh yeah?” ad nauseam, and Alan Hale is briefly seen to memorable advantage as the outwardly jovial driver who gives the roaming couple a lift after Colbert’s attention-getting legwork.

The initial success of the film enhanced the careers of all the majors players, leading up to the film claiming the National Board of Review’s Best Picture prize before gaining even greater renown as being the first movie to gain all of the top five Academy Awards (for Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay). This accomplishment still holds up today, as the work of Capra, his sterling stars and a first-rate cast and crew continue to enthrall lovers of classic film, and of films in general, with pristine prints of the movie available via Criterion’s excellent 2014 Blu-ray release and a recent 2022 4K disc from Columbia, wisely offering one of its cinematic Crown Jewels in the best viewing format possible. Romantic comedies may come and go, but the experience of journeying along with Gable and Colbert as they find adventure and love on the road has never become stale for several generations of movie-goers, and it’s safe to state It Happened One Night will continue to enchant future viewers in the same irresistible manner.

             I just completed a tribute to Clark Gable featuring his work in It Happened One Night and many other of his top films. The video can be viewed here:

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds Gain Everlasting Fame in Singin’ in the Rain

The rare classic movie that remains fresh regardless of passing years and repeat viewings, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain made no pretense as a work of art upon its release (ala the previous year’s Oscar-winning An American in Paris), but over the decades it has rightfully come to be regarded as possibly the greatest cinematic musical ever and, for many, one of the best films period. Although co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, working with a witty, ingenious script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, set out to make a lighthearted follow-up to their more ambitious On the Town, Singin’ provided one of the scarce film instances wherein every element, starting with that ace screenplay and a perfect cast, blended seamlessly to create a singular work of entertainment carrying its own unique, inimitable magic and sense of fun that assured the movie would linger and rise in stature while other more highly-touted offerings aged indelicately.

From the opening sequence at a grand 1920’s Hollywood premiere to the lively finale, Kelly and Donen keep the film’s pacing over 102 minutes remarkably spontaneous and diverting, with Comden and Green doing a fantastic job of blending era-evoking musical standards by producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (along with a couple newer songs) into a storyline that recounts, in hilarious fashion, many of the problems filmmakers faced in the transitional period from silent to sound pictures, making Singin’, in addition to its remarkable entertainment value, a now-important document of a critical period in the history of movies. Centering around the top romantic pair in silent pictures, Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (the unsurpassable Jean Hagen) and the problems Lamont’s shrieking vocal quality and Lockwood’s perchance for ham-fisted emoting causes their home studio, Monumental Pictures, as it attempts to re-shoot their latest (but immediately passé in the wake of The Jazz Singer) epic, The Dueling Cavalier, the plot moves from strength to strength, with Kelly and Donen expertly staging one terrific musical number after another, while the story becomes richer and funnier as the film progresses.

                After starting his film career at the top with first-rate work opposite (and great chemistry with) Judy Garland in 1942’s For Me and My Gal, Gene Kelly had firmly established himself in film, gaining an Oscar nomination for zestful, charming work in Anchors Aweigh, which included his famous dance with Jerry the Mouse, then gaining his place as the top figure in musicals after the critical and commercial successes of On the Town and An American in Paris, which won a surprise Best Picture Oscar and a special Academy Award for Kelly. Singin’ would represent his peak and also the last successful musical (in terms of both box-office and critical appeal) of his career, although 1955’s edgy and inventive It’s Always Fair Weather and Kelly’s labor of love, Invitation to the Dance, were yet to come. With his forthright delivery style, effortlessly cheerful disposition and megawatt smile, Kelly was a perfect fit for the egocentric-but-amiable Don Lockwood, and he gives one of his most charismatic and assured performances, while putting over several classic numbers with his typical skill and athletic verve, including his (and maybe filmdom’s) most famous musical moment, the romantic, joyful rendition of the title number, which in the space of a few minutes sums up the Gene Kelly persona on screen, while he lifts the spirits of every audience member, making viewers want to be up there with him dancing up a (and through the) storm.

                For costar Donald O’Connor, Singin’ represented a huge career boost and also his peak. As Cosmo Brown, O’Connor performs with an impish glee and quick wit rarely seen, showcased unforgettably in one of the film’s highlights, his all-out solo offering ”Make ‘Em Laugh,” wherein O’Connor offers some gravity-defying moves among the awesome hilarity he displays throughout the number. O’Connor’s amazingly agile dancing skills provide the robust Kelly with the perfect partner, and their work in tandem on “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes” feature both at their lively best, and therefore represent two of the most buoyant examples of hoofing in screen history. A true pro, O’Connor started in films as a pre-teen (1939’s Beau Geste marks his top undertaking during this period) before moving on to prance his way through a series of B musicals during the 1940’s. Mainstream stardom came via 1950’s Francis and its sequels, and after the success of Singin’ O’Connor was seen to fine advantage in two more big musicals of the period, 1953’s Call Me Madam (wherein he is wonderfully paired with the lovely, nimble Vera Ellen in the dance numbers and puts over the show’s signature tune, “You’re Just in Love” with charm and verve alongside powerhouse Ethel Merman) and There’s No Business Like Show Business, wherein he teams with Mitzi Gaynor and Marilyn Monroe for one of the film’s more memorable moments, the drolly staged “Lazy.” Although his post-1950’s screen output was limited, Singin’ assures O’Connor of his rightful place as one of the most talented, dynamic performers ever to appear onscreen.

                As independent, spirited ingénue Kathy Seldon, Debbie Reynolds caught her star-making break after moving to the forefront of MGM starlets via 1950’s Two Weeks with Love, wherein she performed a rousing version of “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” that caught the attention of moviegoers and off screen would provide her with the first of two major hit records. Although Reynolds was largely untried as a dancer prior to Singin’, she energetically keeps up with her co-stars during the challenging, elaborately staged “Good Morning” number and this, combined with a natural vivacity and keen, intuitive comic sense seldom seen in a newcomer (Reynolds screen test from 1948 makes it evident she had a rare, incredible presence and spirit from the get-go), make her the ideal ingénue for the general tone of jubilance witnessed throughout the film. Following Singin’ Reynolds would go on to become one of the bigger names in movies during the 1950’s-1960’s, with the success of 1957’s Tammy and the Bachelor giving her that second major record via the #1 “Tammy,” one of the signature late-1950’s tunes, and an Oscar nomination for her vigorous work in The Unsinkable Molly Brown providing two highlights during her primary years as a top star. After leaving the screen for over twenty years for the lights of Broadway (via Irene), Vegas and elsewhere following excellent dramatic work in What’s the Matter with Helen?, Reynolds made a triumph return to films in 1996 with stellar work as the title character in the exceptional Albert Brooks comedy Mother, then would continue to thrive in theater and films up to her passing in 2018. Although her rich career offers many great moments, Singin’ is perhaps the movie that best captures Reynolds’ talent, with all its youthful exuberance on full display.

                As Don’s dim-yet-shrewd, egomaniacal costar Lila Lamont, who possesses a tin ear and voice to match, Jean Hagen displays ace comic timing and a verve for all-out performing to match her ebullient on-screen colleagues. Hagen first showed a knack for low-brow comedy in her film debut as the other woman in Adam’s Rib (the origins for Lamont’s shrieking delivery style can be found here) before scoring dramatically as the moll in John Huston’s classic noir, The Asphalt Jungle. Hagen’s flair for mixing colorful emoting with more realistic aspects of a character is clearly on view throughout Singin’, with Lina often made the ridiculous butt of jokes, but also showing plenty of mettle as she schemes her way to greater glory; with Hagen in the role, you believe Lina can be both idiotic and imposing. After her success in Singin’, Hagen would gain a large measure of fame on television in Make Room for Daddy, then work less frequently after abruptly leaving the series, with the 1959 Disney smash The Shaggy Dog offering Hagen her highest-profile film work thereafter.

                Without a word, Cyd Charisse announced herself as a phenomenally sensual screen presence as the slinky temptress who diverts Kelly in the big “Broadway Melody” production number. Prior to Singin’, Charisse had spent a decade in films with limited success, occasionally popping up as support as a sweet, graceful young ingénue in a big MGM Technicolor opus such as Ziegfeld Follies, The Harvey Girls, or Words and Music, but making little impact in more standard fare. However, with her entrance in Singin’ via the most spectacular gams imaginable, she immediately marked herself as one of the most unforgettable dancers and femme fatales in film history, masterfully holding the screen while staying in perfect synch with Kelly throughout the lengthy “Melody.” After her breakthrough in Singin’ Charisse would thrive alongside Fred Astaire in The Bandwagon and Silk Stockings and reunite with Kelly for Brigadoon and the terrific Fair Weather, wherein Charisse oddly doesn’t dance with Kelly, instead showcasing her terpsichorean brilliance in an awesome number in a gym with a group of rambunctious fighters. After solidifying herself as the screen’s chief female dancer in the 1950’s, with the downturn in popularity for screen musicals Charisse found her screen output dwindle, with a guest appearance in 1966’s The Silencers, wherein she still dazzled with those legs and her own unique sensual flair, being a later career highlight, while her strong MGM output assured Charisse would be prominently featured via the That’s Entertainment series of films, and fondly remembered to this day as, in Astaire’s words, “beautiful dynamite” on the screen.

                Among the rest of the top-grade cast, Millard Mitchell finds the right stoic-yet-comical tone as Monumental’s often-befuddled studio chief, R.F., and gets to share in one of the movie’s funniest moments with Kelly and O’Connor during the finale. As specific Hollywood types, Rita Moreno is a game stand-in for a Clara Bow flapper, and Dora Blake uses her sing-song, fluttery vocal delivery to perfection as Dora Bailey, the excited gossip columnist who announces the arrival of Don and Lina, then interviews them at the film premiere seen at the outset of Singin’. Finally, Kathleen Freeman provides one of her many brief-but-memorable, amusing turns as Phobe Dinsmore, Lina’s understandably exasperated diction coach.

                Upon release, Singin’ in the Rain scored nicely at the box-office (with in rentals of $3,300,000, according to Variety, allowing the film to place among the top ten hits of the year), established Reynolds and Charisse, and received critical acclaim, with O’Connor ultimately taking home a richly-deserved Best Actor Musical/Comedy Golden Globe and Hagen Oscar-nominated for their stellar efforts, and Comden and Green winning a Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Written Musical. Although in 1952 the film wasn’t held in as high regard as Paris, On the Town or other seemingly bigger musicals of the period, during the passing decades Singin’ has diminished not a whit in regards to the appeal and entertainment the movie provides with its peerless numbers, screenplay and a cast for the ages, growing in stature exponentially over the impending years, to the point where today the film often ranks high on lists and polls pertaining to the greatest films ever, while continuing to chase away the blues and put a smile on the faces of fans, old and new, as they view the wonders to be found in one of the cinema’s peerless musical masterpieces.

                As a p.s., I recently created a video tribute to the work of Gene Kelly, which can be viewed here: