Thursday, February 18, 2010

Surf's Up! with Donna Loren at the Egyptian

It was cowabunga time for one-night only last Thursday at the Egyptian Theater, with a double feature of two 1960’s American International sun-and-surf outings, Muscle Beach Party and the best of the Beach bunch, the fast-paced, diverting Beach Blanket Bingo. The relatively small turnout or about 60-70 patrons (more classic movie buffs might be up for this sort of thing in June or July) still worked up a substantial amount of enthusiasm for this colorful double bill. As a terrific bonus, powerhouse vocalist and Beach alumni Donna Loren was in attendance to join in the fun, and offer the audience a taste of her great vocal abilities.

The fun-in-the-sun formula that proved so successful in these breezy entertainments hadn’t quite gelled with the second in the Beach series, 1964’s lackluster Muscle Beach Party, which offers viewers scant signs of life. Even if expectations might not be high, when the combined shticks of Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett and Morey Amsterdam can’t muster a smile, the unoriginality is apparent. Although Muscle Beach is a prime location for the series’ detractors to point to, among the film’s assets are a well-oiled lineup of male pulchritude led by Peter Lupus, Annette and Frankie competing for the biggest hair in the movie, swirling, shrugging Candy Johnson doing her best to imitate a blender, Dick Dale pairing up with a bopping Donna Loren for "Muscle Bustle" and Little Stevie Wonder making his film debut and grabbing the biggest kudos with his spirited rendition of “Happy Street.”

At intermission Donna Loren took the stage and, after explaining how her 1963-1968 stint as the “Dr. Pepper Girl” led to her involvement in the Beach Party films, she performed a melody of songs from the movies, and a new number, “Love it Away.” Loren’s phenomenal vocal prowess is virtually undiminished, and she belted out the numbers with great finesse (she can still add an unparalleled rumble to her vocal rhythms). Her huge voice couldn’t be completely ignored during her busiest years as a performer, but one wonders why this primarily unknown mega-talent didn’t hit much bigger, especially as Loren’s attractive, fresh-faced look and upbeat manner were ideally suited for the 1960’s teen scene (perhaps if American Idol had been around during this era, Loren would’ve been a surer bet for major stardom). Afterwards, a Q&A with the audience was conducted. Loren was queried regarding her fondness for Dr. Pepper, and she admitted she doesn’t go in for any soft drinks, stating “I’m a tea drinker.” I asked Loren how she obtained her impressive run on Shindig: she stated she just auditioned and was chosen, and found the experience very rewarding. She started on the show at 17 singing “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and missed out on her senior year of high school due to all her professional activity (besides the Shindig gig, Loren was still was honoring her Dr. Pepper contract, as well as turning up in the Beach Party movies). Check out Loren as the embodiment of a hip teen via her assured, sensual performance of “Shakin’ All Over”:

Someone asked for specifics concerning the shooting of the beach movies; Loren claimed she had a good working relationship with director William Asher but, as one of the few genuine teens in the cast, she observed more than took part of any wild shenanigans taking place on the set among the twenty-somethings in the cast.

Bingo represents this unpretenious series' finest hour, with its lighthearted script consistently blending laughs (this time out, Rickles gets a chance to really cut loose with his special brand of insults, targeting Frankie and Annette at the local hangout) and upbeat, catchy musical numbers (the ingratiating title song sets the fun tone for the film). Paul Lynde manages to make every line sound amusingly snide, and other key Bingo players include Harvey Lembeck reprising his role as Eric Von Zipper from the first Beach Party, Deborah Walley as a sexy parachuting siren who puts the moves on Frankie, Walley's then-husband John Ashley as her jealous partner in the skies, Buster Keaton getting a few opportunities to demonstrate his genius, a luscious starlit-eyed Linda Evans as Lynde's singing protégée, and Michael Nader as a surfing beachboy, nearly twenty years before costarring with Evans on Dynasty. Bingo even features a genuinely sweet subplot concerning the hapless Bonehead’s (Jody McCrea) romance with a comely mermaid, Lorelei (Lost in Space’s Marta Kristen). McCrea may not take to the screen as effortlessly as father Joel, but he did inherit a substantial amount of his dad‘s sincerity, which helps sell this fantastic storyline. Loren briefly appears to sell her signature tune, “It Only Hurts When I Cry” with polish and style then, unfortunately, disappears for most of the rest of the film. Kubrick cult figure Timothy McCarey had fans clapping when his name appeared onscreen, and everyone applauding his audacious work during the end credits. He’s a fearless, unguarded and completely original actor, and he's both hilarious and deeply disturbing as South Dakota Slim, a nefarious associate of Von Zipper’s.

Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello may not possess the strongest personalities or rival the great screen teams, but their appealing, wholesome chemistry is a pleasure to watch. It’s clear this is one cinematic couple fully at ease performing together, and when they casually duet on the endearing “I Think, You Think” or Annette fumes over Frankie’s innocent flirtations with Walley or the bevy of bikini beach babes constantly twisting and twitching around him, their forthcoming pop iconic status is a given. Bingo itself offers a nostalgic time capsule view of carefree youthful exuberance just prior to the more rebellious “Flower Power” era, giving off an infectious summertime vibe that will make you want to catch a wave, or sing along with Donna:

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Steven's Dark Sun Turns Noir at the Castro

Last Sunday I ventured to the fabulous Castro Theater in San Francisco to take in a showing of director George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, an intriguing reworking and updating of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” I’ve long harbored conflicting feelings regarding this seminal 1951 work, and therefore viewing this Sun has always been a frustrating, fascinating experience. The film was considered a work of major significance upon its release, with Charlie Chaplin calling Sun the greatest film about America ever. The film may not hold up to that lofty praise nearly sixty years later (or even that year, with A Streetcar Named Desire, Strangers on a Train, Ace in the Hole, The African Queen and others also in the running), but it remains a worthwhile, absorbing drama. Curiously, although I’ve never heard of the movie categorized as a film noir, it was deemed one on this occasion, as Sun closed the Castro’s eight annual Noir City Film Festival. Sun does contain a lot of dark themes and darker cinematography, but in tone and presentation the movie fits the description of a large-scale drama more aptly than that of a bleak noir.

I’ve never attended one of the previous noir festivals, and therefore I innocently Barted over from Oakland expecting to find a relatively small audience for the matinee showing of Sun. When I reached the theater, the line was at the end of the block, and I ended up being lucky enough to find a decent seat in the balcony just before show time (kudos to the Castro’s extremely well-organized concession stand workers, who zipped through the long line of popcorn patrons in record time). Watching Sun on a big screen for the first time increased my fondness for the movie, but also highlighted some of the film’s problems. Overall, it was a rewarding and memorable experience to watch the film unfold amid a packed house of Sun worshippers.

Stevens’ firm hand is clearly guiding every aspect of this production. It’s easy to admire his serious commitment to his films, as it’s clear Stevens cares deeply about the quality of these ambitious productions; however, he frequently over-emphasizes his themes, as if he doesn’t believe an audience will understand his key plot points otherwise. Sun contains some prime examples of the director’s tendency towards overstatement, with those constant overlapping dissolves and continual loon calls growing tiresome with their important overtones, until one wants to call out to the screen, “Alright George, we get it already!” (I’ll take the less contrived, and more entertaining Alice Adams, Gunga Din or The More the Merrier over any of Stevens “big” studio offerings). Still, Stevens total involvement in and control of Sun also draws viewers in quickly, and maintains their rapt attention until the film’s final fadeout/dissolve two hours later, as well as during repeated viewings of the movie.

Montgomery Clift was nearing his peak as an actor and star attraction in Sun, with the emphasis on attraction. He’s so ungodly handsome, the first time he turns towards the camera during the film’s memorable opening, it brought cheers and hubba-hubba whistles from the large audience. More importantly, Clift had swiftly established himself as possibly the finest young actor in films by 1951, and his ultra-sensitive performance as George Eastman puts the audience on the wayward character’s side from the get-go. When George is on the stand pleading for his life, Clift is so mesmerizing, fragile and convincing the character’s guilt or innocence becomes a non-factor: no one wants to see this man punished, even if it might be true George’s opportunism knows no bounds. Although his engrossing work may pale somewhat in comparison to his even more realistic and dynamic portrayals in The Search, The Heiress and From Here to Eternity, as George Clift admirably epitomizes the hero as anti-hero soon to become a staple in Hollywood films.

The role of Alice Tripp, a plain, naïve factory worker George becomes involved with, afforded Shelley Winters the opportunity to shun her glamorous image as a sexy, good-natured blonde and reinvent herself as a character actress of substantial stature. However, although she has some vivid moments as Alice, Winters and Stevens tend to overplay the victimization of the character, in a ploy to guarantee the audience’s utmost sympathy. In her early scenes Winters does a good job of illustrating Alice’s shyness and genuine feelings for George, managing to make the character sweetly appealing, but once their relationship begins to sour, in look and manner Winters’ Alice becomes progressively more pathetic (and Winters is deglamourized to such an extent that Alice’s physical appearance comes across as a doleful gimmick more than a natural aspect of the character). However, Winters incorporates a pallid, indistinct quality into the performance that is intriguing to watch, especially in the tour-de-force scene wherein Alice visits a doctor in an attempt to obtain an abortion (this moment sealed the deal for Winters’ Best Actress nomination). Winters is certainly playing against type as this introverted, insecure working girl, but it’s a relief when Alice finally gets fed up with George’s neglect and starts taking charge of matters, as Winters’ acting becomes much more persuasive when she employs the vivid, direct style found in her most successful work. You can believe Alice has the fortitude to convince George to stick by her, even with the luscious Elizabeth Taylor providing an alluring obstacle, as when Winters is doling out ultimatums, she’s a force to be taken seriously.

The rich, beautiful Angela Vickers serves as a stark contrast to drab, forlorn Alice as an object for George’s affections: as Angela, the teenage Elizabeth Taylor is composed, mature and compassionate in one of her best performances. Even though Alice is obviously the film’s cast-aside victim whose plight we’re intended to strongly identify with, Taylor is so touchingly believable it’s easy for an audience’s sympathy to shift towards this affluent-yet-vulnerable ethereal girl destined for heartbreak. Angela’s final meeting with George is probably the saddest, most heartfelt scene in the movie, and Taylor’s gentle, poignant acting is indelible and very moving. George encounters many trials, both figuratively and literally, in an attempt to establish a life with his true love, and Angela is definitely worth the trouble. Furthermore, Clift and Taylor generate great erotic chemistry, creating one of the screen’s most achingly romantic couples, with those huge Stevens close-ups and Franz Waxman’s lush score generously assisting this once-in-a-lifetime teaming (of course Clift and Taylor costarred later, but not like this).

Raymond Burr has a showy role as Frank Marlowe, the powerhouse district attorney who goes after George, but his intensity is often rendered in an overwrought fashion. Although Burr is obviously well cast, with flamboyant courtroom scenes that serve as a warm up for his forthcoming glory days as Perry Mason, in manner and action Burr attacks and/or is directed to attack the role using an unsubtle, heavy-handed method, resulting in some unintended guffaws from the audience as this bullish D.A. takes down the sincere, humble George in savage manner (Burr appears ready to bite Clift at any given moment during their key courtroom confrontation). An attempt to add some more realistic human dimensions to this unrelenting character would have been welcome.

Small touches I’ve never noticed on a television screen leaped out from the pristine print on view at the Castro (Paramount Studios may not distribute their classics with the verve of Warner Home Video, but they sure manage to keep their older titles looking fine): the bespeckled Laura Elliot/Kasey Rogers showing up as Miss Harper, saying “Yes Sir,” then vanishing from the picture a lot faster but less fatally than she does in Strangers on a Train; Kathleen Freeman working on the factory line wherein George first encounters Alice; Ivan Moffat, Sun’s associate producer, featured on the poster as the producer of the movie playing at the theater where George runs into Alice; and that painting of Ophelia in George’s room, which ominously foreshadows George and Alice’s destiny.

Sun won six Academy Awards (although the Oscars, in a rare lighter moment, chose the colorful An American in Paris over Sun and Streetcar for Best Picture) and was a major box-office success, thereby cementing its status as one of the keystone films of the early 1950’s. Time has been kinder to some of the other signature films of the period but, to varying degrees, Sun features interesting work and early career peaks for its three stars, and stylistically offers viewers possibly the most perfect example of what constitutes a George Stevens production.

The festival's terrific poster: