Friday, October 31, 2008

Monster Days Revisited

The first classic movies I ever became fascinated with were the Universal Horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. In 1976-77, our local independent station, WCIX-Miami would air Creature Feature on Saturday afternoons. I can still see the foggy graveyard and hear that disquieting music of the title credits. Creature Feature aired every classic horror (or "monster movie", as I called them). I believe that there was a Universal Horror Film Revival going on in popular culture, dating back to the 1960s, when films like Frankenstein, Dracula-- and particularly terrifying for me--The Creature From the Black Lagoon, which received seemingly continual broadcast on TV. There must have been a revival, because I had brand-new toys of the Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein's Monster. I remember them being rubbery and highly detailed. There was also a monster design toy for boys, called Mighty Men and Monster Maker, a horror counterpart to the fashion design plate-making sets that girls played with, where a potentially twisted boy could mix and match various monster segments: dragon torsos, wolfman heads, and dinosaur legs to create your own hybrid monster. You would place a sheet of paper over the assembled plates and make an impression by embossing it onto the paper when you sketched over it with a pencil. Guaranteed to provide minutes and minutes of fun! Anyone remember this?

My interest in classic horror films was intense, but brief. Stuff like The Six Million Dollar Man and Star Wars competed for my attention and benefitted using intrusive marketing. Plus, Creature Feature began airing unappealing dross like King Kong Vs. Godzilla and Gamera Vs. Zigra, which I never liked. I'd rather have watched I Was a Teenage Werewolf!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gail Patrick: Deco Dame

Gail Patrick (1911-1980) was best known for her numerous roles in the 1930s and 1940s as the bitchy, cold-as-ice, "other woman." The stauesque (5'7"), strikingly beautiful actress possessed a wonderfully distinct speaking voice (Oh, why don't women speak like that today??? ). Gail Patrick is a quintessentially Thirties dame. She is best known for her work in My Man Godfrey (1936), where she played Carole Lombard’s conniving sister Cornelia who, after being dumped into an ash pile by William Powell’s title character, plans to ruin the “Forgotten Man”-turned family butler by framing him for the theft of her jewel necklace. Patrick has many deliciously bitchy exchanges with both Powell and Lombard, but it is Patrick’s vulnerability that makes her Cornelia Bullock so memorable, adding a level of pathos to her spoiled rich girl facade. After seeing Patrick among one of the best ensemble casts in movie history, you’ll want to seek out her other memorable roles. Unfortunately, Gail Patrick’s more obscure movies do not make the rounds at Turner Classic Movies and are unavailable on DVD. There must be a dozen or so of her movies that I'm just dying to see, including Tales of Manhattan (1942) , and the original Brewster's Millions (1945) . Luckily, her best-known films are available for your infinite enjoyment.

Stage Door (1937) Patrick’s role as Linda Shaw was a nice follow up to My Man Godfrey, and she gets to lock horns with an at-her-best Ginger Rogers, who, to be honest, destroys Patrick in this one. Gail does get off some fine salvos, though. Stage Door features not to be missed ensemble work by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, and a teenaged Ann Miller.

My Favorite Wife (1940) Patrick in perhaps her ultimate “other woman” role, she is Cary Grant’s new wife after Grant has his first wife (Irene Dunne) declared dead after she goes missing in the Pacific Ocean for seven years. Patrick is actually quite sympathetic here, as her character, Bianca, is completely unaware of and therefore befuddled by Grant’s suddenly bizarre behavior after he sees Dunne at the hotel where he and Patrick will spend their honeymoon.

Love Crazy (1941) This William Powell-Myrna Loy confection finds Gail as Powell’s ex-girlfriend. Patrick plays her Other Woman role with a great deal of humor and charm. She’s also at her most flirtatious, with the nasty characteristics that mark most of her roles notably absent. This is my favorite Gail Patrick role. She's surpisingly good in a lighter role and it came as a pleasant surprise after having seen her in her typical performances.

After her acting career ended in the late 1940s, Gail Patrick started her own children's clothing business designing her own line and having many Hollywood stars as clients. An accomplished woman in every aspect of her professional life and a memorable presence onscreen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

North By Northwest: The Complete Score

For the last week I've been marvelling over the 2007 recording of the immortal music score for Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959) composed by Bernard Herrmann. To film score buffs, Herrmann's North By Northwest is considered one of the greatest film scores ever and Herrmann himself (1911-1975)--the composer of Citizen Kane, Psycho and Taxi Driver; among others-- is revered as a deity in film score circles. Now available on the Varese Sarabande label, producer Robert Townson and conductor Joel McNeely have produced an outstanding, complete version of this seminal musical achievment. I'm going to forego a synopsis of the movie and assume anyone reading this is at least somewhat familiar with this movie. That said, I will explain why a re-record of a truly brilliant score has wooed and wowed me. But first, here's a brief rundown of North By Northwest's soundtrack history and a little about rerecorded film scores.

The original North By Northwest session tapes were either lost or damaged years ago. According to the new recording's liner notes, the majority of the MGM library's tapes were discarded and buried under what is now Interstate 405 in California(!). The surviving tracks (also called "cues") were released on an incomplete original soundtrack in 1995 and despite valiant efforts to remaster and perserve those original tracks, much of the score has less than amazing sound quality. In fact on the Overture (the Spanish-sounding main title/action theme often referred to as the "fandango"), some instruments are no longer heard in the recording mix due to the decomposition of the tracks. Unfortunately, many of the elements containing the title track were among those damaged, so if you wanted to hear the riveting title cut, it would have been without the entire orchestra. I should say that the original is still worth hearing if only because original soundtracks-- whatever their condition-- are worth hearing and are often considered another character in the film and is worthy of purchase. Another thing that an original recording has over its newer counterpart is its relationship with the film. Because of that association, rerecorded film scores often lose the "feel" of the original soundtrack and since movie fans have every aspect of their favorite movies memorized, a new recording doesn't sound like the score as recorded for the film. Many times the concert hall recording sounds like a classical music performance and a variety of factors affect its sound: Altered tempos, different instrumental voicings, the orchestra's volume, just about *anything* can be a detriment to a rerecording.

Quite simply, the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra has avoided the perils of rerecording a cherished film score. They nail the feel, the spirit, the mood, the ferocious energy, the romance, the light humor, the very essence of the Bernard Herrmann sound. The orchestra avoids being overly reverential, or getting bogged down in slow, murky tempos or blowing through the slower pieces. North By Northwest is an action/adventure movie and the score reflects that in tracks like "The Wild Ride" and "The Crash"; the tension-filled "The U.N." and "The Highway"; and the romantic "Conversation Piece" and "Interlude." This new edition includes expanded versions of cues not heard in the film and four that receive their world premiere. Not only is North By Northwest a great accompaniment to a wonderful movie, this new album also proves to be a fantastic listening experience. Tracks are often thirty seconds to a minute and a half long with some cuts going longer, but everything segues nicely and one has to keep the CD case handy to keep track of cue titles. The result is still a seamless and enjoyable 65 minutes of brilliant Herrmann underscore. And don't bother uploading individual tracks to your iPod, because the score is best heard all in one sitting. I found that listening on headphones was the best way to take in this masterpiece, so that one can appreciate the wonderful nuances, arrangements, and high energy of one of cinema's greatest film scores.

North By Northwest: The Complete Score is limited to 3000 copies and is available through the
Varese Sarabande website.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The "Undeserved" Oscars of 1940

I've always loved this shot of Ginger Rogers & Jimmy Stewart taken at the 1941 Academy Awards. Ginger won for Kitty Foyle & Jimmy copped his for The Philadelphia Story. Ginger looked so good as a brunette, didn't she? Wow!!! And Jimmy was at his Philadelphia Story-looking best. He sure was a lucky man to have her swipe his "innocence." It's certainly better than having him go to the MGM Whorehouse (for more on that bit of hilarity, read Marc Eliot's Jimmy Stewart: A Biography or go Here). It amuses me no end that the ambitious, predatory Ginger got a hold of "boy next door" Jimmy. That these two Hollywood legends would come together (pun somewhat intended!) on Oscar night only enhances my amusement. I love it!

As for their respective Oscar wins, many believe that both were undeserving of their awards. The other nominees that year were:

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln of Illinois
Laurence Olivier, Rebecca

Stewart and Henry Fonda were the two leading contenders that year. The consensus in subsequent years is that Henry Fonda should have won that year for The Grapes of Wrath, but I disagree! It's easy to dismiss Stewart's win as compensation for not having won in 1939 for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, but In The Philadelphia Story, Stewart was never more charming or witty, and unabashedly romantic. He displayed more characterization and nuance in his expressions as Macaulay "Mike" Connor than in virtually any role he's done--only his memorable turn in Anatomy of a Murder comes close-- and I'm betting that his drunk scene *alone* earned him his Oscar. Apparently, much of the scene was ad libbed and the results make for the best scene in the whole movie. I wish to heck Stewart had taken more roles like this, instead of the "aw, shucks" stuff he usually played. And while Henry Fonda's role in The Grapes of Wrath is a tremendous, dramatic role, comedy almost never wins the lead acting awards and the fact that Stewart's performance won indicates something special: brilliantly balanced light comedy with that "everyman" straightforwardness, plus a romantic side of the actor we seldom got to see. I can't help but grin appreciatively while watching his scenes with Hepburn. If Stewart hadn't gone to war during the peak of his career, who knows what he might have achieved Oscarwise. As for the "controversy" of his winning: Maybe Stewart beat out Fonda by one vote!

Defending Ginger Rogers' Oscar victory presents a tougher challenge. It was well known that she wanted to do dramatic roles and get away from the Fred Astaire association as a light comedy and dance specialist, so the first big chance Ginger got was Kitty Foyle. Ginger hadn't done anything quite like this and the role was "showy" and even controversial at the time. The fact that she beat out proven dramatic actresses that year proves what a change this was for her, and when one considers Oscar politics and Rogers' reputation circa 1940, it is understandable why she won. 1940's other Best Actress nominees were:

Bette Davis, The Letter
Joan Fontaine, Rebecca
Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story
Martha Scott, Our Town

I can see Rogers beating out newcomer Martha Scott, but those other actresses were in peak roles, and in virtually any other year those three tinseltown titans could have scored an Oscar. However, Hepburn, thanks to her role in The Philadelphia Story, was just emerging from her "Box Office Poison" tag so Academy voters weren't going to give her another award so soon. Davis had already won twice, (1935's Dangerous and Jezebel in 1938) and Fontaine only had seven films under her belt as a lead actress (Fontaine would win the very next year, for Suspicion). All of these factors open the door for Ginger's win. I suppose Rogers was "America's Sweetheart" at that time and her performance as a "real life" woman is what won her the Academy Award. However, if there was a best perfomance that year, it was Rosalind Russell in His Girl about a career-defining performance!

Now let's allow the winners to enjoy the spoils!