Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Gene Kelly!

(August 23, 1912 February 2, 1996)
Fred Astaire represented the aristocracy, I represented the proletariat.

My tributes to Gene Kelly:


Sunday, 21 August 2016

Picture of the Week

Natalie Wood and Robert Redford at the 23rd Golden Globes on February 28, 1966. Wood was nominated was Best Actress - Musical or Comedy for her performance in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), which earned Redford a statuette for Best New Star.

Film Friday: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969)

This week has been so incredibly hectic that I did not have time to post my usual "Film Friday" article on schedule. As a result, we are having instead a "Film Sunday," in which I am celebrating Robert Redford's 80th birthday, which was on Thursday, by telling you a little bit about one of the films that he is mostly associated with.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) tells the story of notorious bank robber Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman), the leader of the Hole in the Wall Gang, and his loyal companion, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). As they return to they hideout in Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, they discover that the rest of the gang, annoyed at Butch's long absences, have selected Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy) as their new leader. Butch contests this decision, leading Harvey to challenge him to a fight, which Butch quickly wins by distracting his opponent. Still, Butch embraces Harvey's idea to rob the Union Pacific Overland Flyer train twice, agreeing that the second robbery would be unexpected and therefore more money might be involved.

The first robbery goes very well, especially since the local sheriff (Kenneth Mars) fails to organize a posse to track down the gang. After the pair rests at the home of Sundance's girlfriend, schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross), the gang begins the second train robbery, which goes terribly wrong. Not only does Butch use too much dynamite to blow open the safe, but also a second train arrives carrying a six-man team of lawmen that have been instructed to hunt Butch and Sundance down until they are both killed. Finally escaping their pursuers, which they are able to identify by a man wearing a white skimmer hat, the duo flees to Bolivia and take Etta with them. With her as an accomplice, they soon became successful bank robbers, although their confidence drops when they see a man wearing a white straw hat and fear that the posse is still after them. Butch suggests "going straight," so as to not attract attention to them, but a deadly encounter with a group of bandits on their first day as honest workers reaffirms their propensity for violence. Sensing that they will be killed if they return to robbery, Etta decides to go back home. A few days later, Butch and Sundance attack a payroll mule train in the jungle, taking the money and the mule. Arriving in a small town, a boy recognizes the mule's brand and alerts the local police, leading to a gunfight with the outlaws. Badly wounded, they collapse in a nearby building, where Butch suggests their next destination should be Australia. Unaware that a large contigent of soldiers has joined the police outside, Butch and Sundance confidently rush out of the building to make their escape, only to be caught in a hail of bullets.

Butch Cassidy: Kid, the next time I say, "Let's go someplace like Bolivia," let's GO someplace like Bolivia.

As with any legend of the American Old West, many conflicting stories about the real Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid abound. Nevertheless, historians seem to agree that Butch Cassidy was born Robert Leroy Parker to British immigrant parents in 1866 in Utah. In his early teens, he left the family ranch and took a job at a dairy farm, where he formed a close friendship with a cowboy and small-time cattle rustler and horse thief named Mike Cassidy. Parker admired the older man, who taught him about training horses and shooting a gun. However, after getting into trouble with the law, Cassidy fled the area and Parker himself departed Utah in search of new opportunities. In 1889, at the age of 23, he performed his first bank robbery, when he and several companions stole over $20,000 from a bank in Telluride, Colorado. Around the same time, Parker started using the name "Cassidy" in honor of his former mentor and referred to himself as "Roy Cassidy." He eventually moved on to Spring Rocks, Wyoming, where he found employment in a butcher's shop and, according to myth, became known as "Butcher Cassidy," which morphed into "Butch Cassidy."

In 1894, while still in Wyoming, Cassidy was found guilty of stealing a horse worth $5 and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. Upon his release, he reunited with his fellow bandits and turned to robbing banks and trains. Meanwhile, Cassidy befriended Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, who was residing in a tent near him at Robbers Roost, a remote outlaw hideout in southeastern Utah. Born in Pennsylvania in 1867, Longabaugh moved west as teen and adopted the colorful nickname of "The Sundance Kid" while serving an 18-month jail sentence for stealing a horse near Sundance, Wyoming when he was 20 years old. In 1899, Cassidy recruited Longabaugh into his gang, which soon robbed a Union Pacific Overland Flyer train near Wilcox, Wyoming. The robbery resulted in a massive manhunt carried out by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, forcing Cassidy and Longabaugh to flee to New York, then Argentina and finally Bolivia. Longabaugh's female companion, Etta Place whose biographical details are largely unknown accompanied the duo in their escape.

Paul Newman, Katharine Ross and Robert Redford
In Bolivia, Cassidy and Longabaugh became respectable ranchers for a time, before returning to robbing banks. On November 4, 1908, near the town of Tupiza in southern Bolivia, two men believed to be Cassidy and Longabaugh robbed a payroll as it was being transported by mule to the Aramayo mine. Three days later, the supposed bandits reached San Vincente, where the villagers recognized the mule's brand and alerted the local authorities. During the ensuing confrontation, the Bolivians reportedly shot down the suspects or one of the outlaws killed his badly wounded partner to put him out of his misery and then turned the gun on himself. Afterwards, the bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in a San Vicente cemetery. To this day, there is no conclusive evidence linking Cassidy and Longabough to the robbery and shootout. In fact, both Cassidy's youngest sister, Lula Parker Betenton, and William A. Pinkerton himself claimed that their deaths were false and that both men managed to escape back to the United States, where they lived for a number of years under many aliases.

Writer William Goldman first came across the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the 1950s.  "Cassidy was the most popular gang leader of his time along with Jesse James," stated Goldman. The Hole in the Wall Gang, as the group was colectively known, was in fact the biggest and most successful gang in the Old West. "And yet," Goldman continued, "Cassidy was no good with a gun, nor was he a fighter: he must have affable!" The more he thought about this outlaw duo and their adventures and misadventures in the United States and later in South America, the more he was attracted to them and simultaneously amazed that no film had been made about them. During the Christmas vacation of 1965, while teaching at Princeton, Goldman finished what became the first draft after eights years of  thinking and researching the lives and legends of the two leaders of the Hole in the Wall Gang. Goldman later stated: "The whole reason I wrote the... thing, there is that famous line that Scott Fitzgerald wrote, who was one of my heroes, 'There are no second acts in American lives.' When I read about Cassidy and Longbaugh and the superposse coming after them - that's phenomenal material. They ran to South America and lived there for eight years and that was what thrilled me: they had a second act. They were more legendary in South America than they had been in the old West... It's a great story. Those two guys and that pretty girl going down to South America and all that stuff. It just seems to me it's a wonderful piece of material.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford
The first script, originally titled "The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy," was shopped around to several studios. One executive famously rejected it because of the flight to South America. He wanted the outlaws to stay in the U.S. and fight the superposse to the death. When Goldman argued it really happened the way he wrote it, the executive insisted he didn't care because "John Wayne don't run away." Goldman rewrote the script, "didn't change it more than a few pages, and subsequently found that every studio wanted it." Richard Zanuck, then the head of 20th Century Fox, purchased the script for $400,000, the most that had been paid for a screenplay up to that time and twice as much as he was contracted by his board to spend on a single script.

Goldman had written the script with Jack Lemmon in mind for Butch and Paul Newman for Sundance. Some reports claim Newman initially passed on the script, but the actor later said, "From the second I read it, I knew it was going to be a movie that everybody connected with it could look back on with some sense of pride." Lemmon, however, turned down the role; he did not like riding horses, and he felt he had already played too many aspects of the Sundance Kid's character before. Meanwhile, Steve McQueen became interested in playing Butch and wanted Newman to consider doing Sundance. At this point, George Roy Hill signed on as director, but he said he would only do it if the roles were reversed. Newman did not want to play Butch, pleading with Hill to watch what he considered one of his worst performances in the comedy Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958). "I'm a terrible comic actor," Newman insisted, but became more convinced when Hill told him he did not have to go for the jokes, but to just play it straight. 

Robert Redford and Paul Newman
When McQueen departed the project due to billing disagreements with Newman, Hill decided he wanted to cast the less known and less established Robert Redford. The studio refused and began courting Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. Zanuck thought Redford was no more than a bland pretty boy and Newman at first considered him too much of a "Wall Street lawyer" type. Eventually, he sided with Hill partially convinced of Redford's rightness by Newman's wife, actress Joanne Woodward and the two pressured Zanuck until he relented. Redford's later recollection of his assessment of the script was a bit more qualified than Newman's: "There was probably a little fear that it was maybe either a little too clever or too much fun and games, but it was still a very attractive script. Very well written." After Redford signed on as Sundance, the name of the film was changed to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to highlight the fact that Newman was the star. Joanna Pettet was first offered the role of Etta Place but was forced to turn down the role due to her pregnancy. Katharine Ross was eventually cast for the role of Etta.

In addition to some studio interiors and exteriors, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed on location in various parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and for the Bolivia scenes, Cuernavaca and Taxco, Mexico. The cast and crew enjoyed the location work. "We had the best locations possible, to my mind," Redford said. "We had Zion National Park [Utah]; Durango, Colorado...You rode through that, it was a joy." While filming in Mexico, almost the entire crew and cast suffered from severe diarrhea due to drinking polluted water. Newman, Redford and Ross were exception to this because they preferred drinking soda and alcohol.

Newman and Redford developed a close bond during the making of the film. Redford later said: "We found a common ground of humor and values off the set that could be worked into the work on the set." Newman said he and Redford "drank a lot of beer in Mexico and had a great deal of fun...probably the most fun I ever had on a film." Newman often kidded Redford about his tardiness, once suggesting they should rename the movie "Waiting for Lefty" (Redford is left-handed). They later co-starred in the Best Picture winner The Sting (1973), which was also directed by Hill.

Katharine Ross, Paul Newman and Robert Redford
Butch Cassidy's youngest sister Lula, who was still alive at the time, often visited the set and her presence was welcome to the cast and crew. During lulls in shooting, she would tell stories about her famous brother's escapades and was amazed at how accurately the script and Newman portrayed him. Before the film was released, Fox found out about her visits and tried to convince her to endorse the film in a series of advertisements to be shown in theatres across the country. She said that she would, but only if she saw the film first and truly stood behind it. The studio refused, saying that allowing her to see the film before its release could harm its reputation. Finally, at Redford's suggestion, she agreed to do the endorsements — for a small "fee."

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had its world premiere at the Roger Sherman Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in September 1969, a month before being released to the general public. Although the critical reviews were initially mixed, the film became the biggest moneymaker of the year, grossing over $100,000. The film won four Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Song ("Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head") and Best Screenplay. It was nominated for three more: Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Sound. The Best Picture that year was Midnight Cowboy (1969), the second highest-grossing film of the year. The affection both Newman and Redford felt for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their characters is evidenced in the names they have given to their favorite personal projects: Redford's Sundance Institute, a center for training and supporting new filmmakers, and Newman's Hole-in-the-Wall camp for children with debilitating illnesses.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon: "Dinner at Eight" (1933)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Cukor, Dinner at Eight (1933) revolves around the eminent dinner part hosted by Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), the snobbish socialite wife of shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore). Millicent is so aggravated about everything going wrong that she is oblivious to Oliver's impending bankruptcy and serious heart condition, as well as her daughter Paula's (Madge Evans) preoccupation about the return of her fiancé, Ernest DeGraff (Phillips Holmes), from Europe. One of the invited guests is Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), a former stage star and Oliver's one-time flame. Also invited are corrupt mining tycoon Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), who is secretly consuming Oliver's business, and his brassy young wife Kitty (Jean Harlow).

On the eve of the dinner, Millicent, short of an extra man for Carlotta, invites washed-up silent movie star Larry Renault (John Barrymore), completely unaware that Paula is having a clandestine love affair with him. Later that evening, Larry is visited by his agent, Max Keane (Lee Tracy), who informs him that his play's new producer, Jo Stengel (Jean Hersholt), wants another actor in the lead, but is willing to consider him for a bit part. Crushed, Larry returns to his old drinking habit. Meanwhile, the Packards have a violent argument that culminates with Kitty revealing to Dan that she is having an affair with Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), Olivier's physician and one of Millicent's other guests. When threatened with divorce, however, Kitty tells her husband that she will expose his crooked business if he does not stop his attack on Oliver's line. Just before he is about to leave for the dinner, Larry is again visited by Max and Jo, whom he drunkely berates for insulting him with his pitiful offer. After the two men leave, Larry quietly turns on his gas fireplace and commits suicide. At the dinner, Carlotta, who knew of Paula's affair, privately tells her of Larry's demise and advises her not to break her engagement. At the same time, Millicent learns from Talbot about Oliver's illness and vows to be a better wife. Finally, as the guests are about to go in to dinner, Dan, with prodding from Kitty, tells Oliver that he has put an end to the takeover of the Jordan shipping line.

Kitty Packard: Politics? Ha! You couldn't get into politics. You couldn't get in anywhere. You couldn't even get in the mens' room at the Astor!

Edna Ferber first met George S. Kaufman in 1921, when she became a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York writers, editors, actors and publicists that he had helped found three years earlier. Although they disagreed in many aspects, Ferber and Kaufman discovered that they worked well together. Their first collaboration was Minick, a comedy based on one of her short stories, which played for five months between September 1924 and January 1925 at the Booth Theatre in New York. Inspired by the illustrious Barrymore family, Ferber and Kaufman next wrote The Royal Family, which opened at the Selwyn Theatre in December 1927 and ran for almost a year. Before their final effort, Stage Door, premiered in 1936, the duo produced Dinner at Eight, a witty comedy in three acts about a group of interrelated people and their tribulations as they prepare to attend a society dinner. Produced by Sam H. Harris, Dinner at Eight debuted at the Music Box Theatre on October 22, 1932 and was an instant hit, running for a total of 232 performances. The ensemble cast included Ann Andrews as Millicent Jordan, Malcolm Duncan as her husband Oliver, Marguerite Churchil as her daughter Paula, Constance Collier as Carlotta Vance, Paul Harvey as Dan Packard, Judith Wood as his wife Kitty and Conway Tearle as Larry Renault.

In February 1933, Joseph Schenck purchased the rights to Dinner at Eight and planned to produce a screen adaptation for United Artists, of which he was the president. However, Schenck soon lost interest in the project and sold the property to MGM, who subsequently decided it would be David O. Selznick's inaugural production at the studio. Formerly employed by RKO, Selznick had been brought to MGM by Louis B. Mayer (who also happened to be his father-in-law) to share producing duties with "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg. Selznick was aware that the right director was essential in making Dinner at Eight a hit. His first and only choice was George Cukor, a colleague from RKO, with whom he had worked successfully on several pictures, including What Price Hollywood? (1932) and A Bill of Divorcement (1932). Through a shrewd deal, Selznick arranged to borrow Cukor from RKO to direct Dinner at Eight. In exchange, MGM agreed to loan Lionel Barrymore to RKO to star in One Man's Journey (1933).

Marie Dressler and Lionel Barrymore
To adapt Dinner at Eight to the screen, Selznick and Cukor engaged Frances Marion, who had won Academy Awards for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931), and Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had been a member of the Algonquin Round Table. Mankiewicz had previously written The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), the film version of Ferber and Kaufman's The Royal Family, co-directed by Cukor for Paramount Pictures. Marion had a dislike for chatty scripts and was lukewarm to this assignment. "A picture with so many characters and each individual role equally good could not fail," she wrote in her autobiography. "But it bore the blight of artificiality to me." Despite Marion's reservations, the duo finished the screenplay in four weeks.

Like the star-studded Best Picture-winner Grand Hotel (1932), which Thalberg had produced, MGM wanted only their top actors for the roles in Dinner at Eight. Some of the Dinner at Eight cast including John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore and Jean Hersholt came directly from the cast of Grand Hotel. For the role of Carlotta Vance, a wealthy and flamboyant former actress and great beauty, no one at MGM immediately thought of Marie Dressler. Despite being one of MGM's most popular stars, Dressler was far from a great beauty and was known mostly for playing low comedy. The role of Carlotta was at the opposite end of her usual screen persona. Nevertheless, Dressler was eager to stretch as an actress and wanted the part. "When I learned that Marie Dressler was to play Carlotta Vance," Cukor later recalled, "I said to myself: she is not quite my idea for the part, not the way it was played on the stage by Constance Collier. [...[ But, very shrewdly, Louis B. Mayer contended that Dressler was the biggest thing in pictures, although she looked like a cook and had never played that type of part."

Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery
For the role of Wallace Beery's flashy vulgar wife, Kitty, Cukor wanted bombshell newcomer Jean Harlow. Mayer, however, did not believe that Harlow had the necessary acting skills to deliver a part like that. Cukor, who famously had a way of bringing out the best in actresses' performances, believed that she could do it. "I'd seen [Harlow] in The Public Enemy (1931) and Hell's Angels (1930), where she was so bad and self-conscious it was comic," the director later recalled. "Then I saw Red Dust (1932) and there she was, suddenly marvelous in comedy. A tough girl and yet very feminine, like Mae West. They both wisecrack, but they have something vulnerable, and it makes them attractive." Sold on her potential in Red Dust, Cukor fought to cast Harlow in Dinner at Eight and won.

With an assigned budget of $420,000, Dinner at Eight began shooting on March 16, 1933. Despite the complications of a large ensemble cast to juggle, production went smoothly with no unforeseen problems arising. According to Harlow, the picture was shot as close to chronological order as possible "so we could all feel the dramatic power of the climactic scenes." Determined to make the film a success, Cukor and Selznick also decided to use several of the same talents that had worked on Grand Hotel, including costume designer Adrian, cinematographer William Daniels and set designer Cedric Gibbons.

By all account, Harlow and Dressler developed a close friendship during the making of Dinner at Eight. "Being in the same cast with Marie was a break for me," Harlow explained. "She's one trouper I'd never try to steal a scene from. It'd be like trying to carry Italy against Mussolini. She knows all the tricks and she knows all the answers and she's the best love personage in Hollywood." Marie Dressler was also impressed with Harlow. "It was whispered behind more than one hand that Jean Harlow, Metro's much-advertised platinum menace, was picked for parts that called for more allure than art," she wrote in her autobiography. "And in Dinner at Eight, she had to throw a bomb in the works by proving that she is a first-rate actress! Her performance as the wife of the hard-boiled, self-made politician played by Wallace Beery belongs in that limited category of things which may with reason be called rare. The plain truth is, she all but ran off with the show!"

Madge Evans and John Barrymore
In contrast, Harlow and Beery detested each other. They had previously worked together in The Secret Six (1931) and had developed a dislike for each other that carried over into Dinner at Eight. Beery thought that Harlow was not experienced enough as an actress and treated her rudely. For her part, Harlow found Beery "a mean son-of-a-bitch." Despite their mutual loathing, Harlow and Berry later reunited in China Seas (1935).

John Barrymore, who bravely took on the role of a fading matinee idol, relished the challenge of a strong character part. "Although [Barrymore] was playing a second-rate actor," Cukor said, "he had no vanity as such. He even put things in to make himself hammier, more ignorant." Barrymore got involved in his part, making suggestions to play up his character such as having him misquote famous writers and botch his own suicide. Cukor was pleased that an actor of such prominence was confident and committed enough that he would be willing to sacrifice vanity for the greater success of the film.

The final scene in Dinner at Eight includes arguably one of the most famous exchanges in classic Hollywood history, but it almost did not happen. An acceptable ending to the film kept eluding the writers. An early draft was nearly verbatim from the play, but Cukor and Selznick considered it too downbeat. Writer Donald Ogden Stewart, who had worked with Cukor in Tarnished Lady (1930) and with Harlow in Red Dust, was recruited for dialogue doctoring. Stewart's contribution resulted in Harlow's stunning revelation that she had been reading a book. "It's all about civilization or something, a nutty kind of a book," she says. "Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?" Dressler looks her up and down, then replies, "My dear, that's something you need never worry about.

Dinner at Eight was shot in a remarkable 27 days, ending in mid-May 1933. "That was a wonderful record," said Cukor. "I owed it all to these marvelous performers; with them behind me, everything seemed possible." Later, Cukor considered his rapid directorial pace on Dinner at Eight as something more like a curse. "It's haunted me my entire career," he said. People ever since, he believed, expected him to deliver all his pictures in that short amount of time.

Dinner at Eight premiered at the Astor Theatre in New York on August 23, 1933. Despite the heavy rain, police had to keep back the crowds who gathered in front of the theatre to see the stars arrive. With a live radio broadcast from the theatre, there was an unmistakable electricty in the evening. Celebrities present included Hoot Gibson, Max Baer, Jack Benny, Una Merkel, Polly Moran, Walter Huston, Richard Bathelmess, Jean Hersholt, Jimmy Durante, Madge Evans and Jack Pearl. In the next morning's New York Times, Mordaunt Hall effused that Dinner at Eight is "a fast-moving narrative with its humor and tragedy, one that offers a greater variety of characterizations than have been witnessed — in any other picture." The film's box-office gross exceed $3 million, a huge sum for the Depression.

This post is my contribution to The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE.

Marie Dressler: A Biography; With a Listing of Major Stage Performances, a Filmography and a Discography by Matthew Kennedy (1999) | TCMDb (Articles) |