Monday, June 27, 2016

FINAL RESTING PLACES: CLARA BOW

 
Known as the 'It Girl,' she is considered America's first "Sex Symbol". Born to poverty in Brooklyn, New York, she won a photo beauty contest that launched her film career in 1922. She was "discovered" while working at a Coney Island Hot Dog stand run by Nathan Handwerker, who would later find fame in his own right as the founder of Nathan's Franks. 

The silent movie, "It" (1927), made her a household name ("It" refers to "sex appeal"). She often played a young, frisky, openly sensual, rebellious girl in many of her movies, yet this role probably defined the attitude of society at that time, and it made her a star. She was the definitive "Flapper" of the 1920s. Probably one of the more overworked and underpaid actresses in the industry, she made 58 films between 1922 and 1933. Unlike many Hollywood stars, she did not flaunt her wealth, but lived on par with the middle class, living in a small 7 room house in Beverely Hills. 


Her sexual liaisons and extremely public private life were legendary, and in 1928 she had a torrid affair with director Victor Fleming that made headlines continuously. In 1927, she had the female lead role in Wings the first Oscar winning "Best Picture." With the coming of sound movies in 1929, her thick Brooklyn accent lost her many fans, and her career waned. 

Adding to her problems were gambling debts, unpaid IRS taxes, embezzlement by her secretary, and several sensational public court battles involving divorce and alienation of affection between several husbands and wives. In 1931, she married film cowboy Rex Bell, and retired from making films in 1934. She became a doting mother of two boys, settling down and never making another movie. She died at age 60 of a heart attack, in Los Angeles, California. The marker on her crypt marker her birth year as 1907, but she was born in 1905...


Friday, June 24, 2016

FORGOTTEN ONES: JOAN MCCRACKEN

When I was a young boy, just getting into classic Hollywood movies, I spotted an actress in the 1947 Good News which I just could not get over. She had so much talent and was bubbly on the screen, I was surprised at the time that I did not know her name. Of course, June Allyson was the bubbly star of the film, but the actress that dazzled me was Joan McCracken. She was forgotten when I first saw the movie in the 1980s, and she is even more forgotten now years after that.

Joan Hume McCracken was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 31, 1917. By age 11, she was awarded a scholarship for acrobatic work at a Philadelphia gymnasium, and later studied dance with Catherine Littlefield. She dropped out of West Philadelphia High School in the tenth grade to study dance in New York with choreographer George Balanchine at the opening of the School of American Ballet (SAB) in 1934.

 In 1937 she went on a European tour with the company, in what was the first tour of an American ballet company in Europe. This put a strain on her health. McCracken was recently diagnosed with Type I diabetes (then known as "juvenile diabetes"), which was difficult to treat with the medical technology at the time, and the European tour made it even harder for her to stay in compliance with her treatment regimen. McCracken kept her diabetes a secret throughout her life to prevent damage to her career. The disease made her prone to fainting spells, sometimes during performances, and led to medical complications later in her life.

In 1942 McCracken and Dunphy both successfully auditioned for roles in the dance ensemble of the new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Away We Go. Agnes de Mille, who had just staged Aaron Copland's Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, was staging the production. The show went into rehearsals in early 1943. Like her husband, McCracken was cast in an anonymous dance role in the chorus. Early in out-of-town tryouts, she began to distinguish herself, and her dancing was noticed by reviewers. By the time of the Broadway opening of the show, now named Oklahoma!, she and de Mille had developed her comic performance in the role of Sylvie, with McCracken taking a comic pratfall in the "Many a New Day" dance number. She became known as "The Girl Who Fell Down." Sources differ as to whether the role's distinctive fall was devised by McCracken or de Mille. McCracken has said the ideas was hers, while de Mille and others recall it as being the choreographer's. Celeste Holm, a member of the original cast, attributed the idea to composer Richard Rodgers.


McCracken's performance in Oklahoma! led to a contract with Warner Brothers. The studio cast her in Hollywood Canteen (1944), an all-star extravaganza in which Warner contract players portrayed themselves. McCracken appeared in a specialty dance routine called "Ballet in Jive." The dance number received favorable critical attention, but McCracken, whose husband and brother were both serving in the military, disliked the patronizing tone of the film, which treated servicemen as naive bumpkins. McCracken was initially enthusiastic about working in films, but was dismayed by the unprofessionalism she witnessed at Warner Brothers, and the lack of guidance she received from the choreographer, LeRoy Prinz.

McCracken broke her Warner Brothers contract and went back to Broadway to appear in the musical Bloomer Girl (1944), set during the U.S. Civil War, which is widely considered to be the first Broadway musical about feminism. She received rave reviews for her performance, which combined comedy acting with dance. While not the highest-billed star in that show, her performance, especially of the satiric striptease "T'morra, T'morra," enhanced her reputation as a comic performer.

The turning point in her acting career came in December 1947, when she appeared as Galileo's daughter Virginia in the New York production of Bertolt Brecht's play Galileo, starring Charles Laughton in the title role and directed by Joseph Losey. Unlike her previous roles, Galileo was a straight dramatic role with no dancing. The play helped establish her reputation as a legitimate actress. She also studied acting with Sanford Meisner and Herbert Berghof at the Neighborhood Playhouse.


Her next role was not as helpful to her career. She appeared in the 1950 musical comedy Dance Me a Song, which turned out to be a flop even though it was choreographed by Agnes de Mille, who had won acclaim for Oklahoma! a few years earlier. As one of the play's principal stars, she appeared in several scenes. But the choreography was ravaged by critics, as was the play, and reviews of her performance were mixed.

McCracken starred with Eddie Dowling, a veteran Broadway actor, in the play Angel in the Pawnshop, in a 1950 tour and on Broadway in 1951. She played a young woman seeking to escape her marriage from a homicidal thief, in a pawnshop owned by Dowling's character. While in the pawnshop she puts on old clothing and fantasizes that she is living in happier times. Although she engaged in some choreographed dancing during the play, it was a straight dramatic role. While the play was being prepared for Broadway, in October 1950, she appeared on television in the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, playing Essie in You Can't Take It with You. At that time, McCracken gave an interview disparaging what she described as the "over-commercialization" of television, which might have hurt her career in the new medium. Reviews forAngel in the Pawnshop were negative, and she received mixed reviews for her performance.

She went on to appear in Peter Pan, a 1951 Broadway revival adapted from the 1904 J.M. Barrie play. She starred in the title role in a touring company production in 1951, succeeding Jean Arthur. The play was not a musical, and was different from the subsequent version starring Mary Martin a few years later, but had five songs by Leonard Bernstein. Captain Hook was played by Boris Karloff. Her performance in Peter Panwas praised by critics, and it was her favorite acting role.


McCracken next appeared on Broadway in the 1953 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet. The choreography was by Robert Alton, who had worked with McCracken on Good News. The play was meant to show what it was like to be backstage during the run of a hit Broadway show, and she performed opposite Ray Walston in the "show within a show." Although her performance received good reviews, the play did not, and it did little to help her career.

Despite favorable reviews of her performances in The Big Knife and Peter Pan, her worsening health and the failure of her most recent Broadway plays took a toll on her career. As her health declined she found that her dancing ability was affected. She suffered a severe heart attack in 1955, followed by a possible second attack, and then developed pneumonia which required an extended stay in the hospital. She hid the severity of her health problems, but some details became public. Upon release from the hospital, McCracken was told by her doctors that she could no longer dance. The news was devastating to her.

Although she appeared on television and in dramatic roles, her career petered out in the late 1950s, as complications from her diabetes made it increasingly difficult for her to work. Her final stage appearance was in a 1958 off-Broadway production of Jean Cocteau's 1934 play, The Infernal Machine, appearing alongside John Kerr and June Havoc.


McCracken met dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse while both were appearing in Dance Me a Song, in which she had a starring role and he was a specialty dancer. She was married to him from December 1952 to 1959. She worked actively to advance his career and encouraged his work as a choreographer. Her intervention with producer George Abbott led to his first major job as a choreographer, in The Pajama Game. They divorced as her health worsened, and as Fosse, who was serially unfaithful during their marriage, left McCracken for Gwen Verdon.

Joan sadly died alone in her sleep, from a heart attack brought on by her diabetes, on November 1, 1961. She was cremated at her request. Her ashes, which were given to her mother, were subsequently lost. In her biography of McCracken, The Girl Who Fell Down, dance critic Mary Jo Sagolla says that McCracken is little remembered today, and not widely appreciated for her influence on Fosse, and for her efforts to encourage him to move from dance to choreography. Even though her career went into a sharp decline in the 1950s due to her diabetes, she directly influenced the career of MacLaine as well as Fosse, and was a pioneer in combining comedy and dance..


Monday, June 20, 2016

BORN ON THIS DAY: ERROL FLYNN

I have to admit, I have never been a huge fan of actor Errol Flynn. However, I am trying to be more open minded, just as a preach to young people who watch a classic movie for the first time. So, today June 20th is Errol Flynn's birthday so what better day is it for me to try to get into this popular classic movie legend!

Flynn was born in Hobart, Tasmania on June 20, 1909, where his father, Theodore Thomson Flynn, was a lecturer (1909) and later professor (1911) of biology at the University of Tasmania. Flynn was born at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Battery Point. His mother was born Lily Mary Young, but dropped the first names Lily Mary shortly after she was married and changed her name to Marelle. Flynn described his mother's family as "seafaring folk" and this appears to be where his lifelong interest in boats and the sea originated. Despite Flynn's claims, the evidence indicates that he was not descended from any of the Bounty mutineers.

After early schooling in Hobart, from 1923 to 1925 Flynn was educated at the South West London College, a private boarding school in Barnes, London, and in 1926 returned to Australia to attend Sydney Church of England Grammar School  where he was the classmate of a future Australian prime minister, John Gorton. He concluded his formal education with being expelled from Shore for theft, and—according to his own account—having been caught in a romantic assignation with the school's laundress. After being dismissed from a job as a junior clerk with a Sydney shipping company for pilfering petty cash, he went to Papua New Guineaat the age of eighteen, seeking and failing to find his fortune in tobacco planting and metals mining. He spent the next five years oscillating between the New Guinea frontier territory and Sydney.


In early 1933, Flynn appeared as an amateur actor in the Australian film In the Wake of the Bounty, in the lead role of Fletcher Christian. Later that year he returned to Britain to pursue a career in acting, and soon secured a job with the Northampton Repertory Company at the town's Royal Theatre (now part of Royal & Derngate), where he worked and received his training as a professional actor for seven months. (Northampton is home to an art-house cinema named after him, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse. He also performed at the 1934 Malvern Festival and in Glasgow, and briefly in London's West End.

In 1934 Flynn was dismissed from Northampton Rep. after he threw a female stage manager down a stairwell. He returned to Warner Brothers' Teddington Studios in Middlesex where he had worked as an extra in the film I Adore You before going to Northampton. With his new-found acting skills he was cast as the lead in Murder at Monte Carlo (currently a lost film). During its filming he was signed by Warner Bros. and emigrated to America as a contract actor.

Flynn was an immediate sensation in his first starring Hollywood role, Captain Blood (1935). Typecast as a swashbuckler, he helped to re-invent the action-adventure genre with a succession of films over the next six years, most under the direction of Michael Curtiz: The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938; his first Technicolor film), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940). The est, including Errol Flynn's many marriages and scandals, are movie history...


Friday, June 17, 2016

RECENTLY VIEWED: UP

Maybe I am just overly sensitive, but I am not too proud to admit I openly cry at movies. Maybe it's the sentimental side of me. I don't know. My wife is the opposite of me! We recently watched the 2009 cartoon UP with our kids, and I had to leave the room from crying. The beginning of the movie is the saddest opening to a movie I have ever sat through.

Up is a 2009 American 3D computer-animated comedy adventure film produced by Pixar and released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Pete Docter, the film centers on an elderly widower named Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) and an earnest young Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai). By tying thousands of balloons to his home, 78-year-old Carl sets out to fulfill his dream to see the wilds of South America and to complete a promise made to his late wife, Ellie. The film was co-directed by Bob Peterson, with music composed by Michael Giacchino.

Docter began working on the story in 2004, which was based on fantasies of escaping from life when it becomes too irritating. He and eleven other Pixar artists spent three days in Venezuela gathering research and inspiration. The designs of the characters were caricatured and stylized considerably, and animators were challenged with creating realistic cloth. The floating house is attached by a varying number between 10,000 and 20,000 balloons in the film's sequences. Up was Pixar's first film to be presented in Disney Digital 3-D.

Up was released on May 29, 2009 and opened the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first animated and 3D film to do so. The film became a great financial success, accumulating over $731 million in its theatrical release. Up received universal acclaim, with most reviewers commending the humor and heart of the film. Edward Asner was praised for his portrayal of Carl, and a montage of Carl and his wife Ellie aging together was widely lauded. The film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, making it the second animated film in history to receive such a nomination (and Pixar's first Best Picture nomination), following Beauty and the Beast (1991).


Docter noted that the film reflects his friendships with Disney veterans Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Joe Grant (who all died before the film's release and thus the film was dedicated to them). Grant gave the script his approval as well as some advice before his death in 2005. Docter recalled that Grant would remind him that the audience needed an "emotional bedrock" because of how wacky the adventure would become; here it is Carl mourning for his wife.Docter felt that Grant's personality influenced Carl's deceased wife Ellie more than the grouchy main character, and Carl was primarily based on Spencer Tracy, Walter Matthau, James Whitmore, and their own grandparents, because there was "something sweet about these grumpy old guys". Docter and Jonas Rivera noted Carl's charming nature in spite of his grumpiness derives from the elderly "hav[ing] this charm and almost this 'old man license' to say things that other people couldn't get away with [...] It's like how we would go to eat with Joe Grant and he would call the waitresses 'honey'. I wish I could call a waitress 'honey'.

Like I said the film starts out so sad, I have tears in my eyes as I write this, but by the end of the film the tone is happy and optimistic. I lose it every time I see the note that Carl finds that his wife wrote him: "Now go ahead and have your own adventure". I don't think I can write anymore...



MY RATING: 10 OUT OF 10

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: PETER OSTRUM

More than four decades ago, Peter Ostrum was a little boy living in Cleveland, participating in a local children's theater. Then, the sixth-grader was cast in a film called "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," and, suddenly, everyone knew who he was. Ostrum became famous for his portrayal of cute, blond-haired Charlie, the lucky boy who won the Golden Ticket. It was his first -- and only -- movie role.

From the start, Ostrum never had his sights set on a career in Hollywood and says that his casting in "Willy Wonka" simply came down to good timing. "They sent a representative from the casting agency out to Cleveland," he recalls. "In the end, I was in the right place at the right time."

The film captivated audiences in the '70s and remains popular with an entirely different generation today. Its lasting effect isn't lost on its beloved child star. "We captured lightning in a bottle. For whatever reason, the film worked," Ostrum says. "There's a great message there: Basically, good things happen to people that make the right decisions."

In addition to good memories of working with other cast members such as the title star, Gene Wilder, Ostrum also has a tangible piece of memorabilia from the "Willy Wonka" set: a clap-stick that director Mel Stuart used during filming. "Mel would say, 'Action!' And then he'd usually say, 'Cut! Ostrum, do it again," Ostrum says, laughing.


He still keeps in touch with other cast members from the film, even gathering with the"Wonka kids" to do celebrity signing events around the country. "I've known these kids, they're like family right now," Ostrum says. "Our relationship is fairly unique and we kind of have, I would say, a special bond."

Though he appreciates his association with the film now, Ostrum wasn't so quick to discuss his big movie role as he grew up. "After the film, I always denied my involvement with 'Willy Wonka,'" he admits with a chuckle. "I didn't really want to have anything to do with it."


What changed, he says, is having children of his own and seeing their reaction to the film. That moment also helped Ostrum realize the rarity of his story, having been a part of a wildly successful movie, but passing on other movie offers and choosing to leave show business altogether. "It really wasn't for me," Ostrum says.

Instead, Ostrum has made a career out of caring for animals as a large-animal veterinarian.

"For me, veterinary medicine is a really nice mix between using your head, using your brain, problem-solving, but at the same time, there's a physical aspect of the work that I enjoy," he says. "I won't get fat doing this job! You're always on the go and each day is a little bit different."

While most people may forever view Ostrum as little Charlie from "Willy Wonka," he remains humble about the entire experience.

"Am I famous in my eyes? Absolutely not," Ostrum says. "I'm amused that everyone's here to talk to me! And amazed.


Friday, June 10, 2016

JUDY GARLAND AND THE GUMM SISTERS

Everyone who is a classic movie fan knows the tragic story of Judy Garland. She was one of the most talented entertainers of all-time, but she is also one of the most tragic. Many people do not know the story of Garland's sisters as well. From 1924 to about 1934 the trio of girls toured as the Gumm Sisters and then The Garland Sisters.

In 1928, the Gumm Sisters enrolled in a dance school run by Ethel Meglin, proprietress of the Meglin Kiddies dance troupe. They appeared with the troupe at its annual Christmas show. Through the Meglin Kiddies, they made their film debut in a 1929 short subject called The Big Revue, where they performed a song-and-dance number called "That's the good old sunny south". This was followed by appearances in two Vitaphone shorts the following year, A Holiday in Storyland (featuring Garland's first on-screen solo) and The Wedding of Jack and Jill. They next appeared together in Bubbles. Their final on-screen appearance came in 1935, in another short entitled La Fiesta de Santa Barbara.

In 1934, the trio, who by then had been touring the vaudeville circuit as "The Gumm Sisters" for many years, performed in Chicago at the Oriental Theater with George Jessel. He encouraged the group to choose a more appealing name after "Gumm" was met with laughter from the audience. According to theatrical legend, their act was once erroneously billed at a Chicago theater as "The Glum Sisters". However that did not matter because when young Judy's star rose, the sisters faded into the back ground.


Mary Jane Gumm (1915-1964) was the oldest daughter of vaudevillians Frank and Ethel Gumm and future older sister of the actress Judy Garland. She was raised in Grand Rapids and, along with her younger sister Virginia 'Jimmie', performed a dancing act at their father's vaudeville theater known as The Gumm Sisters, while their mother played the piano. The sisters had tremendous talent, although they were nothing compared to their youngest sister Baby Frances, the future Judy Garland. Their mother continuously kept trying with all three of her daughters and after moving from their home in Minnesota in 1927 when Mary Jane was 12, they began to go for auditions in shows and bigger more famous nightclubs. After some bad reviews, Mary Jane decided that a life of show business wasn't what she wanted and, along with Jimmie, she backed out only to perform at their father's vaudeville theater in 1930. She later went on to marry Lee Kahn and changed her name to Suzanne Kahn. Then later married band conductor Jack Cathcart, who ended up leaving her for a younger woman. Suzanne succumbed to alcoholism and eventually committed suicide in May 1964 at the age of 48. From all accounts, Judy was estranged from sister Mary Jane at the time of Mary's death,

The other Gumm Sister was Virginia Gumm. She was born on July 4, 1917 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, USA as Dorothy Virginia Gumm. She was an actress, known for La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (1935), The Wedding of Jack and Jill (1940) and The Harvey Girls (1946). She was married to Johnny Thompson and Bobby Sherwood. She died on May 27, 1977 in Dallas, Texas, USA. Virginia had a daughter, Judy Gail "Judaline," with her husband, musician Bobby Sherwood. Judaline means "little Judy" in Jewish and was originally the endearing nickname given to Judy Garland by one of her directors when she was a child. The name was subsequently used by the family to differentiate between "Big" Judy and "Little" Judy). Judaline loved the name so much she had it made legal when she grew up. She was born in May 1938 and was named after her aunt, actress Judy Garland. Her daughter sadly died in the 1980s. In the Gumm family, Judy was not the only family member that had a hard time finding happiness over the rainbow....