Saturday, May 28, 2011

ZaSu Pitts (actress)

ZaSu Pitts (1900-1963)
IMDB Entry

In the early 1960s, our local TV station ran reruns of The Gale Storm Show* in the afternoons.  The show starred Gale Storm as a wacky social director on a cruise ship.  Her best friend was Nugie, the ship's manicurist who had a delightfully warbly voice and superb comic timing of every line.  It was my introduction to ZaSu Pitts.

Pitts was born in Kansas around 1900.**  Her unique name was no stage affectation:  she was named for two aunts, EliZa and Susan***.  She moved to Hollywood and started appearing in silent films in 1917, generally comedies.

Her big break came when Erich von Stroheim chose her to play Trina in his legendary production of Greed. Pitts had been generally cast in comic roles; this one was fiercely dramatic.  Trina starts out as Mac McTeague's loving wife, but, after winning the lottery, becomes obsessed with money and more and more miserly, leading to a tragic end.  It is a tremendous performance.

However, the movie's problems**** meant it did little to make her a star.  She returned to comic roles, and it kept her working until sound came in, where her voice was perfect for the character she created:  a somewhat flustered and timid woman, punctuated by vague gestures and a voice that fluttered like a butterfly.

She was tagged in 1931 to star in a series of short subjects with Thelma Todd, but quit in 1933, leaving the Roach Studio for better pastures.  She was a popular supporting player of the 30s.  One director said she ended up on the cutting room floor more than any other actress, since her gestures and expressions tended to upstage the other actors.  Here she holds her own against on of the greats of film comedy:

Her mannerisms and voice were so familiar to moviegoers of the 30s that Mae Questel imitated her when she created the voice of Olive Oyl in Popeye cartoons.

While she never had a real breakthrough role, she enlivened dozens of movies in her career.  Once TV came along, she continued to work regularly, and her role as in The Gale Storm Show was one of the highlights of the show.  In the late 1950s, she developed cancer, but continued to work up until her death in 1963.  Her last appearance was in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Even after her death, she had some influence, mostly on account of her name.  There is something about "ZaSu Pitts" that's almost inherently funny when you say it (no matter how you pronounce "ZaSu"), and it is still used from time to time for comic effect.

I think ZaSu would have like that.

Called Oh! Susannah! in syndication.  Back then, it was routine practice to rename shows for syndication, in the belief that people might tune in thinking it's something new.  By the mid-60s, TV executives realized that viewers wanted to watch syndicated shows, so ended the practice.

**Sources vary as to her birth year, dating from 1894 to 1900.  The Social Security Death Index lists her birth year as 1900.

***The name was pronounced a variety of ways.  "Zah-zoo" was most common, though "Zay Soo" was often used in films.  Pitts said the correct pronunciation was "Say Zoo."

****For newcomers, the original movie ran ten hours and was the most costly film of its time.  Von Stroheim cut it down to eight -- suggesting it be shown in two parts.  MGM refused to accept, so he cut it down to four hours, at which point MGM took it away from him and cut it down to a manageable two-and-a-half hours.  But many characters and subplots were cut out,making hard to follow.  The cut footage was eventually burned, though there have been attempts to create the entire film using still photos.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn (1982)
Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr.
Written by Peter S. Beagle, from his novel.
Starring (voices): Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow, Tammy Grimes, Robert Kline, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee

In general, the names Rankin/Bass guarantee one thing:  lousy animated films.  Their Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is, of course, a holiday classic, but it was the high water mark of their TV work, which consisted primarily of holiday specials that are completely forgettable, with a tendency to go with the lowest common denominator and to assume the old "it's for kid, so quality doesn't matter."*

So when they took on Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, there was no reason to be thrilled.** But the result is a classic of animation.

The story follows the novel very closely.  It tells of a high fantasy world where all the unicorns are gone -- except one (Mia Farrow).  She joins up with the incompetent Schmendrick the Magician (Alan Arkin) and Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes) to find out what happened to all the rest.  The patch leads to King Haggard's (Christopher Lee) castle and the monstrous Red Bull.

It's a tale told with poetry and wonder.  Much of the book's dialogue became part of the movie; Christopher Lee, who had read the book, came prepared with a list of lines that should not be omitted.

But in addition to the story and characterization, the animation was first class.  Rankin and Bass had farmed it out to the Japanese studio Topcraft.  This turned out to be an excellent choice:  the animators thought of themselves as artists and used a style that had been barely seen in America; what we now call anime.

The movie was a great combination of storytelling and animation, and still one of the most sophisticated American animated films.

The movie was well received, and did OK at the box office, but at this time Rankin/Bass was on its last legs.  They went out of business a few years later.  The movie also suffered by being released a before DVDs were common.  By the time a tape came out, the movie had been forgotten.

Topcraft also went out of business -- but not before the animators were hired by Hayao Miyazaki to do Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Miyazaki liked their work well enough to hire their core people when he was starting up Studio Ghibli, and you can see similarities in the style of The Last Unicorn and various Studio Ghibli films.

The Last Unicorn is high fantasy at its best, one of the few times that it was translated well to screen.  It's a must for fans of fantasy and animation.

*Though the Heat Miser/Snow Miser song from  The Year Without a Santa Claus is a classic.  But note the names:  a miser is stingy, but the characters are actually generous with heat and cold.

**Beagle is reported as saying he was "horrified" when he discovered Rankin/Bass would produce.  Their previous forays into high fantasy -- The Hobbit and The Return of the King -- did little to help Tolkien's reputation.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Roaring 20s (TV)

Roaring 20s publicity shot (1960-62)
Dorothy Provine, Donald May, Rex Reason, John Denher
IMDB Entry
(For the movie, The Roaring Twenties, see this page.)

Warner Brothers studios was one of the first to embrace television.  Hollywood felt TV would steal their audience, and even tried to keep their actors from working with it.  But Warner Brothers saw the wave of the future, and started producing series for ABC, starting with Warner Brothers Presents* in 1955.  One of the last of this wave was The Roaring 20s.

The idea of setting a show in the 1920s had been wildly successful with Warner/ABC's The Untouchables,  so they tried again.  The show followed a couple of reporters, Pat Garrison (Donald May) and Scott Norris (Rex Reason) as they investigated crimes.  The shows would alternate focus on the two stars -- they would appear in all episodes, but one would focus on Pat and the next would focus on Scott.**  Warner Brothers was able to use stock footage from their old gangster films to liven up proceedings. 

The reporters always found a way to drop by the Charleston Club, where Pinky Pinkham (Dorothy Provine) was their lead attraction, usually doing a musical number and occasionally helping out Pat and Scott. 

Provine turned into a star.  She sang songs from the era (give or take) with an enthusiasm that told you she was enjoying performing in front of you.  For most people, she was the reason to watch the show and she was able to record an album of songs from it that had a couple of minor hits in the UK.

After the first season, Rex Reason left the show and was replaced by John Denher as Duke Williams, a character I remember far more than any of the other male leads.  I think what I liked was an early one where he wrote an almost poetic description of Gertrude Ederle's*** tickertape parade down Broadway in the rain.  Trouble was, it wasn't raining in New York -- it was raining at the track where Williams had gone to play the horses.

Of special note was that film great Robert Altman directed nine episodes, one of many TV shows where he honed his craft.

The show ran for two seasons under stiff competition until it was finally canceled.  Provine was expected to become a major star, and did move on to movie leads, but never made a big impression.  Her problem, I think, was that though she was great in her ability to sell a song, she was not really an actress.  She eventually retired from acting in 1969, and seemed happy to have left.

*An early example of a rotating series.  The episodes of Cheyenne were a big hit, and led to a series of Warner westerns like Maverick, Colt .45, Bronco, Lawman and Sugarfoot. WB also did detective series in somewhat exotic locations, like 77 Sunset Strip (Hollywood), Surfside Six (Miami Beach), Bourbon Street Beat (New Orleans), and Hawaiian Eye. The other studio that embraced TV was Disney, who used the money from their Disneyland show on ABC to build an amusement park.

**A fairly common practice in the 50s.  With 39 episodes a year, it was often hard on an actor to be in every scene in every show.  In addition, this allowed for multiple shows to be filmed simultaneously on different sets, cutting production time.

***First woman to swim the English Channel.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Directed by
Raoul Walsh
Screenplay by Jerry Wald & Richard Macaulay and Robert Rossen, from a story by Mark Hellinger.
Starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Priscilla Lane, Gladys George, Frank McHugh, Jeffrey Lynn
IMDB Entry
For the TV series, go to this link.

The gangster film of the 30s was an entire subgenre unto itself.  Like the later film noir, gangster films were tragedies.  In film noir, the tragedy was brought on by outside forces (usually a woman).  In gangster films, the tragedy was due to the main character being on the wrong side of the law. The Roaring Twenties was one of the last of the subgenre, and one that's almost archetypal of the form.

The film follows three army buddies who meet in the last days of World War I.  Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), who dreams of going back to run a garage when the war ends, is joined in a foxhole by tough guy George Hally (Humphrey Bogart)* and aspiring lawyer Lloyd Hart (Geoffrey Lynn).

Back in the US, though Eddie finds the going tough.  He can't get his old job back.  The girl who wrote him letters, Jean Sherman, is still in high school.  Eddie ends up sharing a room with his old friend Danny Green (Frank McHugh).  Danny is a cab driver, and he lends Eddie his cab in the off hours.  Eddie is caught inadvertently making a delivery of prohibited liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George) and takes the fall -- but doesn't finger Smith.  After he gets out of jail, she helps him out as he turns to bootlegging.  He runs into George Hally, who becomes the muscle, and Lloyd Hart, who keeps the law at bay.

Bogart and Cagney As is usual for movies of this vintage, the actors all play types, and usually the types they were famous for.  Cagney is the dominating presence he always was, and Bogart was in the midst of his really bad guy stage.**  Gladys George does well in the "I love him but he doesn't love me role,"*** and Frank McHugh was Frank McHugh -- the best male sidekick of the era.

Roaul Walsh is often overlooked as a director, but his filmography shows an important talent who mixed action and pure romantic films.  He started out in the silent days, and slumped a bit when sound came in.  The Roaring Twenties marked the beginning of the prime of his career, where he directed They Drive by Night, High Sierra, and the topper of the gangster film, White Heat. 

The film was a solid hit, and a triumph for all involved.  But it is far less known than the other gangster films of the era.  Possibly this is because Eddie is different from most gangsters.  He's basically a good guy who gets caught up in crime, instead of the memorable sociopaths in The Public Enemy, Scarface, and Little Caesar.

The movie, though, is a fine representative of the genre and still holds up wonderfully.

* Whose character is defined quite neatly: when someone comments that a German soldier looks like he's only 15, Hally takes a shot and then comments, "He won't be 16."

**Bogart was badly used in the 30s.  He was typed as a gangster when Leslie Howard insisted he repeat his Broadway role of Duke Mantee in The Desperate Hours, but Warner Brothers already had two major gangster types (Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft, not to mention Paul Muni) already under contract.  Bogart made a name as a second lead, but didn't become a major star until the 1940s, ironically, because Muni and Raft turned down the roles that Bogart snapped up.

***Inspired by real-life speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan (Yes, that's where the name comes for the character in Star Trek:  the Next Generation)