Monday, June 30, 2014

Movie Review: Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)

Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster in Come Back, Little Sheba, 1952. Burt's doing his best to look boring and dull.

Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster in Come Back, Little Sheba, 1952. Burt's kneeling. Shirley Booth was not a giant.
I recently watched the 1952 movie Come Back, Little Sheba, starring Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster, and based on William Inge’s play, which opened on Broadway in 1950. It’s a pretty dated and boring movie, but it’s important in Lancaster’s filmography as it was his first real dramatic acting role. Lancaster had appeared in film noir dramas before, but Come Back, Little Sheba required him to show that he was more than just a muscle-bound action star. Since his film debut in The Killers in 1946, Lancaster had been slowly expanding his acting range, and the role of alcoholic Doc Delaney in Sheba was a “stretch” part for Lancaster, the kind of role that he sought again and again in his career, as he wanted to show the full range of his acting talents.

The plot, meager as it is, centers around Lola Delaney, a housewife played by Shirley Booth, and her dull marriage to Doc Delaney, a recovering alcoholic. The Delaneys take in a boarder, Marie, played by Terry Moore, a young girl who is a student at the nearby university. The Delaneys have had a difficult existence, as Doc married Lola because she was pregnant. Lola’s father disowned her; she lost the baby and was unable to have any more children. Doc had to drop out of medical school and couldn’t continue his studies, thus he is a chiropractor and not a full MD. And then he became an alcoholic and drank away his inheritance from his mother. Both Lola and Doc enjoy having Marie live with them, as she provides vicarious entertainment for them. Doc develops something of a crush on Marie, and doesn’t like the jerky jock Turk (Richard Jaeckel) that she flirts with. Marie shows kindness towards Doc and only has good things to say about him. 

One of the problems with Come Back, Little Sheba is that there’s no dramatic tension whatsoever. You’re watching these characters meander through life, but you’re not really wondering what will happen next because nothing does. The title refers to dog the Delaneys had that ran away, and Lola keeps blindly hoping that the dog will return, even though it’s been gone for months. (I can’t really blame the dog for running away from the Delaneys.) 

Booth had previously played Lola on Broadway, and won a Tony. She would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress, making her one of just 9 performers to win both a Tony and an Oscar for playing the same role. Booth does a good job, but her character is so annoying that it overshadows her artistry. Booth’s grating voice predates Jean Stapleton’s squawking tones as Edith Bunker on All in the Family, which doesn’t make Lola any more pleasant or sympathetic. Booth’s overwrought performance looks very dated now; whereas Lancaster’s comparative underplaying still holds up well. The movie shows very clearly how acting styles have changed in the last 60 years. 

Booth and Lancaster are a completely mismatched couple. Booth was 15 years older than Lancaster, and she was the right age for the part. She was 53 when filming began in February, 1952, and Lancaster was only 38. Lancaster does well in the role, but to be honest, he was completely miscast. Lancaster was too strong, too virile, too tall, and too young for the part. The role called for someone who was more of an everyman, someone like Lee J. Cobb, or Karl Malden, although they both would have been too young for the part as well. The most ridiculous line of the movie is when Booth says something about Doc not being athletic. Nope, not true, your husband is Burt Lancaster; he’s a former trapeze artist. 

One way in which a more everyman actor would have brought different shadings to the role is Doc’s crush on Marie. It should probably be more of a hopeless infatuation, and this would have worked better with an older, more plain-looking actor in the role. As it is, you half expect Terry Moore to start making out with Doc because he’s Burt Lancaster in the prime of his life.

Lancaster did a fine job playing Doc, and communicating Doc’s quiet battle against his alcoholism. Lancaster clearly had a strong affinity for Doc, and he said “It was a part I wanted to play more than any other I ever got close to. Doc Delaney is the most human, if imperfect, kind of guy ever written into a play or script.” (Burt Lancaster: Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, by Tony Thomas, p.54) Although he never said as much publicly, the role of Doc no doubt touched some sort of a nerve with Lancaster, perhaps in part because his second wife Norma, the mother of all 5 of Lancaster’s children, was an alcoholic. In order to play Doc Delaney, Lancaster buries all the handsomeness, all the charisma, and all the physical energy that made him such an electric performer. He wore padding while playing Doc to make himself look heavier and grey was added to his hair to make him look older. Lancaster always conformed to the part; he didn’t try to change the role to fit his image or to play to his strengths. Throughout his career Lancaster played roles that didn’t trade off of his good looks or his charisma. He does it in Sweet Smell of Success, The Leopard, Seven Days in May, Judgment at Nuremburg, and Atlantic City, to name just a few. The amazing range of characters he played is what makes his career so interesting and so varied. 

Terry Moore does a fine job as Marie, playing a girl who is torn between the handsome but shallow Turk and Bruce, her steady boyfriend from back home. Moore was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role. On a side note, Moore claimed that she was secretly married to billionaire Howard Hughes in 1949. Her claims have been disputed, but Moore wrote two books about Hughes.
Come Back, Little Sheba was director Daniel Mann’s first movie, and it shows. Mann had directed the play on Broadway, which was why he was chosen to helm the film. The film is terribly edited, as camera angles change for no reason in the middle of scenes. The continuity is also poor, as, to name just one example, Lancaster is seen opening a car door twice-because the camera angle changes for no reason. Amazingly, the movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing! Fortunately, it didn’t win. 

Come Back, Little Sheba is a rather dated relic now, more than 60 years after it was released, but it’s still of interest because of the performances by Booth, Lancaster, and Moore.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Movie Review: The Marriage-Go-Round starring James Mason, Susan Hayward, and Julie Newmar (1961)

Julie Newmar, James Mason, and Susan Hayward in The Marriage-Go-Round, 1961.

Julie Newmar tries to seduce James Mason. He looks rather pleased with himself.
The Marriage-Go-Round, is a rather dull 1961 comedy starring James Mason, Susan Hayward, and Julie Newmar. It’s based on the play of the same name, written by Leslie Stevens, which was produced on Broadway in 1958, and was quite a hit, running for over 700 performances. Julie Newmar won a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as Katrin Sveg. The Marriage-Go-Round is about anthropology professor Paul Delville (Mason), who is happily married to Content Delville, who is the dean of women (Hayward). They get a visit from a Swedish professor friend of Mason’s and his daughter, Katrin (Newmar). But there’s a catch. Katrin’s father doesn’t make the trip, and Katrin, whom the Delvilles last saw as a young girl, has blossomed into a voluptuous young woman of 20. And Katrin boldly tells Professor Delville that she would like him to be the father of her baby. Katrin tells Delville that with her body and his intelligence, they will have a wonderful child together. Of course, Mrs. Delville is less than thrilled by Katrin’s proposition. But Katrin assures Content that she doesn’t want to steal Paul from her, merely “borrow” him to father her baby. 

It’s a rather silly story, and of course characters don’t behave in logical ways, as Content keeps leaving Paul and Katrin alone together. When Paul and Katrin kiss and he discovers he can’t resist her, he orders her out of his house. Which makes sense. No use having temptation right under your nose, especially when she’s sunbathing without a top on. But when Content learns that Paul told Katrin to leave, she inexplicably makes him go back on his word and invite her to stay longer. Which makes no sense. The whole thing ends happily, for the Delvilles anyway, as Paul doesn’t cheat and Katrin goes back to Sweden without a father for her future baby. 

Besides the silly plot, the major problem of The Marriage-Go-Round is that Mason and Hayward were dramatic actors, and not comedians. I’m not sure why they were cast in the movie in the first place. I’m a big fan of Mason’s acting, so I found it quite amusing to watch him play light comedy given his serious image. It’s amusing to watch Mason slowly light up as Katrin flatters him. The scenes where Newmar flirts outrageously with Mason are quite funny to watch if you think of them as a kind of reverse twist on Lolita, a film of Mason’s that would be released just a year and a half after The Marriage-Go-Round. Hayward has a more difficult part, as Content’s behavior seems quite daffy, and hard to figure out. Nothing Hayward’s character says or does struck me as that funny. Newmar comes off the best, as she invests Katrin with the right amount of sweetness and smarts. With her statuesque figure, Newmar was perfect for the part of a Swedish bombshell. 

The Marriage-Go-Round shows how some comedies just don’t age well. I think that, in general, since 1961, the way we view comedies has changed much more than the way we view dramas. I think that it’s much easier to enjoy a drama from 1961 than a comedy from 1961. Of course, there are exceptions to this, as there are movies that were funny when they were released and are still funny now. Audiences might have found The Marriage-Go-Round quite funny in 1961, but in 2014 it seems quite dated and more apt to raise a chuckle than a hearty guffaw.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Book Review: The Ragman's Son by Kirk Douglas (1988)

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, 1956.

Kirk with his son Michael on the set of Cast a Giant Shadow, 1965.

Kirk Douglas promoting The Ragman's Son, 1988.
Kirk Douglas has had a remarkable life. Now 97 years old, he has been one of Hollywood’s most durable stars throughout more than 60 years of making movies. Douglas was born into abject poverty in New York to illiterate Russian Jewish immigrant parents. He has survived a helicopter crash in 1991 and a severe stroke in 1996. Douglas has written ten books, the first of which was an autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, which was published in 1988. 

The Ragman’s Son is an excellent book, and it’s remarkable for a Hollywood memoir because of Douglas’s candor. Douglas is not afraid of telling stories that paint him in a less than flattering light. It’s a very honest book, which makes it a good autobiography. Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, was the only boy among six sisters. Douglas’s father was an alcoholic junk collector, or ragman, who largely ignored his familial obligations. Douglas always sought his father’s approval, and he never got it. It’s clear that Douglas’s difficult relationship with his father had a great effect on other relationships in Douglas’s life, as Douglas continually sought approval from other male authority figures. 

Knowing he wanted to be an actor from a very early age, Douglas did everything he could to get away from home and escape a life of mediocrity in Amsterdam. Through hard work and lucky breaks, Douglas attended college, where he was elected president of the student body, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After appearing in several productions on Broadway, Douglas was offered a movie role and took it. Within just a few years, he was one of the most promising young actors in Hollywood. 

The style of The Ragman’s Son is almost stream of consciousness, as Douglas sometimes jumps from subject to subject. Douglas’s writing voice is as distinctive as his famous speaking voice. Douglas sometimes writes little scenes where Issur, the poor, insecure Jewish kid from Amsterdam talks to movie star Kirk Douglas, who is seemingly brimming with confidence. While that may sound somewhat cheesy, those scenes let us know that Issur is still inside of Kirk Douglas, acting as his conscience and keeping him grounded. 

Despite all of Douglas’s success, it’s clear that happiness was elusive for him. He’s a restless man, always eager for a new challenge. Douglas’s love life gets a lot of ink in the book, and it’s obvious that he was very successful with the ladies. One of the more interesting anecdotes in the book takes place when Douglas is just out of high school. He has trouble finding work at resorts in upstate New York because he’s Jewish. So at one resort he introduces himself as “Don Dempsey,” passing himself off as a WASP, and gets the job. The woman who ran the resort was extremely anti-Semitic, and in a scene worthy of a Philip Roth novel, she comes on to him at the end of the summer, and as Douglas has sex with her he says in her ear, “I am a Jew. You are being fucked by a Jew!” (p.37) 

Douglas pulls no punches about his infidelities during his first marriage to Diana Dill, the mother of Kirk’s sons Michael and Joel. Douglas writes with great feeling about his second marriage, to Anne Buydens, a Belgian woman who worked as his assistant while he was in France making Act of Love. They fell in love, and in May 2014 celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Douglas had found a strong woman who was willing to be his partner in life.

For all of Douglas’s obvious ego, there is a humility and a deep humanity that comes through in The Ragman’s Son. One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is Douglas’s interaction with John Wayne after a screening of Lust for Life, in which Douglas played Vincent Van Gogh. Wayne said to Douglas, “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Kirk responded by saying, “Hey, John, I’m an actor. I like to play interesting roles. It’s all make-believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.” (p.243) I admire that Douglas was willing to defend the role he had played, and that he was smart enough to know that he’s different from his on-screen image. 

Kirk Douglas is a complex man, and The Ragman’s Son is a fascinating look at the life and mind of one of the greatest film actors of the last 60 years.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Book Review: How to Fight Presidents by Daniel O'Brien (2014)

How to Fight Presidents, by Daniel O'Brien, 2014.

5th President James Monroe, (1758-1831) who would definitely kick your ass if he came back from the dead. Watch out.
Daniel O’Brien’s new book, How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran this Country, is a humorous look at the occupants of the Oval Office. O’Brien is the head writer for, and also a history buff, so he’s well-equipped to present us with an instructional manual on how to physically fight U.S. presidents, should we travel through time and need to do so. O’Brien’s theory is that most men who have been president were a little crazy, and also quite badass, and the combination of those two things would make them difficult to defeat, should we engage them in fisticuffs.

Each deceased president gets his own chapter in How to Fight Presidents. The chapter opens with what made them such a badass, and at the end we get recommendations on what tactics might work against them in a fight. The chapter headings are hilarious. Two of my favorites are: “Thomas Jefferson just invented six different devices that can kill you,” and “Franklin Pierce is the Franklin Pierce of fighting, which is to say, he is a bad fighter.”

Obviously, there’s a lot of humor in this book. But what makes it more than just a silly book is O’Brien’s overarching, somewhat serious theme that you need to be a crazy to be president. These men were not normal guys. Yes, some of them were terrible presidents. But most of them did some amazing things in order to be elected president. Except for Millard Fillmore. He never did anything amazing. Fillmore aside, O’Brien does a good job of explaining why these men were remarkable. We all know that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were awesome and amazing and guys you would never want to fight, but O’Brien tells us why you wouldn’t want to fight the other presidents too. For example, James Monroe, our fifth president, was wounded in the shoulder during the American Revolution-and just kept fighting. Monroe served as secretary of state and secretary of war under James Madison-at the same time. While he was president, Monroe grabbed his own sword when two visiting dignitaries tried to duel in the White House and fought both of them while solving their dispute. And he threatened his secretary of the treasury with a set of fireplace tongs. So, yeah, he was kind of a badass. 

O’Brien does an excellent job of covering the accomplishments of our less famous presidents. He’s generous to men like James A. Garfield and Herbert Hoover, even though they weren’t fantastic presidents. O’Brien writes of Hoover, “He worked every minute of every day without tiring and wasn’t sick for a single day of his presidency.” (p.195) Hoover tried his hardest to get the country out of the Great Depression. Ultimately, he failed, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. I really appreciated O’Brien’s attitude toward the presidents-it’s easy to write about the great ones, but he does a good job of writing about the not so great ones.

The illustrations by Winston Rowntree also deserve a mention, as they are quite hilarious in themselves. Each president gets a full-page portrait, and then another smaller illustration in the body of their chapter. Rowntree’s drawings complement O’Brien’s writing very well. 

Most of all, How to Fight Presidents is really funny. In the chapter about John Quincy Adams, O’Brien makes note of Adams’s habit of swimming naked in the Potomac River while he was president. Adams apparently just liked being naked as much as possible. “Also he kept an alligator as a pet, right in the White House. That too feels like something that might come up in battle. Like if you were walking down the street and saw a naked guy with an alligator on a leash, you probably wouldn’t want to fight him, because to hell with that. That guy is John Quincy Adams, and it’s too late, because you’re already fighting.” (p.38) That made me laugh a lot. If you’re a presidential history buff like me, you will love How to Fight Presidents, and you will actually learn a lot of fun tidbits about the presidents. I just hope I never have to fight John Quincy Adams.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Concert Review: Elvis Costello solo at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium

Elvis Costello

On Monday night Elvis Costello rocked the roof off of the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in Saint Paul all by himself. Playing the opening gig of a solo tour, Costello played 29 songs during a more than two hour show. The audience was in the palm of his hand from the very beginning. Costello exited the stage after about 70 minutes, and I was a little worried he wasn’t going to come back, but my fears proved to be unfounded as he sang 13 more songs. But because of that early tease, Costello got a lot of standing ovations-there were definitely some times when I thought to myself, “Well, that might have been the last song, I should stand up, cause he deserves a standing ovation.” And then Elvis would come back for another song. 

I’ve seen Elvis Costello in concert once before, with the Imposters on his Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour in 2011. That was an incredible show, but I was very excited to see him solo. He didn’t disappoint. He played 5 or 6 different guitars, and the keyboards on a couple of songs. And he did three whistling solos. The songs covered the entire run of Costello’s career, from an early version of “Radio, Radio,” then called “Radio Soul,” to “The Last Year of My Youth,” which he wrote the night before he performed it on David Letterman’s show last week. This concert also highlighted the amazing variety of songs that Costello has written, from punky rockers like “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and “King Horse” to the lovely jazz ballad “I’m in the Mood Again,” and “For the Stars,” which he wrote for opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter. Very few, if any, rock songwriters can match his career for its diversity and its continued brilliance. 

Costello was in excellent voice throughout the show, and I think his voice has improved with age. His voice is still powerful, and he showed it off by sometimes going off-mike at the end of songs. Of course, his distinctive vocals could still be heard throughout the hall. 

Some highlights of the first half of the concert included the lovely “Veronica,” which he co-wrote with Paul McCartney, a mash-up of “New Amsterdam” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” a charming cover of “Walking My Baby Back Home,” a beautiful rendition of “Beyond Belief,” which is one of my very favorite Elvis Costello songs, and performing a duet with himself on guitar loops on “Watching the Detectives.” Costello sang a nice version of “Everyday I Write the Book,” which he prefaced by saying, “I wrote this song in 10 minutes. It was a hit, so I felt guilty. But not that big of a hit, so I didn’t feel that guilty.” 

The extended encore held many musical treats, such as a lovely keyboard version of “Almost Blue,” and the aforementioned “Radio Soul.” Elvis also sang a heartfelt rendition of “Alison,” followed by “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” and “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” two of my favorite songs from his 2010 album “National Ransom.” “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” ended dramatically with Elvis moving off-mike to sing a verse of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” He also tore it up on a vicious version of “I Want You,” on which he played some wicked guitar. He left the stage, but returned for the final encores of the night, starting with the haunting “Shipbuilding,” performed on the keyboard. Costello then switched to guitar for the inevitable version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Then it was back to the keyboards for a beautiful reading of “I’m in the Mood Again,” from 2003’s underrated “North” album, and “For the Stars,” which Costello introduced as one of the few songs he’s written about songwriting. He closed the show with “Red Shoes.” 

Costello told stories during the concert about his father, who was a musician, and his grandfather, who was also a musician who had played on ships on the White Star Line. He said that his grandfather was part of the inspiration for the song “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” which tells the tale of a Jimmie Rodgers impersonator touring England in the 1930’s. 

It was an outstanding concert, you could tell that the crowd just adored Elvis and would have stayed all night. Elvis really seemed to feed off of the crowd’s energy and looked to be having a great time. My wife said to me after the show, “He’s like Shakespeare, it takes me a while to understand what he’s saying, but the more I listen the more I get it.” I thought that was a great comparison, it does take a while to get into Costello’s world. But once you’re there, it’s a fabulous world to be in. After the show, we ran into some friends who have met Elvis before by waiting at the stage door. It was a beautiful night, so we waited for a while and chatted, and lo and behold, Elvis himself soon appeared. He was generous with his limited time, shaking hands, posing for pictures, and signing autographs. I wasn’t able to get close enough to get a picture, but I did get a handshake as he was walking towards his bus. And I learned that he’s left-handed! I knew there was a reason I liked him so much!