Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

More '50s pleasures...

SERENADE. Mario Lanza films were jolly affairs as I remember [like THE SEVEN HILLS OF ROME], but SERENADE in 1956, seen again recently on TCM UK, is a very enjoyable, dark, twisted tale, from a James M Cain novel, with that rich deep Warnercolor and as directed by Anthony Mann (having a break from westerns) has some great scope compositions. Mario here is the factory worker on his tractor who is discovered by Joan Fontaine as Kendall Hale. Kendall is a society dame/rich bitch who, aided by her campy sidekick Vincent Price, picks up and then destroys her proteges, her current one being hunky young boxer Vince Edwards. Mario is soon in Kendall's clutches and on his way to being an opera star, but he spectacularly falls apart once Kendall discards him - in a scene as intense as Judy Garland's in A STAR IS BORN - so he ends up in Mexico ... enter Sarita Montiel (who became Mrs Mann) who is very attractive here, and gets Mario back to singing. The stage is set for a showdown between the women when they return to New York and it all ends in pure melodrama. Joan has a lot of fun with the role [though she dismisses it in 1 line in her autobiography] and does that quizzical look and raised eyebrow to perfection as Mario serenades us with "Nessun Dorma"; she also wears a divine mink cape for going to the opera.

WOMAN'S WORLD. For me this 1954 Fox movie is the '50s in aspic. Its a fabulously entertaining variation on the '3 girls sharing an apartment and looking for love' genre that Fox and director Jean Negulesco did so well (HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, 3 COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, THE BEST OF EVERYTHING) - here the 3 girls are married and visiting New York - cue great views of 50s Manhattan - as Clifton Webb, the head of a motor company, has to choose a new general manager and the wives are being vetted too to see if they are suitable material for company events. The 3 couples are out-of-towners Cornel Wilde and ditzy (or is she?) June Allyson, sophisticates on the point of divorcing Lauren Bacall and Fred McMurray, and ambitious Van Heflin and Arlene Dahl who will go to any lengths to get her man the position. The gals get to wear to some marvellous frocks, Allyson and Bacall play their usual personas so the unknown quantity here is Dahl who steals the film - particuarly when she enters in that green clinging sheath with a divine little fur-trimmed bolero which she knowingly removes as she puts the make on Clifton and lets him see how grateful she will be if Van is the man. Clifton is in his element here and even seems to be (can it be possible in '54) a coded gay as he is not married and seems devoted to his general managers. Whatever, its an absolute treat to see anytime, a nice contrast to that other '54 star-studded executive drama EXECUTIVE SUITE.

THE OPPOSITE SEX. A 1956 musical remake of THE WOMEN? Yes and it works quite well and is very enjoyable on its own level. Allyson again is the Mary Haines figure this time, with Joan Collins stepping into Crawford's shoes as Crystal Allen - but best of all is the divine Dolores Gray as Sylvia. A great cast of 50s gals is assembled for this lavish MGM treat: Agnes Moorehead having fun as the Countess, Joan Blondell, Ann Sheridan, Ann Miller (who sadly does not sing or dance), Carolyn Jones, Charlotte Greenwood and Alice Pearce (ON THE TOWN's Lucy Schmeeler) as the gossip-spreading "Jungle Red" saleslady. There are musical interludes and the men are included this time, Leslie Nielson as the straying husband, and Jeff Richards as that Buck Winston. Its all very colorful and the gals wear a great array of 50s fashions. Whats not to like? Broadway star Dolores Gray only made a handful of films at MGM but she is sensational here, as she is in ITS ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, KISMET and tipping the plate of ravioli into Greg Peck's lap in DESIGNING WOMAN, another great Minnelli from '57.

JUPITER'S DARLING. Another '56 musical - the only Esther Williams movie I saw in the cinema, its her last musical too [directed by George Sidney]. Set in Ancient Rome Esther is promised to emperor George Sanders (who is dominated by his mother Norma Varden!); enter Howard Keel as a splendid Hannibal, Marge and Gower Champion are terrific too and do a great number with painted elephants (real ones, not CGI). Esther does a bit of swimming and saves Hannibal's life - he can't swim! This cheerful farrago would be a great double bill with MGM's other ridiculous costumer THE PRODIGAL where Lana is the pagan priestess and Edmund Purdom that prodigal son, great MGM production values though you have to laugh when Edmund wrestles with the stuffed vulture and Lana faces the mob... young Taina Elg is also at hand, before she became one of those fabulous LES GIRLS.

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE. A pleasure to see again yesterday. John Van Druten's play [the Harrisons - Rex and Lilli - had done it on the stage] is nicely transferred to screen in '58 by Richard Quine, with his muse of the time, Kim Novak at her zenith here as the witch who cannot fall in love - enter James Stewart. Its a lovely look at New York in the 50s, Stewart and Novak are teamed again after Hitch's VERTIGO. The great supporting cast includes Jack Lemmon (just before SOME LIKE IT HOT) as her warlock brother, Ernie Kovacs as the writer on the lookout for witches, and Hermione Gingold as head witch, aided by Elsa Lanchester, plus Janice Rule as Stewart's girlfriend. Pyewacket the cat is super too.

Amusingly, this has now been seen in a gay context. Druten it seems was gay, and the coven of witches with their hidden culture and their own nightclub (presided over by la Gingold) could be read as coded for the secret life of gays in '50s New York. "They are all around us" Lemmon happily tells the bewildered Kovacs ... It was also Stewart's last as a romantic lead [he is 50 here], he really slipped into character parts with his next, the still terrific ANATOMY OF A MURDER + those father parts. [Nice to see him and Novak re-united handing out an award on one of those 80s Oscar shows].

NO DOWN PAYMENT. This 1957 rarity was a treat when discovered recently. Set in the boom of suburbia as couples move to the new estates, it focuses on several couples - new arrivals Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens, nice Barbara Rush and Pat Hingle, flaky Joanne Woodward and brooding Cameron Mitchell, and desperate Tony Randall and Sheree North. Martin Ritt orchestrates the dramas nicely and its a splendid period piece with that good team of Fox contract players.

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