Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

The number of dancing Pontipee brothers is rapidly dwindling. Those who know and love the exhilarating MGM musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), will understand what I’m talking about. This is one musical (West Side Story of course is another) that glories in the ability of young males to look macho while moving to music. Eldest brother Adam, played by the ultra-virile Howard Keel, didn’t dance, but he used his resonant baritone to great effect in this film about love and courtship in Oregon territory, circa 1850. Keel passed on in 2004. Second brother Benjamin (Jeff Richards) is also no longer with us. It’s taken me years to realize that “Benjamin”— in real life a former baseball player—doesn’t truly take part in Michael Kidd’s breathtaking ensemble choreographies. You generally find him hanging around in the background, sometimes in the company of Julie Newmar, who was still billed as Julie Newmeyer back then.

Thank goodness the three youngest of the alphabetically-named Pontipees are still alive and kicking. Jacques d’Amboise, now 79, took a leave from the New York City Ballet to play brother Ephraim. He later became a respected dance teacher, was the focus of  the Oscar-winning He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, and is currently on view in a new documentary, Afternoon of a Faun, about the tragic Balanchine ballerina, Tanaquil LeClercq. Tommy Rall, who played  hyper-intense Frank, last appeared as a werewolf in a goofy Roger Corman comedy on which I worked, Saturday the 14th Strikes Back. Russ Tamblyn, who showed off his gymnastic talents as youngest brother Gideon, is best remembered as Riff, the leader of the Jets, in West Side Story. He’s still performing, and has also contributed daughter Amber to show biz.    

But we lost Matt Mattox (Caleb) in 2013: he was the one who retained a beard and mustache even after the brothers cleaned up at the film’s midpoint, and  he did a memorable solo dance in a number called “Lonesome Polecat,” in which the men lament the lack of women in their winter hideaway. (As Johnny Mercer’s lyrics remind us, “A man can’t sleep/When he sleeps with sheep.”)  The film’s Daniel, Marc Platt -- not to be confused with a major Hollywood producer who bears the same name – passed on just recently, at the end of March, 2014.   

The best way to see the dancing Pontipees in action is to take a gander at the film’s famous barn-raising sequence. Anyone who enjoys the competitive aspects of Dancing with the Stars will relish what happens when the brothers try to outdance some town dandies to win the affections of the local womenfolk. Dancing as somehow unmanly? Not here.

But in one respect the “manly” men of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers give me pause. The film’s plot derives from a short story, “The Sobbin’ Women,” by Stephen Vincent Benét. It’s a folksy bit of backwoods Americana, but it’s based on a rather odious legend about how the men of ancient Rome, in desperate need of wives, helped themselves to the women of the neighboring Sabine tribe. What’s generally referred to as the Rape of the Sabine Women has often been portrayed in classical paintings. If you happen to be female, it doesn’t look like much fun.  Of course in the MGM version, the “brides” who are abducted by seven wrong-headed males—following a period of outrage and some serious scolding by Adam’s wife (the adorable Jane Powell)—are all too ready to fall for their captors. Which makes for a happily-ever-after fadeout. But is this love, or Stockholm Syndrome?   

"The Rape of the Sabine Women" (1636) by Nicholas Poussin


Friday, April 25, 2014

The Lunchbox: A Tasty Treat from India

Since I love great meals, there’s a special place in my heart (and in my stomach) for movies that focus on the preparing, serving, and savoring of food. Of course Babette’s Feast leads the list, along with Big Night, and (for those of us who are passionate about Chinese cooking) Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. Fans of dessert (and who isn’t?), agree that Chocolat is simply scrumptious. Ratatouille may be a work of animation, but it also effectively conveys the joy of cooking, as well as the joy of eating.  As does, in its own way, Julie & Julia. Not to mention that wacky Japanese “noodle western,” Tampopo.

 India’s The Lunchbox, a major international hit at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is about food too: about the effort that goes into cooking and the pleasure that comes from tasting. I must admit that, although I love the spicy cuisine of the Indian subcontinent, the dishes prepared in this film are not things of beauty. There’s no sense of a behind-the-scenes food stylist making every ingredient look like a precious jewel and the assembled components as gorgeous as a High Baroque still-life. But, of course, this isn’t some Bollywood fantasy, with a bevy of beautiful women singing and dancing their way through a pristine kitchen set. It’s a small-scale realistic drama, though one that takes off from Mumbai’s complex dabbawallah system, in which hot lunches are delivered from the hands of their makers to the desks of cross-town office workers who crave a lovingly prepared hot meal at midday.

The system is apparently a model of efficiency, but this film (by debuting writer-director Ritesh Batra) hinges on the results of a bureaucratic error. Ila, a young wife trying to hold onto her husband’s heart by way of his stomach sends off a lunch that ends up in the hands of a lonely widower working at a soulless clerical job. Saajan Fernandez is played by Irrfan Khan, memorable from both Slumdog Millionaire and The Life of Pi, where he had the brief but essential role of the title character as an adult. Here he’s a dour low-level bureaucrat, quick to find fault with others’ imperfections, but not immune to home-made curries and dals spooned into tidy little metal dishes. He scribbles a note to the unknown cook – a complaint about salt – and a correspondence begins. That, in a nutshell, is the movie. Following the great old tradition of epistolary novels and such films as The Shop Around the Corner and 88 Charing Cross Road, this is an epistolary movie, in which the main characters only cross paths when they put pen to paper. (No text messages or “You’ve Got Mail” here.) Which is not to say that nothing happens. The two principals evolve a good deal from start to finish. As befits a romantic drama with realistic roots, there’s no pie-in-the-sky (or even “Pi in the Sky”) ending. But rest assured that the plot has its share of surprises and suspense.

The smaller roles add both poignancy and humor. They include Ila’s downtrodden mother, and Saajan’s unrelentingly cheerful young business colleague, a pain-in-the-neck fellow who contributes in his own way to the leading man’s character development. Then there’s the unseen but often heard “Auntie” who advises Ila on her cooking skills from her upstairs flat, and sometimes sends down Care packages via a nifty suspended basket. Also a character of sorts is grubby, bustling, bursting-at-the-seams Mumbai, which is apparently a splendid place to do lunch. 

Which reminds me -- it's time to eat!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Jim Henson: Had He But World Enough, and Time . . .

Miss Piggy is reclining gracefully on a sofa, picking Kermit-green pistachios out of a crystal goblet, and intoning “He loves me . . . he loves me not.” It’s all part of a TV commercial designed to promote both Wonderful® Pistachios (slogan: “Get Crackin’”) and the new Disney release, Muppets Most Wanted. Which means a Jim Henson creation is back where it all started, in the wonderful world of advertising.

Jim Henson was astonishingly young when he started earning a good living by creating wacky commercial messages for a local brand, Wilkins Coffee. The brand-new medium of television proved to be immensely hospitable to a tall, lanky fellow in his early twenties with an offbeat sense of humor, an inexhaustible work ethic, and a trunkful of what he called “muppets.” It was not that Jim aspired at first to be a great puppet master. Puppetry was one of the many tricks he had up his capacious sleeves as he sought to live a life that was creative, constructive, and fun.

I learned a vast amount about Jim Henson from a best-selling new book by my friend and colleague, Brian Jay Jones. His Jim Henson: The Biography has the advantage of loving input from Henson’s ex-wife and five children, all of whom had been close Henson collaborators in the course of his varied career. Though Jim was not the easiest of spouses, he was clearly an exemplary father, and his sense of kinship with children everywhere contributed hugely to his success. Still, he by no means wanted to be remembered solely as a entertainer for the small-fry set. Throughout his relatively brief life (he died at 53),  his artistic ambitions never quit. 

Case in point: in 1965, not yet 30, he stepped away from puppetry to write, produce, direct, and star in a short experimental film. The full implications of “Time Piece” (see below) cannot be pinned down, but Henson brilliantly uses percussion, animation, montage, and other audio-visual tricks to capture  -- in nine brief but potent minutes -- a sense of a man succumbing to the pressures of a life that’s rapidly ticking away. It’s definitely not for the kiddies, and there’s not a Muppet in sight. “Time Piece” was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Live-Action Short. He didn’t win, but eventually a long slew of Emmys would grace his mantel.

Jim Henson never shrank from a technological challenge, nor from an artistic one. It had not occurred to me before reading this book that puppeteers like Henson, who work with their hands inside their characters, are always faced with the need to stay out of sight. When you’re six foot three, this isn’t easy—especially when, as in the opening of The Muppet Movie,  Kermit the Frog is perched on a log in the middle of a swamp. To achieve the first impression of a banjo-playing Kermit surrounded by water, Jim squeezed himself into a cramped diving bell in a studio backlot tank, then manipulated his character from underwater. (In The Great Muppet Caper, Henson and his team topped themselves with a Miss Piggy-starring water ballet.)  

I return to “Time Piece” because it captures something fundamental in Jim’s nature -- a feeling that life is short. The words of poet Andrew Marvell probably resonated with Jim: “But at my back I always hear/ Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.” His brother died young, and he himself seemed to need to live fast and cram in many projects at once. But when he died in 1990, from a sudden but devastating illness, it’s amazing how much he’d accomplished.

Brian Jay Jones will be one of my three panelists on Saturday, May 17 at the conference held by BIO –the Biographers International Organization on the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts. We’ll be discussing “Getting the Family on Board,” a subject about which Brian knows a great deal. The public is cordially invited.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Zelda Gilroy for Supervisor, or The Many Campaigns of Sheila Kuehl

If you’re old enough to have seen The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, an amiable sitcom that rocked the airwaves from 1959 to 1963, then you remember Zelda Gilroy. The central character of this series based on Max Shulman’s satiric stories is Dobie Gillis, a romantically-inclined teenage boy who is putty in the hands of any girl who’s “creamy,” to crib from the language of the show’s theme song. Dobie (played with innocent zest by Dwayne Hickman) is particularly drawn to voluptuous airheads, like Tuesday Weld’s Thalia Menninger. But, alas, dim Dobie himself proves irresistible to the class brainiac, feisty little Zelda. She shows her love by crinkling her nose at Dobie (he always reflexively crinkles back, then recoils in horror), and by volunteering to do his homework.

Zelda was memorably played by Sheila James, whose real name is Sheila Kuehl. Today she’s convinced that she snagged the role of Zelda because she was even shorter than series creator Max Shulman. When Dobie Gillis became a hit, Shulman did her another favor: persuading her to continue with her studies at UCLA, despite the demands of her showbiz career. Eventually she became UCLA’s Associate Dean of Students and then, at age 34, entered Harvard Law School. Presumably her acting experience came in handy: she was only the second woman in the school’s history to be named the winner of its Moot Court competition. (I presume she used no nose crinkles to win over the judges.) Then it was back to California, where she launched a career in the state legislature.

I tend to be suspicious of actors who go into politics, but Sheila Kuehl is the real deal. She has served honorably in both California houses, accepted many committee posts, championed important social legislation, and earned a reputation for working well with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. She’s also my neighbor, making her home not far from me in the great little city of Santa Monica. Now that she’s termed out of the state legislature, Sheila is running to be one of Los Angeles County’s five supervisors. The district covers an enormous area, and she needs to woo a million voters. Which is why I attended an unusual fundraiser on the Sunset Strip.

 “Zelda for Supervisor” was the evening’s theme, and we were all encouraged to dress in our Fifties best. This being Hollywood, speeches were made by some showbiz names: actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. and funnyman Bruce Vilanch, who couldn’t resist a Sarah Palin (“Caribou Barbie”) gibe. But the star of the evening was Zelda Gilroy, whom Kuehl herself described with typical enthusiasm as a role model for ambitious young women because she never took No for an answer. Several Dobie Gillis episodes were aired, including one in which Zelda—making her usual passionate pitch for Dobie’s love—proposes to become his campaign manager and get him elected to Congress. Ah, yes. The fabulous 1950s, when no one realized that Zelda herself would have made a much better candidate.

Much like Sheila Kuehl, who freely admits that her character shared many of her own personality traits. Persistence, for one thing, and a willingness to get creative if it will help her reach her goal. Far from shunning her TV past, Sheila glories in it, especially when it extends the reach of her campaign. Shilling for contributions, she announced, “I’ll call you ‘poopsie’ for twenty bucks.” Or, for $100, you can get a nose crinkle.