Thursday, March 28, 2019

Sounding Out: Mamoulian, Rodgers, Hart, and “Isn’t It Romantic?”

There was a time, soon after The Jazz Singer broke the sound barrier for motion pictures, when movie musicals were all the rage. Every studio wanted to make flicks that could boast “all talking-all singing-all dancing.” (Singin’ in the Rain, the Golden Age musical from 1952, captures the frenzied efforts of that earlier era to capitalize on early sound technology. This Gene Kelly vehicle exaggerates for comic effect the challenge posed by sound, but not all that much. Yes, early microphones were large and cumbersome; soundstages were overheated to the point of feeling like saunas; many popular stars of the silent era simply didn’t know how to talk, or sing, in an appealing way.)

I was highly fortunate, back in 1982, to interview a pioneer of motion picture sound. We met in the Hollywood Hills in a villa-like home that was crawling with cats. Rouben Mamoulian, an Armenian from Tibilisi, Georgia, came to America in 1922 to direct theatre and opera. He directed the original Porgy on Broadway, then was sought out by Hollywood in 1929. His Applause, a backstage drama shot that same year, was a landmark early talkie, praised by film historians for its innovation use of camera and sound. Later Mamoulian went on to shoot such films as the Frederic March version of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), as well as Queen Christina with Greta Garbo and Golden Boy with William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck. He also returned to Broadway to stage the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and spent much of the 1940s helming innovative stage musical  hits: Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Lost in the Stars.

Late in his career, Mamoulian had some notable Hollywood disasters: he was fired from the Technicolor film adaptation of Porgy and Bess after shooting only one scene, and later resigned from the notorious Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton Cleopatra. His very last complete film, shot in 1957 when he was sixty years old, was another musical, Silk Stockings. Starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, it was a Technicolor version of the 1937 Garbo comedy, Ninotchka.

But I want to focus here on Mamoulian’s interaction with two of Broadway’s favorite sons, the musical team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Rodgers and Hart, who started out writing comic songs for the undergrads of Columbia University, became the toasts of the Great White Way via a long string of sparkling musical entertainments, with Rodgers responsible for music and Hart supplying the witty lyrics. Their plots tended to be forgettable, but they contributed to the Great American Songbook such tunes as  “(I’ll Take) Manhattan,” “Mountain Greenery,” “Where or When,”  “My Funny Valentine,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.” Their most famous show, Pal Joey, eventually became a Frank Sinatra musical that incorporated several of the Rodgers and Hart standards written for earlier shows, changed the cold-hearted Joey from a dancer to a singer, and redeemed him to create a happy ending.

Pal Joey was filmed in 1967, seventeen years after the play surfaced on Broadway and long after Hart’s death. But a younger Rodgers and Hart had been brought out to Hollywood circa 1932 to provide music for a Maurice Chevalier vehicle, Love Me Tonight, in which a romantically-inclined tailor falls in love with a princess (Jeanette MacDonald). The opening song, Isn’t it Romantic?”, was brilliantly staged by Mamoulian to take advantage of what a motion picture camera and sound equipment can do. The song begins with Chevalier in his tailor shop, then moves outdoors to cover the quaint locale and its citizens, before finally ending up on the lips of princess Jeanette. Isn’t it inventive?    

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

20th Century Fox: Hail and Farewell

It’s hard to explain to anyone who didn’t grow up in my neighborhood how I feel about Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox studios. My home base from kindergarten through the time of my marriage was just south of the Beverly Hills border and less than a mile from the Pico Blvd. entrance to 20th Century Fox. It was always exciting to know that while I went about the business of being a kid, the glamorous folk were making movies not far away. Fox never went in for big public tours like Universal Studios, which eventually parlayed its Studio City back lot into a major theme park. So what went on inside the 20th Century Fox gates was mysterious, and therefore delightful.  There was a time that a distant relative with showbiz connections promised my family a private tour of the Fox lot. Of course I was thrilled.  And of course I dressed carefully for the occasion, half-convinced that some important so-and-so would stop our group and tell me I was just the girl he needed to feature in his upcoming production. (And of course, nothing of the sort happened. Which is the only thing I remember about that tour today.)

At various times, Fox was the home of Tyrone Power, Carmen Miranda, Henry Fonda,  Betty Grable, and Sonja Henie. During the Depression, it was bankrolled by the success of Little Miss Shirley Temple. It’s where, in 1962, Marilyn Monroe was fired from her last film, Something’s Got to Give, and where (just one year later), the cost overruns on Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra almost threw the studio into bankruptcy. That’s why Fox sold off its fabled backlot, which became a massive business and shopping destination known as Century City. Fox did slightly better in the late Sixties, thanks to an unexpected blockbuster, Planet of the Apes. For me a special film of that era was Hello, Dolly!, the film version of the blockbuster stage musical. At a time when Hollywood’s philosophy was “bigger is better,” Fox brought in Gene Kelly to direct and cast young Barbra Streisand in a role that had been immortalized on Broadway by Carol Channing. Huge stretches of studio façade were turned into a so-called New York Street, with a turn-of-the-century brownstone look. For a massive parade scene, to provide a fitting backdrop for Streisand singing “Before the Parade Passes By,” the studio wanted literally thousands of extras. That’s why half of my neighborhood was recruited—including my mother, sister, and future mother-in-law—while my husband strutted proudly with the UCLA marching band.

I myself spent time in a Fox soundstage when researching the TV show M*A*S*H for Theatre Crafts magazine. (Today dozens of shows, including The Simpsons, use Fox facilities for their production needs.) I’ve also attended many a screening in one of the studio’s plush auditoriums. And I visit the Fox lot from time to time as an invited speaker for the Storyboard Development Group,where aspiring screenwriters analyze and argue over the scripts of upcoming Hollywood releases.  It’s always fun to see, on the sides of Fox buildings, the huge murals that pay tribute to the hits of days gone by: Star Wars, The Sound of Music, Young Frankenstein.

I’ve just read that in selling their artistic empire to Disney, the Murdoch family (hardly my favorite moguls) are holding fast to the Fox lot. For them it’s a business decision, not a nostalgic one, as an article in the L.A.Times makes clear. I just hope the lot remains a place where I can dream about Hollywood past, present, and future. 
Here I am on the lot, with the cast of Young Frankenstein looming large behind me.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Checking Out “The Library Book”

Books and reading tables make for a great backdrop in so many movies. George Peppard declares his love for Audrey Hepburn in a New York library in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. High school kids (Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez among them) serve their Saturday morning detention in the school library in The Breakfast Club. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman search for evidence of high crimes in the Nixon White House by scouring the collection of the Library of Congress in All The President’s Men. Cop Morgan Freeman tracks down the m.o. of a serial killer through an eerie late-night visit to a police library in Se7en.

Those of us who are book lovers feel we know what libraries look like, feel like, sound like (Ssssh!). And we have in our heads a clear image of librarians: usually females of a certain age, wearing glasses on the tips of their noses, shushing the patrons, clearly more comfortable with books than people. (At home they cuddle with their cats, while reading Jane Austen and sipping hot milk.) It’s true there’ve been a series of made-for-television fantasy movies called The Librarian (and later The Librarians), in which the lead characters have nearly magical powers. But mostly when we think of movie librarians we summon up people like Katharine Hepburn as a prickly, no-nonsense research ace in Desk Set, as well as the adorable but oh-so-prim Shirley Jones, keeping order at the Madison Public Library in The Music Man.

The Library Book is determined to change our opinion of libraries, and of librarians, once and for all. It’s written by New Yorker staffer Susan Orlean, whose earlier The Orchid Thief was the basis for the 2002 Spike Jonze film, Adaptation. In the highly original script written by Charlie Kaufman, Orlean (as portrayed by Meryl Streep) becomes something of a fictional character herself, a journalist seduced by her protagonist -- a mangy orchid thief -- into a life of sex, psychedelics, and crime. The real Orlean has had a slightly less colorful life, but there’s no question she’s attracted by off-kilter subject matter.

One off-kilter subject in The Library Book is the late Harry Peak, a would-be actor who on the morning of April 29, 1986 may or may not have set the fire that nearly destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library. Peak, a ne’er-do-well with a winning smile and a compulsion for lying, was investigated but never charged. As a result of the fire, 400,000 volumes were destroyed. Happily the people of Los Angeles rallied to save the wonderfully fanciful library building and to rebuild its collections. The restored and much enlarged library (which dated from 1926) re-opened in 1993 and continues to flourish in the heart of downtown L.A.

Though Harry Peak is a lively presence in The Library Book, the real hero of the story is the library itself. Orlean has peered into every department, interviewed many staff members, and absorbed the pleasures of the renovated building. Along the way, she explores the innovations that libraries (both in Los Angeles and worldwide) are bringing to their communities: new technologies, ideas for social services, programming to appeal to those of all ages and cultural levels. Today’s libraries are, among many other things, repositories of films and film-related programs. 
Many years ago, when I was quite small, TV launched Cavalcade of Books. On its inaugural episode, the show honored the children’s department of the Los Angeles Central Library. There was an actual children’s librarian present, and I was the curly-headed moppet asking for books about dance. How wonderful that the library is thriving again.