TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Fourteen — Steve McQueen

•August 13, 2020 • 2 Comments

The King of Cool.

I had a conversation the other day with an old movie pal, and he happened to mention that he didn’t understand the appeal of Steve McQueen.

“He was cool,” I told him, trying but failing to keep the tone of incredulity out of my voice. “He was just cool.”

IN THE BEGINNING:

Terrence Stephen McQueen was born on March 24, 1930, in Beech Grove, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. His father, a barnstorming pilot, left his son and wife, Julian, when Steve was six months old. During his adolescence, Steve bounced between his uncle’s farm in Slater, Missouri, and the home of his mother and his new stepfather in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, his stepfather had a violent streak, and beat Steve on numerous occasions, once even throwing him down a flight of steps. Steve began hanging around with a local gang and committing petty crimes.

Shortly before his 15th birthday, Steve was sent to the Boys Republic in Chino, California, a school and treatment center for troubled youngsters. The actor later credited the school with setting him back on the right path. After his release, he planned to rejoin his mother, only to learn that his mother had a new boyfriend and expected Steve to live with a neighbor. When he was 17, Steve joined the Marines. He got into a bit of trouble at the outset, but he was honorably discharged in 1950.

Young Steve.

Using funds provided through the G.I. Bill, Steve began taking acting lessons at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. (Actor/director Mark Rydell, who met Steve around this time, said that Steve was torn between using his G.I. Bill money for an acting school or to learn to lay bathroom tile. He chose acting, Rydell said, because “there were women in the acting profession”). After a few small roles on stage and TV over the next few years, Steve made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain. He was fired from the play after six weeks, but he was seen in a bit part the following year in his big screen debut, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and two years later, he starred in the sci-fi cult classic The Blob (1958).

OTHER STUFF:

  • Notwithstanding the popularity of The Blob, Steve’s real big break came when he was cast in the lead of a TV western, Wanted Dead or Alive.
  • Steve was offered a role in The Magnificent Seven (1960), but the shooting schedule conflicted with his TV series and the producers of Wanted wouldn’t release him. Determined to take the film part, Steve crashed his car into the side of a bank, faked a neck injury so he would be given time off, and then hightailed it to Mexico to film The Magnificent Seven.

    The actor frequently returned to Boys Republic to speak with the students there.

  • Steve visited the Boys Republic several times a year to make a donation and talk with the students about the impact the school had on his life.
  • Steve received his only Academy Award nomination for The Sand Pebbles (1967). He lost to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons.
  • Steve was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in December 1979 and died less than a year later. He was 50 years old. His cancer was linked to asbestos exposure from the time he spent in the military.

MY SUTS PICK:

See Papillon.

I’ve never seen the films that TCM is airing on TCM day, but I’ve always wanted to see Papillon (1973), so I’m making that film my pick. The film focuses on two criminals who plot their escape from the island on which they are imprisoned.  I’m looking forward to finally seeing it. If you have any other recommendations, please share with the group!

And join me for Day 15 of Summer Under the Stars!

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Thirteen — John Barrymore

•August 12, 2020 • 1 Comment

The Great Profile.

John Barrymore was one of the most respected acting talents in the history of the stage and screen. He also lived an often tortured and scandalized existence, typified by highly publicized romantic entanglements and a struggle with alcohol abuse for most of his life.

IN THE BEGINNING:

John Sidney Blyth was born into a family of actors on February 15, 1882, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Maurice Blyth (or Blythe) was a popular stage performer under the name Maurice Barrymore, and his mother, Georgiana, was an actress whose grandparents, parents, and brothers were actors, as were John’s two older siblings, Ethel and Lionel.

Barrymore attended various schools, including Georgetown Preparatory School, from which he was expelled, reportedly for being caught entering a brothel. He tried to avoid the stage – he wanted, instead, to become a painter, and studied for a year at the Slade School of Art in London. He also worked for a time as a freelance artist, and did sketches for the New York Evening Journal. Eventually, though, he wound up following in the footsteps of so many in his family. He first appeared on stage with his father in 1900, and then with his sister the following year. By 1909, he was a major star on Broadway.

Young John.

In the early 1910s, Barrymore made his screen debut, but he also continued his stage work, playing to great acclaim in Hamlet in 1922. He played the role for 101 performances on Broadway before touring the U.S. with the play for the next two years. After the end of the tour, Barrymore signed a contract with Warner Bros. and began his film career in earnest.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Barrymore was known as “The Great Profile.” In 1940, instead of leaving his hand and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Barrymore imprinted his profile into the cement.
  • The actor had a beloved monkey named Clementine.

    With third wife, Dolores Costello.

  • Barrymore was married four times; the love of his life was reportedly Dolores Costello, his third wife, perhaps best known for her role in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Costello is the grandmother of actress Drew Barrymore.
  • A heavy drinker from the time he was a teenager, Barrymore died at the age of 60 from cirrhosis of the liver and pneumonia.
  • Although both of his siblings were Oscar winners, Barrymore was never nominated. Of this oversight, he once remarked, “I think they were afraid I’d show up at the banquet drunk, embarrassing both myself and them. But I wouldn’t have, you know.”

MY SUTS PICK:

Pay a visit to the Grand Hotel.

With John Barrymore’s Summer Under the Stars Day, I found myself facing my greatest dilemma to date: Grand Hotel (1932) or Dinner at Eight (1933)? He was outstanding in both, and both are among my favorite films. Ultimately, I decided on Grand Hotel, primarily for the range of talent he displayed in his role. This film focuses on the lives and loves, tragedies and triumphs of a series of individuals who pass through the doors of Berlin’s Grand Hotel. Barrymore plays Baron Von Gaigern, a broke aristocrat who is desperate to raise a certain amount of cash and who’ll do just about anything to do so. Barrymore is incredibly appealing in the part – charming, funny, and poignant. (As a bonus, his brother Lionel is in the film, and it’s lovely to see them acting together.)

Do yourself a favor and visit the Grand Hotel on John Barrymore Day. You’ll be glad you did.

And join me for Day 14 of Summer Under the Stars!

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Twelve — Lana Turner

•August 11, 2020 • 2 Comments

Glamour. Personifed.

Lana Turner was one of the first of my favorite screen actresses. She was so glamorous, with that halo of white-blond hair, beautiful clothes, stunning face, perfect figure. Although her private exploits often eclipsed her on-screen performances, it can’t be denied that Lana Turner was a true movie star.

IN THE BEGINNING:

Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was born on February 8, 1921, in Wallace, Idaho. Her mother, Mildred, was 16 at the time of her birth, and her father, John, was 18. Judy – as she was called – moved from town to town with her parents, with John working a variety of jobs, including mining and selling insurance. Her parents separated in 1929, at the start of the Depression, shortly after moving to San Francisco. The following year, John was the victim of a robbery after winning a sizable amount in a card game and was found dead on the street. The murder was never solved.

A few years later, Judy and her mother wound up in Los Angeles; Mildred worked in a beauty parlor and Judy enrolled in Hollywood High School. One day, Judy skipped a typing class and wound up in the Top Hat Cafe across the street from her school. While there, she was seen by the publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, Billy Wilkerson, who asked her if she wanted to be in movies. “I don’t know,” she reportedly replied. “I’ll have to ask my mother.”

At the age of 16, in They Won’t Forget.

Wilkerson got the 16-year-old an agent and she was interviewed by director Mervyn LeRoy for a role as a murder victim in the Warner Bros. feature They Won’t Forget (1937). LeRoy hired her and, after discarding LeRoy suggestion to change her first name to Leonore, the budding actress proposed that she change her name to Lana. In February 1937, Lana signed a contract with Warner Bros., with a starting salary of $50 a week.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Her name was pronounced “LAH-na” – not “LAN-na,” as she told Joan Rivers in 1982 during a visit to the Tonight Show. (“If you call me ‘LAN-na,’ I shall slaughter you,” Turner said.)
  • For the 1938 film The Adventures of Marco Polo, producer Sam Goldwyn insisted that Lana’s eyebrows be shaved off and replaced with straight, fake black brows. Her own eyebrows never grew back.

    Lana with Johnny Stompanato and her daughter, Cheryl.

  • In April 1958, during an argument between Lana and her lover, mobster Johnny Stompanato, Lana’s 14-year-old daughter stabbed Stompanato to death. The killing was ruled a justifiable homicide.
  • Lana was married seven times. (She once said, “I started off wanting one husband and seven children, but it ended up the other way around.”) Her husbands included bandleader Artie Shaw (whose eight wives included Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes) and Lex Barker (whose five wives included Arlene Dahl).
  • Lana was nominated for her only Academy Award in 1958, for Peyton Place. She lost to Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!

MY SUTS PICK:

See The Postman Always Rings Twice. Again.

There are several first-rate films airing on Lana Turner Day, including two of my best-loved movies, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Peyton Place (1957). But I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t choose The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), which stars Lana as Cora Smith, the wife of a roadside diner owner, who falls for a drifter and convinces him to help her kill her husband. I remember falling in love with this film as a child – and I’m just as fond of it today. (Incidentally, Lana was a vocal critic of the 1981 remake, calling it “pornographic trash.”)

Treat yourself and tune in to Postman on Lana Turner Day. You only owe it to yourself.

And join me for Day 13 of Summer Under the Stars!

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Eleven — Sammy Davis, Jr.

•August 10, 2020 • 5 Comments

Mr. Entertainment.

Sammy Davis, Jr., wasn’t just a singer, or a musician, a dancer, or an actor. He wasn’t just a star.

He was a superstar.

IN THE BEGINNING:

In Harlem, New York, on December 8, 1925, Samuel George Davis, Jr., was born into a show business family. His father, Sammy Davis, Sr., was a dancer in Will Mastin’s Holiday in Dixieland, an “all-colored” vaudeville revue, and his mother, Elvera, was a member of the chorus. His parents split up when Sammy was two years old, and he joined the act headlined by his father and “Uncle” Will Mastin, billed as “Silent Sam, the Dancing Midget.” By the time he was 15, he’d crossed the United States 23 times with the touring act.

During World War II, Davis was assigned to one of first integrated units in U.S. military history, and was confronted with racism for the first time in his life, enduring both verbal and physical attacks from some of his fellow soldiers. After first trying to fight back with his fists, he later tried battling with his talent, making his adversaries laugh with his impressions of James Cagney, James Stewart and others.

The Will Mastin Trio.

After serving in World War II, Davis reunited with his father and Mastin (the three were now billed as the Will Mastin Trio), and began adding singing and comedic impressions to his repertoire. In March 1952, the Will Mastin Trio opened for Janis Page at the popular Ciro’s nightclub in Hollywood. Davis turned in a tour de force, complete with singing, dancing, vaudeville impressions, jokes, and playing every instrument in the band. The act was supposed to only last 20 minutes, but Davis performed for nearly an hour. His career took off after this, and a short time later, he was signed to a longtime contract with Decca Records.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Davis made his screen debut in Rufus Jones for President, a 1933 Vitaphone short.
  • In 1941, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., were on the same bill at a venue in Detroit. Sinatra introduced himself to Davis. It was the start of a lifelong friendship.

    With second wife May Britt.

  • Davis lost his left eye in a car accident in San Bernadino in 1954, while driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Less than three months later, wearing an eye patch, he returned to Ciro’s, where he performed before a star-studded crowd that included his friends Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Humphrey Bogart. He was later fitted with a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life.
  • Davis’s second wife was Swedish actress May Britt. They married in 1960, deliberately postponing their wedding day until after the presidential election that year. Davis had campaigned for John F. Kennedy and didn’t want the interracial marriage to impact Kennedy’s election chances. Davis was rewarded by being uninvited to the all-star Kennedy inaugural; Kennedy’s aides reportedly didn’t want to offend Southern politicians by having Davis and Britt there.

    At the 60th Anniversary Celebration.

  • In February 1989, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 60th Anniversary Celebration aired on ABC-TV. Produced by George Schlatter (of Laugh-In fame), the gala featured an impressive litany of stars, including Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Goldie Hawn, Ella Fitzgerald, Lola Falana, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Gregory Peck, Shirley MacLaine, Magic Johnson, Whitney Houston, Nell Carter, Quincy Jones, Clint Eastwood, Dionne Warwick, Diahann Carroll, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Mike Tyson (huh?), Stevie Wonder, and Jesse Jackson (who performed the ceremony at Davis’s marriage to his third wife, Altovise, and also performed the eulogy at his funeral). The event marked the last time that Davis danced in public – he did an impromptu tap number with Gregory Hines, who kissed his shoes at the end of the number. Davis died the following year of throat cancer, at the age of 64.

MY SUTS PICK:

Catch Sammy in Anna Lucasta. I know I will.

As big of a Sammy Davis, Jr., fan as I am, I have to confess that I’ve never seen one of his films. Oh, I’ve seen clips from Rufus Jones for President, Porgy and Bess, and a few others, but I’ve never seen a feature film starring Sammy Davis, Jr., from beginning to end. I plan to remedy that on his Summer Under the Stars Day with several features, but I’m most looking forward to seeing Anna Lucasta (1958), a drama starring Eartha Kitt in the title role. I remember coming across a still from the film one day while looking for photos of Kitt. I wondered then what the movie was about; I look forward to finding out. (Also, if you have any recommendations, please let me know.)

And join me tomorrow for Day 12 of Summer Under the Stars!

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Ten — Norma Shearer

•August 9, 2020 • 5 Comments

So awesome.

Day 10 of Summer Under the Stars is my favorite day, celebrating none other than the great Norma Shearer. I was introduced to Shearer through her 1939 film, The Women, which I have literally seen more often than any other movie in existence. It wasn’t until years later after my first viewing of The Women that I discovered Shearer’s pre-Code offerings, and fell completely in love with them, especially The Divorcee (1930), Private Lives (1931), and A Free Soul (1931, all of which are airing on her Summer Under the Stars day. I anticipate being firmly and happily installed in front of my television screen from morning ‘til night.

IN THE BEGINNING:

Edith Norma Shearer was born in 1902 in Montreal, Canada, the youngest of three children of Edith and Andrew Shearer, who owned his own carpentry and lumber manufacture business (her older siblings were Douglas, born in 1899 and Athole, born in 1900). Called by her middle name from an early age, Norma decide at the age of nine that she wanted to be an actress, after seeing a vaudeville show starring the Dolly Sisters.

Little Norma.

Although she once described her childhood and adolescent years as “a pleasant dream,” complete with piano lessons, swimming, skiing, and parties, this idyll ended abruptly in 1918 when Norma’s father sold his business, resulting in a significant hit to the family’s finances. The Shearers moved to a dreary rented house and, a short time later, a still smaller one. By now, Edith Shearer decided she’d had enough and she left her husband, taking her two daughters with her. (Douglas was already out of the house and working.) As it happened, Norma’s uncle had connections in the motion picture business in New York, and suggested that Norma try her luck in this budding industry. After he produced a letter of introduction to the studio manager of the Selznick Company, Edith sold the family piano and arrived with her daughters in New York in January 1920.

Norma quickly found work as an extra in The Flapper (1920) and Way Down East (1920), but the director of the latter film, D.W. Griffith, judged that Norma had no future as a star. A short time later, she was rejected following an interview with impresario Florenz Ziegfeld who pronounced that she had bad legs and a poor figure. Luckily, Norma had the good fortune to sign with a talent agent (later producer), Edward Small, and she soon found herself billed fourth in her big screen debut The Stealers (1920).

In her first film, The Stealers.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Norma suffered from a slight case of strabismus, a condition where the eyes don’t look in exactly the same direction at the same time. She worked for many years on a regime of eye exercises; as a result, the condition became less noticeable and she learned to conceal it for long stretches on screen.
  • Norma’s sister, Athole, was married to famed director Howard Hawks for 12 years, from 1928 to 1940.
  • Norma’s brother Douglas was hired as an assistant in the MGM camera department after going to visit his stister at MGM studios one day. When MGM started making sound pictures, Douglas was named as head of the sound department. He won his first Oscar for sound recording for The Big House (1930), the same year that Norma won an Oscar for The Divorcee (1930), making the pair the first brother and sister to win Academy Awards. (Douglas would go on to win a total of 12 Oscars for Best Sound Recording).

    Her wedding day.

  • In 1927, Norma married Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” production manager for MGM studios, where Norma had been under contract since 1923. After her marriage to Thalberg, Norma had her pick of choice MGM productions.
  • Norma Shearer’s daughter, Katherine, was married for 12 years to actor Richard Anderson, who appeared in The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and the television show The Bionic Man.

MY SUTS PICK:

What a quandary! You don’t even know. How to choose from my four favorite Norma Shearer films? Well, it wasn’t easy. It finally came down to a fierce battle between the two pictures that bring me the most joy – Private Lives (1931) and The Women (1939). Although I can recite practically the entire screenplay of The Women (and often do), I ultimately settled on Private Lives, for its sheer wittiness and what I consider to be a tour de force performance by Shearer.

Take a peek inside these Private Lives.

Based on a Noel Coward play, Private Lives tells the story of Amanda (Shearer) and Elliot (Robert Montgomery), ex-spouses who happen to wind up in neighboring hotel suites while both are on their honeymoons to other people. It turns out that Amanda and Elliot never got over their mutual love, and when they discover each other in the hotel, all kinds of madness ensues.

If you’re in need of a lift, tune into Private Lives on Norma Shearer Day. You only owe it to yourself.

And join me tomorrow for Day 11 of Summer Under the Stars!

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Nine — Goldie Hawn

•August 8, 2020 • 4 Comments

Goldie Hawn makes her Summer Under the Stars debut.

I first knew of Goldie Hawn as a cast member on TV’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. (Am I dating myself?) She was cute, funny, a little on the airhead side, and a pure delight to watch – she never failed to bring a smile to my little face (even if I didn’t quite get the joke).

As I got older (and as she got older), I began to see her in feature films, and I discovered that she was more than just a giggling TV star with an appealing haircut and a tattooed bod.

IN THE BEGINNING:

Goldie Jeanne Hawn was born on November 21, 1945, in Washington, D.C. Her mother was a jewelry shop and dance school owner and her father was a band musician. When Goldie (who was named after her mother’s aunt) was three years old, she started taking ballet and tap lessons.

Young Goldie.

After high school, Goldie enrolled as a drama major in Washington, D.C.’s American University, but she dropped out at the age of 18 and opened her own ballet school. In 1964, Goldie appeared in a production of Can-Can at the Texas Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair, and in a Virginia Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet. She was also seen in summer stock performances of Kiss Me, Kate and Guys and Dolls, and worked as a go-go dancer in New York and New Jersey – an experience she later described as “degrading.”

In 1966, Goldie moved to California, where she danced in the chorus of a production of Pal Joey at the Melodyland Theatre in Anaheim. The following year, she was cast in a short-lived CPS sitcom called Good Morning World, playing the “dumb blonde” girlfriend of a radio disc jockey, but it was her next job, as a cast member on Laugh-In, that brought her worldwide fame.

OTHER STUFF:

Goldie’s career took off on Laugh-In.

  • Goldie’s first husband was Gus Trikonis, who played a Shark in West Side Story (1961). Her second husband was Bill Hudson, of the singing group The Hudson Brothers.
  • For her performance in Cactus Flower (1969), Goldie won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her co-stars in the film were Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman.
  • Goldie has been in a relationship with actor Kurt Russell since 1983, when they appeared opposite each other in Swing Shift (1984). The two first met in 1966 when both were working on a Disney movie.
  • Goldie was the producer of the box-office hit Private Benjamin (1980), for which she earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress.
  • She was once labeled as “the smartest dumb blonde in Hollywood.”

MY SUTS PICK:

Don’t miss Cactus Flower.

This was an easy one. I saw Cactus Flower for the first time just a couple of months ago. To me, it has a classic screwball comedy vibe about it, with its wacky plot of a womanizing dentist who has his secretary pose as his wife so that he can avoid marrying his much-younger mistress. I didn’t know what to expect when I watched it, and I completely fell in love with everything about it. I think you will, too.

And join me tomorrow for Day 10 of Summer Under the Stars!

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Eight — Charlie Chaplin

•August 7, 2020 • 1 Comment

The man behind the tramp.

I feel like I’ve always been aware of the existence of Charlie Chaplin, and that I’ve been seeing clips from his films for as long as I can remember. But I didn’t see my first Charlie Chaplin film, from start to finish, until a few years ago, at the TCM Film Festival.

And that’s when I truly became a fan.

IN THE BEGINNING:

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889, in South London. His parents were music hall entertainers, but his father abandoned Charlie and his half-brother, Sydney, not long after Charlie was born. Charles Chaplin, Sr., died several years later, at the age of 37, and Charlie’s mother was institutionalized, which left Charlie and his brother to fend for themselves.

But by then, Charlie already had plans for his future. He’d made his first public appearance at the age of five when his mother lost her voice during a performance. Little Charlie was ushered onto the stage as a replacement, receiving a shower of coins from the audience when he sang a popular song called “Jack Jones.” During his teenage years, he earned money through a variety of methods, including performing with a local clog-dancing act, The Eight Lancashire Lads, appearing in a play at the London Hippodrome, and playing an office boy in a long-running stage production of Sherlock Holmes.

Young Charlie.

When Charlie was 17, his brother got him a job with Fred Karno and his “speechless comedians,” who would travel from theater to theater, performing various sketches. Two years later, Karno tapped Chaplin to tour the United States in “A Night at an English Music Hall.” When Karno sent Chaplin to the U.S. on a second, longer tour in 1912, Chaplin was spotted by Adam Kessel and Mack Sennett of the Keystone Company, who invited the young man to join their company. Chaplin arrived in Los Angeles in December 1913, and never looked back.

OTHER STUFF:

  • One of Chaplin’s fellow performers with the Fred Karno players was named Stanley Jefferson. Like Chaplin, Jefferson also moved to America. The two men wound up as roommates – and Jefferson changed his name to Stan Laurel.
  • To distinguish himself from the other players in the Mack Sennett troupe, Chaplin decided to play a single character, and he created “The Little Tramp,” clad in a small hat, big shoes, baggy pants, and a tight jacket. He debuted the character in the 1914 comedy short Kid Auto Races at Venice.

    Chaplin with his United Artists partners.

  • Between 1914 and 1919, Chaplin worked for Essanay Studios, Mutual Studios, and First National Studios, before building his own studio and then teaming with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith to form United Artists Studios.
  • Chaplin was married four times and had 11 children. His fourth wife was Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. The two were married when Charlie was 54 years old and Oona was 18. Charlie and Oona would go on to have eight children, including future actress Geraldine Chaplin.
  • Suspected of having Communist ties because of his aid to Russia during World War II, Chaplin was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in September 1947, but he never appeared. When Chaplin and his family traveled to London for a movie premiere in 1952, he was denied re-entry to the United States. He returned to the U.S. until 1972, when he was awarded a special Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had on making motion pictures the art for and of this century.” When he took the stage at the Academy Awards ceremony, he received a 12-minute standing ovation, and was visibly moved by the reception.

MY SUTS PICK:

A laugh and, perhaps, a tear.

I have to be honest. The first Charlie Chaplin film I’ve ever seen is also the only Charlie Chaplin film I’ve ever seen: The Kid (1921). Still, it’s so funny, and and touching, and beautifully made, I like to think it would still have been my pick (or at least in the running) for Charlie Chaplin Day, even if I’d seen a dozen others. In it, Chaplin – in character as the Little Tramp – becomes the guardian of an abandoned baby (played by Jackie Coogan). The simple plot involves the growing love the two have for each other, and the circumstances that transpire to separate them. It was Chaplin’s first full-length film as a director.

Did I mention that this is a silent movie?

I know that silents aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t recommend this one strongly enough. If you’ve never seen a silent movie, or if you’re not especially fond of them, do yourself a favor and tune in to The Kid. You won’t be sorry.

And join me tomorrow for Day 9 of Summer Under the Stars!

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Seven — Sylvia Sidney

•August 7, 2020 • 6 Comments

The saddest eyes in Hollywood.

I was introduced to Sylvia Sidney in the 1980s, in television programs like Ryan’s Hope and Starsky and Hutch, and Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered her classic movies… and what a discovery! She was known, for a time, as the actress with the “saddest eyes in Hollywood,” and she was seen in a spate of films where those sad eyes came in handy, as she was usually facing some sort of hardship or tragedy. Still, she was appreciated and recognized for her outstanding acting talent; of her impact, author James Baldwin once said, “She was the only American film actress who reminded me of reality.”

IN THE BEGINNING:

In her youth.

Sylvia Sidney was born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx, New York, on August 8, 1910. Her father was born in Russia and her mother was a native of Romania; they divorced shortly after their daughter’s birth. Her mother later remarried, and the future actress was adopted by her father, Sigmund Sidney. In an effort to combat her shyness and a developing stammer, Sidney’s parents encouraged her to take up acting, and she decided at an early age that she wanted to be an actress. When she was 15 years old, she enrolled in the Theater Guild’s School for Acting, where she trained with director Rouben Mamoulian and famed thespians Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Sidney got her first big break when one of her school productions, held in a Broadway theater, was attended by a New York Times critic, who raved about her performance. A short time later, at the age of 16, she made her professional debut in The Challenge of Youth at the Poli’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and she debuted on Broadway just a year later, in The Squall.

After appearances in several other stage productions, Sidney caught the attention of a Hollywood talent scout and was seen for the first time on the big screen in the 1929 feature Thru Different Eyes, starring Edmund Lowe and Warner Baxter.

OTHER STUFF:

  • In one of the plays Sidney was in before starting her screen career, her co-stars were fellow future screen stars Kay Francis, Chester Morris, and Robert Montgomery.

    Sidney and her second husband, Luther Adler, in Jane Eyre.

  • Sidney signed a contract with Paramount after studio exec B.P. Schulberg saw her in a Broadway play. Sidney went on to have an affair with the very married Schulberg; years later, his son, screenwriter Budd Schulberg wrote a memoir in which he recalled going to Sidney’s house and demanding that his father come home.
  • Sidney was married three times; her first husband was Bennett Cerf, co-founder of the Random House publishing company who later gained widespread popularity as a panelist on the What’s My Line? game show. Her second husband was actor Luther Adler, part of the famed Adler acting family.
  • Sidney continued to act up until the year before her death. One of her last roles was in the Tim Burton-directed sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks (1996).
  • In 1936, Sidney starred in Sabotage, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Her experience with the famed director wasn’t a positive one, however. She later said that Hitchcock taught her “to be a puppet and not be creative.”

MY SUTS PICK:

Don’t miss Street Scene.

Since my two favorite Sylvia Sidney films – Merrily, We Go to Hell (1932) and Jennie Gerhardt (1933) – aren’t airing on Sidney Day, selecting my recommendation was a breeze: Street Scene (1931). Most of the action in the film takes place on a single street in New York – hence, the name – looking at the lives, loves, and losses of the various residents there. Sidney is Rose Maurrant, who is sought after by her married boss and the Jewish college boy who lives in her building, and whose unhappy mother is having an affair. It’s a fascinating film, weaving together all of the different personalities and storylines in a most riveting manner.

If you’re a fan of pre-Code, you’re not going to want to miss this one.

And join me tomorrow for Day 8 of Summer Under the Stars!

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Six — Burt Lancaster

•August 5, 2020 • 4 Comments

Handsome. Rugged. More.

Handsome. Rugged. Passionate. Talented.

With an impressive career that spanned six decades, Burt Lancaster was all this, and more.

“Any time Burt was in a film, you wanted to go see it. Any time he was on television you wanted to watch it,” actress Rhonda Fleming once said. “That’s the magic and the magnetism that he had.”

IN THE BEGINNING:

Burton Stephen Lancaster was born in New York on November 2, 1913, one of five children. He spent much of his time at the local Union Settlement House, a youth club and sports center, where he and his closest friend, Nick Cravat, learned acrobatics and gymnastics. These skills stood both boys in good stead after high school when they formed an act known as Lang and Cravat and joined the Kay Brothers Circus in Petersburg, Virginia. The two later signed with a bigger circus, touring for several years, and even did a brief stint with the famed Ringling Brothers. (During this time, Lancaster married a circus aerialist, but the union was short-lived.) His performing came to an end, however, when he suffered an injury to his right hand.

With circus partner and childhood chum Nick Cravat.

Lancaster spent the next several years in Chicago, earning his keep through a variety of jobs, including engineer for a meat packing firm and floorwalker in the lingerie department at Marshall Field’s department store. During the war, he spent the bulk of his time entertaining troops in North Africa, Sicily, and Austria, and performing in a military revue. While overseas, he met a USO performer named Norma Anderson; the two would get married in December 1946 and went on to have four children. (They divorced after 22 years, and the actor wed again in 1989. This third marriage lasted until Lancaster’s death in 1994).

After the war, Lancaster moved to New York City, where Norma worked as a secretary to a radio producer in the RCA building. One day, while visiting Norma at her job, Lancaster was noticed in the elevator by an associate of Broadway producer Irving Jacobs. The man suggested that Lancaster audition for a part in Jacobs’s upcoming play, A Sound of Hunting. Lancaster landed the role and made his Broadway debut in November 1945. Upon the recommendation of co-star Sam Levene, he signed with agent Harold Hecht, and a short time later, he signed a long-term deal with producer Hal Wallis. The following year, Lancaster was cast in his first big-screen feature, The Killers (1946). He was 33 years old.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Hal Wallis wanted to change Lancaster’s name to Stuart Chase. Fortunately, Lancaster put the kibosh on that idea.
  • The actor made his television debut in 1969 – on an episode of Sesame Street.

    With Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and Sidney Poitier at the 1963 March on Washington.

  • Lancaster’s son, Bill Lancaster, was a screenwriter who wrote the screenplay for the 1976 hit The Bad News Bears.
  • In August 1963, Lancaster flew home from Europe, where he’d been on location shooting a film, to participate in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.
  • Along with his agent, Lancaster formed his own production company; the two were later joined by James Hill, a producer perhaps best known for being Rita Hayworth’s fifth husband. The Hecht-Norma company and the later Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company, produced a number of first-rate films, including Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), Marty (1950), The Bachelor Party (1957), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
  • Lancaster suffered a stroke in 1990 while visiting actor Dana Andrews in the hospital. He died four years later, in 1994. His friend, Nick Cravat, died the same year.

MY SUTS PICK:

I expected to encounter a dilemma when selecting my recommendation for Burt Lancaster Day, but I assumed it would be a toss-up between such noirs as The Killers (1946), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), or Criss Cross (1949). Interestingly, not one of these films are airing on Lancaster Day – and I, instead, faced another kind of quandary. At first I planned to pick Atlantic City (1980), a fine feature from late in the actor’s career, and which I only saw for the first time earlier this year. But then I spied From Here to Eternity (1953) on the list, and I knew I’d made my decision.

Come on in. The water’s fine. (And so is Burt.)

Besides the fact that it’s a great, epic film, with multiple storylines and incredible performances, I selected it for two reasons. First off, From Here to Eternity is one of those pictures that I share with classic film novices to introduce them to old movies. And secondly, I saw it on the big screen for the first time at the 2019 TCM Film Festival and bawled like a baby at the end. (I was so overcome that I couldn’t stop crying long enough to try to meet Donna Reed’s children after the movie!) And what more of a recommendation do you need than that?

Eternity takes place in Hawaii, primarily on an army base, just before the outbreak of World War II. Lancaster is a tough, but fair, sergeant who falls in love with his boss’s lonely wife, played by Deborah Kerr. This is the film which features that famous scene on the beach with Lancaster and Kerr passionately kissing in the sand as Kerr admits, “I never knew it could be like this.” Gets me every time.

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen this film, do yourself a favor and tune in – you may have forgotten just how good it is. And if you’ve never had the pleasure, treat yourself! You’ll be glad you did.

And join me tomorrow for Day Seven of Summer Under the Stars.

TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Five — Ann Miller

•August 4, 2020 • 8 Comments

Every inch a star.

Ann Miller was a dancer, a singer, and an actress, but to me, she was always more than that. She always seemed to be a little bit larger than life, an iconic product of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

A star.

In the Beginning:

Miller was born Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier in Chireno, Texas, on April 12, 1923 – she was named by her father, who reportedly wanted a boy. As a child, Johnnie suffered from rickets, a childhood disease characterized by softening and distortion of the bones. Her mother, Clara Birdwell put her in dance classes, believing that this would strengthen the youngster’s legs.

Young Ann.

In the early 1930s, Johnnie’s parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Los Angeles; shortly afterward, according to one source, her mother started calling her Annie. Birdwell, who was deaf, found it hard to find work; to help support the family, Johnnie developed a dance routine and adopted the name Ann Miller, and earned enough money performing at local civic organizations to support them both. After Miller saw Eleanor Powell dance in Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), Birdwell told her that, with more practice, she could be just as good. Miller would later consider say that Powell was an early inspiration.

Miller got her big break at the age of 13 when she was spotted at a popular San Francisco nightclub by talent scout Benny Rubin and future star Lucille Ball, who introduced her to RKO studio execs. Claiming to be 18 (and reportedly producing a fake birth certificate given to her by her father), Miller was signed to a seven-year contract and appeared in her big screen debut, New Faces of 1937. Later that year, she was seen in Stage Door, starring Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball. She was 14 years old.

Other stuff:

  • Miller’s father, John Alfred Collier, was a criminal lawyer who defended such infamous gangsters as Baby Face Nelson, the Barrow Gang, and Machine Gun Kelly.
  • According to one source, at the age of 10, Miller met famed dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at a local theater and he gave her a brief tap-dancing lesson.

    Miller replaced Cyd Charisse in Easter Parade.

  • Miller was married three times. Her first marriage was to steel heir to Reese Llewellyn Milner. While she was pregnant with their daughter, Milner threw her down a flight of steps and she went into early labor. The baby lived only a few hours. Miller divorced him a short time later.
  • When Cyd Charisse broke her leg, Miller replaced her in MGM’s Easter Parade (1948), starring Fred Astaire. This led to a contract with MGM and some of her best-known films, including On the Town (1949) and Kiss Me, Kate (1953).
  • Miller saw a resurgence of her career in the late 1970s when she starred on Broadway (and later toured the country for two years) with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies. Of her role in the production, Miller once said, “I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. Sugar Babies gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.”

My SUTS Pick:

If you want to smile, tune in.

Choosing my pick for Ann Miller Day didn’t require any thought at all. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies: You Can’t Take It With You (1938). This delightful comedy stars Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, and Spring Byington as just a few of the members of one of the wackiest – but happiest – households you’re ever likely to encounter. They live together in a big house with extended family members (and others they invite to join them), all doing exactly as they please, from making fireworks to writing novels. Their contented lifestyle is threatened by the efforts of a ruthless financier (Edward Arnold) to buy up all the property in the area, and his son (James Stewart), who’s in love with Arthur’s character. As a member of the madcap family who lives in the house with her xylophone-playing spouse, Miller gets a chance to show off her dancing prowess. She’s an absolute delight in the role – I dare you to try to keep from smiling every time she’s on the screen.

If you’ve never seen this film, do me a favor and check it out. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

And join me tomorrow for Day Six of Summer Under the Stars!