20 December, 2015
She once said, “My family was poor, and we moved so many times because my father had to find work, but movies took me everywhere in the world, to all these incredible places. I was Ginger Rogers. I was Norma Shearer. I was Joan Crawford. I could dance, I could sing. I knew I wanted to be in this business more than anything else in the world.”
Thank you again, dear readers, for joining me as I present another of my “Top 5 Retrospectives;” the five movies I’ve chosen to showcase a given Actor. So far we’ve talked about Bob Hope, Errol Flynn, Danny Kaye and Tyrone Power. And rounding out the first five of these Top 5s is the first lady of the group … who may incite the biggest upset so far.
First, why is this our first lady? Well, after Flynn, I wanted to write about Paulette Goddard -- ‘cause of her work with De Mille and (of course) work and life with Chaplin -- but I realized I’d already touched on at least two of my favorites of hers with Bob Hope. Ah! I’ll write about Olivia de Havilland -- love her, fascinating life, and she’s still with us -- and realized I’d just touched on a couple of hers with Flynn. So I picked Virginia Mayo -- who I’ve had the honor of meeting and I’ve always loved The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty -- which led me to write about Danny Kaye (though I think she’s next; ‘cause, come on, there are The Best Years Of Our Lives and White Heat to talk about, not to mention that pirate movie with Old Ski Nose). Then it was what would have been Tyrone Power’s 100th Birthday and who could pass that up?
Well, not too long ago, my wife Diana and I were talking about White Christmas (which, like Mitty, you can read about in my Danny Kaye Top 5) and Diana said, “You know, I really enjoy Holiday Affair more.” And I thought, “A ha! I’ll write about Robert Mitchum! I had the pleasure of meeting him too, great movies to pick from, hell of a life. And I’ll definitely include Holiday Affair which is great and most people have never heard of it; perfect for these write-ups. Diana, you’ve done it again!” So I start fiddling with Mitch and guess who keeps poking her nose out at me (no, not Diana this time): Mitch’s co-star in Holiday Affair. And when I was writing up Flynn I quoted Stewart Granger and have always loved Scaramouche. And for Christmas last year  Diana got me the new Blu Ray of Touch Of Evil. All the while genius me is still fiddling with Mitch. Well, a couple months ago, Diana and I sat down to watch Prince Valiant and there she was again, poking her nose out at me; and I gave in. “Are you going to pick Psycho?” Diana asked (quite intuitively, knowing these are my picks and not always the obvious ones). And here’s what I meant about the biggest upset so far. Perhaps even more surprising than my not including Hans Christian Anderson for Kaye, I’m not including The Shower Movie here. Aghast? Perhaps.
But hopefully that’s not the only surprise.
Here are the films we’ll be talking about this round; as always, simply in the order of when they were released:
Prince Valiant (1954)
Touch Of Evil (1958)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
And beginning today with a real Christmas treasure (after all, ‘tis the season):
Holiday Affair (1949)
w Isobel Lennart from a Story by John D. Weaver
d Don Hartman
Janet Leigh was born Jeanette Helen Morrison on 6 July, 1927 in Merced, California. In 1945 -- not yet pursuing an acting career -- she was living in Sugar Bowl, CA -- the ski resort where her father was working at the time -- and Norma Shearer saw a photograph of her. She showed it to her husband (Irving Thalberg) and a friend (Lew Wasserman) who got Miss Morrison a contract at MGM; and the rest, as they say, is history. Shearer herself: “Her smile made it the most fascinating face I’d seen in years.”
Miss Morrison made her film debut in The Romance Of Rosy Ridge opposite Van Johnson (she got the role by reciting Phyllis Thaxter’s looooong speech in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo; you know Miss Thaxter as Martha Kent in the Christopher Reeve Superman). During shooting of Rosy Ridge, Morrison's name was first changed to “Jeanette Reames” then “Janet Leigh” then back to “Jeanette Morrison” because “Janet Leigh” sounded too close to Vivien Leigh. Well, Van Johnson didn’t like that; he loved Janet Leigh. He said, “You know there’s Van Heflin. Two Vans and it hasn't hurt either of us.” And so our starlet was born.
Her third of four marriages, Leigh married actor Tony Curtis in 1951 and they had two daughters, Kelly and -- you probably know this one -- Jamie Lee. During their high-profile marriage, Leigh and Curtis starred in five films together. Adept in Period, Comedy -- even Westerns -- Leigh’s probably best known for her Dramas, most famously Touch Of Evil … and, sure, The Shower Movie. She’d continue well into the nineties (her seventies), mostly on Television where, on both Fantasy Island and Love Boat, she guest-starred twice as different characters; and as a sadistic Thrush Agent in a two-part The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (released in Europe as the feature The Spy In The Green Hat); and -- my favorite of her TV work -- as a retired song-and-dance star in the Columbo “Forgotten Lady” which utilizes footage from her own Walking My Baby Back Home. Rounding out a genuinely varied and impressive career, she appeared in two films with her daughter, “Scream Queen” Jamie Lee: The Fog (1980) and Halloween H20.
Or maybe you remember her as the writer? Indeed, Miss Leigh is the author of four books (and not ghost-written, they’re hers). Her first, the memoir There Really Was A Hollywood became a New York Times bestseller, followed by Psycho: Behind The Scenes Of The Classic Thriller. But it wouldn’t just be Non Fiction, she also wrote two Novels (set in Hollywood), House of Destiny and The Dream Factory.
She served on the board of directors of the Motion Picture and Television Foundation, and was a staunch Democrat, appearing alongside Tony Curtis at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. She graced 86 projects, won The Golden Globe for The Shower Movie (nominated for its Oscar, lost to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry), and as late as 1995 was chosen by Empire as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History. She said, “I don't know what it is I exude. But whatever it is, it's whatever I am!” Must be all right; Scarlett Johansson played her in 2012’s Hitchcock.
For today, let’s get back to Christmas, 1949 and that bright twenty-two year old Comparison Shopper with a son and a fiancee who’s about to meet Robert Mitchum in the toy department of a store in New York City …
Holiday Affair is, more than anything else, charming. I’d been thinking about how to dive into this write-up and I thought, simply, “Why do I like it?” And the reason I can watch this over and over again is, simply, because of how indisputably charming it is. (While I’m thinking of it, I feel the same way about the other Christmas movie we’ve chatted about. Not to compare this to White Christmas -- they’re quite different -- but while both are simple stories -- bordering on whimsy -- they’re both just endearingly charming. And I mentioned in the White Christmas write-up how much I love this movie. Okay, moving on.) So Holiday Affair is a simple story. But I think that helps. There’s no pretense about who anyone is, or their relationships; including Connie’s and Carl’s, and more on him in a bit. Steve is Steve, Timmy is Timmy, Mr. Crowley is Mr. Crowley, The Seal is The Seal. Even Connie’s in-laws aren’t particularly noteworthy other than it’s nice they still treat Connie as their family (and it’s never a forced point). That and the toast Mr. Ennis gives Mrs. Ennis. Sure, it taunts Connie of what she might have had with her deceased husband. She sees a genuine Mr. Ennis and Mrs. Ennis; what she could still have if she'd let herself be happy; not just how she pushes her son into those roles. And, sure, it’s one more push toward Steve. But it’s all such obvious subtext that even the toast about a wife hiding her husband’s glasses so he needs her is endearing because of its schmaltz. Nor do any of the characters have great arcs -- even good ones -- including Connie and Carl. Theirs is the only one and it’s 40s slight. But this is one of the rare times when not only doesn't it matter, it works in its favor. You aren’t worried about how this affair is going to end, nor are you in the slightest bit upset about it, because you’re enjoying the getting-there. Why? The charm. Including Mitch who -- while it might seem like miscasting here -- is half the reason it works; and more on him in a bit too.
One thing to say about Christmas movies in general is, if you think about it, they’re all kinda dark, aren’t they? At least at their start. Let’s poke-at a few of the classics. Any version of A Christmas Carol (natch). It’s A Wonderful Life? George Bailey wants to kill himself. Miracle On 34th Street takes Santa Claus to court. The Apartment? Practically everything about it. Of course, Miss Kubelik … well, you know. Even a few of the moderns such as Home Alone and A Nightmare Before Christmas (and I like them both), it’s there in their titles. Even kids’ fare -- A Charlie Brown Christmas -- man is it there. Most of these stories could be anytime, really, but that they’re given the Christmas “spin” makes them even more poignant. Our charmer today? Connie is a widow raising her son, dating a good guy but she’s not in love with him, trudging through a job ‘cause it pays the bills, treating her son like the man of the house ‘cause she can’t let go of the past, the son returning the greatest gift he’s ever received ‘cause he knows they’re broke, and who’s the knight in shining armor? A loafer who lunches with a seal. But what all Christmas movies have in common is what we love about them: grabbing someone -- not tapping them on the shoulder, grabbing them -- pulling them up, shaking them off; shoving them into the part of their world still worth living for. Often with a little magic? Okay but I’ll stand by this: more than a little charm.
(Incidentally -- like It's A Wonderful Life -- Holiday Affair was a box-office flop that found fandom yeeeeears after its release with viewings on Television. Granted, our movie today isn’t nearly the classic Life has become but, again, that’s why I’m here sharing these. To showcase the “unknowns” I think you’ll enjoy. Okay, moving on again.)
Let’s talk a little bit about Connie and Carl and Timmy, ‘cause they’re the heart of the thing (Steve notwithstanding but you know what I mean). And I want to touch on Carl -- the wonderful Wendell Corey -- because, for me, he showcases a lot of why this movie works. Again, his and Connie’s is the only arc in the piece, and what I’ve always loved about their relationship is that Carl is a good guy. He has no agenda, he simply loves her. And he never strikes out against Steve. Even when they’re sizing each other up -- standing in front of the fireplace, Carl with tree lights around his neck, their talking about the weather -- it’s casual. When Steve has his run-in with the law (and a great “bit” with Harry Morgan), Carl’s the one to stand up for him. And -- while everyone else sees it -- it’s Carl who finally makes Connie see who she really loves. Where Carl could have been a clichéd “other," he’s wonderfully anything but.
And Timmy? One of the best written youngsters. And best portrayed, thanks to Gordon Gebert, who you might recognize as a young Audie Murphy in To Hell And Back (1955). Here he more than holds his own with Mitch and Miss Leigh; and eventually in his career Burt Lancaster, Virginia Mayo, Charles McGraw … and John Wayne. He’s adorable without being cute, spunky without being pompous, and far wiser than even his own mother as he goes along as “Mr. Ennis.” (Interestingly, Miss Leigh is only fourteen years older than young Gebert in this.) A lot of appreciation for characters is in how others respond to them. Out of the mouths of babes, when Timmy likes Steve, well, that’s that.
Now. Fiddling with Mitch. He does seem an odd choice for this kind of movie, and he certainly was in its day. While he’d had popularity with The Big Steal (1949), reuniting him with his Out Of The Past (1947) co-star Jane Greer, the tabloids were still full of his arrest and prison sentence for possession of marijuana. But RKO’s owner at the time, Howard Hughes, had faith in him and refused to drop him from his contract. No small amount of faith, just before filming on Holiday Affair began, Hughes paid $400,000 to acquire sole ownership of Mitchum from David O. Selznick. And I do think Mitch is good casting here. The character of Steve isn't Cary Grant or James Stewart or Gary Cooper. If anyone else, he’s Bogart [and Mr. Bogart felt like miscasting in Sabrina (1954) yet he’s perfect in it]. Steve’s is a hardened sweetness and therefore Mitch is a great mirror to Wendell Corey’s Carl.
I won’t go into Mr. Mitchum’s career suffice to say if you haven’t seen His Kind Of Woman please do, it’s his unknown gem … and that I had the pleasure of meeting him at his home near Santa Barbara. This was 1994 and my dad arranged Charles Champlin -- The Los Angeles Times’ Art Editor Emeritus -- to interview Mitch for The Lone Pine Film Festival; Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills being where Mitch made his first starring feature, Nevada (1944). Me? I was just lucky to tag along. Riding up in the car with dad and Mr. Champlin -- listening to them talk Movies -- was lucky enough, but to knock on a door and have Robert Mitchum open it with a “Hi fellas, come on in,” well, there it is. He was a true gentleman, and I found him surprisingly passionate -- in his own soft-spoken way -- about his work. He genuinely appreciated his career and being able to "play for a living." As they wrapped the interview, Mr. Mitchum signed a drawing Dad did for me and when I said, “Thanks, Mr. Mitchum,” he smiled and said, “Call me Mitch.”
Like many who worked with him, Miss Leigh discovered he was indeed a dedicated actor. Which is not to say he didn’t enjoy himself, including practical jokes, but she found they always had purpose. Miss Leigh told TCM, “During the Christmas dinner scene, he and Wendell Corey both slipped a hand onto my knee under the table. I started fidgeting in response, which turned out to be the perfect reaction for the scene.” And, “Later, when Mitch and I shared our first kiss, he really kissed me, again getting just the right reaction.”
To wrap up, I’ll re-touch-on today’s Producer-Director, Don Hartman. We talked about him in Nothing But The Truth and, while he was a great Writer, Holiday Affair is one of only five films he Directed. Why? Well, in 1951 he headed Production at Paramount; and in 1956 formed his own Production Company. But I think he is a good Director, not getting in the way of good Story -- that comes from being a Writer first -- but also knowing when to have fun with the thing. Clearly Holiday Affair revolves around the train, our fantasy bookended by it, so he starts and ends on the toy (in, dare I say, a foreshadow to Tim Burton who -- at his peak -- beautifully used models in the same manner). And if you aren’t warmed by the time Steve gets the telegram and he and Connie are running to each other through the compartments -- you must be by the time they pick up Timmy -- well, you deserve to take the train back to Mr. Crowley.
Up next, we go back to The French Revolution with Janet Leigh as Aline de Gavrillac who falls in love with the dashing and mysterious Scaramouche!