Sunday, February 27, 2011


Joan Bennett was one of the great movie actresses in the 1930s, and later in her career she moved on to television to star in the long running soap opera, "Dark Shadows". Bennett was born on this day - February 27th in 1910. She was born in the Palisades section of Fort Lee, New Jersey, the third of three daughters of actor Richard Bennett and actress/literary agent Adrienne Morrison. Her older sisters were actress Constance Bennett and actress/dancer Barbara Bennett, who was the mother of Morton Downey, Jr.

Part of a famous theatrical family, Bennett's maternal grandfather was Jamaica-born Shakespearean actor Lewis Morrison, who embarked on a stage career in the late 1860s. He was of English and Spanish ancestry. On the side of her maternal grandmother, actress Rose Wood, the profession dated back to traveling minstrels in 18th century England.

Bennett first appeared in a silent movie as a child with her parents and sisters in her father's drama The Valley of Decision (1916), which he adapted for the screen. She attended Miss Hopkins School for Girls in Manhattan, then St. Margaret's, a boarding school in Waterbury, Connecticut, and L'Hermitage, a finishing school in Versailles, France.

She moved quickly from movie to movie throughout the 1930s. Bennett appeared as a blonde (her natural hair color) for several years. She starred in the role of Dolores Fenton in the United Artists musical Puttin' on the Ritz (1930) opposite Harry Richman and as Faith Mapple, his beloved, opposite John Barrymore in an early sound version of Moby Dick (1930) at Warner Brothers Studios.

Under contract to Fox Film Corporation, she appeared in several movies. Receiving top billing, she played the role of Jane Miller opposite Spencer Tracy in She Wanted a Millionaire (1932). She was billed second, after Tracy, for her role as Helen Riley, a personable waitress who trades wisecracks, in Me and My Gal (1932). Bennett left Fox to play Amy, a pert sister competing with Katharine Hepburn's Jo in Little Women (1933), which was directed by George Cukor for RKO. This movie brought Bennett to the attention of independent film producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a contract and began managing her career. She played the role of Sally MacGregor, a psychiatrist's young wife slipping into insanity, in Private Worlds (1935) with Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, and Joel McCrea. She then starred with Bing Crosby and WC Fields in the costume musical Mississippi (1935) over at Paramount.
Combined with her sultry eyes and husky voice, Bennett's new brunette look gave her an earthier, more arresting persona. She won praise for her performances as Brenda Bentley in the crime/drama The House Across the Bay (1940), also featuring George Raft, and as Carol Hoffman in the anti-Nazi drama The Man I Married, a film in which Francis Lederer also starred.

She then appeared in a sequence of highly regarded film noir thrillers directed by Fritz Lang, with whom she and Wanger formed their own production company. Bennett appeared in four movies under Lang's direction, including as Cockney prostitute Jerry Stokes in Man Hunt (1941) opposite Walter Pidgeon, as mysterious model Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window (1944) with Edward G. Robinson, and as vulgar blackmailer Katharine "Kitty" March in Scarlet Street (1945) another film with Robinson.

Then, easily shifting images again, she changed her screen persona to that of an elegant, witty and nurturing wife and mother in two classic comedies directed by Vincente Minnelli. Playing the role of Ellie Banks, wife of Spencer Tracy and mother of Elizabeth Taylor, Bennett appeared in both Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951).

Bennett was a cast regular on the gothic daytime television soap opera Dark Shadows, which attracted a major cult TV following, for its entire five year run, 1966 to 1971, receiving an Emmy Award nomination in 1968 for her performance as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, mistress of the haunted Collinwood Mansion. In 1970, she appeared as Elizabeth in House of Dark Shadows, the feature film adaptation of the series. She declined to appear in the sequel Night of Dark Shadows however, and her character Elizabeth was mentioned as being recently deceased.
Other TV guest appearances include Bennett's roles as Joan Darlene Delaney in an episode of The Governor & J.J. (1970) and as Edith in an episode of Love, American Style (1971). She starred in five made-for-TV movies between 1972 and 1982.

Bennett also appeared in one more feature film, as Madame Blanc in Italian director Dario Argento's horror thriller Suspiria (1977), for which she received a 1978 Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Bennett died at age 80 on December 7, 1990 from a heart attack at her home in Scarsdale, New York. She was died with her four children and fourth husband at her side. She is interred in Pleasant View Cemetery, Lyme, Connecticut with her parents.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Here is part two of our three part series on the life and talent of the great Buster Keaton...

In February 1917, Keaton met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City, where Arbuckle was under contract to Joseph M. Schenck. Joe Keaton disapproved of films, and Buster also had reservations about the medium. During his first meeting with Arbuckle, he asked to borrow one of the cameras to get a feel for how it worked. He took the camera back to his hotel room, dismantled and reassembled it. With this rough understanding of the mechanics of the moving pictures, he returned the next day, camera in hand, asking for work. He was hired as a co-star and gag man, making his first appearance in The Butcher Boy. Keaton later claimed that he was soon Arbuckle's second director and his entire gag department. Keaton and Arbuckle became close friends.

In 1920, The Saphead was released, in which Keaton had his first starring role in a full-length feature. After Keaton's successful work with Arbuckle, Schenck gave him his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies. He made a series of two-reel comedies, including One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), Cops (1922), and The Electric House (1922). Based on the success of these shorts, Keaton moved to full-length features. Keaton's writers included Clyde Bruckman and Jean Havez, but the most ingenious gags were often conceived by Keaton himself. The more adventurous ideas called for dangerous stunts, also performed by Keaton at great physical risk. During the railroad water-tank scene in Sherlock Jr., Keaton broke his neck when he fell against a railroad track, but did not realize it until years afterward. A scene from Steamboat Bill Jr. required Keaton to run into the shot and stand still on a particular spot. Then, the facade of a two-story building toppled forward on top of Keaton. Keaton's character emerged unscathed, thanks to a single open window which passed directly over him. The stunt required precision, because the prop house weighed two tons, and the window only offered a few inches of space around Keaton's body. The sequence became one of the iconic images of Keaton's career.

Aside from Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Keaton's most enduring feature-length films include Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The Cameraman (1928), and The General (1927). The General, set during the American Civil War, combined physical comedy with Keaton's love of trains, including an epic locomotive chase. Employing picturesque locations, the film's storyline reenacted an actual wartime incident. Though it would come to be regarded as Keaton's proudest achievement, the film received mixed reviews at the time. It was too dramatic for some moviegoers expecting a lightweight comedy, and reviewers questioned Keaton's judgment in making a comedic film about the Civil War, even while noting it had a "few laughs". The fact that the heroes of the story were from the Confederate side may have also contributed to the film's unpopularity.
It was an expensive misfire, and Keaton was never entrusted with total control over his movies again. His distributor, United Artists, insisted on a production manager who monitored expenses and interfered with certain story elements. Keaton endured this treatment for two more feature films, and then exchanged his independent setup for employment at Hollywood's biggest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Keaton's loss of independence as a filmmaker coincided with the coming of sound films (although he was interested in making the transition) and mounting personal problems, and his career in the early sound era was hurt as a result.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011


NEW YORK – The estate of sultry jazz singer and actress Lena Horne is selling some of the fancy gowns, jewelry, fine art and books that filled her New York City apartment.

More than 200 items are for sale at the Doyle New York auction house Wednesday. They include a sequined cardigan evening coat estimated to sell for as little as $100 and an abstract painting by artist Charles Alston expected to bring up to $50,000.

A reversible mink coat by Horne's favorite designer, Giorgio di Sant' Angelo, is estimated to sell for $300 to $500.

Horne's refined taste extended to the furnishings in her Manhattan apartment. A Rococo-style chandelier could bring $2,500.

Horne's signature song was "Stormy Weather." Horne also was a dancer and civil rights activist. She died last May at age 92.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Just about every John Wayne movie has been released on DVD now. However, there are still a few hidden gems that are pretty much forgotten by even John Wayne fans. Wayne's 1964 film Circus World is one of them. Circus World, also known as Samuel Bronston's Circus World, is a 1964 drama film made by the independent production company Samuel Bronston Productions and distributed by Paramount Pictures.

It was directed by Henry Hathaway and produced by Samuel Bronston, with Michal Waszynski as executive producer. The screenplay was by Ben Hecht, Julian Halevy and James Edward Grant, from a story by Philip Yordan and Nicholas Ray. The music score was by Dimitri Tiomkin and the cinematography by Jack Hildyard. The film was made in Super Technirama 70 and shown at some venues in Cinerama.

It starred John Wayne, Claudia Cardinale and Rita Hayworth with Lloyd Nolan, John Smith and Richard Conte.

The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Song for Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington (lyrics), while Rita Hayworth was nominated for the Best Actress award.

At the turn of the twentieth century, circus owner Matt Masters (John Wayne) takes his circus on a tour to Europe in search of his long-lost love, Lili Alfredo (Rita Hayworth). With him are Lili's daughter, Toni (Claudia Cardinale), whom she abandoned years earlier and whom he has raised as his own, and his faithful friend, Cap Carson (Lloyd Nolan). The circus is lost in a sinking ship, but Masters manages to salvage part of it and with the help of some European acts puts together a new show. He ultimately finds Lili and so mother and daughter are reunited.
-This was Wayne's last film before his lung cancer operation.

-It was speculated that at the time this film was made, Rita Hayworth may have already been suffering the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. She was often late and had trouble remembering her lines and it was reported she was often drunk and abusive to those on the set. John Wayne had previously looked forward to working with her, but it was said he came to despise her behavior.

-David Niven was originally cast as Cap Carson, but withdrew from the film.

-Frank Capra was originally going to direct, but quit during pre-production over disagreements with Wayne's favored screenwriter, James Edward Grant.

-The film has not been released on DVD in the United States. It was last reported to be owned my Miramax, and they advertised that they were releasing the movie in 2008, but no such release has happened.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


The Twilight Zone was such a groundbreaking series that it influenced our popular culture to a level many of us don’t even realize. From Rod Serling’s silky and smoke-filled introductions, to the inevitable twist ending, the Twilight Zone’s black and white years were doubtless its best. While many of the twists have become so well known in the ensuing years as to lost much of their sting, if you can imagine watching these broadcasts in the 60s on an old black and white set, you might just get a feel for how revolutionary it was. Here, in my humble opinion, are five of the best episodes of this series...

5. "Living Doll" - Even with a menacing Telly Savalas in the cast, make no mistake, the star is Talky Tina. The atmosphere is tense with parental conflict, and then little Christie receives a doll playmate from mom, and things get downright edgy. Too much money, claims Savalas' character, Erich. Talky Tina is a doll with an agenda, though, as she immediately understands that Erich is self-absorbed and abusive. The denouement is the last scene, in which Tina somehow is deftly positioned (or positions herself) at the top of the stairs in direct path of Erich as he investigates a noise in the middle of the night. Stepping on Tina, he loses his balance and falls down the stairs to his death. (airdate: November 11, 1963)
4. "The Monster Are Due On Maple Street" - Another prime example of tapping into Cold War paranoia, about a street in a small town that turns on its own when the power goes out, and talk of an alien invasion starts to surface. This story became so iconic, that it was used in classrooms as a perfect example of insular paranoia and auto-cannibalizing mistrust. The neighborhood dissolves under its own hatred and inability to trust people they’ve known their entire lives, and an angry mob forms, swiftly turning to murder and rioting. So where’s the twist in this story of small town hatred? The power fluctuations and general spookiness were caused by aliens, who plan to spread paranoia in order to take over the planet “one Maple street at a time”. The episode stars great character actors like Claude Akins and Jack Weston. (airdate: March 4, 1960)
3. "The Masks" - See this episode for one of the final roles in the long career of Robert Keith (father of Brian Keith). A dying millionaire (Keith) meets with his family on his death bed — and on the eve of Mardis Gras he forces them to done masks while they discuss his will. His daughter, her husband and their two children are all horrible people, and he makes each of them put on masks caricaturing their personality: a sniveling coward to his daughter Emily, a miserable miser to her husband Wilfred, a twisted buffoon to the grandson Wilfred Jr., and a self-obsessed narcissist to the granddaughter Paula. As the ailing Jason dons a skull mask, he charges them all to leave the masks on until midnight, or receive nothing of the substantial will. Suffering under the uncomfortable masks, they all plea to take them off as the night progresses, as their patriarch rails against their shortcomings, eventually exclaiming “without your masks, you’re caricatures!”, before dying. The four pull of the uncomfortable masks in relief, only to find their faces are now permanently stuck in that shape. (airdate: March 20, 1964)
2. "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" - Long before he was helming the Enterprise, William Shatner was a legitimate actor. Not yet turned to King of ham-acting, he had two leads in Twilight Zone pieces. Shatner was great as the man recovering from a mental breakdown, insisting he sees a gremlin on the wings of an airplane, which no-one else notices. It’s a segment that’s been parodied widely, by everyone from The Simpsons to SNL. It’s also hilarious to watch it and compare flying in the 60s to now — everyone wearing suits, smoking cigarettes, and in seats with ample legroom. Ah, a golden age! (airdate: October 20,1963)
1. "Time Enough At Last" - This episode is penned by Rod Serling and stars Twilight Zone regular Burgess Meredith. As with many other Twilight Zone episodes, the specter of nuclear holocaust-based fear hangs heavily over the proceedings with Mr. Meredith surviving the blast in a bank vault. He ultimately breaks his reading glasses, though, before he has a chance to settle down with his long sought-after dream, the interruption-less task of scouring beloved volumes of literature, found fortuitously among the rubble that was the nearby library. (airdate: November 20, 1959)

Friday, February 18, 2011


In the hall of fame of actors, most people would place Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy. Many people, even fans of movies forget that the hardest job for an actor is to get a laugh. One star that deserves to be remembered with the handsome leading men is the great Buster Keaton. Keaton could do what no other comedian before or after has done on film. It is impossible to cover Buster's life and career in one blog entry, so this is the first of three entries. This first post covers his early years. Buster Keaton, with his sad worn out expression, always looked the same, but even Buster was a child at one time.

Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton on October 4, 1895 into a vaudeville family. He was named "Joseph" to continue a tradition on his father's side—he was sixth in a line bearing the name Joseph Keaton and "Frank" for his maternal grandfather, who disapproved of the parents' union. Later, Keaton changed his middle name to "Francis". His father was Joseph Hallie "Joe" Keaton, a native of Vigo County, Indiana. Joe Keaton owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini, the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side. Buster Keaton was born in Piqua, Kansas, the small town where his mother, Myra Edith Cutler, happened to go into labor.

According to a frequently-repeated story, which may be apocryphal, Keaton acquired the nickname "Buster" at about eighteen months of age. Keaton told interviewer Fletcher Markle that Harry Houdini happened to be present one day when the young Keaton took a tumble down a long flight of stairs without injury. After the infant sat up and shook off his experience, Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" According to Keaton, in those days, the word "buster" was used to refer to a spill or a fall that had the potential to produce injury. After this, it was Keaton's father who began to use the nickname to refer to the youngster. Keaton retold the anecdote over the years, including during a 1964 interview with the CBC's Telescope.
At the age of three, Keaton began performing with his parents in The Three Keatons. He first appeared on stage in 1899 in Wilmington, Delaware. The act was mainly a comedy sketch. Myra played the saxophone to one side, while Joe and Buster performed on center stage. The young Keaton would goad his father by disobeying him, and the elder Keaton would respond by throwing him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. A suitcase handle was sewn into Keaton's clothing to aid with the constant tossing. The act evolved as Keaton learned to take trick falls safely; he was rarely injured or bruised on stage. This knockabout style of comedy led to accusations of child abuse, and occasionally, arrest. However, Buster Keaton was always able to show the authorities that he had no bruises or broken bones. He was eventually billed as "The Little Boy Who Can't Be Damaged," with the overall act being advertised as "'The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage." Decades later, Keaton said that he was never hurt by his father and that the falls and physical comedy were a matter of proper technical execution.

Keaton claimed he was having so much fun that he would sometimes begin laughing as his father threw him across the stage. Noticing that this drew fewer laughs from the audience, he adopted his famous deadpan expression whenever he was working.
The act ran up against laws banning child performers in vaudeville. It is said that, when one official saw Keaton in full costume and makeup and asked a stagehand how old he was, the stagehand then pointed to the boy's mother, saying, "I don't know, ask his wife!" According to one biographer, Keaton was made to go to school while performing in New York, but only attended for part of one day.

Despite tangles with the law and a disastrous tour of music halls in the United Kingdom, Keaton was a rising star in the theater. Keaton stated that he learned to read and write late, and was taught by his mother. By the time he was 21, his father's alcoholism threatened the reputation of the family act, so Keaton and his mother, Myra, left for New York, where Buster Keaton's career swiftly moved from vaudeville to film.

Although he did not see active combat, he served in World War I, during which time he suffered an ear infection that permanently impaired his hearing. In 1917, Buster Keaton's life would change forever when he met fellow comedian Fatty Arbuckle...


Thursday, February 17, 2011


Orrin Tucker is one of the last surviving big band members. He may not be as famous as Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, but he is the last one left! Today he turns 100 years old! Tucker was born in St. Louis, Missouri on February 17, 1911. Though he had studied to be a doctor, Orrin Tucker ended up as a singer and a bandleader. He was leading a successful, though not well-known, orchestra in 1939 when his female vocalist, Wee Bonnie Baker, recorded an old WWI tune called ''Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!''

With the help of her sexy sighs and coos, Tucker found himself with a hit record and one of the hottest bands in the country. Tucker, though, didn't let fame go to his head. He realized his limitations and knew his orchestra's strength, and that strength was in playing dance music for the middle-aged crowd. That he continued to do, very successfully, long after many of his contemporaries had called it quits.

After graduating from high school in 1929, Tucker learned that Northwestern University's School of Speech offered one one-year scholarship per year to an Illinois resident interested in studying theater arts. He figured once enrolled, he could then take pre-med courses. After completing his freshman year, he transferred to North Central College in Naperville, which was closer to Wheaton. To help meet college expenses, Tucker formed a band to play at the Spanish Tearoom in Naperville. The band was so good that it drew patrons from as far away as Chicago. Noting his success, a local agent booked Tucker and his band for a three-week engagement at a New Orleans hotel during Mardi Gras. The band faired well at the "Crescent City" engagement which inspired Tucker to then focus all his energies full time to band leading. "That did it for me," Tucker said. "Staying in music what was what I wanted to do. From then on, there was no turning back."

In 1933, Tucker organized his first full-time band, opting to stay in the Chicago area. Two years later, the band began a long stay at the Troutdale Hotel in Evergreen, CO, with a successful engagement at the "Windy City's" Edgewater Beach Hotel the following year. The clientele at the Edgewater Beach Hotel loved Tucker's music so much that the band returned for a six-month stay at the posh resort in October 1937. By March 1938, the Tucker band found itself playing in the "Big Apple," at the famed Roosevelt Hotel.

Orrin Tucker himself was a pleasant enough singer and his band was gaining popularity. However, when he hired Bonnie Baker as his girl singer in February 1938, the band's popularity increased. "We were in Kansas City at the time and I received a telephone call from Louis Armstrong telling me about this singer named Evelyn Nelson who was singing at the Claridge Hotel in St. Louis," Tucker said. "He told me that she sings with a cute voice and that if I wrote cute songs for her, I could make her a star." Tucker went to check out the five-foot charmer from Orange, TX. He was pleased with what he heard. "It wasn't easy, but I talked her into joining the band," Tucker said. "I also talked her into changing her name. I'm very much in favor for a person's name to begin with consonants. I thought 'Bonnie Baker' was a strong name with confidence. It turned out to be true."

During the early years Tucker was sole vocalist until Louis Armstrong pointed him to Bonnie Baker. Baker's cute voice was just the thing to help push the group over the top. Columbia Records signed them in 1939. ''Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!'' was one of songs in their first recording session. It remained their most popular number, reaching the number two spot on the pop charts. Other vocalists over the years included Helen Lee and Scottee Marsh.

During WWII Tucker served in the Navy as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade. He remained active in the music business until health problems forced him to slow down during the 1990s. In 1997, a fire destroyed all of his record and music collection. Reportedly, Tucker has since moved into an assisted living facility, but he was still giving interviews as recent as 2005.


Actor Mickey Rooney has been the alleged victim of elder abuse at the hands of his own stepkids, according to restraining orders filed Monday.

The 90-year-old actor, who, born into vaudeville has had one of the longest careers of any actor, was granted court protection from stepson Chris Aber and his stepdaughter Christina Aber, after he filed a case against them charging verbal, emotional and financial abuse, and for denying him such basic necessities as food and medicine.

The court documents say that both Chris and Christina Aber have been keeping Rooney as "effectively a prisoner in his own home" through the use of threats, intimidation and harassment.

Christ Aber has also been accused of taking control over Rooney's finances, blocking access to his mail and forcing the actor into performances he does not wish to do.

With the assistance of attorneys Bruce Roth and Vivian Thoreen of Holland & Knight LLP, Rooney sought and was granted temporary protection for not only himself but for his wife, Jan Rooney, and his stepson, Mark Rooney, who lives with the actor.

Rooney fears for their safety and is worried Chris and Christina Aber might retaliate in a physically abusive way, or try to kidnap the actor now that the case has been filed, court documents say.

"All I want to do is live a peaceful life, to regain my life and be happy," Rooney wrote in a statement to his fans. "I pray to God each day to protect us, help us endure and guide those other senior citizens who are also suffering."

In addition to two temporary restraining orders granted against Christina and Chris Aber, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Reva Goetz appointed attorney Michael Augustine as temporary conservator of his estate. A hearing on who should take over as permanent conservator of the estate will take place in March, Bruce says.



LOS ANGELES – Len Lesser, the veteran character actor best known for his scene-stealing role as Uncle Leo on "Seinfeld," died Wednesday. He was 88.

Lesser's family said in a statement that he died in Burbank, Calif., from cancer-related pneumonia.

"Heaven got a great comedian and actor today," his daughter, Michele, said in the statement. "The outpouring of sympathy we've already received has been amazing and is so greatly appreciated. Thank you to all the people who helped make my father's last journey special and surrounded with love."

Lesser's lengthy list of television credits included parts on "Get Smart," "That Girl," "The Munsters," "The Monkees," "The Rockford Files," "thirtysomething," "ER," and "Everybody Loves Raymond," which featured Lesser in a recurring role as the arm-shaking Garvin. His film credits included "Outlaw Josey Wales," "Kelly's Heroes," "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Death Hunt." He most recently appeared on the TV drama "Castle."

He is survived by his daughter, Michele; son, David; daughter-in-law, Julie; and grandchildren, Jonathan, Kayla, and Mayah.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


GRENADA HILLS, Calif. – Kenneth Mars, a Mel Brooks collaborator who played a Hitler-worshipping playwright in "The Producers" and an earnest police inspector with a malfunctioning artificial arm in "Young Frankenstein," has died. He was 75.

In a statement Monday, Mars family said the actor died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at his home in Grenada Hills.

In Brooks' 1968 romp "The Producers," Mars co-starred as Franz Liebkind, a Nazi enthusiast whose play, "Springtime for Hitler," is the basis for a scheme by two conniving showmen (Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) to bilk investors by putting on a surefire Broadway flop. Brooks cast Mars again in 1974's "Young Frankenstein" as the constable poking around the castle grounds on the trail of mad scientist Wilder's monster.

In both films, the Chicago-born Mars demonstrated his talent for vocal farce, lending over-the-top German accents to the characters.

Mars' nearly 50-year career included a long list of voice credits, including "The Little Mermaid," "The Jetsons" and the "The Land Before Time" movies and TV series.

Among Mars' other film credits were Woody Allen's "Radio Days" and "Shadows and Fog," and Peter Bogdanovich's "What's Up, Doc." His extensive television work featured regular roles on "Malcolm in the Middle," "Fernwood Tonight" and the 1960s series "He & She."

On stage, Mars appeared in such plays as "The Affair" and "Anything Goes."

Mars is survived by two daughters, Susannah Mars Johnson and Rebecca Mars Tipton, and six grandchildren.

A private funeral service was planned.

Monday, February 14, 2011


George Shearing, the prolific pianist and composer who penned 'Lullaby of Birdland,' died Monday at 91 in New York City. The case of death was heart failure, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Shearing was born in London in 1919 and was blind from birth. He began playing the piano almost as soon as he could stand, and when he entered a school for the blind as a teen, he studied everything from Mozart to Glenn Miller. He began playing professionally at 16 at a local bar and just four years later his career took off when he met the pianist and music writer Leonard Feather.

By the early '40s, Shearing was one of the most popular performers in the country, at one point winning seven consecutive awards from the influential Melody Maker newspaper. After World War II, Shearing came to New York City to try and replicate his fortune abroad.

Shearing formed a quintet in 1949 with whom he would largely perform with well into the '70s, and with it developed what became known as "the Shearing Sound": an (at that time) unorthodox instrumentation that included guitar and vibraphone combined with Shearing's method of using block chords to build a complex, orchestral-leaning sound. This sound endeared Shearing -- already known as a player who favored contemplative Debussy-and Satie-inspired melodies over more common lightning bebop lines -- to a broad new audience searching for accessibility among the complex and experimental classical and jazz sounds of the time.

Shearing quickly found fame with a string of hits, including 'September in the Rain' and 'Lullaby of Birdland.' In the '60s, at the height of his popularity, Shearing and his quintet often released multiple records in a single year. After launching an independent label that ultimately failed, he re-emerged in the late '70s through his new association with the Concord label and a series of collaborations with Mel Torme. That partnership led to other collaborations with Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and John Pizzarelli, among others, during the ensuing decades.

Shearing composed some 300 tunes over his career, and performed frequently as a classical recitalist with full orchestras. He continued recording and performing well into his 80s. His accolades included two Grammys, performances for Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, a lifetime achievement award from the British Academy of Composer and Songwriters and being knighted by the Order of the British Empire.

Shearing is survived by his wife, Eleanor, and daughter, Wendy Ann.


Here is an interesting article I found online, just in time for Valentine's Day. I agree on their picks...especially the underrated THE CLOCK.

Everyone knows that favorites such as "Casablanca," "An Affair to Remember," "Ghost," and "Titanic" are perfect DVD fare for Valentine's Day. But there are other terrific, lesser-known romantic films that will have you swooning — and perhaps weeping — as you celebrate the day with a loved one (or even by yourself). Here are four films guaranteed to fire up your heart.

Judy Garland is luminous in her first non-singing role in this lovely 1945 romantic drama. Garland plays Alice Maybery who meets an earnest soldier, Joe Allen (an equally poignant Robert Walker), on a two-day leave in Manhattan when she trips over his duffel bag at Pennsylvania Station and breaks the heel of her shoe. When Joe insists that a shoe-repair shop open its doors after hours to fix her heel, the two end up on an adventure that includes dinner, helping a milkman make his deliveries during the night, and, of course, falling in love.

Joe asks Alice to marry him the next day, but they go through all sorts of red tape before they say their "I Do's" in an impersonal civil ceremony. Alice doesn't feel married until they repeat their vows together at a local church. When Joe's leave ends, they bid goodbye at Pennsylvania Station so he can return to the battlefield.

Fred Zinnemann was the original director of "The Clock" but was removed after a month because the filmmaker and Garland weren't hitting it off and the early footage wasn't promising. Garland requested that Vincente Minnelli, her romantic partner who had directed her in the 1944 classic "Meet Me in St. Louis," replace Zinnemann. One of the improvements Minnelli made was to make New York City a major character, spending some $66,000 to replicate Penn Station on the MGM lot. The movie turned out swell — and Garland and Minnelli married soon after the production ended.

Some cynics may hold their noses at this tender 1945 fantasy, but true romantics will devour it like a big bowl of popcorn with extra butter. Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire, who had scored a major hit with 1943's "Claudia," reunited for this endearing story of a young pilot (Young) who was disfigured during the war. He has rented a cottage from an older woman (Mildred Natwick) in order to hide from his mother and fiancée. McGuire plays Laura, the shy, homely maid who cleans up the cottage.

The two misfits fall in love and as they do, their appearances alter whenever they are together in the cottage. His war wounds have disappeared and she is strikingly beautiful to him. Laura believes the cottage is "enchanted" because it had been used previously by honeymoon couples.

The Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage, who had an exceptional touch with romantic movies including 1927's "Seventh Heaven" and 1932's "A Farewell to Arms" is at the peak of his powers with this unusual 1937 production. It deftly mixes romance, comedy, drama, murder, suicide and a Titanic-esque ocean disaster.

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur are the stars of "History," and their chemistry is palpable. Arthur plays Irene Vail, who is desperately trying to divorce her sadistic ship-magnate husband, Bruce (Colin Clive of "Frankenstein" fame). Bruce instructs his chauffeur to enter Irene's hotel room and force her into an compromising position. Bruce plans to catch them together and force her to drop the divorce proceedings. Things change when Bruce discovers a jewel thief (Boyer) in the room, who takes Irene's jewels and kidnaps her. The passionate scenes between Boyer and Arthur after the ship they're traveling on hits an iceberg are the highlights of this rarely seen classic.

Jennifer Jones and William Holden make beautiful music together in this lush 1955 romance that was nominated for eight Academy Awards including best picture and lead actress, winning three for Charles LeMaire's costumes, song for Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's title tune and Alfred Newman's vivid score. Set in Hong Kong in1949-50, the melodrama finds Jones as Han Suyin, a Eurasian doctor who falls in love with handsome Mark Elliott (Holden), a married but separated American war correspondent. Their love affair encounters racial prejudice from Hong Kong society and her family.

In fact, when the book by Belgian-Chinese physician Han Suyin, which was a fictional account of her love affair with a British journalist, was published in 1952, the Production Code of America stated that "Love" wasn't suitable for a movie because it dealt with adultery and miscegenation. Finally, they let 20th Century Fox make the film as long as it was never suggested that their relationship was sexual. So how did their rapturous love scenes get past the PCA censors?


Sunday, February 13, 2011


LOS ANGELES – Betty Garrett, the vivacious Broadway star who played Frank Sinatra's sweetheart in two MGM musicals before her career was hampered by the Hollywood blacklist, has died in Los Angeles, her son said Sunday. She was 91.

Garrett died Saturday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, most likely from an aortic aneurysm, said her son, Garrett Parks. Garrett had been in good health and taught her usual musical comedy class at Theater West, the non-profit organization she helped found, on Wednesday night, but Friday checked into the hospital with heart trouble, and died with her family at her side the following morning.

Garrett was best known as the flirtatious girl in love with the shy Sinatra in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "On the Town," both in 1949, and later in life she became well-known to TV audiences with recurring roles in the 1970s sitcoms "All in the Family" and "Laverne and Shirley."

Her movie career was brief, largely because of the Red Hunt led by congressmen who forced her husband, actor Larry Parks, to testify about his earlier membership in the Communist Party.

Parks had won stardom and an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his dynamic portrayal of singer Al Jolson in the 1946 "The Jolson Story." But in 1951, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he admitted that he had joined the Communist Party in 1941 and left in 1944 or 1945.

Pressed to name his fellow members of the party, Parks pleaded not to be forced "to crawl through the mud as an informer." He agreed to testify fully in executive session.

He made one more film, "Love Is Better Than Ever" with Elizabeth Taylor, then his film career was over.

"It was a dark period, a foolish, foolish period," Garrett said in 1998. "It destroyed a lot of lives and ruined my husband's career."

Garrett had also had a brief dalliance with the party but wasn't called to testify, perhaps, she said, "because I was nine months pregnant with my second son, and they didn't think I would be a good witness."

Garrett's stage career began to click when she sang the show-stopping "South America, Take It Away" in "Call Me Mister" on Broadway in 1946. That brought Hollywood offers, and at 27 she signed a contract with MGM, then the king of musical movies. Her son said aside from her family she considered the work she would do for MGM her life's highest point.

"She was very proud of the MGM musicals," Parks said.

Particularly memorable was "On the Town," the Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein musical about three sailors on leave in New York City. She played the comically aggressive cab driver who pursues Sinatra (singing the racy "Come Up to My Place") while his pals, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin, team up with Vera-Ellen and Ann Miller.

Besides the two pictures with Sinatra, she appeared in "Words and Music" and "Neptune's Daughter," in which she and Red Skelton sang the Oscar-winning song "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

MGM dropped her after Parks' testimony, and she received no film offers until she co-starred with Jack Lemmon and Janet Leigh in the 1955 musical version of "My Sister Eileen," playing Eileen's (Leigh's) sister, Ruth.

Unable to find much work in Hollywood, she and Parks hit the road with a musical act. It proved a hit in Las Vegas, London and other cities. When the bookings thinned out, Parks became a home builder. He died in 1975.

Betty maintained a busy career in theater and television. She played recurring roles in "All in the Family," as the chatty friend of Edith Bunker who duels with Archie, and "Laverne and Shirley," as a landlady who married Laverne's father.

She garnered an Emmy nomination in 2003 for guest actress in a comedy series for an appearance on the Ted Danson sitcom "Becker."

Over the years, she also had sporadic roles on Broadway, including parts in "Spoon River Anthology" in 1963 and "Meet Me in St. Louis" in 1989. She was back on Broadway in 2001 in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies."

In 1998, she published her autobiography, "Betty Garrett and Other Songs," which was the title of her one-woman show.

She also taught and appeared in plays at Workshop West, which she helped found in the late 1950s.

Asked in 1998 if she retained bitterness that she and Parks were blacklisted, she replied: "It's not my nature to be bitter. What I feel is deep sorrow. We both, I think, were just on the verge of becoming really big stars, particularly Larry. And it just went crashing down."

Betty Garrett was born in 1919 in St. Joseph, Mo. Her father, a traveling salesman, moved his wife and daughter to Seattle. He died of alcoholism when Betty was 2. She attended Roman Catholic schools though she wasn't a Catholic.

She had demonstrated a talent for dancing and acting, and her ambitious mother took her to New York where she had won a scholarship at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse. Betty was 17.

Garrett's stage debut came with "Danton's Death" at Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre in 1938. Later shows included "All in Fun," "Something for the Boys," "Laffin' Room Only" and "Bells Are Ringing." She also danced with the Martha Graham troupe, worked summers on the Borscht Belt, and even wore a fake jewel in her navel as a $25-a-week chorus girl in the Latin Quarter in Boston.

In addition to Garrett Parks, a composer, his wife Karen Culliver Parks and her granddaughter Madison Claire Parks, she was survived by her son Andrew Parks, an actor, and his wife Katy Melody.

The family did not plan to have a funeral, but was planning a memorial service for later in the month.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Larry Parks is one of the truly tragic actors in Hollywood history. Portraying entertainer Al Jolson, Parks' talent was never truly realized. Then in the 1950s, he was blacklisted in the Communist witch hunt, and his career never fully recovered. Larry Parks deserves to be remembered more than just playing Al Jolson.

He was born Samuel Klausman Lawrence Parks on December 13, 1914. Parks grew up in Joliet, Illinois, graduating from Joliet Township High School in 1932. He attended the University of Illinois as a pre-med student, and played in stock companies for a few years before signing a movie contract with Columbia Pictures in 1941. As did most Columbia contract players, he played supporting roles in higher-budgeted films, and larger roles in B pictures.

When Columbia was preparing a screen biography of Al Jolson, many big-name stars were considered for the title role, including James Cagney and Danny Thomas (both of whom turned it down), but resident contractee Larry Parks was reportedly the first actor to be interviewed. Parks impressed the producers and won the role. At the age of 31, his performance in The Jolson Story (1946) earned him a "Best Actor" Academy Award nomination. Reportedly, Jolson and Parks did not get along, because Jolson was jealous of this good looking actor playing him. Jolson felt that no one could play Jolson but Jolson.
Now that Parks was a full-fledged star, Columbia kept him busy in elaborate productions (including a couple of costume epics) until he appeared in the sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949), which was another huge boxoffice hit. His co-star in the film, Barbara Hale, teamed with him again in the comedy feature Emergency Wedding.

In 1951 Larry Parks was summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, under threat of being blacklisted in the movie industry, but he begged not to be forced to testify. He eventually did so in tears, only to be blacklisted anyway. Larry Parks eventually gave up the names of his former colleagues and submitted to the HUAC. Parks also told the committee, “I would like to point out that in my opinion there is a great difference between – and not a subtle difference – between being a Communist, a member of the Communist Party, say in 1941, 10 years ago, and being a Communist in 1951. ... Being a member of the Communist Party fulfilled certain needs of a young man that was liberal in thought, idealistic, who was for the underprivileged, the underdog. ... I think that being a Communist in 1951 in this particular situation is an entirely different kettle of fish when this is a great power that is trying to take over the world.”

But the trauma of testifying under such circumstances is evident in Parks’ remarks, as he came to realize that the committee was not responding to his straightforward reply to the summons. Despite having made notes to himself the night before on how to remain calm before the panel, his resolve broke under the stress of steely questioning. “I would prefer, if you would allow me, not to mention other people’s names,” he said in tears. “Don’t present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer. ... This is not the American way.”

Following his admission before the committee, Columbia Pictures dropped him, and a romantic comedy he made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was shelved for three years. Parks made only a few more films, but continued to eke out a living acting on the stage and doing occasional television programs. He last appeared, in a major role, in the John Huston film Freud the Secret Passion (1962).

Parks died of a heart attack at the age of 60 on April 13, 1975. Parks remained upbeat during his blacklisting, but the stress took its toll on him. He was married to actress Betty Garrett in 1944. (Betty Garrett is perhaps best known today as Archie Bunker's neighbor Irene Lorenzo on TV's All in the Family and as landlady Edna Babish on Laverne and Shirley). Her career also faced turmoil as a result of her marriage to Parks, and the two spent much of the 1950s doing theatre and musical variety shows. Together they had two sons, actor Andrew Parks and composer Garrett Parks. He was also the godfather to actor Jeff Bridges.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I remember in junior high school, we had a music teacher who spent the whole semester reviewing and analyzing THE MUSIC MAN. I have to admit, it was one of my greatest classes of all-time, and years later I still remember it. So I have always had a soft spot for Meredith Wilson's THE MUSIC MAN. It is one of my personal favorite movie musicals, and definitely my favorite one from the 1960s.

The 1962 film is based on the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name by Meredith Willson. The film was one of the biggest hits of the year and highly acclaimed critically.

Set in July 1912, a traveling salesman, "Professor" Harold Hill (Robert Preston), arrives in River City, Iowa, intrigued by the challenge of swindling the famously stubborn natives of Iowa ("Iowa Stubborn"). Masquerading as a traveling band instructor, Professor Hill plans to con the citizens of River City into paying him to create a boys' marching band, including instruments, uniforms, and music instruction. Once he has collected the money and the instruments and uniforms have arrived, he will hop the next train out of town leaving them without their money or a band.

With help from his associate Marcellus (Buddy Hackett), Professor Hill incites mass concern among the parents of River City that their young boys are being seduced into a world of sin and vice by the new pool table in town ("Ya Got Trouble"). He convinces them that a boys' marching band is the only way to keep the boys of the town pure and out of trouble, and begins collecting their money ("76 Trombones"). Hill anticipates that Marian (Shirley Jones), the town's librarian and piano instructor, will attempt to discredit him, so he sets out to seduce her into silence. Also in opposition to Hill is the town's Mayor Shinn, who orders the school board to obtain Hill's credentials. When they attempt to do so, Hill avoids their questions by teaching them to sing as a barbershop quartet via "sustained talking." They are thereafter easily tricked by Hill into breaking into song whenever they ask for his credentials.

Meanwhile, Hill attempts to win the heart of Marian the librarian, who has an extreme distrust of men. His charms have little effect upon Marian ("Marian the Librarian") until he wins the admiration of both her mother and her withdrawn and unhappy younger brother Winthrop (Ron Howard) ("Gary, Indiana"). Marian falls in love with Hill, and subsequently hides evidence she has proving he is a fraud ("Till There Was You"). The band's instruments arrive ("Wells Fargo Wagon") and Hill tells the boys to learn to play via the "Think System," in which they simply have to think of a tune over and over and will know how to play it without ever touching their instruments.

Hill's con is nearly complete and he is about to leave town when a disgruntled competing salesman comes to town and exposes Hill and his plans. Chased by an angry mob and pressed to leave town by Marcellus and Marian, Hill realizes that he is actually in love with Marian too and can't leave River City. He is captured by the mob and brought before a town meeting to be tarred and feathered. Hill is saved by the boys' band who miraculously have learned to play their own instruments (albeit incredibly badly). Hill remains in River City with Marian to conduct the boys' band full time, which eventually becomes properly trained and equipped with better quality instruments and uniforms. ("76 Trombones 2nd Reprise").
The film made Robert Preston into an "A" list star in motion pictures, after years of appearing in supporting roles in famous films and in starring roles in "B" movies. Although Preston scored a great success in the original stage version of the show, he was not first choice for the film version, partly because he was not a box office star. Jack L. Warner, who was notorious for wanting to film stage musicals with stars other than the ones who played the roles onstage, wanted Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby for the role of Professor Harold Hill, but Meredith Willson insisted upon Preston. Cary Grant was also "begged" by Warner to play Hill but he declined, saying "nobody could do that role as well as Bob Preston". Cary Grant was right...

Monday, February 7, 2011


Ann Sherdian was personally one of my favorite actresses that Warner Brothers had under contract in the 1940s. She was not the greatest actress, but she made any film better by her appearances in it. Born Clara Lou Sheridan in Denton, Texas on February 21, 1915, Ann was a college student when her sister sent a photograph of her to Paramount Pictures. She subsequently entered and won a beauty contest, with part of her prize being a bit part in a Paramount film. She abandoned college to pursue a career in Hollywood.

She made her film debut in 1934, aged 19, in the film Search for Beauty, and played uncredited bit parts in Paramount films for the next two years. Paramount made little effort to develop Sheridan's talent, so she left, signing a contract with Warner Bros. in 1936, and changing her name to "Ann Sheridan."

Sheridan's career prospects began to improve. The red-haired beauty would soon become Warner's top sex symbol. She received as many as 250 marriage proposals from fans in a single week. Tagged "The Oomph Girl," Sheridan was a popular pin-up girl in the early 1940s.

She was the heroine of a novel, Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx, written by Kathryn Heisenfelt, published by Whitman Publishing Company in 1943. While the heroine of the story was identified as a famous actress, the stories were entirely fictitious. The story was probably written for a young teenage audience and is reminiscent of the adventures of Nancy Drew. It is part of a series known as "Whitman Authorized Editions", 16 books published between 1941-1947 that always featured a film actress as heroine.

She received substantial roles and positive reaction from critics and moviegoers in such films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), opposite James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Dodge City (1939) with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, Torrid Zone with Cagney and They Drive by Night with George Raft and Bogart (both 1940), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) with Bette Davis, and Kings Row (1942), where she received top billing playing opposite Ronald Reagan, Robert Cummings, and Betty Field. Known for having a fine singing voice, Ann also appeared in such musicals as Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and It All Came True (1940). She was also memorable in two of her biggest hits, Nora Prentiss and The Unfaithful, both in 1947.

Despite these successes, her career began to decline. Her role in I Was a Male War Bride (1949), directed by Howard Hawks and costarring Cary Grant, gave her another success, but by the 1950s, she was struggling to find work and her film roles were sporadic. She appeared in the television soap opera Another World during the mid-1960s.

In 1966, Sheridan began starring in a new TV series, a Western-themed comedy called Pistols 'n' Petticoats. But she became ill during the filming, and died of esophageal and liver cancer in Los Angeles, California. She had been a chain cigarette smoker for years, and Cagney remarked in his autobiography that when the cancer struck, "she didn't have a chance." She was cremated and her ashes were stored at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles until they were permanently interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2005. Pistols 'n' Petticoats was officially canceled before her death, though some episodes aired afterward. Her lines were dubbed in at least one of these (presumably because the cancer had affected her voice), and she did not appear in a few of the final episodes.

Sheridan married three times, including a marriage lasting one year to fellow Warner Brothers actor George Brent and co-star in Honeymoon for Three...

Sunday, February 6, 2011


All politics aside, most people would agree that Ronald Reagan was a better politician than an actor, but during his years in Hollywood he made some fairly good movies. Ronald Reagan was born today, February 6. He would be 100 years old.

Reagan was born in Tampico in Whiteside County, Illinois, reared in Dixon in Lee County, Illinois, and educated at Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology. Upon his graduation, Reagan first moved to Iowa to work as a radio broadcaster and then in 1937 to Los Angeles, California. He began a career as an actor, first in films and later television, appearing in over 50 movie productions and earning enough success to become a famous, publicly recognized figure. Some of his most notable roles are in Knute Rockne, All American and Kings Row.

Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and later spokesman for General Electric (GE); his start in politics occurred during his work for GE. Originally a member of the Democratic Party, he switched to the Republican Party in 1962. After delivering a rousing speech in support of Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964, he was persuaded to seek the California governorship, winning two years later and again in 1970. He was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 as well as 1976, but won both the nomination and election in 1980.

Looking back at his Hollywood career, after graduating from Eureka in 1932, Reagan drove himself to Iowa, where he auditioned for a job at many small-town radio stations. The University of Iowa hired him to broadcast home football games for the Hawkeyes. He was paid $10 per game. Soon after, a staff announcer's job opened at radio station WOC in Davenport, and Reagan was hired, now earning $100 per month. Aided by his persuasive voice, he moved to WHO radio in Des Moines as an announcer for Chicago Cubs baseball games. His specialty was creating play-by-play accounts of games that the station received by wire.

While traveling with the Cubs in California, Reagan took a screen test in 1937 that led to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers studios. He spent the first few years of his Hollywood career in the "B film" unit, where, Reagan joked, the producers "didn't want them good, they wanted them Thursday". While sometimes overshadowed by other actors, Reagan's screen performances did receive many good reviews.

His first screen credit was the starring role in the 1937 movie Love Is on the Air, and by the end of 1939 he had already appeared in 19 films, including Dark Victory. Before the film Santa Fe Trail in 1940, he played the role of George "The Gipper" Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All American; from it, he acquired the lifelong nickname "the Gipper". Reagan's favorite acting role was as a double amputee in 1942's Kings Row, in which he recites the line, "Where's the rest of me?", later used as the title of his 1965 autobiography. Many film critics considered Kings Row to be his best movie, though the film was condemned by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther.

Reagan called Kings Row the film that "made me a star". However, he was unable to capitalize on his success because he was ordered to active duty with the U.S. Army at San Francisco two months after its release, and never regained "star" status in motion pictures. In the post-war era, after being separated from almost four years of World War II stateside service with the 1st Motion Picture Unit in December 1945, Reagan co-starred in such films as, The Voice of the Turtle , John Loves Mary, The Hasty Heart, Bedtime for Bonzo, Cattle Queen of Montana, Tennessee's Partner, Hellcats of the Navy and The Killers (his final film) in a 1964 remake.

Ronald Reagan died at his home in Bel Air, California on the afternoon of June 5, 2004 at the age of 93...

Thursday, February 3, 2011


In an interview with the L.A. Times 20 years ago, Sidney Poitier, the first African American superstar and the first to win the lead actor Oscar (for 1963's "Lilies of the Field") discussed the extreme prejudice and hardships faced by African American performers in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

"The guys who were forerunners to me, like Canada Lee, Rex Ingram, Clarence Muse and women like Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers and Juanita Moore, they were terribly boxed in," Poitier said then. "They were maids and stable people and butlers, principally. But they, in some way, prepared ground for me."

Here are three pioneering African American actors who strove to break cinematic stereotypes, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. (In an irony, no minorities were nominated for major awards for this year's Oscars, which will be presented on Feb. 27during Black History Month):

Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967):
The exquisite singer-actress left her South Carolina home at 13 and moved to New York where she got a role in the popular Broadway revue, "Blackbirds of 1928." Director King Vidor saw her in the chorus and cast her in his 1929 film, "Hallelujah," the first all-black sound musical made by a major studio. McKinney stole the film as the seductress Chick, causing a sensation with her "Swanee Shuffle" dance.

MGM signed her to a five-year contract but didn't know what to do with the beautiful young black actress since most African American actresses were relegated to servant or "Mammy" parts. She appeared in only two films, 1931's "Safe in Hell" and 1935's "Reckless," though her scenes were cut and all that is left of her "performance" is supplying Jean Harlow's singing voice.

Like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker before her, she left for Europe where she was dubbed the "Black Garbo." When World War II broke out, she returned to the U.S., married jazz musician Jimmy Monroe, sang in clubs and made a few more films, most notably 1949's "Pinky. In the 1950s she moved to Athens, Ga., where she performed as the "Queen of the Night." She returned to New York in the late 1960s but didn't perform again. Her death of a heart attack in 1967 mostly went unnoticed.

Louise Beavers (1902-1962):
Just like most black actresses, Beavers found herself relegated to playing maids, servants and even slaves (in real life she had been a maid to actress Leatrice Joy). But she did get a chance to shine in a serious role in 1934's "Imitation of Life" with Claudette Colbert. In the melodrama, Beavers played Delilah Johnson, a housekeeper-cook whose employer (Colbert) transforms her into an Aunt Jemima-esque celebrity. But Delilah has problems with her light-skinned daughter who wants to pass for white. It was the first time in mainstream Hollywood cinema that the problems of an African American character were given as much heft as her white counterparts.

Sadly, "Imitation of Life," however, didn't improve the quality of her roles. Beavers may not have liked the parts she was given, but she remained one of the busiest black actresses in Hollywood, appearing in such films as 1942's "Holiday Inn" and 1948's "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." In the 1950 biopic "The Jackie Robinson Story," she gave a lovely performance as the baseball player's mother. She starred on TV in the 1950s sitcom "Beulah." She died of a heart attack in 1962.

Canada Lee (1907-1952):
When his boxing career ended in 1933 after a blow to his eye caused a detached retina, Lee turned to acting in 1934. His first major stage role was Orson Welles' 1936 "Voodoo Macbeth"; they reunited for Welles' 1941 stage production of Richard Wright's "Native Son."

Lee was cast in Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 thriller, "Lifeboat" as Joe, a torpedoed ship's steward. Lee gave a warm, passionate performance — he refused to speak in the "dialect" forced upon African American actors. He was even better in 1947's boxing classic "Body and Soul," as a boxer with a brain injury who is hired by the fighter who ended his career to be his trainer.

A vocal civil rights activist, he was a member of several left-wing groups and was labeled as a Communist during the Hollywood blacklist. Though he wouldn't name names in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he did call a news conference to say he wasn't a party member. Lee went to South Africa with Poitier to make the 1951 film, "Cry, the Beloved Country," but Hollywood still wouldn't hire him. In a letter to Walter White of the NAACP, Lee wrote "I can't take it anymore. I am going to get a shoeshine box and sit outside the Astor Theatre. My picture is playing to capacity audiences, and my God, I can't get a day's work."

The stress became too much for Lee, who suffered from high blood pressure. He died of a heart attack at the age of 45.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011


The so-called "Greatest Generation," whose lives were shaped by the Depression and World War II, made up the core audience for Humphrey Bogart's movies, but Bogart's star power would span generations. His death in 1957 set the stage for his embrace by baby boomers, foreign audiences and other moviegoers who were captivated by his portrayals of authentic, hard-bitten characters in performances that continue to withstand the test of time.

The aura surrounding his work has yet to fade. A dozen years ago, the American Film Institute ranked Bogart as Hollywood's greatest male star of all time, one of many posthumous honors bestowed upon him.

In "Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart," former Time magazine movie critic Stefan Kanfer says Bogart's enduring success is unlikely to be eclipsed.

Kanfer says teens and 20-somethings have become the dominant market, whereas people of all ages went to the movies in Bogart's pre-television heyday. Also, Bogart achieved leading man status at 42 as Sam Spade in 1941's "The Maltese Falcon," followed by other adult roles such as Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," Fred C. Dobbs in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and his Oscar-winning performance as Charlie Allnut in "The African Queen."

Kanfer contrasts Bogart's masculine appeal to that of Hollywood's crop of youthful and more callow stars like Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and Tobey Maguire.

"From time to time columnists dub some young actor the new Clark Gable, the new Jimmy Stewart, the new Marlon Brando," Kanfer writes. "No one claims to have discovered the new Humphrey Bogart. With good reason. There was nothing like him before his entrance; there has been nothing like him since his exit."

The only son of a well-to-do doctor and a renowned illustrator in New York, Bogart stumbled into acting after he had failed at other jobs and other prospects seemed dim. His formal education ended with expulsion from Phillips Andover; he enlisted in the Navy during World War I.

In one of his first roles on the New York stage in 1922, he was cast as a worthless "young sprig of the aristocracy" in a play that was widely panned. "It was here," writes Kanfer, "that the distinctive Bogart delivery was born — the sudden rictus, the lips pulled back after a statement, the unique sibilance that sometimes made him sound tentative and boyish, and at other times gave him a vaguely malevolent air."

His big break came in 1934 when he was given the role of escaped convict Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood's Broadway hit "The Petrified Forest," a role he would reprise two years later on the screen.

Kanfer, who has written biographies of Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Groucho Marx, brings his knowledge of Hollywood and its ways to this entertaining book. His portrait of Bogart is replete with anecdotes drawn from scores of biographies and memoirs published after the actor's death.

The reader follows the ascent of Bogart's career as he progresses from playing the heavy in grade-B gangster movies to his memorable performances of the 1940s and '50s. Among them was "Casablanca," which made him a superstar and remains the lodestar for many film buffs.

Kanfer traces Bogart's personal life, including three brief and tempestuous marriages that set the stage for his whirlwind courtship of Lauren Bacall that began during the filming of "To Have and Have Not." Another thread in the story is how his liberal politics made him an occasional target of congressional investigators intent on exposing members of the Communist Party in Hollywood.

But perhaps most unique about Bogart is the career trajectory after he died of cancer. The Brattle Theater near Harvard began running "Casablanca," sparking a Bogart cult that extended to other college campuses. After Jean-Paul Belmondo mimicked Bogart's mannerisms in Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless," other New Wave directors began to channel the Bogart style. Years later, the Bogart mystique surfaced anew in Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam."

Kanfer's book should appeal to older Bogart enthusiasts and younger movie fans discovering him for the first time. It's a readable and entertaining biography that reflects the author's delight in his subject and the world in which Bogart thrived.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Probably one of Bob Hope's least remembered films, BEAU JAMES (1957) was probably one of Hope's most dramatic efforts. In the forgotten movie, Bob Hope plays Mayor James J. Walker. New York City is known for choosing colorful characters for its mayors. One its most illustrious was the wise cracking, dancing and singing Mayor James J. Walker who helmed the Big Apple in the 1920s. This biopic chronicles his surprising rise to power and is adapted from a book by Gene Fowler. Walker owed his mayoral post to Tammany, a powerful political organization that used its tremendous clout to get him installed. Walker, who never takes his job seriously, then becomes a figurehead for Tammany, and while he is in power, corruption in the police force and other city offices runs rampant. Meanwhile Walker wrangles with his lover, dancer Betty Compton (played by Vera Miles), and his jealous wife (played by Alexis Smith), from whom he is separated.

Hope does very well as Walker. He does have a serious role where his flippant jokes match the character. He also shows the right degree of serious behavior, panicked when Betty is spirited away by Paul Douglas and Tammany Hall, or when he tells off the citizens of New York at Yankee Stadium for electing him. But the gaps in the script - the unwillingness to show the uglier side of the corruption - prevent one from taking it too seriously. Hope deserves recognition for his performance here, but he didn't merit (nor receive) an Oscar nomination for BEAU JAMES.

This is a celluloid version of Gene Fowler's valentine to his old chum Jimmy. It tries to make a case that Walker did not realize his taking the bribes/gifts was wrong. Walker knew it was wrong, but he never admitted it - he had been brought up in a city run by the Hall, and he was doing business there exactly as every boodling Mayor of New York had done since the 19th Century. Walker (a good Catholic, presumably) also knew that he was committing adultery when he took up with Ms Compton. Later, after he left City Hall, he divorced his wife and married Betty. Interestingly that marriage eventually failed, although Jimmy and Betty did adopt a girl. Compton died in 1941. Jimmy died in 1947.There was also terrific cameo appearances by stars that met and knew the real May James Walker including: Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, and George Jessel. American prints of this film are narrated by Walter Winchell; in Britain, the film was narrated by Alistair Cooke. One of the most memorable lines is when Walker is asked at a baseball game of a personal conduct scandal was "my comment, and you can quote me is I hope the Yankees win."

While Bob Hope's acting is not really Oscar worthy in this 1957 film, it is his best acting effort. Bob is the star of the fim, but he shares the spolight with the City of New York as well. Jimmie Walker was New York City in the 1920s, and it really comes across here. The movie was not a box office hit, and although Dean Martin recorded the title song, not many people remember this film. It has not been released on video or DVD. Bob Hope, Jimmy Walker, and the City of New York deserve it to be released...