Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Origin of the Breed

Joe: Ever wonder why the dalmation's the symbol of the firehouse?

Ann: First organized fire department was on the border of Dalmatia and Sardinia in the year 642.

Joe: That's why the dalmation?

Ann: It was either that, or a sardine.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Short Cuts 6: Sundown

Sundown -- and Retreat

“It is bad form talking during Retreat.”

Lieutenant Roddy Turner (Reginald Gardiner) says that to his colleague in Sundown during the playing of Retreat at an English outpost in Kenya during the early years of the Second World War.

Sundown is a World War Two movie made by a very capable director (Henry Hathaway), ably supported by Gene Tierney, George Sanders, Bruce Cabot and Reginald Gardiner. The star is stunning to the eye, the cinematography is exceptional, the action is straightforward, and there is a pre-Miniveresque conclusion – with Cedric Hardwicke on hand to lend it gravitas.

My friend Leo was ever fond of saying he never saw a bad movie that included tracer bullets. (He also had a thing about moats, but that’s a tale for another day.) So Sundown, recently shown on Turner Classic Movies, provided me the opportunity once again to see tracer bullets (which actually have a plot purpose) and to see the ever urban Marc Lawrence as an irascible Arab. And to see, of course, the beautiful Gene Tierney in a pristine state playing an exotic tribal princess. I had seen the film as a boy, but not again in recent decades. So those cited images and portrayals were the film’s primary vestiges in my memory.

In my youth, when I followed an usherette with a flashlight, I never quite knew my destination. My first viewing of Sundown likely took me to Equatorial Africa. This recent viewing with the evocative phrase “It is bad form talking during Retreat” took me to West Germany in the late 1950s.

I served in the peacetime Army and was stationed at Gibbs Kaserne in Frankfurt am Main in 1958 and 1959. A chance remark in an older film can take you down a path that was once well traveled, but now long ignored.

When my unit was not in the field, Retreat signalled the end of our official day. I worked in the Headquarters Building shown in the following photograph. The picture brings back memories of late afternoons when I left my office and walked across the parade ground to my living quarters.

Occasionally, my walk across the parade ground would occur when Retreat was sounded. Everything ceases movement. Everything. (Imagine a freeze frame.) Moving vehicles stop. Walking personnel halt, stand at attention and face the flag. The sounds of a military base switch to silence. I stopped, I stood at attention and I faced the flag. Retreat was followed immediately by the lowering of the flag (photo at top) at which time I saluted until the ceremony was complete. If I was with someone, we never spoke. “It is bad form talking during Retreat.”

I recall stopping on that parade ground at Retreat often during my time at Gibbs Kaserne. I recall standing at attention and saluting as the flag was lowered and I recall reflecting on my surroundings. Retreat was the one time of day, during an abstract period of my life, that I felt I was really a part of something. It is a vivid image and a moving memory that I have carried into my later years. Sundown. Retreat. End of day.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reinventing the wheel

Shirley MacLaine tells us about Vincente Minnelli’s perfectionism in her book: My Lucky Stars: a Hollywood Memoir. She and Minnelli were on location in Indiana (with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and others) filming Some Came Running. Sinatra could be obstreperous, Minnelli meticulous and ponderous.

One night, Minnelli was shooting a particularly difficult scene that appeared toward the end of the film. This was the dramatic carnival sequence, an iconic element of which was a large Ferris wheel.

Minnelli was taking a particularly long time framing an important shot. Cast and crew stood by. Hours passed. One supposes Minnelli did that which directors do -- framing the shot, gesturing with his hands, nodding negative and then affirmative, framing the image with his hands, looking reflective, endlessly framing the image with his hands.

All the while, Frank, Dean, Shirley and the cast were waiting for Minnelli to make the decision. It was nearing dawn as Shirley tells it. Those on hand knew that once Minnelli was satisfied, he would likely tell the crew “Move the camera” and the shot would proceed.

Minnelli stopped gesturing. Apparently, the moment had come. Finally, according to MacLaine, he “came out of his reverie” and gave the order: ….. “Move the Ferris wheel.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Miss Otis Regrets 5

She's unable to lunch today ...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

No score

Gary Marmorstein tells an interesting tale in his book: Hollywood Rhapsody: Movie Music and its Makers - 1900 to 1975. In the late 1960s, Bernard Hermann had grown disillusioned with the studio scene and settled in England, where, he believed, his talent was more appreciated.

In 1973, when William Friedkin had finished a rough cut of The Exorcist, he summoned Bernard Hermann back from his home in England to view the film in Los Angeles. After Hermann had viewed it, Friedkin said to him “I want you to write me a better score than the one you wrote for Citizen Kane.”

Hermann (known to be particularly caustic, irascible, and outspoken) replied: “Then you should have made a better movie than Citizen Kane.” Friedkin, insulted, left the screening room. And Bernard Hermann went on to another project in Hollywood.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Patricia Neal (1926-2010)

Word of the death of Patricia Neal starts that playback of her films in my mind and the most prevalent images are from In Harm’s Way and The Subject Was Roses. The latter has the most significance to me for two reasons: it is my favorite role of hers and -- on one occasion, I actually told her so in person.

In June 2000, my wife and I were aboard Cunard’s QE2 on the westbound trans-Atlantic run from Southampton to New York City. Patricia Neal was on board as a guest celebrity and she gave two presentations with question and answer periods following. These sessions occurred on Monday, June 26, 2000 and again on Wednesday, June 28. (My wife keeps an accurate diary.)

In the latter session, Patricia Neal was reminiscing, and said she did not think much of The Subject Was Roses. But I was able in the follow-up question and answer period to address her personally. I told her that I thought she underestimated her performance in the film. (It is fair to say I was nervous speaking with her.) She was gracious in her response and thanked me. June 28, 2000: a day on the North Atlantic that I have long remembered.

QE2 was an intimate ship and my wife and I would pass her occasionally on one of the decks during the crossing. She was rather infirm even then – a decade ago. But today, a day after her death, my memory of Patricia Neal is not of an elderly lady at sea. But my memory is that of a stunning, clear of eye woman in her prime who held her own with the best. And she did so whether the subject was extraterrestrials, the battle of the sexes, war, architecture -- or, of course, when the subject was roses.

An afterword:

Interesting, that when Patricia Neal did the interview with Robert Osborne for Turner Classic Movies in 2004, she spoke much more positively about The Subject was Roses.

This posting has been expanded from a comment I sent to Tom of Motion Picture Gems in March 2010.

Patricia Neal photo by: djabonillojr.2008's photostream

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ella Raines (1920-1988)

Like many of those Hollywood studio storefront towns, the mill town of Snoqualmie Falls does not exist anymore. By the later 1950s, the town had served its purpose. Its occupants moved on, some structures were demolished and others were carted away and settled elsewhere. It ceased to exist after about forty years, and then faded into the receding regions of memory.
The last house, perhaps, leaves from the late Town of Snoqualmie Falls.

The Town of Snoqualmie Falls was initially built during World War I to house mill hands, loggers and their families. The nation was at war and the work force was needed to satisfy the lumber requirements of the war effort. The community comprised some two to three hundred homes and support structures. It was envisioned by Weyerhaeuser that it would exist and operate as would any small town in the country. But it was a rough-hewn community, one imagines, given the nature of the work at hand and the lack of communal history to which planned communities are subject.

But in its short existence, the mill town of Snoqualmie Falls found its way into the ledgers of Hollywood history. On August 6, 1920, born in its environs was one Ella Wallace Raines, who in her early years had an interesting twenty film career. Her stunning image was best cast in the shadows of black and white. She, like her home town, is no longer with us, but she has forever left her mark on this lifelong film enthusiast. Ella Raines: “Kansas” from Phantom Lady. Born on this day, August 6th, in 1920.

Note: Background subject matter and top photo is from an excellent article in Arcade Magazine: Architecture and Design in the Northwest. Gone Missing: The Town Of Snoqualmie Falls. By Don Fels.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

From a Personal Film Library 8

A copy of The Complete Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, given by Basil Rathbone to Ouida Bergere, less than a month after they first met. The front free endpaper is inscribed: “Ouida my own, my dearest / from Basil / Dec 14 1923 / O’ Ye gods render me worthy …” (The quote is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.)

Note: In 1975, Gravesend Books issued: Basil Rathbone: A catalogue of the collection acquired from the estate of Basil and Ouida Rathbone. This inscribed copy of Stevenson’s poems was part of the collection but withheld from inclusion in the catalogue and retained in the library of Enola and Gerald Stewart.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

(Cover art © by Terry Witmer)

Basil Rathbone (1892-1967)

Today, August 1, 2010, Turner Classic Movies features the films of Basil Rathbone to start its Summer under the Stars festival.

In 1975, I worked on the catalogue of the Basil Rathbone Collection for the antiquarian book firm: Gravesend Books. The Proprietress was my wife, Enola Stewart. The catalogue was printed in 500 copies and cast out upon the collector’s waters. The contents virtually sold out in one half hour. Most of the items now reside at Boston University.

It occurred to me that the original Introduction to that long ago catalogue might be of interest. So I have reproduced the text of the original 1975 Introduction (unchanged) into this blog format.

Basil Rathbone: A catalogue of the collection acquired from the estate of Basil and Ouida Rathbone. Including books from their library, personal photograph albums, holograph manuscripts, and letters from celebrities in the performing arts. Also included are scrapbooks, programs, playbills, souvenirs, photographs and ephemera pertaining to their film, stage, television and radio careers. Gravesend Books, 1975. Cover art © by Terry Witmer.


The Man

Basil Rathbone walked on to a stage in 1912 and played Hortensio in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. In 1967, he walked off a sound stage, having completed the film Hillbillies in a Haunted House. What happened to the man's life between those two milestones says much about two countries, our times, and the various art forms that his talent encompassed. The course of his life between those events is represented at its various stages by the material listed within this catalogue.

Early research to provide background for this catalogue indicated that printed information on the actor's life was limited to a few sources. Rathbone detailed his own life in an unsatisfactory book and Michael Druxman catalogued the actor's films, and little else, in a book published in 1975 by a house apparently as uninspired by the subject as was the film organization that conceived the actor's last film.

We cannot fault others for not writing the book that Rathbone did not write himself, but I believe that a biography of Rathbone, if an understanding one will ever be written, can only be written by a biographer with solid credentials in the theatre. Until such a book is written, this collection can provide some insight through the study of the source material within it.

Rathbone married a playwright and this is a significant and consistent point in his life. The playwright was a failure in her chosen craft and I suspect Rathbone's own professional life was a failure by his own standards. Throughout this collection is evidence of his discontent. Only in the bright moments and brief successes of J.B. and The Heiress do we find a satisfied Rathbone. He succeeded financially, and to many of us, aesthetically, in film. But he was a man of the theatre, disillusioned with film, who would write: "It is the shadow of the substance." He viewed film in that light and appeared unable to take it on its own terms.

He left Hollywood in 1946 and returned to a theatre, which if not unhealthy, was at least poor soil for his own new flowering. He had his moments of new growth, but they were few, and he spent his later years bringing talent and enthusiasm to tired summer audiences who confused Noel Coward for Neil Simon, and to young college students who perhaps carried some light from his Evening with Basil Rathbone into their later lives.

But Rathbone belonged to the theatre, which by its nature, unlike film, cannot be preserved in its performers but only in its words. Here then he is preserved, within the limits and life span of words and print and fading pictures; of ink on fragile paper and programs and playbills; all of these -- vestiges of a time when young Shakespearean actors were presented to queens.

Pieces of the whole. Fragments of a career. He has crossed his century and the stage work is ended. And if we will have him reside on Baker Street, it will have to be on film. But I feel the loss he may have felt for himself and for all the audiences who never had the privilege of seeing Basil Rathbone on a stage as Sherlock Holmes, or as Judas, or more sadly -- in his and our waning youth -- as Romeo to Katherine Cornell's Juliet.

The Woman

Ouida Bergere was an established scenarist and a socially prominent member of the film and theatrical community when she met and won the young actor's heart in 1924. Thereafter, as Ouida Rathbone, she was in his shadow but did emerge as a famed party giver, particularly in the Hollywood success period of the late 1930s and early 1940s. She contributed to Basil's career as an advisor and an intermediary. And he adored her.

Throughout the period of their marriage, she wrote a series of unsuccessful, mostly unperformed, plays in a, heavy-handed style that had the essence of being written in magic marker (clutched in) mittens. The plays themselves, with the possible exception of the Liszt piece, lack originality, and are virtually all adapted from other sources, or were the results of inbreeding from her own prior work.

The three dimensional strength and attractiveness that must have resided in the woman is not overly apparent in the two dimensional face of this collection. If the catalogue suggests something akin to a coolness for Ouida, perhaps the cataloguer has lived too long among the effects of others and wandered too far across the bridge from bibliography to biography.

The Collection

Ouida Bergere Rathbone, who survived her husband by seven years, died in November 1974. After her death, the material in this catalogue was acquired over a one year span from two sources. The books were purchased from an estate buyer who had acquired them from the lawyer representing the estate. The scrapbooks, photographs, letters and other memorabilia were willed to the Actor's Fund. These were acquired directly from the Fund a year after the books. Again a few items were acquired from the estate buyer who had since acquired pieces of the collection from the Fund.

Solicitations to purchase elements of the collection before it was catalogued were refused. I wanted the catalogue to become a permanent record of what the Rathbones retained.

The collection is offered as it was acquired. Nothing has been added. Everything has been included except a Robert Louis Stevenson collection of poetry and a Phyfe photograph of Rathbone as Romeo. These were kept by the cataloguer. Nothing was broken down and pictures listed as extracted from scrapbooks were already in that state when acquired. Items were placed together so that material relating to a particular event or performance could be offered as a unit.

Rathbone's books were not kept in collector's condition. They were read, used and annotated. Those books without indication of Rathbone ownership have the following written in pencil on the front free endpaper: "Purchased from the estate of Basil and Ouida Rathbone by Gravesend Books, 1975."