Tag Archives: oscars

Musicals at the Academy Awards

It came as little surprise to moviegoers when it was announced on January 24th, 2017, that La La Land had been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, tying the record for most nominations received by a single film (with Titanic and All About Eve). A critical and commercial success, La La Land is both a film made for modern audiences and a loving throwback to the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical. Time will tell whether La La Land will sweep the Oscars (although predictions skew in that direction), but its role is not without historical precedent.

To date, only ten musicals have won the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture. An American in Paris (1951) was the fourth to achieve this honor. In the following excerpt from He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly, authors Cynthia and Sara Brideson discuss the 24th Academy Awards, at which American and Kelly were to achieve special recognition:


If Gene believed that Hollywood and America as a whole did not grant him the recognition he deserved, he was soon to be proven wrong. The honor Hollywood lavished upon Gene after he left for Europe confirmed that his artistry was far from overlooked in his native country. Never in the history of film had a musical ever received as many Oscar nominations as Gene’s An American in Paris. The picture received nods in eight categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, Best Color Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing.

Most significant, Gene was announced as the recipient of the annual Honorary Oscar. The category, created in 1948, acknowledged cinematic achievements not covered by existing Academy Awards. Gene was only the second dancer to receive such recognition (Fred Astaire received one at the 1950 awards ceremony). Though pleased with the award, Gene still voiced regret that he had not been nominated as Best Actor. “The idea that musical [actors] are less worthy of Academy consideration than drama[tic ones] is a form of snobbishness.”

In truth, the honorary Oscar did pay tribute to Gene’s acting ability as well as his dancing talent. On March 20, 1952, the night of the awards ceremony, the president of the Academy, Charles Brackett, stated that Gene had earned his statuette through his “extreme versatility as an actor-singer, director, and dancer . . . and because of his specific and brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” From Europe, Gene requested that Stanley Donen accept the Oscar for him. Vincente Minnelli admitted that Gene’s decision hurt his feelings, particularly because Donen had had no part in the production of An American in Paris.

Gene was not the only one to receive an honorary Oscar that night. Arthur Freed took home the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, given to a different producer each year. The Freed Unit was sweeping the Oscars; before Best Picture was announced, An American in Paris had already won two honorary awards plus Best Costume Design, Best Color Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, and Best Screenplay (not to be confused with Best Adapted Screenplay, which went to A Place in the Sun). However, in the Best Picture category, An American in Paris faced heady competition. In a year that sported such prestigious titles as A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen, and A Place in the Sun, a musical picture with a thin story line seemed the least likely to win the award. Presenter Jesse Lasky could not conceal his surprise when he opened the envelope. “Oh my!” he exclaimed. “The winner for Best Picture is An American in Paris.” The audience was silent except for a few gasps of shock. But slowly, hearty applause erupted, which only became more vigorous when Freed trotted up to the stage, clearly moved. As he cradled the statuette with the honorary one he had already received, he quipped, “It’s a double header!” He continued on a more serious note: “Thank you. And thank you from my brilliant associates who made this possible: Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and a great studio with real courage and leadership who supported me. Thank you.”


For those interested in learning more about the life of Gene Kelly, the Brideson’s new and comprehensive biography is available for pre-order here. Or visit our Twitter for details on how to win an advance copy of the book.

5 Forgotten Films of Joseph E. Levine

Levine (center), pictured with his wife Rosalie and Howard Koch of Paramount

From the middle of January to the end of February, Hollywood finds itself in the midst of Oscar season, a time when the recent achievements of various actors, directors, and many others involved in the film business are celebrated widely. It is also be a time when the history of Hollywood is remembered for all its many characters. One such character was Joseph E. Levine, one of the most prolific producers of the middle twentieth century.

UKY05 Showman of the Screen Selected.inddBorn into the slums of Boston’s West End, Levine became a true American success story. His showmanship, boundless energy, and a fondness for both risk-taking and profanity made him one of the most recognizable personalities in show business. But despite being—by his own dubious accounting—involved in nearly five hundred films over the course of his life, Levine is barely remembered today. Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Production, a new biography by award-winning film writer A. T. McKenna, reveals the streetwise hustler, hawker, name-dropper and capricious and contradictory promoter who excited audiences and forever changed modern movie marketing. While he worked on films as notable as The Graduate (1967) and as notorious as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), he also produced many films that are now mostly forgotten. Presented here are just five, but there are many more.

The Oscar: Hollywood has always loved a story about itself (as recent critical favorite La La Land demonstrates) but rare is the film in which the Academy Awards themselves constitute a plot point. The Oscar (1966) goes against that trend to present the story of Frankie Fane, a self-absorbed actor who attempts to secure a Best Actor win after an unexpected nomination. Although it was, in fact, nominated for two Oscars (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design), it was also labeled as one of the worst films of the year and ensured that Tony Bennett (who saw his film debut in it) would never play a dramatic role again.

Mad Monster Party?: The Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town) have been a staple of American culture since their debut in the 1960s, but did you know that they also (in conjunction with Levine) released a monster mash theatrical film? In the traditional stop-motion style of their best known features, Mad Monster Party? sees Baron Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff, in his last work in the Frankenstein mythos) summon the monsters of the world (among them Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon) to his castle to inform them of his discovery of the secret of total destruction. Shenanigans ensue, in typical Rankin/Bass fashion, and the film has since attained a cult status.

The Day of the Dolphin: In this 1973 film, George C. Scott plays a scientist who trains dolphins to speak English. After two of his dolphins are stolen, he learns of a plot to use them to assassinate the President of the United States by placing a mine on the hull of the President’s yacht, and must race against time to stop it. Although the film was met with critical ambivalence and weak box office returns, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Sound.

Magic: Many remember The Princess Bride, but few know that its writer William Goldman also wrote Magic, a 1978 film in which Anthony Hopkins played a failed magician who turns to ventriloquism but soon finds himself killing friends and enemies at the will of his dummy. Originally, Gene Wilder was chosen to play the lead, but Levine refused on the grounds that he was making a serious movie, and the appearance of a comedian in the lead role would detract from that. Although widely praised on its release, the film has since passed into relative obscurity.

Tattoo:  The last film ever produced by Levine, Tattoo (1981) told the story of a disturbed tattoo artist (Bruce Dern) who becomes obsessed with a model and kidnaps her with the intent of making her into a canvas for his art. Although its promotional materials (which featured a woman’s legs covered in tattoos and bound by cloth) were met with uproar by some, the film failed to make any dent in the critical or commercial landscape.

More film stories as well as many anecdotes about Levine’s life (including details about his feuds with George C. Scott and Peter O’Toole, among others) can be found in Showman of The Screen by A.T. McKenna.

           

Summer under the Stars: Joan Fontaine

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Olivia de Havilland publicity photo, circa 1940. Photo via Wikipedia

Today is the 100th birthday of Olivia de Haviland, the last surviving star of Gone with the Wind. Her younger sister was Joan Fontaine, one of the great Hollywood leading ladies of the 1940s. Only 15 months apart, they were the only pair of siblings to win lead acting Oscars.

 

Fontaine’s performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the Oscar-winning 1940 film, lifted her into the top ranks of dramatic actresses. She followed up that success in 1941 with Hitchcock’s Suspicion, for which she won the Best Actress Academy Award.

In Conversations with Classic Film Stars, James Bawden’s interview with Fontaine demonstrates that despite being one of the brightest stars in the film industry at the time, a life in Hollywood wasn’t always sensational and glamorous. Fontaine also elaborates on her long-standing feud with her sister Olivia.

Setting the Scene

I first met Joan Fontaine at a Toronto hotel where she was peddling her tell-all 1979 autobiography No Bed of Roses. There was a second interview in 1987 in an L.A. screening room when Fontaine was promoting her appearance in the TV documentary The RKO Story. And a few years later she appeared on a panel with Tommy Tune and Stanley Kramer for The Movie Channel and we lunched afterward.

The Interview

BAWDEN: Why did you decide to become an actress?

FONTAINE: I needed a job. My sister (Olivia De Havilland) was doing nicely at Warners, so I became Joan Burfield for RKO and had a bit part in Katharine Hepburn’s movie Quality Street (1937).

BAWDEN: What happened?

FONTAINE: I bombed at RKO. They made me Fred Astaire’s leading lady in Damsel in Distress (1937) only because first choice Jessie Matthews had to bow out due to schedule changes. I remember walking along a path and Fred dancing around me. I was truly awful!

BAWDEN: But you managed to get into some big pictures.

FONTAINE: In bit roles. George Cukor hired me as the insignificant ninny who is part of The Women (1939). I really only had a telephone scene to strut my stuff and George lit it as carefully as Norma Shearer’s close ups. And I met Joan Crawford on that set and I continued to get Xmas cards from her until she passed. Both Paulette Goddard and I had tiny parts. When MGM re-released it in 1946, we were elevated to top star billing! And I had a bit as Doug Fairbanks, Jr.’s sweetheart in Gunga Din (1939). I remember, after a day of shooting, I looked out the window and saw Doug and his current flame, Marlene Dietrich, off to some grand soiree all dressed up and I sighed. Because that kind of glamour always eluded me.

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Joan Fontaine (right) shies away from Judith Anderson in Rebecca, the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1940. Courtesy of Selznick International and United Artists.

BAWDEN: What do you remember of the making of Rebecca?

 

FONTAINE: How miserable I was. Larry Olivier had tested with his wife, Viv Leigh, but (producer) David Selznick said it was too early after (his) Gone With the Wind. In fact scenes from Gone With the Wind were being done at the same time as we started. I also know Loretta Young and Maggie Sullavan had tested, but both were considered too American. Finally David said, “I guess it will have to be you,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement.
The best thing is that David was so busy with the last minute details of Gone with the Wind that he stayed away for long periods of time, which was unusual for him. Hitch (director Alfred Hitchcock) simply refused to discuss characterization. Occasionally they’d met for a great blow up. One of the scenes had the young lovers meeting in the hotel lift. David came on set and told Hitch to do it again because he’d paid for the construction of a great breakfast room and he wanted to show it off. Hitch did as told–this was his first movie (in America) and he had no clout.

Larry and Judith Anderson were very mean to me, but I now see this only increased my performance because I had nothing else to fall back on, no technique. Oscar night I was in a hissy fit. I didn’t want to win, I was only 23. David insisted I would, but he was wrong. Ginger Rogers walked away with it that year. And as it turned out, Rebecca was the only David Selznick movie I would ever star in.

BAWDEN: But he promptly loaned you and Hitch out to RKO for Suspicion and you won the Oscar.

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Joan Fontaine suspects husband Cary Grant is trying to kill her in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. She won the 1941 Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Courtesy of RKO and United Artists Television.

FONTAINE: Hitch was angry David demanded so much off the top for us that there wasn’t an adequate budget for production.  At the time I was very contemptuous of Cary Grant. I thought he was only interested in himself. Re-watching the film, I see how he threw whole scenes to me. He seemed aloof at the time, but he never was the gregarious sort. I loved knowing Nigel Bruce — so warm, so winning. Hitch kept mumbling all the time it didn’t look at all like England. But neither did Rebecca, really! This time I got the Oscar. It changed my life. It changed my relationship with David, too.

 

BAWDEN: Explain.

FONTAINE: After Rebecca, he went out of production for three whole years. He started a lavish remake of Jane Eyre. I’d be Jane. Another Selznick director, Bob Stevenson, would direct it. Orson Welles was signed. David did all sorts of market tests and finally concluded the public would confuse it with Rebecca, so he sold the whole thing, sets, scripts, cast, crew to Darryl Zanuck who had a huge success. People always ask me did Orson interfere? Well, he certainly tried to! But Bob was a guy who knew movies inside out. And there was our cinematographer George Barnes, who had trained Greg Toland.

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Joan Fontaine with Orson Welles in Jane Eyre (1944). Courtesy of 20th Century-Fox.

BAWDEN: But you are too pretty to play Jane!

 

FONTAINE: Kind sir! This was Hollywood after all. I first met little Elizabeth Taylor on that set, all about 10 years old, Dresden china features. It’s one of my faves to this day.

BAWDEN: how did your relationship with Selznick evolve?

FONTAINE: He sold my services to the biggest bidder and pocketed the profits.  I wanted to only do a picture a year. David needed money to pay for all his failed ventures. I think he’d pay me $2,000 weekly for 10 weeks and get up to $150,000 for my services. You do the math. I didn’t much want to do This Above All (1942), but it was with Ty Power, who was the biggest leading man around at the time and it was a good picture to make for wartime audiences.

BAWDEN: Then you played a 12-year old in The Constant Nymph (1943).

FONTAINE: A few years back, Turner Classic Movies arranged a screening for me. I watched in awe. I was really good and then I staggered into the sunlight in desperate search of a gin and tonic. This was the movie that really started the Joan-Olivia feud. I was at Olivie’s home studio. I’d gotten the assignment after director Teddy Goulding had turned her down as too mature. I did not know that at the time. Teddy was a magician. He drew from me emotions I never knew I had and also from Alexis Smith, who was only 24 at the time and playing a frosty beauty of 35.

BAWDEN: You brought it up so I have to ask about your famous feud with your sister.

FONTAINE: It takes two to feud. I know how Livvie was shocked the night in 1942 I won an Oscar over her. But I’ve always tried to make amends. She was shocked when our mother (Lillian Fontaine) started acting–she played Ray Milland’s landlady in The Lost Weekend (1945). I’m always shocking her, but she doesn’t ever shock me. We’re so close in birth terms, we’re more like twins and twins do quarrel on occasion, right?

[. . .]

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Fontaine publicity photo, circa 1943. Photo via Wikipedia.

BAWDEN: You once said Ivy (1947) was your favorite film.

 

FONTAINE: Why not! I Get to poison the cast, which is an actress’ s dream. Bill Cameron Menzies, who designed Gone With the Wind, designed it and the sets are fantastic. And we later did a sort of modern day version called Born To Be Bad (1950), which is another favorite.

[. . .]

BAWDEN: At MGM you were the loveliest Rowena in Ivanhoe (1952).

FONTAINE: That got me going at MGM and I later made Until They Sail (1957)  I was 40 by then, playing the frumpy sister who never married. Paul Newman told me he’d grown up on my movies, but Paul was only eight years younger! And I had a 20th Century-Fox period with Island in the Sun, Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea and Tender is the Night.

BAWDEN: I remember Island in the Sun (1957 ) was considered highly controversial.

FONTAINE: I played Harry Belafonte’s lover but we were not allowed to touch hands, let alone kiss. One day I casually brushed against his arm and alarm bells went off with the censor, who considered it racial and we had to re-shoot the scene. But I much preferred Voyage because I fell into the fish tank and got eaten by Peter Lorre’s shark. I was the older wife in A Certain Smile (1958) and everybody at 20th said how big a star Christine Carere was going to be. Nobody ever heard from her again!

[. . .]

 

AFTERWORD

Joan Fontaine’s final screen appearance was in a made-for-TV movie, Good King Wenceslas (1994) for cable’s The Family Channel. She died in her sleep in her home in Carmel, CA, on December 15, 2013. She was ninety-six.

Golden Galley Awards: Day Two

Day 2 No Rules

The Golden Galley Awards start back up again today, featuring another photo from Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller. Did you identify from where this scene took place? Featuring one of classic Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs, Cary Grant, and the iconic Katharine Hepburn in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story (image courtesy of MGM and TV station KTVU of Oakland, CA). Here’s what Grant had to say about The Philadelphia Story and working with Miss Hepburn in his interview with James Bawden:

“Grant: [Hepburn is a] real character. She’ll try anything. I taught her acrobatics and she even does a turn in Holiday. She was always standing on my shoulders and heaving into a rolling fall. In Bringing Up Baby, we had the sweetest leopard to work with, very adorable, always purring when petted. When they substituted the nasty leopard, Kate got scratched up. So in the scene when she’s dragging the leopard into the police station, they double-printed the leopard in later. Look closely and you’ll see the strands of rope don’t match.

In the final scene, we had one chance at doing it on top of the dinosaur skeleton or somebody could get hurt. I trained Kate myself. She was fearless. There was no mattress on the floor. I had her let me grab her, not by her hands because her arms would pop out of the sockets. I grabbed her by her wrists and we’re up there tossing back and forth as the skeleton crashes. Scariest thing I’d ever done, but Kate said it was wonderful and talked
about deserting acting for acrobatics!

I tried to get out of Philadelphia Story because my part was small. So in the movie version Hepburn doesn’t have a brother. I got all those lines. But it still didn’t flow. On the last day of shooting, Cukor came up with the visual gag that opens the movie: Dexter is moving out and she comes behind him and breaks all his golf clubs over her knee. Then I push her violently backwards, using her face to push her away. Of course, there was a mattress out of camera range, but most big stars would have hollered. On the second take Kate merely said, “Push harder, if you like.”

Of the four stars—Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Ruth Hussey all got Oscar nominations and Jimmy won. How do you think that made me feel?”

If you want to see more interviews like this one, be sure to sign up for our Golden Galleys Contest! All submissions are due by midnight tonight. To enter, just click here.

Trumbo at the Oscars

We’re taking a brief pause from our Golden Galley contest today to put the spotlight on one of the men who has been sweeping the 2016 Oscar scene: Dalton Trumbo.The writing legend has returned from the dead in the 2015 biopic, Trumbo, which has landed Brian Cranston a nomination for the coveted Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. While the man himself is not present in the film, new life is brought to his story, one that is filled with trials, snubs, and social oppression beyond belief.

Although Trumbo is widely recognized for his work as a screenwriter, playwright, and author, he is also remembered as one of the Hollywood Ten who opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee. Refusing to answer questions about his prior involvement with the Communist Party, Trumbo sacrificed a successful career in Hollywood to stand up for his rights and defend political freedom.

The blacklist ended for Trumbo in 1960, when he received screen credits for Exodus and Spartacus. Just before his death, he received a long-delayed Academy Award for The Brave One, and in 1993, he was posthumously given an Academy Award for Roman Holiday (1953). This is what his wife, Cleo, had to say at the ceremony that presented his posthumous Oscar, which is excerpted from the UPK book, Dalton Trumbo:Blacklisted Hollywood Radical:

“I don’t want to leave you with the impression that living under the blacklist was a steady procession of motion picture assignments and secret honors. It was not. Earning a living was a precarious business. The Hollywood blacklist put hundreds of people out of work, and, across the country, loyalty oaths forced thousands more out of their jobs in all walks of life, from the factory to the university. It was a time of fear and no one was exempt. Dalton called it ‘The Time of the Toad’…

This award makes the declaration that “The Time of the Toad” in our community has passed. But if we are not wise enough to learn the lessons of the blacklist, I am afraid that at some future time another generation will be faced with the same circumstance. Once again men and women will find themselves compelled to risk everything in a fight they did not choose, and stand up for the principles so eloquently stated in our Constitution.”

For more information about, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical, click here.

Day One of the Golden Galleys

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Today is the first official day of our Golden Galleys Award competition, where you can receive an advanced reading copy of Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era by James Bawden and Ron Miller completely free of charge! During this competition, we will be giving away three copies on three separate days. To participate in the competition, all you have to do is come up with something witty for the featured actors to say and submit it to the email address listed above.

Today’s Golden Galley image shows Rory Calhoun coming onto Marilyn Monroe in 1954’s River of No Return (image courtesy of 20th Century Fox). In Calhoun’s interview with Ron Miller, he discusses the excitement of working with some of Hollywood’s greatest leading actresses of the time:

Miller: Once you were back at Fox, you really started to get career momentum after your romantic role opposite Susan Hayward in With a Song in My Heart. How was she to work with?

Calhoun: She was marvelous—a real pro. God, what a pleasure to work with that lady!

Miller: And of course the studio put you into two of its big Cinema-Scope pictures with Marilyn Monroe—How to Marry a Millionaire and River of No Return. Your memory of Marilyn?

Calhoun: She was a phenomenon that I doubt like hell this town will ever see the likes of again. There have been a lot of people trying to copy her one way or another—and to me, they’re third stringers.

Miller: In River of No Return, you lost her to Robert Mitchum. Like you, he’s an actor who had his hard times in the tabloids. What do you think of him?

Calhoun: He’s one of the greatest guys you’ll ever meet in your whole life. I’m very fond of Bob. He’s a hell of a guy. I guess we could have swapped roles [in that picture], but he was right for that and I was right for what I was doing because I was more greasy, more slick. Well, let’s face it: that’s where it is. I had this shitty look. That’s what they wanted and that’s what I gave ’em. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of effort involved.”

Conversations with Classic Film Stars is set to release this coming April. If you can’t wait that long, be sure to enter into our contest. For more information on the book, click here.

The Golden Galley Awards

In honor of awards show season, UPK has decided to host a competition of its own…

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Presenting the Golden Galley Awards! For those of you who don’t know, a galley is an advanced reading copy of a book that is soon to be in print. These copies are usually mailed off for advertisement purposes, but we have reserved three copies of an upcoming book, Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews with Hollywood’s Golden Era by James Bawden and Ron Miller which was featured on our blog yesterday, for our devoted social media followers.

Here’s how the competition is going to work. We will be giving away one galley a day on February 24, 26, and 28, and you may enter to win by participating in a speech bubble competition. We will be posting photos from Classic Film Stars on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts on these days (just one photo per day), which will feature a classic actor/actress or combination of the two who need some help determining what they could be saying in the photo. It will look something like this:

The Rules

When you see the picture come up on one of our social media accounts, the first step is to retweet, like, or share the photo. This step is crucial to the competition–we will be verifying that you have completed this step before selecting a winner. Step two is to take a nice, long look at the featured photo and muster up the wittiest, cleverest thing you think of to create a creative and hilarious picture. Once you have determined this, email your response to kentuckypress@gmail.com in order to be considered a contender for the day.

If you are selected as a winner, we will contact you by email to congratulate you personally and discuss the details of sending you your Golden Galley. Additionally, we will also display the image complete with your captions on various forms of social media to show off the creative mastermind that you are. We wish the best of luck to everyone! Be sure to check back tomorrow for the first opportunity to win your own 2016 Golden Galley Award.