So long, Mickey Rooney

For we classic movie fans, it is impossible not to know and appreciate Mickey Rooney, who we lost yesterday at age 93. I sometimes lament that none of the big stars from Hollywood’s golden age that I like are still alive –only the ones I tend to very much dislike. But Rooney did not fall on the list of disliked stars.

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

I cannot say I have ever been a big Rooney fan, but it is impossible not to respect him. I’ve been exposed to a good number of his work –though a comparatively small portion of the list of 200+ flicks he made–because of the other people he starred with. I think I’ve seen all of the Andy Hardy and other movies he made with Judy Garland, and those films are a good representation of the lighthearted work he did. Then there’s Boys Town and Captains Courageous, which were among those that proved Rooney’s talent for serious performances. Even before he became a box office draw, Rooney made small appearances in comedic and dramatic spots in movies such as Riffraff and Manhattan Melodramarespectively.

His acting preparation backs up his talent. He was not just some cute kid who was cast in movies because he seemed to have a knack for it. Although his family had a vaudeville background and put him on stage reportedly before he could talk, Rooney also attended the Hollywood Professional School, which was also responsible for training Judy Garland and other future stars.

Even as he aged and stopped playing the lovable teenager trying to catch a girl, Rooney made us laugh. Everyone remembers his unrecognizable role as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’sHis career in the later years went up and down but he kept on working in films and on stage.

History will never forget Mickey Rooney, though it will probably remember him best for those films of his youth. But I think in some ways those movies have a universal appeal and can continue to entertain future generations of children, just ask I enjoyed National Velvet as a kid.

What to Watch This Month: Shop Around the Corner

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The shop Around the Corner (1940)

Turner Classic Movies seems to have designated The Shop Around the Corner as the Xmas movie for the network. Year after year they seem to book it during the December holiday season, and this year has it scheduled for both Dec. 16 and Dec. 24. This perfect Ernst Lubitsch picture has certainly failed to transcend generations to become known as a key Xmas movie, being overshadowed by obvious oldies such as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story. The flick nevertheless is set during the holidays and is a perfectly family appropriate movie.

The Shop Around the Corner is set in Budapest, but the location is negligible and could as easily be based on a shop in any big city. Nearly all of the action occurs in said shop where our protagonists will meet, fall in instant hatred of each other and then pursue romances with their pen pals.

The appeal of the story goes beyond the romantic characters, though, as we get to know the other shop workers as well as the shop owner and his folly in purchasing mass quantities of a music box that he cannot sell.

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

Many movies over the years have used the plot device of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love, but in The Shop Around the Corner the story feels so much more natural and less predictable. It is easy to get swept into the romance and to fall in love with the character you initially detested.

If two showings of The Shop Around the Corner were not enough for viewers, TCM has also scheduled In the Good Old Summertime to air Dec. 18 and 24. This musical version of a nearly identical story is set in the opposite time of year and stars the perfectly cast Judy Garland and Van Johnson. I would probably describe it as my favorite Van Johnson movie in addition to being perfect for Garland.

I have always leaned toward the musical version as my favorite, probably because I am not the biggest fan of Jimmy Stewart when it comes to romantic roles. That is not to say he does not go beyond my expectations in the Lubitsch original, but Johnson seems to me more captivating in the later edition. Xmas Eve offers the perfect opportunity to compare them for yourself. Let me know what you think.

  • The Shop Around the Corner is set for 10 a.m. E.T. Dec. 16 and 8 p.m. Dec. 24.
  • In the Good Old Summertime is set for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 18 and 11 a.m. Dec. 24.

Gay Purr-ee

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Gay Purr-ee (1962)

At some point when I was a kid, my parents recorded off the TV some animated movie about cats in Paris. The VCR recording cut off the beginning of the movie and since we did not know the title, it was merely labeled “Cat Robespierre” on the cassette. I am not sure at what point in early adulthood I actually figured out this movie was called Gay Purr-ee but I quickly hunted down and secured a copy on DVD. As it turns out, this UPA-produced cartoon features the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet that were indiscernible to me as child.

I rewatched this movie from my childhood the other day and although the animation would appear crude to today’s CGI-accustomed children, I am still amazed at the quality coming out of 1962. The movie is not only a romantic tale of two cats and a villain, but a tribute to both Paris and the artists that have revered the city.

Garland’s Mewsette and Goulet’s Jaune Tom live on a farm in the French countryside. Jaune Tom is a world-class mouser with skills that put him in a trance any time he spots a rodent. Mewsette, however, is disgusted by this form of sustenance and upon hearing her owner’s sister speak of the champagne and Champs Elysees to be eaten in Paris, has greater plans for herself. The white-furred beauty skips town in this woman’s buggy and train heading to the capital city. Jaune Tom and his tiny pal Robespierre (Red Buttons) immediately take off after Tom’s love but do their travelling on foot.

Once in Paris, Mewsette meets the slick Meowrice (Paul Frees) who immediately identifies her as a victim for his mail-order bride scheme. He sets her up with Madam Rubens-Chatte (Hermione Gingold) –whose figure is reminiscent of some of painter Peter Paul Rubens’ rotund subjects– who owns a boutique to turn young cats into classy felines. When Jaune Tom and Robespierre arrive in town they spot the same joint as a good starting point in their hunt for Mewsette, but before they can enter, Meowrice’s minions snatch the smaller cat, sending his pal on a chase through the sewers to save him.

The story follows the male cats’ endeavors to find Mewsette and Meowrice’s interference along the way as he prepares Mewsette to be shipped to Pennsylvania as the bride to some old, rich cat named Mr. Pfft.

As a kid, Gay Purr-ee was just some entertaining cartoon about cats full of decent songs. As an adult, however, one can see the tribute the picture pays to the art world. Whether the characters are wandering through Vincent Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night” or Henri Toulouse Lautrec’s images of the “Meowlin Rouge”, art history is ever present. Meowrice also narrates a scene in which he sends a variety of paintings of Mewsette to Mr. Phht. He describes the artists’ background as we see recognizable works of art with a white cat inserted in them. It is absolutely fascinating.

I would say that Gay Purr-ee‘s plot seemed much more dramatic as a child and even a bit frightening at times but it does not have the same urgency for me today. Goulet does not convince me as much now of his desperate love for Mewsette, nor does the beginning establish that there was a pre-existing relationship between them. Writing this, however, seems a bit absurd as I am referring to cartoon cats.

I do not know how today’s children would react to the archaic style of animation, but adults would surely appreciate the ingenuity this 50-year-old movie exhibits. Any art history fan would also get a kick out of the many inside jokes the scenery presents and any Judy Garland fan should revel in the opportunity to hear her voice.

Judgment at Nuremberg

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Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

A reporter character in Judgement at Nuremberg says he could not give away a story about the Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials in 1948 because America had moved on from the war and was no longer interested. If Americans were not interested in the trials then, they certainly had no choice but to be in 1961 with the release of this overwhelming movie.

What makes Judgment at Nuremberg so important? Take your pick: the award recognition, the acting or the story. Despite its more than three-hour run time, I was hooked and invested in the story from the start.

The plot follows one specific trial held in Nuremberg, Germany, that sought to determine the guilt of four court judges during the Third Reich and whether they could be held accountable for the atrocities carried out as a result of their sentences. Spencer Tracy plays “backwoods” American Judge Haywood picked to sit on the tribunal with two others and pass judgement on the men. He is put up in a mansion formerly occupied by Marlene Dietrich‘s Madam Bertholt, whose husband was executed at an earlier war crimes trial.

In court, where most of the drama takes place, Hans Rolfe, played by Maximilian Schell, defend the judges on the grounds that they merely delivered on the laws of the country they loved regardless of whether they were morally sound.  Richard Widmark‘s Col. Tad Lawson meanwhile prosecutes the men on the assertion that they perverted justice in enacting the will of Adolph Hitler and subjecting those who came before them to death and sexual sterilization.

Three of the four judges on trial are immediately unlikable, while a fourth, Burt Lancaster‘s Ernst Janning, refuses to recognize the authority of the tribunal and becomes the subject of the majority of testimony we witness through the camera’s lens. We notice early on that Judge Haywood is sympathetic toward Janning and will require undeniable proof that he should be held accountable for the sentences he delivered. The chips seem to be stacked in this man’s favor until a last-minute statement declares his guilt.

The drama in Judgment at Nuremberg is electric. From the moment Max Schell starts to speak in German –hair and spittle flying– one cannot help but be hooked. Director Stanley Kramer used a unique device in allowing audiences to hear the majority of the dialogue in English. The court uses interpreters who translate through headsets worn by whomever in the room does not understand the language being spoken at a given time. During one of Schell’s wild opening lines, his dialogue switches into English as we view him from the interpreter’s booth. Nevertheless, the characters maintain the pretense of relying on the headsets whenever a person of the opposite language is speaking.

Although a number of American actors play German roles, they all do so amazingly. Lancaster is stoic but sympathetic while Judy Garland is a tormented soul on the stand. Montgomery Clift, meanwhile, is spellbinding to watch as the prosecution has him explain the trial leading up to his sexual sterilization and the defense forces a near admission of mental insufficiency. Dietrich is her usual brilliant, German self and has grown even more beautiful with age. Try as she might, she cannot turn off the sex appeal.

Judgment at Nurembergis an incredibly emotional story to watch. Toward the end, footage of the English emancipation of one of the concentration camps is brutally painful and it becomes impossible to not side with the bully of a prosecutor in Widmark. The movie otherwise does an objective job of presenting the two sides of the argument, which is no easy feat.

Ziegfeld Follies

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Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

     This post will be short because how much can one really say about a movie without a plot? Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was world-known for his lavish stage shows that lacked a plot but entertained spectators with one song, dance or comedy vignette after another. The movie Ziegfeld Follies does the same.

     The film was originally completed in 1944, 12 years after Ziegfeld’s death. Some audiences found offensive the opening that features William Powell reprising his role as the showman –previously having played him in The Great Ziegfeld– in heaven devising a new revue. Not having been around to be a fan of Ziegfeld when he was alive, I could not care less as the scene endures for a few minutes before we never see him again.

     There is nothing particularly appealing to me about a movie that strings together unrelated songs, dances and visual effects. Ziegfeld Folliesis not without its gems, however. The movie featured the only time outside of That’s Entertainment II that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dance together. The two were masters in their own way, but their styles are very different, so it is nice to compare and contrast them here. Where Astaire is lanky and fit, Kelly is muscular and nimble. I will always choose Kelly over Astaire for multiple reasons –voice, dance style, looks– but the two are well matched when dancing together.

     Really the one reason I sought to watch Ziegfeld Follies was for Judy Garland‘s appearance in it. She acts and sings in a comedy sketch as “The Great Lady”, a character very different for her. The scene was originally planned for Greer Garson to mock herself, but the actress had turned it down. Garland, therefore, plays a snooty, self-loving super actress with a refined, Garson-esque voice that shows yet another facet of her acting talent. She welcomes a group of reporters and puts on a dramatic show of flitting about her apartment and posing for any photos that might want to be snapped. The scene is fun, absurd and makes Garland look absolutely stunning. We can probably thank Director Vincente Minnelli for that.

     The movie is packed with a long list of other stars, some more entertaining than others. If you enjoy just watching a bunch of talent paraded about for two hours, then Ziegfeld Follies is for you, but as far as I am concerned, a plot is necessary to keep me from getting distracted.

Source: TCM.com

Pigskin Parade

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Pigskin Parade (1936)

     On the whole, there is nothing particularly notable about Pigskin Parade and its plot. The movie, nevertheless can be distinguished as earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and being Judy Garland‘s feature film debut. Although the young woman had appeared in some short subject spots on the big screen, this was her first real picture. The movie is a musical of sorts with only moderately notable songs, but Garland sort of knocks you over with that mature voice and such innocent and immature face.

     Garland does not arrive until at least a third of the picture through. First, Yale University will accidentally chose Texas State University –instead of the intended University of Texas– for a charity football game that is of great importance to the school. They do not want a team that is too skilled but also do not want the tiny state university whose team is no contender. TSU happens to have just hired a new coach coming off a successful high school job. This Slug Winters (Jack Haley) brings with him wise-cracking wife Bessie (Patsy Kelly) and is immediately in over his head. He soon teaches the team, which is primarily made up of great basketball players, to play football like the other sport. All is great until Bessie injures the star quarterback.

     Luckily for Bessie’s neck, she stumbles upon a redneck who can accurately chuck a watermelon an incredible distance and has large feet great for running and kicking as well. This Amos Dodd (Stuart Erwin) agrees to enroll in the university on the promise of pretty girls. He brings with him kid sister Sairy (Garland) who wants to get some proper singing lessons. The football team again becomes a hit although the interference of a certain college co-ed (Arline Judge) makes Amos unsure he wants to stick around. The team heads north for their game against Yale and the players find themselves in a snow storm. Nevertheless, the team predictably prevails.

     Pigskin Parade is marked by entertaining musical numbers not only by Garland –whose character is repeatedly offering to sing for people only to be turned down until the movie is more than half over– but by the Yacht Club Boys and their original ditties. This group of men are great singers and wonderfully expressive making their performances eye-catching. The songs contained in the picture are nothing to write home about, but they are well delivered.

     Garland gives a cute performance as a dirty country bumpkin, crinkling her nose and talking in broken English. It is Erwin who earned the Oscar nod playing an even more ignorant Texan than Garland. He is entertaining but there were certainly more deserving performances in 1936.

  • Pigskin Parade is set for 10 a.m. ET April 22 on TCM.

Feature: 6 Degrees of Separation

Olivia de Havilland

Judy Garland

Certain members of the Classic Movie Blog Association are engaging in a game of classic actor Six Degrees of Separation by which we try to connect two seemingly unconnected stars through the other actors they have worked with (think of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). The group has moved through several rounds and has landed on Judy Garland and Olivia de Haviland.

The Ambassador's Daughter (1956)

Dawn at Noir and Chick Flicks progressed the connection to Adolphe Menjou and chosen me to keep it going. Although I’m quite familiar with Judy Garland, I am less versed on both Menjou and de Haviland. Menjou engaged in a long list of films that go back into the silent era, but I have mostly seen him in supporting roles, and his work therefore registers less easily. De Haviland has never been an overt favorite of mine, so I have not pursued many of her films. Thanks to the handy dandy Internet, however, I discovered that Menjou and de Haviland appeared in a movie together: The Ambassador’s Daughter from 1956.

Being that I have completed the connection between Garland and de Haviland (It went Garland and Deana Durbin in Every Sunday to Durbin and Menjou in One Hundred Men and a Girl to The Ambassador’s Daughter.), it is now my duty to choose the next pair of stars other bloggers will now have to connect. To make it challenging I’ll select Grace Kelly who only made 14 films and challenge Becky at Classic Becky’s Brain Food to connect the princess to Charlie Chaplin. Good Luck!

Ziegfeld Girl

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Ziegfeld Girl (1941)

 
     Lana Turner‘s Sheila is picked by Mr. Ziegfeld when he spots her operating an elevator. She happens to already possess the poise necessary to walk gracefully down a flight of stairs with a book balanced on her head. Hedy Lamarr‘s Sandra is at the theater while her husband Franz (Philip Dorn) auditions as a violinist. He does not get the job but Sandra does land employment. Judy Garland as Susan gets approved for a cast spot after Mr. Ziegfeld follows through on seeing her in a father-daughter vaudeville act. The three women become friends but their involvement in the follies will impact their lives differently.
 
     The plot puts the greatest emphasis on Sheila who gets the most attention from audience members. She is dating Jimmy Stewart as Gilbert, a truck driver working toward the responsibility of hauling a larger load, which would hopefully precipitate the couple’s marriage. Sheila’s newfound attention, however, has her meeting a lot of wealthy men, one of whom she permanently goes around with in exchange for a lavish apartment and loads of shoes and furs. Sandra’s love life is also toppled by the success of the show. Although she loves her husband, he disagrees with the woman supporting him and the two split up, with Sandra moving into a boarding house. The woman takes up with a married singer in the cast thinking it will be a safe platonic relationship; although, the man has other plans. Lastly, Susan struggles with separating from her performer father (Charles Winninger) but manages to impress the casting director with her spectacular singing and gets a bigger place in the show. Her love life is marked by Sheila’s younger brother Jerry (Jackie Cooper), and the two have a standard young-person courtship.

Lana, Hedy and Judy

 
     Ziegfeld Girl is one of those instances when Garland found herself feeling rather inadequate among the stars of MGM. The studio was generally known for having the most glamorous actors on its roster and Garland failed to meet the standard. I previously mentioned Louis B. Mayer’s nicknames for the girl, and her casting alongside the exotic Hedy Lamarr and stunning Lana Turner only emphasized her insecurities. Nevermind that her character is essentially relegated into adolescence –despite Garland being only two years younger than Turner– while the other stars battle with big-time romantic turmoil.  
 
     The Sheila character in Ziegfeld Girl not only screws up her love life but spirals into alcoholism, which eventually impacts her career and threatens her life. The character was originally depicted as dying before the film’s close but initial audiences reacted poorly to that ending. The movie instead shows the woman in a dying state before action switches to the stage and the film closes on a high note, although with Sheila’s fate ambiguous. The picture also seems to have a major flaw in terms of costuming. If the plot is meant to take place in the 20s, the fashions are reflective of the 40s when the movie was made. The follies ran on Broadway from 1907 to 1931.
 
  • Ziegfeld Girl is set for 10:15 a.m. ET Jan. 25 on TCM.
 
Sources: Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clark, TCM.com

What to Watch Thanksgiving: Musicals

Musicals tend to be very family friendly fare, which is possibly why Turner Classic Movies has sprinkled several throughout the day and night Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. At the top of my list is Judy Garland‘s great Meet Me in St. Louis.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

I feel like the plot of this story of a large St. Louis family in 1903 does not matter much in the grand scheme of things. The narrative is marked by the romances of Garland’s Ester with the neighbor boy and sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) hopes her long-distance boyfriend will get around to proposing. The family as a whole also struggles with the idea of moving to New York as a year goes by.

The songs in Meet Me in St. Louis are among the reasons to watch the flick. Many famous numbers we still remember today are just as enjoyable out of the context of the film as they are in. Among them is the title song, the Oscar-nominated “Trolley Song” that was filmed in one take and Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This picture marks the first encounter of Garland and Director Vincent Minnelli. The two feuded on set until Garland viewed the daily rushes and discovered how beautiful Minnelli was making her look. The young star had all kinds of confidence issues about her appearance, some of which stem from Louis B. Mayer’s pet names of “ugly duckling” and “my little hunchback.” The woman had also been reluctant to take the part that returned her persona to that of a teenager because she had finally found success in adult roles, such as For Me and My Gal. The new-found chemistry between the star and director led to a marriage in 1945 and four subsequent films. Despite being gay, Minnelli would father Liza with Judy before the two divorced in 1951.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a great way to see Judy in one of her best roles and to sing along with the family to the memorable songs.

Musicals scheduled on TCM for Turkey Day include:

  • Meet Me in St. Louis at 10 a.m. ET.
  • The Music Man at 1:45 p.m.
  • Anything Goes at 8 p.m.
  • Shall We Dance at 3 a.m.
  • Flying with Music at 5 a.m.

Source: Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clark

Everybody Sing

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Everybody Sing (1938)

I think I am pretty safe in saying if often takes actors that will become big stars a few years before they start appearing in highly entertaining productions. Judy Garland, who was recognized pretty quickly by MGM executive Louis B. Mayer as a goldmine, surprised me with Everybody Sing, which is a musical that not only contains a really entertaining cast and script but fantastic musical numbers as well.

By the time this film was released in 1938, Garland had three others under her belt, although those include Broadway Melody of 1938 (released in 1937), which featured Judy in a very small role, and Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, which I have previously reviewed as a mediocre spot for the youth. Everybody Sing was a great step forward as it offered the leading role to the teenager and would be followed in the same year by Garland’s first Andy Hardy movie and then another sour production in Listen, Darling.

What is most resounding about Everybody Sing is surely the cast. Garland as Judy Bellaire is mothered by Billie Burke who would become Glinda in Wizard of Oz, fathered by Reginald Owen, lives with maid Olga, played by Fanny Brice, and is friends with Allan Jones‘ Ricky Saboni. Judy is expelled from her girl’s school after being caught jazzing up some tunes in her vocal class, but when she returns home the girl is unable to get a word in edgewise to inform her self-centered family of the trouble. The father is a play writer, the mother is an actress who gets her current production’s lines mixed in with her personal dialogue, and her sister is absorbed in singing lessons and secret boyfriend/house cook Ricky. Only Olga and Ricky will hear of her trouble.

When Judy discovers that Ricky makes his real living singing at a restaurant, she immediately gets herself on stage and is adored by the audience. The family, however, is rather set on sending Judy to Europe to straighten her out and keep her away from the performing profession in which the rest of the family engages. Judy conspires with a voyage-mate, however, to have pre-written postcards mailed at each destination on the trip while she ducks off the boat and proceeds to live a secret life performing at the restaurant. A regrettable blackface performance ensues as part of this process.

In the midst of all this, Ricky struggles to maintain a romantic relationship with Judy’s sister, Sylvia (Lynn Carver), who has falsely gotten herself engaged to her mother’s stage partner Jerrold (Reginald Gardiner) to split up whatever romantic entanglement might be occurring there. Ultimately, all is resolved and the film closes on a major musical revue backed by Ricky himself and staring Judy and even the maid, Olga.

The Bellaire family reminded me very much of the Bullocks of My Man Godfrey except this bunch is theatrically inclined as a profession, not as a mere part of their insanity. The poor servants struggle to do their duties while dealing with their masters’ eccentricities. For instance, Olga desperately seeks to discover how many individuals will be staying for dinner because she has only four squab she must divide among what turn out to be seven eaters. Ultimately, the family gets spaghetti.

I had never seen Brice in a film before, although I recently watched Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand, which is about Brice’s career and marriage, although a largely fictionalized account. The resemblance between Brice’s actual acting and the performance of Streisand is pretty strikingly similar. Although I found Brice to be quite comical and much like a female Chico Marx –although with a Russian rather than Italian accent in this case– she could get to be a bit obnoxious after a while. Still, I’m glad to have finally seen the comedienne first hand.

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