Sunday, October 31, 2010

LIZZIE (1957)

The Hugo Haas-directed Lizzie (1957), based on the 1954 novel The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson, was adapted for the screen by Mel Dinelli. Lizzie's producers (which included actor Kirk Douglas) sued to have the release of a similar-themed production, the bigger-budgeted The Three Faces of Eve, postponed. Both dealt with a woman harboring three distinct personalities. The major studio (Fox) release was delayed for six months, but it did the bare-boned-budgeted Lizzie no good. Joanne Woodward received an Academy Award for her portrayal in Eve, while Eleanor Parker’s riveting, edgier performance was shut out of even a nomination. Some blame this slight on Hugo Haas’s direction of Parker’s “bad girl” personality. They claim he encouraged her to overact. Watching the film today, however, the extremes work against each other perfectly. Haas’s subtle, no-nonsense handling of the trance scenes have a raw, in-your-face intensity that was lacking in the glossier Eve. The movie is stark, the atmosphere bleak and uncompromising. The week-long shoot was key in keeping Lizzie's story tight and nervy. Hugo has a nice supporting part as a sympathetic neighbor. His banter with Joan Blondell, playing Lizzie’s stewed-to-the-gills aunt, has charm, and he shows genuine concern for the plight of the young girl. Richard Boone attractively plays the doc who wrestles with Lizzie’s cluttered mind. Ric Roman plays the usual Haas hottie, while Marion Ross, years from TV’s Happy Days, plays Lizzie’s co-worker and friend. The working titles for this film were Hidden Faces and Woman in Hell.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


“WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE UNGUARDED YOUNGSTERS? Learn the truth in RKO Radio's fearless drama.” Vastly different than anything producer Val Lewton had done before, Youth Runs Wild mixes elements of exploitation, social commentary, and crime drama into an uneasy concoction. Lewton, after guiding along the inventive, soon-to-be influential horror classics Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), wanted a change of pace, and RKO gave it to him with this atypical feature. First titled The Dangerous Age, about children running amok during wartime, the screenplay was ostensibly based on a Look magazine photo essay, "Are These Our Children?,” which appeared in the September 11, 1943, issue. RKO released a "This is America" short subject, Children of Mars (1943), with the same theme in October; it would be highly lauded and be nominated for an Oscar. Youth Runs Wild wasn’t so lucky. The story was topical and with the film’s minimal budget it should have struck a chord with audiences and been at least a modest success. Lewton employed as his technical advisor 18-year-old Ruth Clifton, an Illinois teenager who had founded a youth recreation center in her hometown of Moline. Her work inspired similar movements across the country to combat wartime juvenile delinquency. Monogram studios had a similarly-themed movie released at the same time, Where Are Your Children? (1943), a movie starring Jackie Cooper advertised as “The first drama of Juvenile Delinquency to reach the screen!”

Good intentions came to naught. Reportedly, test screenings went poorly and censorship issues were so strict that the studio re-cut Lewton’s version and renamed it. The film still lost money at the box office. Look was so disgusted with the final product that they severed all ties to the film; the magazine’s name doesn’t appear in the movie credits. Youth Runs Wild remains a curiosity piece amongst Val Lewton’s classic work. He had wanted the studio to remove his name from the release print; they refused.

Initially, Edward Dmytryk was set to direct, but was reassigned to another production, Tender Comrade, starring Ginger Rogers. Mark Robson took the assignment instead. This is the film debut of Tessa Brind, better known later as Vanessa Brown, whose performance was uncertain at best. With the exception of Bonita Granville, Jean Brooks, Lawrence Tierney, the rest of the film's performances were routine. Essaying his first substantial film role, Tierney, soon to become Dillinger on screen, is a standout, seething with seamy charm and malcontent. He hangs around the neighborhood leading local lambs astray. Apparently, before cuts were made by the studio, drugs were a part of that as well. Tierney remembered in an interview that his character peddled drugs, although that factor is missing in prints today.

While not a very good film, Youth Runs Wild is an interesting curio, and worth a look.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Torrid Zone contains perhaps the quintessential Ann Sheridan performance. A down-on-her-heels, tough dame getting by with her wit and sass. She's been around, but no one is gonna put anything over on her.

Co-starring James Cagney (taking over for George Raft) and Pat O’Brien, the quip-filled screenplay, written by Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald, incorporated (uncredited) elements from both Red Dust and The Front Page. Cagney, who almost turned the film down, felt that the script had “no real substance or importance,” and referred to the finished product as “Hildy Johnson Among the Bananas.” I have a feeling that Torrid Zone is as underrated as it is today because of Cagney's low opinion of it. While the film was a hit at the time, boasting lively exchanges between the characters and a breezy script, making it one of Warners’ best comedies ever, it really isn't considered the classic it should. “Nice little park you got here,” Annie considers, surveying the plantation, “if you like bananas.”

Sheridan is a cardsharp/nightclub entertainer (she sings “Mi Caballero”) who gets mixed up with a South American banana plantation owner (O’Brien, talking a mile a minute) and his reluctant foreman (Cagney). Cagney is attracted to Annie - that is, until she takes him for $300 (“Lucky at cards, unlucky in love”). The rest of the film finds her trying to win him, while swapping barbs with her rival for his affections, Helen Vinson.

Cagney and Sheridan, seen also in the classic Angels with Dirty Faces and City for Conquest, score again as a team and Cagney has never seemed sexier (this despite his mustache, grown out of defiance). They spar throughout, and the great thing about Annie was her ability to never take him seriously. The fun between the two was the empathy they exuded while verbally clashing; their exchanges were playful instead of nasty or abrasive. O’Brien walks in on one of their passionate kisses, scolding them for “acting like a couple of high school kids.” Sheridan, without missing a beat, tartly responds, “You just interrupted a postgraduate course.”

Likewise, in a different way, the uppity Vinson and the down-to-earth Sheridan make terrific, sharp-tongue competitors for Cagney:

SHERIDAN (Picking up Vinson’s discarded cigarette): I understand the Chicago fire started from something like that.
VINSON: The Chicago fire was started by a cow.
SHERIDAN: History repeats itself.

The best line is the tagline, written by the film’s associate producer Mark Hellinger. At the fadeout, Cagney, clutching Sheridan to him, for their final kiss, grumbles, “You and your 14-Karat Oomph!” Cagney disliked the line, requesting that it be cut. Hellinger bet him that the line would get the biggest laugh in the picture. A few days after Torrid Zone premiered, Hellinger received his check for $100 from the actor.

Annie’s likable feistiness (“You push me one more time and you’ll wear this suitcase as a necklace”) made everyone take notice. Torrid Zone’s importance to Annie’s career cannot be overemphasized. “Ann Sheridan really comes into her own,” announced Screenland. “She’s not only more Oomph-ish than usual, but gives a tangy performance of the girl whose morals, despite her way with cards and Cagney, are above reproach.” The New York Times raved: “[She] steps up a notch or two in our estimation as the femme fatale of the piece . . . But if the males are two-fisted, Miss Sheridan meets them blow for blow, line for line,” and The New York World-Telegram added: “Miss Sheridan is entirely at ease as the hard-boiled torch singer, and when the occasion demands sentiment and simplicity that too, is at her command.”

Producer Mark Hellinger became an early Sheridan booster and lover. It has been reported that (the married) Hellinger had a private phone in his office, one that only Ann had the number for. When Hellinger died suddenly in 1947, Ann reportedly was sobbing so strongly, she had to leave the church where the funeral was held.

Regardless of the nature of their personal relationship, it is very obvious that Hellinger thought enough of Ann to provide her with substantial roles at Warners, roles that propelled her to stardom: It All Came True, Torrid Zone, and They Drive by Night. His presence in her life and career at this point was crucial to her development as a leading star.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Washington Melodrama (1941) is a good, solid MGM B about a married lobbyist (a sedate Frank Morgan) implicated in chorus girl's murder and blackmailed by real killer. Kent Taylor is good as the fast-talking newspaper publisher trying to solve the case. Helping him is an engaging Lee Bowman as a reporter. Dan Dailey, in an early role, is okay as a cad and Virginia Grey, underused as usual by the studio, sparkles nonetheless and shows off some dancing steps. Ann Rutherford, playing the daughter of Morgan, has good chemistry with the underrated Taylor. One jarring note: the seemingly endless water ballet (staged by Sammy Lee) in the beginning. Anne Gwynne's stunt woman executes a doozy of a backwards fall over a table that has to be seen to be believed. Bravo. Working titles of this film were Tabloid and She Takes the Wheel.


"After the sun has set and the night wind has died comes the hour of the bat people." While not the best exploitation movie ever made, The Bat People is not as bad as everyone says. For one, Stewart Moss is excellent in the main role as the doctor who is bitten by a bat. Are the murdereous flash-memories of killing he's having just that, dreams? Or are the horrific murders around the neighborhood his handiwork? Moss' real-life wife, beautiful Marianne McAndrew, co-stars, and both make the central relationship of husband and wife on the edge believable. Most of the movie is taken up by Moss' anguished reactions as he's about to change from man to bat. (The viewer starts feeling the same pain, so excruciating does Moss make it seem.) Two scenes stand out in this Jerry Jameson-directed horror: The way-cool murder of the slimy sheriff in a small car by hundreds of bats is very bloody and fitting. More memorable, and totally hilarious, is the sex scene between Moss and McAndrew. In the throes of passion, she looks up to the squeaking, hideously hairy and ugly face of a bat. She screams and gets hysterical as Moss flees like a bat outta hell. How could you NOT love this movie? This was the first feature film for makeup artist Stan Winston.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Eight Iron Men (1952) should have been a tense, exciting WWII movie about a squadron trying to save one of their own trapped behind enemy lines. The cast is good: Lee Marvin, Arthur Franz, Richard Kiley, James Griffith, Bonar Colleano, and Dickie Moore. But it's all talk, talk, talk ... understandable since it was based on the 1945 play A Sound of Hunting, the stage production that got Burt Lancaster noticed by Hollywood. Talky movies are only good when they have something to say that is interesting ... if it builds suspense. This movie does not. The production of the movie was to start in 1949. At that time, Franchot Tone was to direct and star alongside Glenn Ford and Lew Ayres. When that fell through, Edward Dmytryk directed the final low-budget product. The various flashbacks featuring Mary Castle as the girl of Colleano's dreams add an absurd touch to the proceedings. (Castle is best known as the actress who bore a striking resemblance to Rita Hayworth, contracted by Columbia as a "threat.") The best scenes in Eight Iron Men are the ones featuring the tenuous bickering of Marvin and Kiley. The two characters' conflict on following orders adds an interesting dimension to the stale comedy and other trifles. The film's working titles were The Sound of Hunting and The Dirty Dozen. Marvin, of course, starred in another Dirty Dozen in 1967.

Friday, April 23, 2010


GUN DUEL IN DURANGO (1957). It's been told before: An outlaw, "the last of the fast-guns," wants to break with his old gang and go straight. Add in a cloying child (Bobby Clark) and a pretty girl (Ann Robinson) and it becomes cliché central. An unlikely George Montgomery, as the former outlaw, is solid but seems preoccupied. His performance only steps up near the end when he finds he has no choice but to confront his former crime cohorts with violence. As the main villain, Steve Brodie briefly steals the show with his welcome ruthlessness, shooting a man in the back, kicking dirt in his face, growling and verbally sparing with Donald Barry. The short spurt of stunting is good (an excellent dive through a window, a fight in some brush, some nice jumps) and the final gunfight, with Montgomery, perched on a roof, holding two guns, is nice. Alas, what comes before is dull and uninspired. Even the title is a sham. Better was the working title, Last Gun in Durango. Location filming took place in the Santa Susanna Mountains, California.

VOICE OF THE WHISTLER (1945), fourth in the series (1944-48) of noirish Columbia mysteries (inspired by the radio show) starring Richard Dix. This series was unusual in that Dix (and later Michael Duane in one film) played a different character in each film, alternating as hero and villain. Each film opened with a shadowy figure, The Whistler, voiced by Otto Forrest, intoning mysteriously, "I am The Whistler, I know many strange tales," while popping up during the hour running time to comment on the proceedings. Voice of the Whistler, also starring Lynn Merrick and James Cardwell, starts off conventionally, but makes up for it when the scenario of the perfect murder is planted in Cardwell's head. Atmospheric thriller, with an excellent lighthouse setting. Directed by (and co-written by) William Castle, its working title was Checkmate for Murder.

DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973). "The Day The Insane Took Over The Asylum." An inmate, posing as a nurse (we don't know she's bogus until near the end), controls the other inmates, treating them roughly at times. When a new nurse comes to stay at the asylum, the bogus nurse goes (even more) off the deep end (who knows why), kills some inmates and tries to kill the new nurse. Finally, at the end, bogus nurse is murdered by the other inmates. One inmate helps the legit nurse escape, then goes and slays the other loonies. The movie weirdly ends with him crying over bogus nurse's dead body as he eats a damn popsicle! Crazy. The screenplay was written by Tim Pope, whose sole writing credit this is; he is more known as a director of music videos. It all has the proper feel of disjointed, confused madness, suitable for this 12-day production. The movie's cheap, stilted, amateur atmosphere is its very selling point; the movie wouldn't work otherwise. Director S.F. Brownrigg helmed some laughably similar-sounding movies: Don't Open the Door! (1975) and Keep the Grave Open (1976). Original title of this "chiller" was The Forgotten and it is also known as Death Ward #13.

NIGHT OF THE BLOODY HORROR (1969). Film about an unstable young man (Gerald McRaney) and his maybe-maybe not tendency to ax his girlfriends. (No, they didn’t ax for it.) This has been touted as one of the “goriest films of its time.” I’d like to take an ax to whoever misled me. There’s some tame gore here: After sex, a girl goes straight to a confessional to receive absolution. Her penance? The priest stabs her in the eye; a girl on the beach has a hatchet shoved into her chest; and a doctor has his hand sliced off. The latter scene is the best; the close-up of his blood flowing out of his amputated hand looks as if he’s artisticly airbrushing the door. Not a scary movie, not even slightly, but it features a psychedelic rock group called “The Bored” and a very unorthodox police method of interrogation (“Are you a fag? Are you a fruit?”). McRaney, pre-Major Dad, baldness and Delta Burke, is supposed to be hot stuff to the ladies, but he’s scrawny and hysterical. (“Boy, you’re touchy,” says one girlfriend, in an understatement.) Rough-hewn Evelyn Hendricks, as the koo-koo, smothering mother, comes off best. Her final scene is a wonder of manic dementia as she does a call-and-response conjuring up her dead husband. (Shades of Psycho, perhaps, but still effective.) Most disturbing scene: McRaney has a dream of having sex; he turns to see the staring, creepy-smiling face of his old crone mother in his arms instead. Naturally, he begins to choke her out, waking up screaming. That, my friends, is the true night of the bloody horror!

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT (1991). British Gary Daniels, whose “hands are faster” than guns, plays an underground kickboxer framed for murder. With the help of blonde, sassy DEA agent Linda Lightfoot, Daniels takes on myriad baddies. Originally called Kickbox Terminator, not a bad title, this bone-snapping, violent show lacks, unfortunately, many things, including something essential to action/martial arts movies: Good fight scenes. The fights, although violent and usually ending in death, are slow and repetitive. You just want the action to speed up a little bit. One funny moment occurs when Daniels wields two lit flashlights and uses them to knock the crap out of an opponent. It’s still dopey, very badly acted "fun," with drugs, promised deformed babies (that never come), kewpie dolls that might or might not contain said drugs, etc. David Carradine is wasted in his smallish role; he seems to have filmed his scenes in one small, dark, cramped room. Daniels has THE most unreal line-reading delivery EVER. He looks okay, but is pretty awful. “Memorable” quote: “You’re one punch away from death.” I felt the same way after I watched this.

FINAL ROUND (1993). Grungy-looking Lorenzo Lamas is a tattooed, overall-wearing, ex-middleweight champ who falls immediately for Kathleen Kinmont when she needs her motorcycle fixed. During sex with Kinmont (after he saves her in a barroom brawl), Lamas is hijacked by Anthony De Longis’ henchman. In the tradition of The Most Dangerous Game, De Longis heads a gambling corporation hunting men for sport. The stalking arena is “two miles long, a half-mile-wide, the entire complex surrounding by a 600-volt electric fence,” as De Longis’ “bad-ass” hunters utilize the latest technology to hunt their “prey” as viewers on satellite place bets. “You make it to the gate, you are free to go,” he sneers. The acting is atrocious, with Lamas thinking he’s a real jokester; his attempts at humor are discomforting. Kinmont (the real-life daughter of a better actress, '50s starlet Abby Dalton) is not very attractive and her reasons for being with Lamas are dubious. (The two were married from 1989 to 1993, the year this movie was "released.") The movie tries for dialogue cleverness, even using some lame, very obvious double-entendres. The action scenes are repetitive, with Lamas, supposedly a boxer, overusing (very) wide karate kicks. When a character asks at one point where he learned to fight, Lamas scoffs, “I’m a big fan of Chuck Norris.” Whatever.

Monday, April 19, 2010


In a radio interview at the time of Interrupted Melody’s 1955 release, star Eleanor Parker noted, “Marjorie Lawrence [is] one of the great opera singers of our generation and probably one of the most courageous women who ever lived.”

Today, few remember the Australian Lawrence or are even aware of her popularity at the time. Musical screen biographies The Jolson Story, Love Me or Leave Me (Ruth Etting), With a Song in My Heart (Jane Froman), and I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Lillian Roth) are still revered because their central, more mainstream subjects, ones that still captivate music lovers today. Marjorie Lawrence has not been so lucky. Yet, in her prime, in the mid-‘30s to early 1940s, she was regarded by many as a leading soprano in the opera world.

Her fight to regain her health was chronicled in her 1949 memoir and was brought beautifully to the screen by MGM at no small cost. “Not since Columbia’s One Night of Love made its appearance on the Music Hall screen, about 20 years ago, has there been such a completely satisfying blend of grand opera with a tender love story in film as MGM’s production of Interrupted Melody,” said the New York Daily News in their review. The movie still packs an emotional wallop. The Oscar-winning screenplay, by William Ludwig and Sonya Levien (the team responsible for The Great Caruso and The Student Prince, among others), brilliantly weaves the opera sequences into the drama of the singer’s battle with polio at the height of her career.

The Subject

Marjorie Lawrence was born in Victoria, Australia, on February 17, 1907, the daughter of farmer William Lawrence and Elizabeth Smith. Her vocalizing started early, and against the wishes of her father (her mother died when she was two), Marjorie ran away from home to pursue singing lessons in Melbourne.

Her professional debut occurred in Monte Carlo playing “Elizabeth” in Tannhäuser. She was an instant success. Afterwards, she appeared at the Paris Opera from 1933-38, and critics began hailing her as one of the great sopranos. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1935 and was famous for riding her horse into the flames on stage in the finale of the opera Götterdämmerung.

As a dramatic soprano and opera presence, Marjorie Lawrence had few equals, which the New York Times readily agreed, adding in 1935, “Her voice is a fine organ of great range and mettle.”

With her popularity at its peak in 1941, she suffered a devastating blow to her personal and professional lives when she was stricken with polio just three months after her marriage to Dr. Thomas King. Lawrence managed to make a comeback, with the help of her husband, in 1942, singing at a concert at Town Hall. Although she made occasional singing engagements, however, Lawrence was never fully able to continue with a full-time opera schedule. But she carried on in great style. During World War II, she made a valiant tour for the troops, traveling 50,000 miles in the South Pacific, as well as entertaining in Europe – in her wheelchair.

The 1960s onward saw her turning to teaching at various colleges, penning a book of poems (High on a Hilltop), hosting TV and radio shows, as well as participating in opera workshops near her home in Arkansas, which is where she passed away on January 13, 1979.

The Actress

The actress given the challenging role of Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody was the extremely versatile Eleanor Parker. She was born on June 26, 1922, in Cedarville, Ohio, and, like Lawrence, her interest in acting was planted at a young age.

Eleanor was put under contract to Warner Bros. in 1941, and gradually became a star in The Very Thought of You (1944) and Pride of the Marines (1945). She proved her versatility and dedication to her craft in a variety of roles for Warners, in such films as Of Human Bondage (1946), The Voice of the Turtle (1947) and Caged (1950). She found her way to MGM in 1952, and while other actresses were finding it hard to obtain suitable roles in the ‘50s, Eleanor had no trouble acquiring major parts because of her flexibility as an actress. Besides Interrupted Melody, Eleanor did other fine work for both MGM and other studios on loan-out: Scaramouche (1952), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and Lizzie (1957).

She was nominated for the Oscar three times: Caged (1950), Detective Story (1951) and for her part here in Interrupted Melody (1955). Later roles were geared more toward foreign and television productions. Parker remained active on TV and the stage until her retirement after Dead on the Money (1991), a cable film.

The Singer

One of the very best opera singers in recent recall, Eileen Farrell was called on to voice double Eleanor Parker, not even requesting screen credit for her very important contribution to the film.

Eileen was born on February 13, 1920, in Willimantic, Connecticut. After high school, this fine soprano went to New York and tried out for Major Bowes’ amateur show, and failed; but, as one critic later noted, this was “perhaps because she could never be an amateur.” She bounced back and landed her first radio program in 1940 and her own show in 1942. She followed that with appearances on such shows as the popular The Prudential Family Hour. Singer Jack Smith, who also performed on this music show, marveled, “Eileen could sing ‘I Got a Right to Sing the Blues’ as well as she could sing a German round.” Her vocal diversity was well known: She recorded Irish songs, Broadway tunes, and pop songs, in addition to her opera repertoire.

Concert singing started late for Miss Farrell, making her debut in 1947. She didn’t sing in an actual opera house until 1956, and she made her long overdue debut at The Met in 1960. Described by The New Yorker as “The finest dramatic soprano before the public,” the New York Times went on to enthuse, “She can float long-breathed phrases of matchless quality, and she can vary her tone from fine-hued softness to a sumptuous fullness,” which could well speak for her work in Interrupted Melody.

Eileen recorded for Columbia records, doing both opera selections and pop standards. She continued to sing into the ‘90s on the Audiophile label, being one of the select opera singers to record jazz. Farrell happily retired in the late 1990s and wrote her autobiography (Can’t Help Singing). She passed away on March 23, 2002, at the age of 82.

The Film

Metro-Goldywn-Mayer bought the screen rights to Marjorie Lawrence’s book in 1952 and planned to star an unlikely Lana Turner. Greer Garson was then approached for the lead, and when that deal fell through, it was reported that singer Kathryn Grayson was in the running. In a later interview, Grayson explained that she did not get the role because Lawrence herself thought Grayson “too pretty,” which seems ludicrous. Although Grayson was a good singer and a presentable actress, she was never in the same league as Eileen Farrell or Eleanor Parker.

Eleanor Parker was given the lead when she confronted producer Jack Cummings in his office. Cummings, according to columnist Sheilah Graham in Photoplay (August 1955), “was stuck for a leading lady, but he just couldn’t see Eleanor in the part of a prima donna because off-screen, Eleanor is quiet, conservative, and a devoted wife and mother to her three youngsters. But Cummings didn’t reckon with the determination of a woman who was after something she wanted – and Eleanor wanted to play Marj on the screen.

“Cummings was sitting behind his studio desk, slowly going over the list of possible candidates for the role when his door burst open, and in rushed a flamed-haired bunch of fury. He had to look twice before he even recognized Eleanor. She took the offensive and accused him of disliking her, said if she played the Lawrence role she would do thus and thus and then proceeded to show him. She exploded into a dramatic firecracker that would have done justice to Bernhardt. Infuriated by Ellie’s attack, Cummings replied that if she played the part she would do as he told her. Then he suddenly realized she had deliberately tricked him into seeing how temperamental she really could be when she set her mind to it.”

It’s highly doubtful this scenario actually place, but it made excellent copy. However she got the part, Eleanor was in for a grueling study period to prepare for the role. The part was much more than just learning dialogue. She had to learn the musical arias, which were in different languages. “I had to be letter-perfect because while I didn’t actually sing the songs … the movement of my lips in forming the words had to ‘sync’ exactly with those of the great soprano’s as they came off the soundtrack. I learned three operas in three languages during two weeks.”

Eleanor talked about how she accomplished the learning of the opera arias in another fan magazine interview: “I don’t have an opera voice, and I don’t speak all those foreign languages – what a challenge. I secluded myself in a mountain cabin at Lake Arrowhead [California] for ten days and listened to records day and night, learning 22 arias. For good measure, I had six lessons from MGM’s voice coach to help me with my lip synchronization.”

For Photoplay, Eleanor revealed the off-camera motivation the role provoked: “I drove to work in the morning with the score propped up on the steering wheel of my car, and I woke up at night to find I’d been repeating the songs in my sleep.”

Such dedication finally took its toll when she collapsed on the set and was rushed to the hospital suffering from exhaustion. Her faithfulness to her role paid off, with one reviewer raving, “She has mastered the mannerisms of her operatic roles so meticulously that it always seems that she is doing the singing.” Higher praise came from the singer herself, Eileen Farrell, who told me in 1998, “I remember the first time I saw the movie; I was out at MGM and they played it in a small studio for me. It never dawned on me once that it was me singing. Never once!”

Farrell remembered the first time she met Eleanor. “She was making Many Rivers to Cross [1955] at the time I was doing the soundtrack. Every once in awhile she would appear in the control room, and she’d watch me and then she would have to leave because she’d have to go back to the other set. Later, she told me she almost had a nervous breakdown learning the whole damn thing because she had to learn the songs by playing my records. They put everything on records for her; when it was time for her to breathe, there would be a beep on the record so she knew that’s when she could breathe. But, she had to learn all those words, and she can’t sing a note. She was so damn smart. I think she’s a marvelous actress and a wonderful person. She worked very, very hard, but she learned every one of those [arias].”

Initially, Marjorie Lawrence wanted to record the songs for the movie herself, but physically she was unable to do so at that point. “Jack [Cummings] had told me that Marjorie Lawrence wanted to do the singing, so they did one whole recording of the whole movie, and he said it was terrible,” Farrell revealed. “She said she wanted to do it with another conductor, so they did another whole recording. He said it was just as bad.”

Screenwriter William Ludwig explained to author Doug McClelland in 1988 the behind-the-scenes vocal dubbing drama: “Marjorie Lawrence was supposed to do the singing … but the abdominal muscles were gone, and the repertoire too grueling. MGM approached Eileen Farrell, who was married to a New York City policeman and had refused to join the Met because she didn’t want to leave her husband and children. She agreed to do the singing for Eleanor Parker as Marjorie Lawrence on the condition that she get no publicity, because Lawrence was planning some concert tours and Eileen didn’t want to hurt Lawrence’s business by letting it be known that she wasn’t able to sing for her own life story. It was one of the most unselfish things I’ve ever seen in this business. Later, Lawrence herself spilled the beans when she sued MGM over not being allowed to sing in the film.”

Lawrence was indignant and refused to believe she was incapable of doing the movie. Continued Farrell, “They told her that she couldn’t do the soundtrack, and she got very annoyed and very mad. At this point in her life she was into Jesus, and she told them, ‘If you do this without me, God will punish you!’ It was not [written] down in the contract that she had to do the soundtrack, so that’s why Jack [Cummings] waited for me. Jack had asked me to do [the movie] a long time before, but I was having my second child, and I couldn’t do it [then].” (Eileen was personal friends with Cummings’ wife and observed that the producer “was a lovely man, very quiet; a very gentlemanly-like person.”)

Recalling the recording session of the soundtrack, Eileen remembered, “I was supposed to be [at MGM] for three weeks, but I did the whole thing in one week. There were things that I knew, and when you know them, you know them. Out there at MGM they were used to splicing the tapes, putting them together for the voices, but they didn’t have to do that for me. So. I got through very early.” The recordings were supervised and conducted by Walter Du Cloux. Eileen recalls: “I’d known him a long time because I worked with him before. He was originally a ballet conductor, and we were good friends.”

The songs featured in the movie were diverse, to say the least. In addition to “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” (from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah), “Musetta’s Waltz” (from La bohème), “One Fine Day” (from Madame Butterfly), the “Habanera” and “Seguidilla” (from Bizet’s Carmen), and “The Finale to Act I” (from Verdi’s Il trovatore), Farrell gets to show her vocal mettle and diversity by doing “Annie Laurie,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Waltzing Matilda,” “Anchors Aweigh,” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” For sheer variety, Eileen Farrell gives one of the greatest vocal performances in film musical history. It is a shame that it has been overlooked by film historians as such. It is also regretful that Interrupted Melody is Farrell’s only film.

“I don’t believe [Marjorie Lawrence] sang all those roles [in her career],” remarked Farrell. “Anyone in their right mind would not sing Carmen, would not sing Wagner, La bohème. Those are all different kinds of voices. She was a dramatic soprano, and here she’s singing La bohème, which is for a lyric soprano. I don’t believe she sang all those, but who am I to know? Just because I can do it!” she added with a wry laugh.

What also makes Interrupted Melody one of the great movie musicals is Eleanor Parker and her central performance as Marjorie Lawrence. The Daily News hit it right on target: “[She] has been given a challenging role that has brought out the best of her acting talents. She steps with confidence into the character of the singer and makes her a living, vibrant woman.”

Eleanor’s range of emotions is phenomenal, as she goes from unsure young aspiring singer to opera diva. Her relationship with her husband (the superb Glenn Ford, in a role first thought for James Stewart) is one of love and dedication and especially moving when she is afflicted with polio and their relationship alters. Eleanor never hits a wrong note, and when she attempts her comeback at the Met in the opera Tristan and Isolde, you realize why she was nominated for the Oscar. Assisted by braces, Eleanor slowly, painfully stands to finish her last number. It is a powerfully effective ending. It was not, however, accurate. In reality, Lawrence sang in the Met production of Tannhäuser and did not rise to her feet at the end.

It is Eleanor Parker’s finest performance, and it is obvious why she always called this her favorite film. Later, in an interview with The Miami Herald (March 15, 1970), Eleanor gave drama editor Frances Swaebly her thoughts on the movie: “It was the hardest thing I ever did, and I think the best. For one thing, what a joy to hear Eileen Farrell’s glorious voice come out of my mouth. I would like to think I could sing like that.

“I love Melody for the opera and the language. I don’t know music, and I don’t sing, and I had nobody to help me. So, I had to teach myself how to do the role with only records and sheet music. It was not easy.

Melody also made an opera fan out of me. I now have an extensive collection of opera records.”

Memorable moments in the movie abound. Particularly impressive is Eleanor’s miming to “Waltzing Matilda” sitting in her wheelchair, rousing the boys in uniform to join in the song. Eleanor’s spirit and Farrell’s equally inspiring vocal make this a truly affecting moment. As is the set-up for “Over the Rainbow.” Unsure of her singing after a long absence due to her polio, her gradual uneasiness emotionally connects her with the wounded servicemen; her initial awkwardness develops into something beautiful and moving.

An even more deeply poignant, pivotal scene occurs earlier, when she is despondent over her illness and she refuses to exercise her legs. In desperation, her husband puts on one of her old recordings, “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” and leaves the room. Knowing she must try to drag herself across the floor to turn the record player off, an agonized Ford ignores her pleas. William Ludwig recalled: “I remember watching them shoot the very dramatic scene in which Eleanor, as the now-crippled Lawrence, crawls across the room to knock over a record player playing one of her old recordings. Eleanor gave it everything she had, which was plenty; her knees were bleeding when the director [Curtis Bernhardt] yelled ‘Cut!’ Looking at the rushes afterward, some technician noticed that an overhead microphone was dimly visible in the scene. They were going to shoot it again, but I said, ‘Look, there’s no way Eleanor can possibly top what she’s done in this scene. And if people are looking toward the ceiling while she’s crawling along the floor, then we don’t have a scene to begin with.’ The mike was left in, and to my knowledge not one person or critic ever noticed it.”

It was truly a sin that MGM failed to promote Parker’s Oscar nomination, and Anna Magnani won for The Rose Tattoo. William Ludwig noted, “I still believe that what helped our screenplay earn an Academy Award was the quality and substance which she gave to the starring role.” Besides the win for screenplay, Interrupted Melody received a nom for Helen Rose for her fabulous costumes, the most memorable being the beaded bikini for the Samson and Delilah number. William Tuttle did astonishing work on the make-up for Eleanor’s opera roles, especially his artistry in making her look like Carmen and Delilah.

Interrupted Melody may be underappreciated today, but it has all the elements of a classic. This treasure of a film has never become dated; it’s as fresh and vibrant today as it was in 1955. Marjorie Lawrence may be somewhat forgotten today, but her inspiring film demands a reappraisal. Its melody, and memory, lingers on.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


"Why They Do It ... For the first time the motion picture screen tells the intimate, authentic personal story of girls like Bobbie Williams -- a truth torn from New York after dark.”

“An Exciting Step Forward into a New Realm of Adult Motion Pictures!” was how Girl of the Night was advertised in 1960 when it was released. Suggested by Dr. Harold Greenwald’s “social and psychoanalytic study,” The Call Girl (1958), it seemed an unlikely candidate for a screen adaptation, especially in the Code-run times of the early ‘60s. In his study, Greenwald analyzed 26 real-life call girls, learning of their childhoods, of their work, piecing together the circumstances that made them “girls of the night.” One of Greenwald’s case studies, named “Sandra,” is the sole, reworked inspiration for the movie.

This little-seen low-budget movie was underappreciated at the time, as it is today, but it contains what is Anne Francis’ best film performance, and her favorite. Anne plays the New Jersey-born Robin “Bobbie” Williams, a young woman molested as a child, feeling worthless, told that “sex is an evil and dirty thing,” manipulated by her boyfriend (John Kerr), who is also her pimp. After being beaten by a customer with a cane – a dark, brutal, but implied scene – she is open to the advice of a psychologist (Lloyd Nolan). He attempts to “make her stand on her own two feet,” to understand that the suppressed memories and problems of her childhood need to be fought for her to be a productive member of society. The first step: To loosen the emotional grip Kerr has on her.

Anne Francis gives a virtuoso, gutsy performance of a girl “beautiful enough to be a model, chic enough to be a debutante, desirable enough to be a wife – and special enough to be none of these. She has no legal occupation. But she lives on Park Avenue and drips mink.” Anne is at her best in the therapy scenes with Nolan, exposing every nerve, experiencing every emotion from her character’s life, as feelings, long held dormant, rise to the surface. She wavers between truly wanting help, to anger, feeling it’s all a waste of time. In these scenes, Anne uses her radio-trained speaking voice brilliantly, deepening it, coloring it, to give certain lines a more persuasive meaning. She totally commands attention in the lead, making this the true feature film showcase of her career, a vivid reminder of her largely untapped acting versatility on the big screen. Charles Stinson of the Los Angeles Times called Anne’s performance a “powerful portrait” filled with “genuine sensitivity and intelligence.” Reviewer Norman Rose wrote that Anne “attacks Bobbie with confidence and a tigerishness that belies her all but angelic appearance.”

As her boyfriend, John Kerr is a surprise. Best known for his colorless second lead in the movie version of South Pacific, Girl of the Night reveals shadings to the actor most film fans are unaware of. Manipulating his girlfriend, coaxing her with a combination of lies, putdowns and proclamations of love, the weasely Kerr is letter-perfect. He wants money, status, and power, and sees Bobbie has the perfect vehicle for those goals. His wholesome, all-American appearance and deceptively gentle demeanor only add to the actor’s effectiveness.

Shot on location in New York City, the film met with a bit of resistance at first because of its touchy subject matter. But, because of the film’s tasteful handling of its subject and its academic source novel, the Legion of Decency gave it a special classification. The film’s director, Joseph Cates, told Variety at the time that his "approach [to the material] is devoid of any lurid, graphic details; instead [it] is a study along psychiatric lines" and that the studio had assured him that the "ad campaign would be marked by an absence of any kind of 'low exploitation sell.'"Today, the script’s frankness is still potent, but it is best summed up by the Oakland Tribune’s Jack Anderson: “The producers’ only recourse is a sort of compromise: a little, but not too much, psychological discussion, a little sex, a little violence and lots of innuendo.” While the script by Ted Berkman-Raphael Blau is, at times, a bit corny, especially in these more “enlightening” times, the acting is sure, steady, and earnest.

Girl of the Night is special to me because it was such a demanding role,” Anne commented years later. “It really was a tour de force, and wonderful chance to run the gamut. The fact that it was the story of a prostitute under analysis was rather risqué, I guess, at the time, though there were no licentious scenes in the picture. I don’t think there was a love scene, really. However, the studio [Warners] soft-peddled it and it opened without any fanfare, though I was pleased with what reviews we had.”

One of the best scenes in the film comes early on. Nolan, a psychologist trying to gradually and cagily help the young woman; Francis, the frustrated young woman, cautious but ultimately tired of her lonely, sad existence, do some slight sparring:

NOLAN: Occupation?
NOLAN: Fashion or photography?
FRANCIS: All right, doctor. We don’t have to play “What’s My Line.” I’m not a model, doctor. I’m a call girl.

The anguish, sincerity and remorse Anne Francis puts into this revelation elevates Girl of the Night from other exploitation films of its ilk. It seems a pity that such an obscure gem contains her best performance and that film fans instead remember her for her mini-skirted ditz in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. It’s a rich, brave performance well worth seeking out.