Jose Iturbi – Classical Piano Man, Conductor and Actor

 

“When I don’t know what to do, I play the piano”

That’s how Josè Iturbi (as himself) replied to Stanley Owens’ (Roddy MacDowell) plea for advice on women in the movie, Holiday in Mexico (1946). Yes, it’s a line from the movie, but it’s the perfect description of Josè Iturbi’s entire life. Playing the piano is what he did to get through the good and bad of life. From an early age the piano ushered him through so much, including a successful music career, the suicides of his wife and daughter, his movie career and all the accomplishments and awards he collected along the way.

Iturbi’s musical fate seems to have been sealed even before he was born – On November 28, 1895 his mother, Teresa Báguena Pons, went into labor with him during a performance of an opera in Valencia, Spain that she and her husband Ricardo Iturbi Navarro were attending. They rushed out of the theater half way through the performance and barely made it home before they welcomed their son, Josè Iturbi into the world. He was the third of their four children.

Ricardo worked for a gas company, but had a side business repairing and tuning pianos. Josè was already experimenting with those pianos by the age of three. It wasn’t long before he was helping his father’s business by fixing them too. Recognizing Josè’s affinity for the piano, Ricardo enrolled him in lessons at the age of five where he promptly sailed ahead of everyone else, including the instructor. It became clear to everyone that they had extraordinary talent on their hands and his family did everything they could to encourage his progress. Josè’s first job, at the age of seven, was accompanying silent films in Valencia’s first movie theater. When he was done at the theater he played at cafes into the early morning hours. In those days he’d play as much as 16 hours a day, doing it all to help his struggling family financially, but loving every second of it.

At age 10, Josè began studying at the Conservatory of Valencia. It was the beginning of a formal education and career in classical music. He continued to play in cafes to help the family and also accompanied a local singing academy. It was here that he met the great pianist Emil von Sauer. von Sauer encouraged Josè to give a recital so he could earn enough money to study in Paris. He did, and by 1911, Iturbi was able to take the entrance exam for the Conservatory of Paris. He was awarded one of only two spots available for foreign students. “It was a determining factor in the cultural vision he would hold close for the rest of his life,” says biographer Dagmar Ulythethofken.

The next few years were spent studying hard, working as an accompanist, performing recitals and giving piano lessons. In 1916, Iturbi married one of his piano students, Maria Giner de los Santos. They had a daughter, Maria, in 1917. He gave dozens of recitals and concerts during the next several years, continued his education and began studying orchestras to achieve his dream of being a conductor. He was on a trajectory to be one of the top pianists of his time.  Life was good.

On August 11, 1928, Iturbi was rehearsing a concerto when his wife Maria locked herself into a bathroom and took a large dose of pills. Iturbi rushed to her side when he was told, but it was too late, he found her dying. It wouldn’t be the last of tragedy in his life – His daughter Maria also committed suicide in 1948 just before the filming of Three Daring Daughters.

After his wife’s death, Iturbi threw himself into his work. He travelled the world eventually giving over 200 performances a year. He was often accompanied by his younger sister, Amparo. While she never received the formal education her brother did, Amparo was still popular and successful in her own right as an accomplished pianist.

Everywhere Iturbi went he met adoring fans and received critical acclaim. When he made his debut in the United States in 1929, critics were beside themselves in finding words to describe the “Iturbi magic.” One called him a “feathery pianissimo.” Another said, “his playing is like a column of smoke passing over the keys.” Another from Chicago said, “to hear how his fingers can make the piano sparkle and sing and dance is a marvel to the technicians and a delight to those who want their music served as it should be.”

Next to music, fast cars, motorcycles and airplanes were favorite things for Iturbi. Rumor has it he was reckless with all three. Once he even hitchhiked to a concert because he totaled his car. After several car accidents he decided he’d better learn to fly because it was safer. He promptly took flying lessons, bought himself plane, named it “El Turia” (after the river in Valencia) and began flying to engagements around the world. His escapades and close calls earned him the nicknames “Turbulent Iturbi” and “The Flying Fool.” The more popular he got, the more the paparazzi  followed him. They reported on how much he liked paella and enjoyed apples. Caviar was one of his favorite things, they said. The public learned he was interested in jazz, and that he craved expensive cigars and had a pipe collection that he treasured. He loved boxing. Coco Chanel even designed a personal perfume just for him.

Movie producers were very aware of what was happening with Iturbi. They tried more than once to convince him that he needed to be in movies. Iturbi would have none of it, “Kissing girls on screen is just so much foolishness,” he said. After he turned down several offers it was Joe Pasternak, the musical guru at MGM at the time, who finally convinced him to do a movie. Part of how he convinced Iturbi to do the movie was a bet that Iturbi’s record sales would double. The object of the bet? A Baldwin piano, Iturbi’s favorite instrument at the time. He did the movie. His record sales quadrupled. He got the piano and just like that classical music had a wide audience.

That first movie? Thousands Cheer (1943). Iturbi played himself, (just as he did in every movie thereafter.) Gene Kelly starred with Kathryn Grayson where she played the daughter of an Army Colonel who decided to go along with him and the Army for moral support instead of going on tour with Iturbi. A romance between Kathryn Jones (Grayson) and Private Eddie Marsh (Kelly) developed while Iturbi accompanied the many artists in the movie, including Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. This was also the first pairing of Iturbi and Grayson in a movie. There would be three total. The two would become close friends over the years, but they never dated, “We were never romantically involved, just great friends. We went to dinner sometimes. We saw a lot of concerts together. If that’s dating so be it. We were just friends who went places together,” Grayson said.

The next movie Iturbi appeared in was Two Girls and a Sailor from 1944, starring Van Johnson and June Allyson. In this musical comedy, a sailor (Johnson) helps two sisters start a service canteen. Both sisters wind up falling in love with the sailor. Iturbi had just a small acting part here that involved dialogue with Gracie Allen. Iturbi gets to play the two piano version of “Ritual Fire Dance of DeFalla” in this movie with his sister Amparo.

In 1944, Iturbi appeared in Music for Millions, also starring June Allyson. She plays a pregnant bassist in Iturbi’s orchestra. She hasn’t heard from her husband for a long time  – he’s been in combat with the Army – and she assumes the worst. Other girls in the orchestra try to protect her from any bad news that might hurt the baby by intercepting and hiding a telegram addressed to her from the Army. Jimmy Durante and a young Margaret O’Brien also have parts. Iturbi, as always, plays himself, the respected conductor and pianist.

Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson appear with Iturbi in the 1945 movie, Anchors Aweigh. Two sailors on leave in Hollywood meet “Aunt Susan” (Grayson) who desperately wants an audition with Josè Iturbi. The two sailors Clarence (Sinatra) and Joe (Kelly), one who wants a girl, one who loves THIS girl, try to connive the audition for her. This popular musical was one of the top five profitable movies of the year and was nominated for several Academy Awards. It won an Oscar for Best Original Score.

Jane Powell, Roddy MacDowell and Walter Pidgeon star with Iturbi in 1946’s Holiday in Mexico. Christine (Powell) is the daughter of an Ambassador (Pidgeon) who falls in love with Iturbi, angering both her father and potential boyfriend (MacDowall). In this movie, Iturbi’s real life granddaughters play a small role as his onscreen granddaughters. His sister Amparo appears here too for a boogie-woogie duet with her brother.

Iturbi appeared in was Three Daring Daughters in 1948. Jeanette MacDonald plays a divorced woman with three teenage daughters. Louise (MacDonald) has convinced her girls that their father is a good man, even though he’d actually abandoned them. Things are going along nicely when Louise goes on a cruise without the girls for some much needed rest and relaxation. She meets Iturbi and marries him before the end of the cruise. The daughters aren’t happy about that and plot to get Iturbi out of their lives so their father would come back.

Right before the filming of Three Daring Daughters, Iturbi’s daughter Maria committed suicide.

“It was extraordinary to see him become, for a brief moment, his usual gay, warm, charming self. Off the set, the life had gone out of him. I have never seen anyone suffer so or change so much,” his companion Jean Dalrymple said.

Iturbi’s third and last movie with Kathryn Grayson is That Midnight Kiss from 1949. It’s also the last movie Iturbi appeared in. Mario Lanza also stars. As the conductor of her grandmother’s (Ethel Barrymore) opera house, Prudence (Grayson) gives Iturbi the chance to lead an opera. When she goes looking for a replacement for the tenor she doesn’t feel comfortable with, she notices truckdriver Johnny (Lanza) singing opera and begs Iturbi to give him a chance. Prudence and Johnny fall in love, but there’s a hiccup.

Both Iturbi’s sister Amparo and her daughter Amparin have small parts here as well.

Though he didn’t appear in the movie Adventure in Music in 1944, the piano you hear throughout the film is Iturbi. He also played the music, but didn’t appear in A Song to Remember (a biography of Chopin’s life) in 1945 and Song of My Heart (biography of Tchaikvsky’s life).

After That Midnight Kiss, Iturbi received eight more movie offers but refused them all. Was it all the negativity and criticism from “serious” musicians that made him stop? Maybe. There was a lot of it. Many of those musicians wouldn’t have anything to do with him during and after his movie career. Some of them even criticized him while trying to get into the movies themselves. They accused him of “prostituting his art” by doing movies. Kathryn Grayson said, “If he was prostituting his art, then I’m grateful he did it….we gave the world some wonderful films!” Indeed. Despite the negativity and criticism from other musicians, Iturbi’s movie appearances did benefit the classical music genre in general. Because of those appearances, classical music enjoyed a swelling of support during the mid-century. There was a much wider audience for it, record sales were up, and because many more were taking up classical piano, piano sales went up too.

After his movie career, Iturbi returned to performing with gusto. He performed as a pianist and conducted orchestras around the world for several more years. Most of which he flew himself to in his own airplane, El Turia of course. He played dozens of recitals, including a concert at the Brussels World’s Fair. He even made 20 performances on the Bell Telephone Hour radio show (that later became a TV show). Both he and Amparo were very popular and in demand all over the world.

It wasn’t until his beloved sister Amparo died of a brain tumor in April, 1969 that Iturbi started to slow down. He resigned from two orchestras within a few weeks of her passing and never really recovered from the loss. The two had been inseparable throughout their lives. He never left Amparo’s side while she was sick.

After Amparo passed away, there were a few more recitals and performances over the years, including celebrating his 80th birthday by conducting his former orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic at at The Lincoln Center in New York in 1975. He still drew big crowds. There was a concert tour in 1976-77 with plans for another one in 1979, but ailing health was slowly taking him away from the spotlight by then. Josè Iturbi died on June 28, 1980 of a heart attack. His coffin is with his daughter Maria and sister Amparo at the Holy Cross Mausoleum in Culver City, California.

Most artists have heart and emotion when they play their instruments, luckily for us, Iturbi had them as a person too.”

He knew exactly what to do, he played the piano. 

I first published this on October 11, 2015 as a post for the Hispanic Heritage Blogathon. Since it’s no longer online, I wanted to republish it here…

Sources:

JoseIturbi.com
iMDB.com
Find A Grave
Britannica.com
Ancestry.com

M*A*S*H, 1970 – Based on the Book By Richard Hooker

Directed by Robert Altman for 20th Century Fox in 1970.

M*A*S*H was based on the book by Richard Hooker:

Dentist, Captain Walter Kosciuszko Waldowski (John Schuck), a.k.a. “The Painless Pole,” of the 4077th MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Unit) decides he is going to commit suicide. So, his friends in the unit  planned the funeral, got a coffin and prepared a final meal in honor of the event. They even got him the black “poison pill” to do the final deed. At “The Last Supper” Corporal Judson (Tim Brown) sings the song “Suicide is Painless” (the iconic song we hear at the opening of the TV show too) after they give the dentist the pill and have him lay down in the coffin. It was really a sleeping pill. They wanted to scare Painless into reconsidering. Yes, they took it to the extreme, and it worked.

Cruel humor? Yep. But it’s the way the soldiers in the 4077 distract themselves from the horrors of the cruel Korean War.

I’m ashamed to admit that a movie, (book AND TV show too) about a medical unit in a war zone make me laugh. But all three of them do. The movie is chock-full of some terrific actors, which makes it worth it to me. But honestly? It’s the TV show that was the most enjoyable version of these oh-so-valuable stories.

Thanks to the script and comedic timing of the actors in M*A*S*H, the movie, the stories of the 4077th provide much-needed levity to the often horrible (horrific) scenes of war the movie highlights. But the practical jokes and shenanigans don’t make this a movie I want to rave about. It’s funny alright, but I think my problem is that I saw the TV show before the movie.  These stories shine as a weekly TV episode. One story at a time makes more sense then having them thrown together in a collection with no real direction, which is how the movie feels to me. The book and the movie, while funny and interesting don’t have that one anchor connecting them….except for the war zone.  I found myself needing a cohesive where these humans are working for something together within the chaos.

Having said this, there are funny moments provided by skilled actors that make it worth it to watch anyway. The little quips and banter throughout somehow make a movie about war funny.

Frank Burns (Robert Duvall): I don’t drink.
Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland): Jesus Christ, I think he means it.

Just like the TV show, the P.A. Announcer in the movie (David Arkin), was always there to provide smiles when the viewers need them:

P.A. Announcer: Attention. “Due to a possible camp infection, Arlene Chu’s Hollywood Grill is off limits. That is all.”

The character studies are the redeeming value of the movie for me. Hawkeye Pierce  and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) are the smart, funny personalities that keep the insanity of war at bay…..and kept me watching the movie. How in the world they handle these excruciating things is fascinating to watch. The fact that, more often than not, it’s humor that helps them is just more proof that laughter really is the best medicine. Without this look into these characters’ minds I’m sure I would have turned this movie off.I’m not good with blood and gore, and the movie has detailed scenes with both. This could be another reason I prefer the TV show.

While I understand Hollywood’s desire to turn the book into a movie, there’s no doubt about it, MASH, the TV show feels better and gets the point across better than the movie. It offers us all more time to discover what’s happening.

P.A. Announcer: “Attention. Attention. May I have the camps’ attention? This week’s movie will be When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950). Uh… The biggest parade of laughs of World War II. All the love, laughs and escapades of the Willies who came marching home. This film stars Dan Dailey, Corinne Calvet, and Colleen Townsend…”

Overall, M*A*S*H is slow, but I’m still grateful I was able to spend a couple of hours learning and laughing with it.  Just to see all those stars; Sutherland, Gould, Duvall, Tom Skerritt as Duke, Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips, etc., etc., and of course,  Gary Burghoff as Radar was worth it for me.

 

Goldie: a lotus grows in the mud

Goldie: a lotus grows in the mud

by Goldie Hawn with Wendy Holden
Berkley, February 2006
464 Pages
ISBN: 0425207889
ISBN13: 9780425207888

Published in 2006, Goldie Hawn’s autobiography, Goldie: a lotus grows in the mud,  is much different than other autobiographies I’ve read. I wish I’d read it sooner. This isn’t the typical chronological, obstacle-filled/obstacle-overcame Hollywood story. Goldie has written of her own life’s events, how she felt about them and what she learned from each one. No matter how mundane or how big of deal they might seem, she respects them all with equal power to the effect they had on her life. This is a wonderful collection of Goldie’s perspective on different areas of life. It made me think. Especially, It made me think differently about some things.

“That is the idea behind this book. Not to tell my life story, but to speak openly and from the heart about episodes in my life in the hope of explaining how they changed my perception and how they helped me to look at the world more clearly,”–Goldie Hawn

Accomplished.

My early movie-going life was consistently filled with Goldie Hawn. I looked up to her. I wanted to be her. I was comfortable in the theater when she was on screen. Within the pages of this book, I’m just as comfortable. Many of the moments she writes about are written in first person, present tense. This is terrific! It makes the reader feel like a genuine part of the story.

Goldie Hawn’s movie career was at a peak at about the same time I was beginning to discover movies. She instantly became one of my favorites then because of the way she portrayed the characters she played. Like I said, I always looked to these characters as women I felt comfortable, or safe, with. This was not something I enjoyed in my own life – I grew up in an oh-so-strict environment ruled by a narcissistic mother who wouldn’t even let me watch such movies. (I had to lie about where I was going to go to the theater to see one). Not only did I feel comfortable with Goldie and her characters, I learned from them that it was okay to be a free spirit, that it was okay to think and dream….and that laughter plays a big part in all of it.

“I mean, it’s important to be liberated from my fears. I don’t think  burning bras is going to do that. I think laughing out loud is a great liberator.” — Goldie Hawn

As young as I was, I figured this out without even realizing it, if that makes sense, in those first few Goldie Hawn movies I saw. Thank god. As they say, “Laughter truly is the best medicine.” I don’t know who said that first, but I learned it from Goldie Hawn.

poster photo from Limited Runs

Foul Play (1978) was the movie that introduced me to Goldie Hawn. I was a huge Barry Manilow fan at the time, and his song, Ready To Take a Chance Again, led me to it. I SO loved that song and absolutely had to see Foul Play because that song was a part of the movie – though to this day I do NOT understand why. I mean, it was a kind of a disturbing but funny movie about a librarian and a cop (Chevy Chase) solving a crime that involved creepy characters….not really a place for a mushy love song, even though they ultimately fell in love….

But anyway…. I left that movie in complete adoration of Goldie Hawn. From that point forward I made sure I saw as many of her movies as I could. I could always rely on Goldie’s romantic comedies to make me feel good. There was never any doubt that her presence in a movie would be exactly what I needed. I am positive that her movies are why I have always been drawn to the romantic comedies that exist throughout the history of Hollywood.

 Housesitter (1992) with Steve Martin has been my favorite Goldie Hawn movie. Oh how I admired how clever she was in that movie. And that house! I have been known to beg my architect Hubby to design and build me that house. I STILL don’t have the house. But I have the movie and of every movie I own, it’s the one I’ve watched the most. It never gets old. One more time, Goldie plays a free-spirited, clever girl full of kindness that I take a great deal of inspiration from. When I saw Cactus Flower (1969) with Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman, (Goldie’s first movie), for the first time last year, that same feeling of comfort washed over me. It’s like that for me with every movie of Goldie’s that I’ve seen.

“It is so important to get a different perspective in life, to see what other people have or don’t have and what they consider to be valuable. Possessions ultimately do not make us happy, nor does the obsession with acquiring more and more material wealth. How much is enough?”

“Children don’t plan. They don’t control. They laugh, they have fun, they go with the flow.” There is a lesson for us all there.” –Goldie Hawn.

It’s a relief just to let myself think that way as I read it! I do love the way she thinks, and this book is filled to the brim with her thoughts and perspectives. They’re enlightening and inspiring. Needless to say, a person could learn a lot here, if they let themselves.

“If we can just let go and trust that things will work out the way they’re supposed to, without trying to control the outcome, then we can begin to enjoy the moment more fully. The joy of the freedom it brings becomes more pleasurable that the experience itself.” –Goldie Hawn

Random notes:

  • Goldie is a dancer at heart. I love knowing that Fred Astaire was her childhood hero. He’s mentioned no less than six times here.
  • Goldie wasn’t altogether impressed with Walter Matthau when they made Cactus Flower together, but she absolutely loved Ingrid Bergman. This does not move me from my current Walter Matthau obsession, however.
  • I have not seen Private Benjamin (1980). Yet. It’s Goldie’s only Oscar (for Best Actress In a Leading Role).

3 New-To-Me Classics This Week

Mirage (1965)

I can barely imagine how scary amnesia must be, can you? I just can’t wrap my head around what it would feel like to not remember a thing, not even my name. That’s exactly what happens to David Stilwell (Gregory Peck), corporate accountant in Mirage. The dark, gritty, big-city scenes in Mirage make the prospect of amnesia even scarier. Add some mob-style death threats to the mix and…whew! Just writing that gives me a tinge of anxiety.

After a traumatic event in his office one day, David winds up with amnesia and spends the rest of the movie figuring out who he is, why this thing happened and why certain humans are threatening his very existence. He has no idea. And getting to the answers is quite a ride.

In a panic, David looks everywhere for someone that will help him. Instead of help though, he’s met with a lot of disbelief and distrust that frustrates and frightens him even more. Us viewers too! Eventually he finds a new-to-the-game private detective, Ted Casselle (Walter Matthau)♥ that’s willing to listen to his insane story. Ted’s a big help….until HE gets killed.

Oh, it’s a mess, alright. Mirage is intense. It’s full of terrific performances from actors like Diane Baker, George Kennedy and Kevin McCarthy. It’s well worth the time. I recommend watching it in a dark room for full-affect. Thank goodness our friend Walter, as Ted, is there to ease us through at least part of the story.

Local Hero (1983)

This is, hands down, the most satisfying, calming, peaceful…beautiful….movie I’ve seen all year. Of course I wanted to like Mirage the most this week because of Walter’s presence there, but Local Hero is, by far, my favorite movie….this year! I love this movie and I can’t believe I’d never seen it before. Big mistake on my part to have waited this long.

Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) is an eccentric oil company executive that thinks he has to build a new refinery for his company. The truth is he really doesn’t care about that. We learn early that he’s more interested in the sky and stars. It’s while he’s planning his daily star gazing that he half-heartedly sends one of his company minions, simply known as Mac  (Peter Riegert), to a tiny fishing village on the ocean in Scotland with the purpose of purchasing it. Then, once Mac gets the residents to agree to the terms of the sale, he’ll destroy it and build the new refinery at the location, like Happer wants. Let’s just say it doesn’t work out this way. Once Mac gets to the village he meets Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the innkeeper at the hotel he’s staying at, (who’s also the town accountant and what we might think of as the mayor of the village), he starts to see how much he appreciates the way of life in the village. Residents are content, but don’t have a lot of money and all but one of them easily agrees to and looks forward to making money from this deal. Mac, however, has fallen under the spell of the place and struggles with the entire thing. It’s when Happer comes to the village to meet Ben, the last obstacle to the sale, that a resolution is presented. This is a David v. Goliath tale, small town v. big city, humanity v. corporate….name it what you want…I call it a beautiful movie.

 

Naked City (1948)

Of these three movies, this one is probably my least favorite. I did like it though and I’m glad I finally watched it…it’s been on my watch list for years. Naked City kept me interested and even intrigued in some places, but I often found myself wanting to know more about these detectives. That clearly wasn’t the point of Naked City, though. It was meant to tell the specific story of a murder case in New York City, and it did it very, very well. If you like crime documentaries, chances are  you’ll like this. Directed by Jules Dassin in 1948 for Universal, Naked City is a gritty, documentary-style, film that meticulously follows a New York City murder case. We watch as Lt. Dan Muldoon’s (Barry Fitzgerald) manages the case with his team of detectives, and I have to say, it was Fitzgerald’s performance that held me to the story. He almost, ALMOST reminds me of Columbo, in that he pretends he doesn’t quite comprehend what’s going on. But like Columbo, he does. He absolutely does. This character makes the movie for me.

Charley Varrick, 1973

And now we return to my regularly scheduled Walter Matthau obsession….

Movie poster for 1973’s Charley Varrick.

Charley Varrick is another Walter Matthau movie I’ve discovered and loved this year. Sure, I’ve seen Charade umpteen times, The Bad News Bears and the Grumpy Old Men movies over the years, but I never really went beyond those. (Shameful!) No, my obsession with Matthau’s movies didn’t happen until 2020. We can place the blame for this new obsession squarely on the lap of Barnes and Noble and specifically, the Criterion Collection section of their store. Before the pandemic started, I was in the store browsing that collection one day when Walter Matthau’s unique face jumped off the rack at me in the form of the DVD cover for his movie, Hopscotch (1980). I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it, but I bought it anyway, based on the description on the back of the DVD. Of course the movie was fantastic, I absolutely loved it, but it was the Dick Cavett interview on that DVD with him that made me fall in love with Walter Matthau. Smart, funny, subdued, engaging and a truly nice man. What’s not to love?

I turned into a Walter Matthau movie fangirl immediately. I’ve been collecting his movies ever since I found Hopscotch and that interview….they are likely the reason why this home-bound girl in a pandemic has not completely melted down into a puddle of doom.  Or gone on a multi-state crime-spree….but anyway….

Add Charlie Varrick to my list of much-loved Walter Matthau movies.

Based on the novel, The Looters, by John Reese, Charley Varrick is a traditional crime caper. Matthau plays a stunt pilot/crop duster that robs banks for money with his wife, Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) and a fiercely greedy guy named Harman (Andrew Robinson). Charley, Nadine and Harman rob a small bank in Trec Cruces, New Mexico. It turns out bad in that Nadine is shot and killed by police during the getaway. It goes bad again once Charley realizes that the money they stole was probably Mob money. Why else would that much money be hiding in a small-town bank in the middle of nowhere? He wonders. And he decides he wants nothing to do with any of the cash. Harman has other ideas. So does the mob. Mr. Molly (Joe Don Baker), the mobster sent to deal with these robbers and boy is he vicious.

With the realization of what they’ve done, there’s a cleverness in Charley’s calm plotting and planning that makes me wonder just how much of this he had planned from the beginning. Hmmmm…… I read somewhere that Matthau himself didn’t like Charley Varrick much because it required a lot of thinking on the viewer’s part. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I, for one, loved it, including the wonder of how much Charley really knew.

Charlie Varrick was directed and produced by Don Siegel (you might know him for Dirty Harry) for Universal Studios in 1973.

 

 

Desk Set, 1957

Do you think we’re being re-decorated?” – Ruthie (Sue Randall)

Does he look like an interior decorator to you?” – Sylvia (Dina Merrill)

No, he looks like one of those men that suddenly switched to vodka.” – Peg (Joan Blondell)

With all the things this movie has going for it, and there’s a lot, it’s this kind of banter that I get Desk Set out for to watch again year after year. I love to laugh out loud and this movie consistently provides that.

I’m aware that this isn’t one of the traditional Christmas movies, but I include it in my Christmas movie watching every year. Christmastime is not only the time this story takes place, but it’s also a character in that Christmas gifts and parties play a part in the story. That’s why I’ve chosen it as my entry into the Happy Holidays Blogathon hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.

Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and directed by Walter Lang in 1957, Desk Set is set in a mid-century, New York City office during Christmas time. The threat of the introduction of computers into the lives of the the all-female staff of the reference department at the Federal Broadcasting Company provides the tension for the movie, while the actors deliver comedic lines that get us through it. The uncertainty is scary, the anxiety evident right away. You immediately root for these ladies, long before you even know what they’re fighting against.

Yep, it’s a romantic comedy.

Maybe it’s the smart, quick wit in the Phoebe and Henry Ephron script…


…or the fabulous mid-century styles and design…


…or maybe it’s Joan Blondell‘s sarcastic humor as Peg Costello (she’s sooo good)…

…or maybe it’s that oh-so-special Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn chemistry.

It’s a lot of things. Especially one of my favorite movies. It frustrates me when it’s supposed to, but makes me laugh and laugh again to alleviate the frustration. Then, Katharine Hepburn’s snort-laugh comes in and makes me laugh some more. As I write this today, I cherish those giggle-scenes more than ever…

Right away, first scene, I’m hooked. Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) grabs me from a real life crummy day and plops me down in the middle of his intriguing meandering through a gorgeous wood-tiled, mid-century big-city office. As he weaves his way mysteriously through the offices and hallways of the Federal Broadcasting Company my head fills up with the hows and whys of his strange behavior and just like that, I’ve forgotten the perfectly crummy day I was having – and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are front and center! Where they should be.

Bunny Watson (Hepburn) is a fountain of knowledge. Today, we’d call her Google. It’s her job to know a lot and she does it well. There doesn’t seem to be much she doesn’t know and she knows exactly where to find what she doesn’t. This “electric brain” of Sumner’s isn’t gonna be any kind of match to her, right?

Richard Sumner (Tracy) is a man obsessed with learning everything he can to ensure the success of his “electric brain” invention – to the point that he’s oblivious to everything else.

Even when he asks Bunny to lunch. Instead of taking her to a nice restaurant, he takes her to the the roof of the building for cold sandwiches. They have lunch on the roof of a skyscraper. In December. In New York City. The only thing on Sumner’s mind is getting more information to improve the performance of his “electric brain.” During the lunch, as Bunny shivers, Sumner smugly tries to stump her with trivia and math. I guess to prove that his “electronic brain” is a better choice than a human to handle the questions the ladies face in the research department. Nice try, Sumner, but Bunny doesn’t flinch. However, she is confused as to why he took her to the rooftop for lunch, especially on a freezing-cold day. Confusion and cold aside, confidence still oozes from Bunny. Without missing a beat, she answers every one of Sumner’s questions off the top of her head, in between shivers and bites of her sandwich. She easily answers every question and riddle he throws at her even though by this point it’s obvious she’s more worried about what this “electric brain” will mean for the job she loves. You can feel Sumner’s admiration growing for her with every question he asks. The chemistry between these two….well….It’s wonderful.

Bunny’s confidence lacks in just one place: her relationship with Mike Cutler (Gig Young), her boss and long-time boyfriend. After all the years they’ve dated (“six…no, seven!”), Bunny just can’t get him to commit, no matter how hard she tries. Yet she keeps trying. And hoping.

In the funny scene in Bunny’s apartment where she’s having dinner with Sumner while they’re both in bathrobes, (they get stuck in the rain and go into her apartment to dry off), Mike barges in. He’s far from happy at what he sees. Sumner laughs at Mike and Bunny as they argue, and we finally we see a little bit of that professional Bunny confidence bubble up with Mike. It’s about time.

At this point, Desk Set is a full blown love triangle with the added suspense of the invasion of the “electric brain.”

I am crazy about the Bunny Watson Hepburn has created in Desk Set. She’s inspiring, has a great job, funny, oh-so-smart and struggles with insecurities despite it all. This is a woman I want to drink that champagne with at the Christmas party. Actually, I wanna drink champagne with all these women. This movie feels good to spend time with no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

 

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

“Probably the finest pure trial movie ever made.” – UCLA Law Professor, Michael Asimov

Anatomy of a Murder, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden was directed by Otto Preminger for Columbia Pictures in 1959. It’s based on a real murder case that happened in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P)…

…and the entire film was shot on location close to where it took place, in Marquette County.

Anatomy of a Murder is the story of a jealous husband who’s on trial for killing the man that “allegedly” raped his wife. Laura Manion (Remick), the accused’s wife herself calls local attorney, Paul Biegler (Stewart) and begs him to take the case to defend her soldier husband (Gazzara). Biegler reluctantly decides to take it, in part because it’s getting a lot of attention in the U.P. which he thinks might finally get him the business that will let him make the money he needs to fund his fishing trips, and, pay Maida (Arden), his assistant…but mostly fund his fishing trips, despite Maida’s demands.

“You’re fired” – Biegler

“You can’t fire me until you pay me!” – Maida

It winds up being a whirlwind courtroom drama filled with clever ploys and constant bickering between Biegel and the “big city attorney from Lansing,” Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). It’s a heavy, riveting movie that’s as much about the human condition at that time as it is about a serious crime. Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch) does an excellent job of keeping the attorneys in line and even provides a little brevity just when we need it the most:

“One judge is quite like another. The only differences may be in the state of their digestions or their proclivities for sleeping on the bench. For myself, I can digest pig iron. And while I might appear to doze occasionally, you will find that I am easily awakened, particularly if shaken gently by a good lawyer with a nice point of law.” – Judge Weaver.

 

The film is based on the bestselling novel from 1958 by Robert Traver, the pen name for John D. Voelker, The book is based on an actual case of Voelker’s in the U.P. where he was the defense attorney in a murder trial. Voelker was also a prosecutor in the U.P. and was later appointed a Michigan Supreme Court justice. Voelker said he used a pen name when he wrote his novels because he felt it would be inappropriate for a sitting judge to also be a crime novelist. Eventually he retired from the bench to concentrate on his passion for writing novels.

John D. Voelker is the attorney who Paul Biegler, played by James Stewart, is based on. Anatomy of a Murder spent 65 weeks on the best seller list and Illustrated two of Voelker’s passions: the law, and fly-fishing. (On a side note: Voelker became close friends with Joseph N. Welch, the actor who portrayed Judge Weaver, during filming. It was a friendship that would last their lifetimes).

While the town and place names are fictitious in the movie, they are closely based on places along U.S. highway 41, Michigan state highway M-28 and Marquette county highway 550. The street scenes in the movie were filmed in Marquette and Ishpeming. The courthouse scenes were all filmed at the county courthouse in Marquette. The Thunder Bay Inn, where the bar scenes were filmed used to be called the Big Bay Inn at the time, but is now, you guessed it, The Thunder Bay Inn. (Big Bay, Michigan has a little bit of a tourist shrine devoted to the movie and it’s worth a stop if you’re up that way), and the trailer park where the Mannions lived is an actual campground in Michigamme. All of these places are still there.

Anatamy of a Murder director Otto Preminger was known for films like Laura of 1944, and the film noir Fallen Angel of 1945 as well as other high-profile adaptations of novels and plays. He had a tendency to direct films with themes that were taboo and therefore on the radar of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who approved and rated movies. There’s no doubt Preminger was an expert at defying the censors with this movies – In 1953 he directed The Moon is Blue, its storyline was about losing virginity was the reason it couldn’t attain MPAA approval. The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) couldn’t get MPAA approval because of its drug addiction plot. In 1962, Advise and Consent, didn’t get MPAA approval because it touched on homosexuality.

In Anatomy of a Murder, the taboo subject this time was rape. And boy are there frank discussions of rape and sex in this movie. It is said that the censors of the day objected to anything and everything that related to sex and rape but in the end, Preminger only made one concession in the film: he allowed them to substitute the word “violation” for “penetration,” which allowed the movie to be released with MPAA approval.  Many other “questionable” words were left in the script.

Once again, Judge Weaver eased us through a little of it:

“There’s a certain light connotation attached to the word ‘panties.’ Can we find another name for them?” – Judge Weaver

“I never heard my wife call ’em anything else”. – District Attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West)

“Mr. Biegler?” – Judge Weaver

“I’m a bachelor, Your Honor.” – Paul Biegler”

That’s a great help. Mr. Dancer?” – Judge Weaver.

‘When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I’m afraid that might be slightly suggestive.”  – Mr. Dancer.

“Most French words are.” – Judge Weaver.

Anatomy of a Murder was nominated for seven Academy Awards and its Duke Ellington soundtrack won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack album.

The American Bar association rated Anatomy of a Murder as one of the twenty-five best legal dramas ever made. I know it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. The fact that it all takes place and is filmed in the U.P is a bonus for me. We’ve spent a lot of time on road trips up there because of my huge crush on Lake Superior. We’ve taken the route in the movie dozens of times, always paying attention to the film’s locations….and while it’s fascinating and a lot of fun to know I may have walked the same sidewalks Jimmy Stewart once did, it’s the beautiful scenery that takes my breath away every time. Road trip!

This post is my entry in the Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.

Sources:

Northern Michigan University
Life In Michigan

Now, Voyager (1942) Based on the Book by Olive Higgins Prouty (1941)


Starring Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid
Directed by Irving Rapper
for Warner Brothers, 1942

Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) is a frumpy, worthless, irrelevant human being. At least that’s what her vicious bully of a mother, Mrs. Henry Vale (Gladys Cooper) has convinced Charlotte to believe. Hell, this woman has the entire house living in fear, not just her children, but the butlers and servants too. She’s a real piece of work….

Charlotte was doing well living up to what Mrs. Vale told her she was too. Until one day, when her mother asked Dr. Jacquith (Claude Rains), to come and help her daughter get over her “condition,” (which Mrs. Vale has already determined was a nervous breakdown). Dr. Jacquith was quick to see what was happening and knew what he had to do. He used kindness and encouragement…and a stay at a sanitarium…to help relieve Charlotte’s pain so she could start to live.

Charlotte wasn’t used to being treated this well, but with Dr. Jacquith’s help, she begins a transformation that saves the rest of her life.

As it turned out, time away from the old bag was exactly what Charlotte needed….

Now, Voyager
by Olive Higgins Prouty
340 Pages
Houghton Mifflin, 1942
Triangle Books 2004 Paperback edition: ISBN: 1558614761 (ISBN13: 9781558614765)

Both book and movie document Charlotte’s transformation. Both are satisfying, (especially for some of us that have mothers similar to Mrs. Henry Vale) and both reveal the same life lesson. I’m glad I read the book before I ever saw the movie though, because I felt like I knew Charlotte better than the movie let me get to know her. That’s not to say Bette Davis isn’t brilliant as Charlotte, of course she is, but we’re just closer to Charlotte and what she’s feeling in the book. For me, that was a good thing. Even though the movie follows the book closely, there’s more details in the book that took me to another level of closeness to Charlotte and how she dealt with her feelings. There’s no doubt that the book allowed me a greater appreciation for her…and for the movie.

As I write this, I’m tired. I’m worn out from the stresses of the last year and I can’t imagine having the strength and energy Charlotte exudes in this journey of self-discovery she’s on. She desperately wanted to feel better and even though she was afraid at first, she found the energy to overcome the fear and go for it. Davis makes this energy infectious and inspiring in the movie. I’d first seen the movie years ago, but after watching it again recently it sparks an energy in me that I had all but given up on.

On the outside chance you’ve never seen the movie or read the book, I don’t want to give away too many more story details here because this story is worth discovering without me butting in with how it affected me. Just know that it did. In a very good way. I suspect both Now, Voyager the book and the movie might be a story we all relate to in different ways, because the basic issue is insecurity and overcoming the damage it can do.

Myrna Loy – Being and Becoming

Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming
by James Kotsilbas-Davis and Myrna Loy
372 Pages
Alfred Knopf, Publisher, November 1987
ISBN 13-978-0394555935

Do you read a lot of biographies? I don’t. Especially those from the classic movie actors I love and admire so much. I know. It’s just that I’m terrified that they’ll disappoint me and I hate disappointment. I am a chicken when it comes to these things. God forbid these people don’t live up to their characters we’ve grown to love so much, right? Well, Myrna Loy is my all-time favorite actress and this was a problem when I discovered her autobiography years ago. Because I adore her so much, hers was the last autobiography I ever wanted to read. I read it anyway. Four times now since the late 2000s…and counting. As it turns out, it ALWAYS feels good to “be around” Myrna and her thoughts with this book. Her down-to-earth honesty and genuine enthusiasm shine through here, just like it does when she’s on screen. Not only does she live up to Nora Charles and all the other parts she played, she illustrates what a wonderful human she was. Not by bragging about it mind you, but by simply documenting all she’s lived through and experienced. This is one autobiography that’s worth reading again and again. And I do.

Being and Becoming is Myrna Loy’s autobiography. It’s a chronological book with four sections of black and white photographs that come from her early life in Montana to the apex of her acting career in Hollywood to her life in New York City. Her voice in her writing here is what I have always thought of as ‘typical Myrna,’ – thank God – entertaining, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and down-to-earth. This is an inspiring story of a Montana farm girl who conquered Hollywood and ruled it for years as the “perfect wife” and “queen of the movies.” Seriously, moviegoers voted for Myrna in 1936 as “Queen of the Movies,” the same year they proclaimed Clark Gable “King.” That seems right.

Being and Becoming feels like an honest account of a life that just happened to occur in the middle of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The story takes the reader on quite a ride filled with names we all recognize and details that are fun to know. From Hollywood History to an account of her activism and charity work during World War II, this is a perfect read not only for a Myrna Loy fan, but a history buff too.

Myrna shares thoughts and anecdotes about a lot of her movies and many of her costars. There’s some especially interesting stories about William Powell, James Stewart, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and more. There’s quite a few quotes from them about Myrna sprinkled throughout the book too:

“…When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles and microphones. We weren’t acting We were just two people in perfect harmony. Many times I’ve played with an actress who seemed to be separated from me by a plate-glass window; there was no contact at all. But Myrna, unlike some actresses who think only of themselves, has the happy faculty of being able to listen while the other fellow says his lines. She has the give and take of acting that brings out the best…” – William Powell

I love knowing that’s how William Powell felt about her. He oughta know, he made 14 movies with Myrna, including all six The Thin Man movies. There’s no question that Myrna’s career was built on playing the “perfect wife” to Powell and several others. Though she played wives before them it was the Thin Man series with William Powell that solidified the perfect wife persona:

Nick Charles (Powell): “You don’t scold, you don’t nag and you’re far too pretty in the morning.”

Nora Charles (Loy): “All right, I’ll remember: must scold, must nag, musn’t be too pretty in the morning.”

Myrna says about the perfect wife moniker she carried:

“Some perfect wife I am, I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children and can’t boil an egg.”

Everything in this book is spirited and enjoyable to read. She’s never upset about anything as she tells her story, even though there were tough times. She never gossips, never complains, never shows any vindictiveness. In fact, she points out that she “never had time for such things.” She simply tells it like it was. In Being and Becoming Myrna has given us a front row seat to what was going on during the studio era as the movies we love were being made. It is exactly what I hoped it would be and so much more. When I reread it now, it’s a place for me to be that feels good, just like every one of her movies, and I cherish that.

“One of the great charms of cinema” – from Myrna’s New York Times obituary on December 15, 1993.

and

“A woman who has the courage to stand up for her convictions.” – said Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio when he read a W magazine interview with Myrna into the Congressional Record.

Her response to the Senator:

“Well, I guess I was raised to do that by pioneers who valued such attributes. I could ask for no greater tribute.” – last paragraph of book.

Standing There Is A Man With Movie Star Eyes

“Standing there is a man with movie star eyes,” is a line from the song Dreamtime from the album Three Hearts In the Happy Ending Machine (1986) by Daryl Hall. I’ve been happy to have it parked in my head for months. As far as I’m concerned, it can stay there forever because it’s a catchy, up-tempo song and that lyric constantly reminds me of these guys:

William Powell
Tony Curtis
Gary Cooper
Frank Sinatra
George Raft
Paul Newman
Tyrone Power
Cary Grant
James Stewart

These are photographs I’ve saved over the years and have no idea where I got them. I wish I had that information now. If you know more about any of them, please let me know!

I have some stunning eyes from our favorite classic actresses too.  (I’m looking your way Bette). I’ll round those up too one of these days…

Who has your favorite movie star eyes?