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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Natalie Wood --- Part 2

I didn’t say much about Natalie Wood’s movies in Part 1, wanting to save that for today’s entry. I subscribe to the radical notion that Nat’s best work isn’t Splendor In The Grass, or West Side Story, or any of those other ponderous sixties things. I've always preferred her in Warner cheeseburgers like The Girl He Left Behind (a classic), Bombers B-52 (you shouldn’t have turned it down, Tab!), Marjorie Morningstar (her debut as a "serious" actress), and Cash McCall (it will live forever). These were the ones made to order for the Natalie clubs and their fifteen- year-old girl memberships who’d mimicked her gamine haircut and breathlessly awaited news of the next "romance" (would Tab be supplanted by Ray Burr?). Sitting through these pics today (if you can find them --- ain’t easy) is a time transport back to a day when fan culture and movie production still walked hand-in-hand. It wouldn’t last much longer…

Of course, Natalie was a seasoned vet when she made the big teen splash with Rebel Without A Cause. Her moppet resume seems to have jinxed her in the eyes of director Nick Ray, who wanted a fresh face for her role. Upstart cast members were suspicious of her "Old Hollywood" links (she’d worked with Bing Crosby after all), so she had to overcome a degree of prejudice there. This first grouping shows Nat with her cigarette poised over what appears to be a waste can full of discarded film strips (good thing they’d made the transition to safety film by this time!). Is that a reefer behind Jimmy Dean’s
ear? Kinda looks like one. He’s checking out today’s call sheet. Let’s see, are there any seasoned character actors who can prop me up and make my self-conscious performing look good, like Albert Dekker, Raymond Massey, and the others did in East Of Eden? Nick Adams is quietly speculating as to whether director Ray might let him wear that silly hat on screen --- Nick’ll do most anything for attention, you know.

Natalie drops in on Warner Brothers Presents host Gig Young at the "location" for The Searchers as they pose before one of the most audacious process screens ever to stand in for an outdoor setting. Natalie speaks to the home viewers as though she were giving the valedictorian address at Hollywood High School. These "behind-the-scenes" moments were forced on ABC by Warners as part of the deal when that studio finally agreed to dip its corporate toes into video waters. The program collapsed in the first season. The photo offering we next see was part of the campaign for The Girl He Left Behind, a peacetime service romance in which Natalie and Tab Hunter were teamed for the first time. Selling fan photos in bulk meant exhibitors could hand them out to patrons coming in, or use them as giveaways with radio dee-jays, record stores, and the like. Director David Butler later confessed that he’d have preferred young supporting player James Garner for the lead instead of Hunter, but the big guns were behind Tab after Battle Cry, so Garner was vetoed by studio brass. Butler also recalled Natalie having to take breaks for school "lessons" and avoid exhaustion (still a minor, you see). Trouble is, as soon as work was finished, she’d be off for all-night partying, and come in the next day --- exhausted. Must have been an excess of ice-cream sodas, as we’re assured by the fan mags that Natalie was a model teen.

Impetuous Tab went on suspension to avoid Bombers B-52 and a new star was born, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who also got the TV part Hunter nixed --- Stu Bailey in 77 Sunset Strip (colossal boner there, Tab). The fact such pictures once got respect is borne out by this Christmas 1957 ad from our own Liberty Theatre, where Bombers B-52 was the brightest ornament on the holiday program. These Warner pics stayed within limited budgets --- The Girl He Left Behind had a negative cost of $967,000 --- Bombers B-52 cost $1.4 million. Domestic rentals were fairly predictable --- Girl took $1.3 million, and Bombers less at $1.1 (probably because Hunter didn’t do it). Bigger things were expected for Marjorie Morningstar, which they hoped would break beyond Natalie’s (age) limited fan base, but that expensive production ($2.8 million negative) took a loss of $190,000. Part of the problem may have been the eccentric romantic pairing of Natalie with Gene Kelly (playing a character 32 when he was 46). Her jump to major stardom came with loan-outs, but she'd had to compete with mainstream actresses more accomplished in the dramatic stuff she longed to do. By then, the Natalie Wood teenage fan phenomenon had run its course, and the bloom was off the rose. We’re sure there’s no urgency on Warner’s part to release Natalie’s early features on DVD, but we’d love to see them again all the same. Any votes out there for a box set?

Finally, we'd like to acknowledge (and enthusiastically recommend!) a fantastic Natalie Wood website, which you can find
HERE. It's filled with articles, photos, essays ... the ultimate go-to place for all things Natalie. So, go there and be dazzled!


Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

Even if it is only in a brief appearance she is incredibly powerful in "The Searchers"...How long is she in the screen? 35 seconds?...And she is magnificent! (So was John Ford!)

1:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sure would like to see "Marjorie Morningstar" released on DVD... love Gene Kelly. :) (Also waiting for that drama he did with Deanna Durbin)

4:23 AM  

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