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Monday, June 21, 2021

Slow Climb Classics Sometimes Were


Sabrina the Soundtrack Of My Life

Billy Wilder lived ninety-five years, talked a blue streak through most of them. That’s how we know so much about his films, especially back-of-camera gossip and lore. Imagine if Michael Curtiz had lived to 95 … or Tod Browning … or W.S. Van Dyke. Wilder was accessible. He also signed posters and lobby cards when fans presented them. He was said to be cynical, but admirers who figured to know his heart said Billy was a frustrated romantic. We can assume as much from music he chose for films if not situations and dialogue. Sabrina is a two-hour compendium of “American popular love songs,” which, according to co-writer Ernest Lehman, Wilder “loved.” We may assume he hand-picked them. Most were Paramount-owned. Isn’t It Romantic was practically a theme song for the studio, being used constantly as background when not featured vocally. Music is foregrounded more in Sabrina than any other of Wilder films. Only Some Like It Hot gets as much out of pop tunes, in that case used to emphasize a period setting (the late 1920’s). There was a limited-edition Sabrina soundtrack issued in 2013, 1000 copies only. I bet it sold out in record time. Recording label “Kritzerland” surely underestimated demand there would be. Only one I found at Ebay wants $158. Amazon does not list it at all. When CD’s are gone, they are really gone. Beside songs there was scoring by Frederick Hollander, who arranged all of music, his interpretation a best the numbers ever sounded. Hollander was German-born, made initial splash cleffing for 1929’s The Blue Angel, including that film’s signature tune, Falling In Love Again. He would write a lot more songs for Marlene Dietrich. Wilder probably knew Hollander from Berlin days.

One of Those Speaking-Volumes Stills

There is such a thing as knowing too much of a film’s background. Many survived besides Wilder to speak of Sabrina. Conflicts rife on the shoot spilled early and often into press. Appears from yellowed columns that Humphrey Bogart began the tiff. He was often indiscreet to scribes, giving them oats they then shot from guns. No one liked trouble aired from working sets. It suggested instability that could undermine business. Bad publicity was sometimes plain bad. Bogart gave Wilder and William Holden grief, and suggested newcomer Audrey Hepburn couldn’t act (“she’s alright if you don’t mind twenty takes”). Bogart was freelance and spoke his mind the more so. He got $200K for Sabrina to Holden’s 80, Hepburn’s 25. Here was star power sometimes cruelly used. Much as I like Bogart, some who had to work with him did not. Wilder actually had to break up a physical clash between Holden and Bogie. Latter would “needle” friends, foes alike. Wilder had the German accent and Bogart teased him for it. The director finally had enough and told Bogey/Bogie off in front of cast/crew. Tension was real on sets already hot and confined. I don’t know how people stood such environs all day, sometimes months, at dreary shooting. Basic problem for Bogart was being second choice to Cary Grant, who almost did Sabrina, then didn’t. Who wants to be at a place where folks would rather have someone besides you? Star egos were tender enough without such further insult. That $200K was got the hard way. Bogart did sit for the “Gala Hollywood Premiere” on 9/22/54, and we could wonder what he thought of the finished product. “Sabrina --- for God’s sake,” he said whenever the film was mentioned afterward, according to Richard Gehman in a mid-sixties Bogart bio.

Bogart had flair for comedy, to my estimate did not do enough of it. Had he lived, we would have seen more along light line (a proposed next before Bogart got sick was Melville Goodwin, USA). “Linus Larrabee” is in many ways more the real Bogart than “Humphrey Bogart” characters steeped in crime or chasing criminals. It certainly reflects his own privileged upbringing. I am satisfied Bogart works better as Linus than Cary Grant would have, in part because Grant’s Linus, being Grant, would be the eternal charmer at heart, so of course he would have the girl once his mind was set even slightly upon it. With Bogart, there is real question to his interest, or not, in Sabrina. We wonder if Sabrina will indeed sail to Paris alone, or with brother David (Holden), Linus unshackled now to complete the plastics merger. Bogart had reason to be concerned about Sabrina's unfinished script, and whether Wilder might tilt it at the end so that Holden would “get the girl” per Bogie’s oft-expressed anxiety. Linus had to be considerably rewritten once Grant was out and Bogart in. Wish we had an early draft to see all the differences. I like how Bogie/Linus is confident enough to woo Audrey/Sabrina with every expectation of winning her, a same assurance he applies to his sugar deal with the Tysons. Linus is never awkward in his pursuit of Sabrina as he pretends, being bold enough to kiss her at a tennis court assignation she meant to have with Holden/David. Offscreen Bogart was said to have much aplomb with women, especially in earlier years, according to observer Louise Brooks. He did need to be carefully photographed by 1953 (when Sabrina was shot), age 54 looking way more on that ravaged countenance. For glimpse at reality of by-then Bogart face, look at unprotected way he was captured in Beat The Devil, released a same year as Sabrina.

Audrey Hepburn may be a most remarkable instance of sudden stardom the 50’s, or any other decade, gave us. Roman Holiday had not yet been released when Sabrina began production, yet she as a major name is fait accompli. Wilder admitted to “worshipping” her. She seemed upon US arrival to be everyone’s kind of waif woman, or was it gamin, elfin, princess? There was no product with which to compare her, Leslie Caron a closest if one had to find parallel. Here was one of those rare occasions when public embrace was an absolute given. Wilder did close-ups on Hepburn no previous lead lady of his had been accorded. Bogart noticed and did a righteous burn. Holden took billing below her to no evident indignation. He and Audrey had an affair during Sabrina that went undetected, even by Wilder, who was surprised years later when an interviewer tipped him off. More people see Sabrina than most movies so old because Audrey Hepburn is in it. I do not know if the lure of her for college-age women is as strong as twenty years ago when I campus-ran Sabrina. In those days, we could have put over Green Mansions or The Nun's Story so long as she was promised with them. We must ask then, if not Hepburn to fascinate still, then who? Of gone actresses, I cannot think of one who really sustains, would draw viewership for herself, and apart from whatever dated film is on view.

Why Not Her?

Seems to me the Marilyn thing evaporated long ago. One could pose a question, as in why Hepburn, and not, say, Grace Kelly, who was certainly as big, maybe more so, than Audrey at an apex. Kelly had advantage also of capping her career by becoming a real princess, so you’d think some sort of cult status would have traveled in her wake. I found a Liberty ad from 1956, more lavish than customary, our local theatre staging a “Grace Kelly Festival” to commemorate the upcoming Royal wedding (MGM even did a short subject revolving around that event). A slew of revivals were booked to cover a week’s time: The Country Girl, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Mogambo … the Liberty, thanks to a product split with up-the-street Allen Theatre, had exclusive access to product out of Paramount and MGM, so the Kelly group was easily got. If Grace Kelly woke up a small berg like ours, then how come she fell to posterity’s footnote? Always hard to reckon, let alone predict, was public acceptance of a star, alive or dead. If Audrey Hepburn had a rival among past female leads, at least in present-day estimation, I’d like to know who that actress/personality would be.

Writing Sabrina appears to have been a nightmare. Ernest Lehman lived long and told lots, first how he was brought in behind Samuel Taylor, whose source play Wilder pretty much scrapped to do what he knew could be better (and it undoubtedly was). Question: Has anyone seen Taylor’s Sabrina Fair performed on stage? Lehman came on as pressure of a start date loomed, he and Wilder writing barely ahead of cameras. A few days saw them fallen behind, the director having to contrive means by which they could steal hours necessary to compose dialogue. Result was stress to land Lehman flat on his back and under a doctor’s care. He said Wilder lived on black coffee and cigarettes, this an ordeal Lehman was not experienced or equipped for: “At times our health broke down for the effort.” Wilder’s back tended to go out when his nerves got taut, Lehman “crying uncontrollably” as pressures mounted. Sabrina went this way to a finish. It’s amazing how smooth the picture plays when you read what these people endured to make it. So is moviemaking a life to be envied? Possibly we are better off just enjoying shows like Sabrina, rather than taking responsibility for writing, direction, or ask Bogart … acting. These people deserve all of accolades they ever got.

Does Sabrina exert a same appeal as before? I went to a New York revival house pairing with The Caine Mutiny around 1985. Sabrina got laughs long since faded for me. There is such a thing as numbing oneself through repetition. How pleasing it was to hear an audience bring a seemingly moribund thing to lusty life. Happiest surprise was the finish, Bogie/Linus embracing Audrey/Sabrina to bring forth a roar of approval from the ’85 crowd, applause drowning outro music and Paramount logo to my almost tearful reaction. If there is ever another full house for Sabrina (or anything), I would like to be there to see how they take it. Something tells me things might not be quite the same. Was also at point of saying that Sabrina never really qualified as a Bogart “cult” movie, but there hasn’t been a Bogart cult for generations now. Harder to believe, given current conditions, that there ever was. Would aspects of Bogie be “problematic” for students now afraid to cheer him? Here has come increasing fate of all old films. When even TCM puts store stock in modern “perspective,” you know a Classic Era’s future is dire. Old as Sabrina now is, it’s refreshing how Wilder and team celebrated what was plenty ancient then. Walter Hampton (at left), lion of Broadway, a Hamlet from turn of a century, is prominent as Larrabee patriarch, and Francis X. Bushman, another eternal profile, chiseled to the last, is welcome in support. “Maude Larrabee” Nella Walker was in vaudeville, part of a comic duo. And these people were not so “forgotten” as we tend to imagine. Glad as I always am to see them, imagine how 1954 viewers felt, many recalling faces first-hand from long-ago stages. What made a Classic Era classic was combine of cherished old with refreshing new, elders helping in no small way to put over those more recent-arrived to the game.

Speaking of “old” played for fun, there is Linus and his portable phonograph with Yes, We Have No Bananas to entertain Sabrina aboard his ketch. The song dated to 1923, was “a world-wide smash hit” according to music historian Ian Whitcomb, “the archetypal patchwork industrial folk song, entirely without feeling.” People eventually treated Bananas as a joke, as if how could anyone have embraced a fool tune like this? For Sabrina purpose, Bananas stands for Linus’ carefree college days before he settled down to family business. Sabrina thinks it is a newly popular hit she has missed for being out of the country at cooking school. Wilder would use silly freak numbers to comic effect again in One, Two, Three (1961), where “Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was used as a torture device by Soviet operatives. Yes, We Have No Bananas works as amusing counterpart to timeless standards throughout Sabrina, some of which, however, were too recent to be “timeless” quite yet. I’d like to think they became so for being used in Sabrina: Isn’t It Romantic (1932), I Don’t Want To Walk Without You (1941), I’m Yours (1930), My Ideal (1930), Dream Girl (1948), others. Paramount presumably still owns most of them. I played other versions of each on You Tube and elsewhere, but none sounded so good as how Frederic Hollander arranged them, and Para performers executed same, my bias admittedly for having played the lot in my head since I first saw Sabrina, January 14, 1967, on NBC Saturday Night At The Movies.

Watch a thing enough and you’ll pick it to bare bones. Any favorite, no matter how much a favorite, still has Wait a Minute moments, where you think, should this really be happening? Within Sabrina there are at least three such stops for me. For instance, should Linus, by way of demonstrating his bulletproof plastic, do so by firing a pistol three times directly at it? Could a ricochet not wound, even kill, he or onlooking David? I’d call this a comedy device with serious implications, that is, if I chose to take it serious, which I obviously have tendency to do. Then there is Sabrina writing a suicide note clearly meant to be taken in earnest, sliding it under her father’s doorway as he sleeps. Off to Paris the next day, the self-offing not fulfilled, her envelope and content not mentioned, even as we assume “Thomas Fairchild” (John Williams) must have discovered it. Was he too tactful to mention the matter, or had Sabrina made such empty threats before? Finally there is Oliver Larrabee and his recalcitrant bottle of olives. He can’t get to a last one to garnish his martini, despite pounding the bottle on Linus’ desktop and pulling the paper clip off a vital contract to pry it out. Frustrated Linus finally seizes the bottle from his aged father, shatters same on the desk edge, growls “Eat it!” as he pushes the olive into the old man’s mouth. This moment always startles me, not only in its disrespect for an elder, but for fact Bogie/Linus may be inserting shards of glass in addition to the olive, being careless, alarmingly aggressive, in the doing. Was this Bogie himself venting over burden of being stuck in Sabrina?

Monday, June 14, 2021

What We Can't Do Without is Music


The Topic Where Everybody Is An Expert

Guessing most feel as vested in music as any pastime. Cannot think of anyone offhand who says, I don’t care for music at all. Take it away and movies would not mean half so much, or much of anything for that matter. Imagine watching silents without accompany. I had to run The Birth of a Nation mute, and 8mm, to a college class (apx. 1974), a sudden request, so no time to arrange even shellac escort. Would have preferred ants crawling over me. Music is as breathing in this quarter. How many listen as they read/write onscreen? Fred Hamm and His Orchestra are playing Sugar Foot Stomp as I type, Exclusively 20’s part of “Online Radio Box.” Name please, your earliest song memory. Mine are tied between Fred Kirby singing Big Rock Candy Mountain and Debbie Reynolds doing Tammy, both 1957. There was more from that year, surprising what tunes could be absorbed at age three. I recently got a CD, Hard To Find Jukebox Classics Volume One: 50’s Pop, each track repurposed for stereo, among them Perry Como performing Round and Round, another from 1957 to oddly stay with me even as Elvis and others spun more prominent. And how is it 1958 sustains on strength of Tommy Dorsey’s Tea For Two Cha-Cha, a tune I still repeat-hum without being conscious of it. Early exposure to music depended on what was brought into the household. Having four older siblings was for me like living in a record store. No room was without song, competing at times, but add my own to their choices and it was like Tin Pan Alley as described by passersby who described non-stop cacophony within that busy address.

I find appeal in music however old. Remember what The Sting did for Scott Joplin and ragtime? His The Entertainer, as performed by Marvin Hamlisch, went to #3 on the May 1974 “Hot 100.” I had the single, then the album, used Joplin as backdrop for silent comedy. He made serious study of ragtime while others performed it purely by instinct. Did The Sting bring about resurgence for ragtime beyond Scott Joplin? Seemed in 1974 that whatever was spent could be made fresh again, this the year That’s Entertainment came out after all. Ancient enough songs traveled on wings of elementary school attendance, Norman “Chubby” Chaney in Little Daddy (1931) singing “Asleep In The Deep” (1897), none of us caring how far back the tune went, so long as it captivated here and now. I memorized lyrics for “The Curse of an Aching Heart” (1913) after seeing it performed in Blotto (1930), a song we felt no one outside Laurel-Hardy fandom would know. Could I have revived it for prom night and been voted a senior superlative? Appreciation for oldest music came invariably from left field. Shock for me was learning Frank Sinatra sang “The Curse of an Aching Heart” on his 1961 album, Swing Along With Me, done straight, no irony. I wonder if Frank saw Blotto and got the idea. He was known to enjoy L&H during off-hours on location doing Sergeants Three. “The Curse of an Aching Heart” sounds like something comical and dated, but really, it is not. Stan Laurel reduced to tears by Frank Holliday’s rendition might happen to anybody, given a right emotional circumstance. Those undone by lost love could easily respond the same. If Sinatra made it work, why not someone able enough doing a same even today?

You Tube affords a lot of footage that looks way older than we know it to be. I found a Dick Clark Beech-Nut fragment where Connie Stevens and Edd Byrnes do Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb. You’d think it predated parade footage of Queen Victoria lately found, a ghostly pop recital to make 1959 look long before anyone’s lifetime. Sobering is fact I sat on our screen porch that year and played Kookie, Kookie, etc. on loop that was my portable phonograph, just why beyond my kin to answer. Did this five-year-old imagine he would someday meet Edd and Connie, former at Columbus, latter twice in Charlotte? D. Clark had artists lip-sync to songs, a regret later when fans preferred performance live, “unplugged” even, which everything on Bandstand was determinably not. Clark and spontaneity seem not to have met, let alone melded. Or maybe he knew popsters for props barely able to singalong with offstage recordings. From such wind-up clay were teen idols made. Observing Edd/Kook by himself waiting on breakfast buffet at Cinevent gave moment to ponder an alternate reality where he stood before a thousand frenzied kids fifty years before panting to see him introduce Yellowstone Kelly at one of key stops Edd flew to. How many knew such fame, if studio-generated illusion of it, then retired to anonymity complete as most obscure among us enjoy? Wonder if it is too late to package and exploit the old Bandstand programs. At a peak, forty million watched daily, but as many saw The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and who remembers it now? Effort to raise funds and restore these went kaput, pop culture headed toward seventieth years less likely per annum to see resurgence, especially where it’s Ozzie and sorta bland to begin with. With so much of old TV streaming, I ask why not American Bandstand?

The Twist was a dance, but the Limbo really was not, or was it? Little children enjoyed both because they seemed so utterly silly. I never observed a grown-up doing either, probably would have been embarrassed for us both if I had. Limbo bars were a novelty we tired of unless more people entered the room to join in. Ann has been told she twisted as a toddler, so I guess anyone could be passable at this dance. Record singles were a dollar per, unless you dealt faux versions not by the intended artist. Sister requested Return To Sender from the newsstand my father walked me to each Saturday morning, and out of pure meanness, I picked a 45 for fifty cents by some guy other than Elvis. Dad did not know from the King, but recalled well “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman, whose rendition of Rhapsody In Blue was a 78 he played on a household Victrola until grooves wore out. This would have been around 1924. I’m blessed to have grown up among people who knew such an era first-hand. So many tastes in music collided as rock rolled, then became merely Rock. I cared less for that, as in not at all, was sorry to see pop singles bow to albums where a song ran interminable, and music seemed suddenly self-conscious art. On Whiteman topic, 1930’s King of Jazz, in restored two-color Technicolor, had a TCM round, but where in 99 minutes was there jazz? The Maestro tried elevating the form at tony auditoriums, one of which introduced Rhapsody In Blue, itself more quasi than real jazz; a historian called it “thrilling, warm music … marvelous tunes linked by classical devices.” Conclusion: This was “excellent pop,” and listeners, including my father, loved it. Seems the wider jazz went, and later rock and roll, the stronger was impulse to tame both beasts, make them mainstream, irresistible corporate forces against all too movable cultural objects.

So parents had their music too, even if, unlike us, they weren’t still listening to it forty years later. My mother walked through the room one morning as music under main titles for The Hoosegow got underway on Channel 5 out of Bristol. "That’s My Weakness Now," she said, without surprise or emphasis. The song was fresh when The Hoosegow came out (1929). I knew the tune but didn’t realize it had been popular apart from Hal Roach usage. To whistle this at school set you apart from peers, but all of them, any of them, knew Our Gang background themes where someone, anyone, whistled them. These were imbedded deep in all of us who grew up with access to NC viewing markets, where the Rascals were rife. My regard for classical music grew out of need for background to 8mm. I’d embrace Chopin, Liszt, the rest, for themselves and not just as adjunct to silent clowns. Collecting film and the need to score it gave great composers a practical utility that grew into fuller appreciation as we got used to their backlog, as good a way as any to introduce oneself to so-called Great Music. Having no aptitude for instruments themselves was reality hard-taught by calamity that was piano lessons, the instructor so put out by debacle of crowded recital that she finally took my fingers and poked them onto each key (selection was “Dance of the Elephants,” regarded as the simplest composition anyone sitting at a keyboard could possibly play). Audience glee was unbounded, my purpose served as there would be no more lessons after that night. The clarinet would also come a cropper, me expelled from band for too animated reaction to instructor Priscilla Lyon, former child actress, mentioning to her immediate regret that she had visited shooting of The Wolf Man in 1941, that story GPS-told years back. Some have a performing gift, but such gift is rare. I decidedly did not, don’t to this day. They say musical genius manifests early, or never. I am among nevers.

Data says Swing got close as Jazz ever did to a mass audience. That was because Swing made its audience dance, more so even than they had in the 20’s. Look at a scene from The Gang’s All Here where soldiers with girls gather round Benny Goodman and his band. Theirs was understood to be typical crowd reaction wherever Goodman played, like at theatres given up on keeping jitterbugs out of aisles whenever he took the stage. War enlarged the frenzy. Big bands ran on a stopwatch and left nothing to chance. Goodman like other leaders was a martinet. He knew members for often undisciplined lot they were. Performers who wanted to widen jazz beyond its obvious commercial realm looked to offshoot Be Bop, which detractors thought strictly on the downbeat, a “cult” whose music required “intense listening,” but never dancing. Be Bop or not, Swing was headed out thanks to changed postwar priorities and risen cost of travel and expense of big bands. Be Bop took licks for being too serious. Marty Milner’s combo in Sweet Smell of Success dodges an egghead fan who wants to know “meaning” behind their music. Even oily Sidney Falco makes better company than this chick. 1961’s Paris Blues has Paul Newman’s group upping tempo so basement club patrons can dance, but it becomes clear this band is for sit-still concentration. Be Bop made for strong LP’s a fan could groove with at home, stereo by the late 50’s a major spike to disc sales. Wonder who and how many of the jazz fraternity missed opulent days where it looked like everyone was climbing aboard their bandstand. How many cling yet to traditional jazz? As many, or more, who have stuck it out for classic movies?

Certain of convulsions in the music game make compelling reads, as in two early 40’s strikes that nearly took the industry out. Reminds me of hardship Hollywood sustained after the war. First there was ASCAP withdrawing member songs from broadcasters, retaliation the forming of BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), which opened the field to artists and independent labels all over the country. This made possible … inevitable … rhythm and blues, then the coming of rock and roll. Maverick outfits like Chess Records evoke freewheelers at film like American-International. These platter and picture men had lots in common. I listen to R&B compilations like Blowing The Fuse (a CD series from Bear Family), stuff from far back as 1945, and it sure sounds like rock and roll to me. Somebody’s been dispersing bum history with Bill Haley, early Elvis, etc., as progenitors of R&R. Fact is, we could trace roots clear to 20’s with broad enough a brush. I like especially what survives of “air-checks” with meat-eater D.J’s that fans, or old-time station employees, have uploaded to You Tube. Amazing how guys who started in the 50’s are still at the game in 2021. The great tragic figure, of course, was Alan Freed, his fall Homeric on Big Beat, hubris-driven terms. The more I read about Freed, the more I believe Big Powers put a neat frame around him to let radio know that bosses way above them would henceforth pull strings. “Payola” was just another term for “Doing Business,” a same way it was always done, and is still being done. When greasing palms quits, so does commerce. I knew an exhibitor who gave out country hams and homemade hootch to whatever booker fixed him up with desired product, a system theatre-men embraced in glory day when people panted for the new and novel. Same way with records needing to be heard … a couple century notes more/less, did it every time. How grand it must have been to be part of such daily corruption!

“Top 40” was the drab fix puppet masters put in. Nothing henceforth would be left to chance, or whim of jocks who forgot their subservient place. Major labels got back what they considered rightful place at the top, upstart independents fallen like flies sprayed by big corporate flit. Song sales should be reasonably predictable … they’d see to that. Even The Beatles, “phenomenon” as they were, got that way not by effort or initiative of tiny “Swan” or “Vee-Jay” Records, distributing a few of their earliest singles, but mighty Capitol Records, whose entry to the race clinched notoriety for the band. Still the game of “moving up the charts” was observed with stilled breath by those who would follow leaders. I had a friend at college who, each Friday night, tuned in to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown, three hours in which Tom would sit rapt and update his hand-written charts in accord with Casey updates. I was impressed at the time by Tom’s diligence and accuracy. No one would catch him napping re song status. Primary engagement for me was local radio outlets, AM still the format, if a primitive one, for hearing what was new. You could say ours was at least remnant of “Golden Age” that was pop music, assuming the 70’s has not been altogether discredited as a source for listening pleasure. I would drive around college town Hickory, NC, hear a peppy number on WHKY, pull off to a handy record store where the 45 single was mine for a dollar, it to join stacks beside the dorm room hi-fi. As to banner years these were or weren’t, I cede the floor to historians better equipped to evaluate epochs of song. Rest assured the 70’s is someone’s idea of epochal, even if there are increasingly less of them to celebrate it. Swoon for me was the “Philadelphia Sound,” Philly Soul, TSOP, whatever label stuck … these on a seeming loop, a previous week’s sock surpassed by what showed up this week, both in shade by what next week would bring. Busy groups were the O’ Jays, Spinners, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, each to be lasting favorites --- or possibly not, for here I am of late listening to way-back call of 20-40’s pop, needing, or wanting, less to be reminded of the youth I had than what generations before me seem to have enjoyed more profoundly, based on cheerful music they made.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Is It Is, Or Was It Not, True Love

 Tracy/Hepburn Meet in Woman of the Year

Permit me to rewrite Woman of the Year and submit an ending truer to reality than what MGM devised in 1941, reality I mean of a sort Hollywood routinely practiced in private (sometimes not even in private), while expecting us to Code-conform and buy their bromides. Bromide means “to soothe or placate,” but did Woman of the Year and ones like it really accomplish that? The ending was worked over, rewrote, reshot, left wanting still. Being a story of two people entirely mismatched, though physically attracted, it can only, by convention’s demand, resolve in marriage, which sets up the hopeless end. To treat that honestly would see the pair split, “Sam Craig” (Spencer Tracy) back to his sports desk, “Tess Harding” (Katharine Hepburn) carrying on with her column, both having enjoyed a two-to-three-month affair, if that, till fatigued enough to quit, a real life solution most with flexibility and resource would have chosen. Tracy and Hepburn had a “Great Love,” but did not marry: he already was, and she had no good reason to want that, having come from money and making enough on her own besides. A man merely slowed KH down, which was why she left a husband taken in youth curbside. Hepburn sort of lived with Tracy when both were in town, shacking up kept secret from a press, public, and his wife who built a wall of good works (treatment center for hearing-impaired children) to block any discussion of divorce, which he didn’t want anyway, being strong Catholic, and besides, there were two children, and he liked peaceful retreat home afforded. These were people ruled by what was good for me-me, as all of us are, but unlike a majority, they had cake and ate too, even as stress of being public figures saw furtive coupling tough to maintain, Tracy/Hepburn as an offscreen pair not public-known until 1970 when Garson Kanin wrote his tell-most book.

Sport scribe Sam is a regular Joe, like Spencer Tracy we knew, while Hepburn as Tess is the waiter upon comeuppance that must visit all Hepburn creations before a fade, salve to 1942 sensibility, kerosene to 2021 insistence that any old film to be good must also be “progressive.” One thing viewers likely recognized then, as we surely must now, is that Sam-Tess have little business together outside a friends-with-benefits arrangement, a couple or three nights per week to scratch an itch, and freedom to pursue separate activities otherwise. Was Tess really going to give up a career, fry eggs for Sam (once she learns how), be a good and dutiful wife? You know a final split will come soon after an end title, a happy ending of the moment, but not forever. How many in 1942, or now, believe Sam and Tess will stay together, or would even desire such a finish? Movie wraps are tricky because we all must approve them, or come close at least to consensus. Once novelty of Tess wears off, there’s feeling Sam will bolt, just as she would once reality of chucking fame and ongoing accomplishment sinks in. Face it, movies: Some couples just aren’t meant to be. Think Casablanca if Rick and Ilsa had stayed together. Would she live with him above the café, Sam the piano man, Carl, Sascha, constantly in and out, or banging on the door, another Major Strasser to replace the one Rick shot? Here’s the thing: I don’t want Tess being such a sap as to give it all up to tend house for Sam or anybody. First off, she could hire it done (single Tess has servants). Are they going to live off his sport-write income? As was often said sarcastic back in the 30’s, Yes They Will.


Sam/Tess should have ended up like offscreen Tracy/Hepburn. Together when it suited them, apart when work or other demands called. That often as not meant pleasure trips alone, or with other companionship. Tracy had a few catch-as-can girlfriends over the haul, Gene Tierney of his Plymouth Adventure one. Hepburn surely knew of that, or was told, but she too had fish to fry, though notable is her always being there when he needed her, willing to personal sacrifice on his behalf. So, theirs really was a Great Love Story, or at least a Pretty Darn Good One, even if not of a sort most might experience. Tracy/Hepburn as real-life couple is quite the thicket given so many readings applied to it (most reliable interpretation? I say James Curtis in his Spencer Tracy book). We “believe” love and commitment as presented on screens, are less indulgent of pairs who linked off it. Gossips were for dismantling star marriages soon as vows were taken, or else worked to expose whoever ate berries w/o clergy approve. Tracy/Hepburn were off speculative limits, at least in print, being investment that had to be protected, and woe betide any columnist who rocked the boat. Tracy being married, and often seen/photographed with family, made balls easier to juggle, Hepburn seeming not 
a settle-down type to help still speculative waters. Fact secret was kept beyond even his passing (in 1967) was a trick no two could manage today, but ask this … how much of a public would care what “stars” today were up to in private life?

There had been matings off screen before. With publicity enough behind them, a Gilbert/Garbo could be Antony/Cleopatra reborn. More importantly, their passion, if short-lived, would sustain a series of romances we’d watch on “real-thing” terms. Such was momentum studios longed for ... three, four (or more) profit-maker pics to feed off perception that co-stars were kissing in earnest, not just for camera sake. By the time Garbo signed off the relationship, it was time to move on anyway, for her and Metro
, if not for discarded Gilbert. Lots of Hollywood couples stayed together for pure pragmatic reason, this to do mostly with career or money. That others of us do not operate, or cohabitate, on that basis, may save wear-tear on emotions, so were stars to be envied or not? Even at peak of a Gold Era, I wonder how many would actually trade place with a Garbo, let alone Gilbert, especially for what fate awaited his Great Lover, but after all, Antony didn’t wind up so well for himself either. So how many smooch teams got together and stayed together? People assumed Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler were married (they were not), MacDonald and Eddy ripe for continuous pairing on screen, even as she happy-married Gene Raymond, and why didn’t William Powell and Myrna Loy hook? It was easier to discount Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on backstage terms; something about them together did not suggest “together,” maybe because their characters mostly quarreled or were comedic when not dancing. Gable and Lombard had their love and marriage, but made only picture together, too early (1932) to link reel with real. Bogart with Bacall was boffo to boxoffice, theirs an ideal for both personal and business. Was there another star couple that managed marriage and work so well? (Burton-Taylor to come perhaps, had they made more pictures people liked).

Tracy and Hepburn did a remarkable nine together, all the way to his end, none of the lot losing money, save Desk Set, result less of poor content than Cinemascope fatigue and television burrowing ever deeper. Hepburn had fails where not with Tracy, it guessed that audiences would not want her without him. Figures bore that out, at least during the 40’s, Dragon Seed a drag, Song of Love shedding a million. Undercurrent got by for curiosity to see Robert Taylor back from war service. What Hepburn had was instinct for rebranding herself for showman community that once wrote her off as poison to ticket-selling, The Philadelphia Story a spike she engineered, Woman of the Year done also at her instigation. You could credit Hepburn for the team-with-Tracy thing, for it was by most accounts her idea, and look what profits flowed from that. Mayer had reason to respect her judgment, and did. Impressive is fact she developed the Woman concept with writers, presented same to L.B., stood her ground for a (high) asking price, then took a commission as any sharp agent would. Had there been another actress at Metro to achieve a thing like this? Hepburn took command not just with smarts, but for comfort she came from, "background" as people used to call it (rare in her chosen rat-race), plus fact she stayed independent after buying ways out of pact with RKO in the 30’s. She made pictures afterward by choice, not obligation. Another thing that impresses me about Hepburn: She sent paychecks home to Dad, monies invested by him, an allowance posted regular to her. Now that must be unique among annals of stardom.

Hepburn kept useful boyfriends, girl-friends too. She had confidence born of privilege and a family always boosting her. How rare is that? Someone truly stable could, can, thrive in Hollywood, or any circumstance for that matter, this a best-of-any adjunct to talent. Hepburn was sure enough of herself to be pushy at times, being right while others should hush and pay heed, anecdotage suggesting she ran much of shows that used her. I like the story where she crashed Tracy’s Malaya set to do a then-and-there story conference for Adam’s Rib, all but sending hapless director Richard Thorpe for coffee and buns. I used not to like Hepburn much. Obviously, that has changed. Scoring The African Queen for herself gave rescue from decline most of contemporaries faced, Summertime a Euro postcard encore in spinster-who-finds-love mode, this one by the way unavailable on US Blu-Ray, and should be, though there is a lovely Japanese disc that plays all-region, full-frame it’s true, but can be zoomed for 1.66 or so effect. More that is unique about Hepburn: She did class projects right to 2003 curtain, no degrading horrors for this vet. There are interviews by the score on You Tube, she really talked in latter years. The one with Cavett (two parts) is a darb. KH walks in and takes over the whole job, a delight to watch and listen to.

Tracy could be truculent. They invited him to be a guest villain on Batman in 1966. He agreed to do it if the episode were titled The Death of Batman. Stuff Tracy did in perceived (by him) “old age” (only 67 when he died) was contemplative and Kramer-ish, that producer-director a heavy pall at times. Courthouses ... cleric collars again ... let’s call the whole thing off. And just once, how about the other guy (F. March maybe) reducing to jello one of Spence’s windy I’m-always-right-when-morally-outraged speeches. Not Tracy’s fault: it was writers made him come across like a tiresome Moses on the Mountain. I wish instead he had led a Navarone sort of mission like other as-old male stars occasionally did. Despite admittedly fragile health, ST seems to me a potential action star in maturity that we unfortunately never had (Bad Day At Black Rock predicted what might have been). He got a needed spike doing Woman of the Year, being a magnet to Hepburn and doing things on almost Gable terms, rather than standing behind in a Boom Town or Test Pilot where CG without contest got the girl. Not again would Tracy be so neutered, Hepburn the reason, his career the better for association with her. Woman of the Year was directed by George Stevens before he left comedy. Dialogue was smart and people grew to expect this of the co-starring pair. It was said their vehicles did better in the big towns (read sophisticated) than wider spaces. Adam’s Rib especially is very chic, Manhattan, cocktail-pouring, fun for "us" who made it and those in circles like "we" travel, mass viewership left w/ plain-spoke Spence to identify with and little else. Still, Adam’s Rib was funny, and clocked $3.9 million in worldwide rentals, this largely because Tracy made us-us welcome in his tent. Father of the Bride a following year made that manifest. Suppose anyone at Metro discussed Hepburn for Mrs. Banks before Joan Bennett was cast? And did Hepburn regret being left out of that hugely successful venture?

Hepburn officially let her Tracy cat out of the bag in 1985. This was two years after his widow, Louise, died. Hepburn in a meantime befriended the daughter, Susie. What with no family resistance, she could speak, and how she spoke. Hepburn was no star to withdraw in dotage, being ready and eager to review the life and career in print and in person, her calling shots of course, so let all comers adjust to that or find some other life to document. Hepburn had constructed a seeming most authentic persona. Was this the real her? I think she was less a vanguard feminist than someone used to getting her ways, always, and determined not to ever let it be otherwise. A friend of mine had a rare 16mm print of the Disney cartoon, Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, and somehow Hepburn learned of it, inviting him to come to the house and run the reel for herself and friends. Jerry told me she was exactly like the “Katharine Hepburn” of movies and legend, him in no way disappointed, even by her ingrained sense of entitlement (that’s me too, part-reason I’ve become such a fan). Here was KH persona, and who she really was as well, so take it or leave it. Jerry took it and liked it. She signed some stuff for him and was appreciative. Fun day for all. There are two documentaries Hepburn shepherded (yes, I suspect everyone else participating did so as sheep), one on Tracy, the other about her-her-her, and then there was a book, appropriately called Me. Then another book was her account of making The African Queen. Hepburn owned up often to being utterly selfish and self-absorbed throughout life. Points for her! We should all be so candid. Woman of the Year is had from Criterion, with plush extras, and there are Tracy-Hepburn Blu-Rays at Warner Archive (Without Love, Pat and Mike).
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