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Sunday, November 23, 2008

I Call It Fashion Noir --- Part One

I don’t know if success ever spoiled Ross Hunter (at right with Lana Turner), but it certainly blew his critical reputation. He’s the producer Douglas Sirk was said to have risen above to give us All That Heaven Allows and Imitation Of Life, while his Portrait In Black and Midnight Lace rank high among Bad Movies We Love. Will latter-day noiristas ever come to embrace Hunter’s signature Fashion Noir? He had a determinedly superficial concept of what movies should be. I gave audiences what they wanted --- a chance to dream, to live vicariously, to see beautiful women, jewels, gorgeous clothes, melodrama. So how are legacies preserved upon such craven appeal to lower appetites? Hunter never cared. His was the sensibility of a movie fan turned loose to make the sort of movies other fans dreamed of seeing. I’m not ashamed to watch his shows and thoroughly enjoy them. You can have the camp readings and ironic overlays too, for I’ll take my Ross Hunter straight up and leave deeper insights to academics and post-modernists. I showed Midnight Lace to Ann in secure knowledge she’d like those very things Hunter listed above, and it having been 1968 since I last saw it, we both waited in suspense for the would-be killer to be unmasked. This clearly isn’t Hitchcock, but such things as Midnight Lace and Portrait In Black offer much by way of simple pleasure others might dismiss as trash wallowing. How much expectation should you bring to any picture whose credits read Gowns By … and Jewels By …? A Ross Hunter story was always secondary to lifestyles he celebrated. Having taught English in high schools, he applied just enough polish to flatter that level of his viewership. Women, teens and so-called young adults were his targeted audience, and Hunter had a teacher’s good sense to know these were about the only groups still buying tickets to movies by 1960. The sun was setting upon an industry’s outreach to a fan-driven, glamour-for-its-own-sake public. Soon enough they’d be gone to the counterculture and sensibilities like Ross Hunter’s would perish with the transition. By 1970 and his last big hit, Airport, the producer himself would represent old Hollywood in graceful retreat, his exit, like that of Doris Day, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, and all the rest who’d made his output so much fun, being seen as necessary giving way of a discredited old to make way for a knowing and more sophisticated new.

It’s no good watching Portrait In Black right after Vertigo (both being suspense thrillers set, and at least partially shot, in San Francisco). You’ll be let down, but then again, maybe not. As with all Ross Hunter, one must surrender before one can enjoy. Vertigo, indeed most of Hitchcock, takes endurance and commitment. Portrait In Black has all the comforts of an electric blanket with an Oreo box besides. You consume, and maybe come away a bit sullied, but it was pure pleasure being there, and what’s more engaging than a movie one can feel so superior to? Balls-out melodrama is a necessary corrective to excesses of civility we get from pictures critics like. Give me confrontation, faces slapped, and pistols in handbags. Let it be actors slumming but never condescending to the material (as they would, and do, nowadays in woebegone efforts like Down With Love and Far From Heaven, two that tried spirit rapping with a departed Ross Hunter). Lana Turner spent a lifetime and attendant marriages, gone sour loves, and even a real-life bedroom killing to qualify herself for Portrait In Black. That is credibility you don’t come by with acting lessons, and reason withal why modern actresses can never heft the weight she did at what she did. Turner performed best in courtrooms and nightclubs. That was all the preparation needed for frankly silly movies featuring her in middle age. Clothes made this woman (and previous Sweater Girl), and even if Lana never knew her Ibsen, she sure had that reality down pat. Her instinct was infallible, and it was wired to those who paid quarters for magazines she had posed in for twenty plus years. Portrait In Black director Michael Gordon accused Turner of impoverished taste, but I’m betting he was the one who wasn’t getting it (certainly she, and not he, walked away with gross percentages on these Universal mellers). Lana was not a dummy, and she would give me wonderful rationalizations why she should wear pendant earrings. They had nothing to do with the role, but they had everything to do with her particular self-image, said the director. Au contraire, Mr. Gordon, for I’d submit that Lana Turner, like her producer Ross Hunter, knew well that earrings (and gowns and furs) were the role. Nothing beyond these was really consequential in films like Portrait In Black.

In fact, it was Lana’s hair that drove ticket sales in many situations. Universal tied in with Seligman and Latz beauty salons, with 350 locations nationwide, to highlight a Lana Turner-inspired frosted platinum blonde hairdo in department stores where S&L had parlors. National advertising tied to saturation bookings was becoming the norm with high profile releases, but Universal still leaned on exhibitors to get the word out locally. Toward that end, special kits were supplied in advance of regular pressbooks. This is not a do-it-yourself kit, but one which tells you what you can do with the picture if you want to become a showman. Against so loud a countrywide drumbeat, was grassroots management getting lazy and as willing to let Universal tote the heavier load? May-be, but they were also loudest to complain when increased percentage demands reflected distributor effort to get back some of what had been spent on large circulation magazines and network television ads. Selling Portrait In Black in twenty-one publications (including virtually all those geared toward feminine readers) was said to have reached 140 million, but how many of these actually paid admissions to see the feature? Theatre attendance was seriously declining after all. It was enough for most women to check out photos of Lana Turner sporting her new "champagne blonde" style in the pages of Redbook. Why buy tickets and bother with her emoting too? Sobering indeed was the measure of those 140 million readers against $3.2 million in domestic rentals Universal realized on Portrait In Black. The fraction of folks going to movies grew ever smaller as the 60’s dawned, and for a company like Universal that seldom vaulted far over a single million in rentals, $3.2 was actually a more than respectable number. Others were surely getting by (or not) on far less. You really had to work to drag people away from their televisions. Star touring was essential. Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, Virginia Grey, Anna May Wong, and even novelty appearances by Portrait In Black script girl Dolores Rubin, canvassed forty cities and towns, a heavier plow to pull than merely working on the film itself. Universal applied wake-up calls in many spots by comping news scribes with wining and dining their paychecks could otherwise ill afford. Suspiciously kind reviews were the outcome. Exhibitors will find their local newspaper and radio people well-conditioned on "Portrait In Black", said a confident Universal (well fed and lubricated might have been a franker choice of words). Spinning off the previous year’s Imitation Of Life (a monster hit also with Lana Turner) and memories of L' Affaire Stompanato assured mother/daughter conflicts would segue over to Portrait In Black’s scenario and be emphasized accordingly in ad art (one shown here). Wasn’t this, after all, what Turner’s image was all about?

It’s said that Sandra Dee became every mother’s dream (and note devoted elder ladies reaching out to her at a personal appearance here). She was perhaps the last of the white glove ingenues. Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but that arose as much from having subsisted since childhood on a diet of lettuce heads and Epsom salts. Childhood was an elastic term in any case, as Dee seems never to have had one. She played beyond her years from the age of eight, called ten by her ultra-aggressive stage mother looking to jumpstart employment in teen roles. Sandra Dee was cresting just when Portrait In Black had its Summer 1960 landfall. She’d been featured on two dozen fan mag covers so far that year. Veteran Universal still photographer Ray Jones called hers the most kissable lips in Hollywood, comparable only to those of Clara Bow. Dee nuzzled John Saxon on camera and pretended all the while to be eighteen, abetted by a studio anxious to move her up to adult parts. She inspired girls to buy Coppertone and Lustre-Crème (as here), while being kept clear of peers on the lot lest one damage the valued merchandise Dee was. It was still possible for movie stars to revisit hometowns in triumph. Sandra Dee’s was Bayonne, New Jersey, where she’d be received in that delirious way (young) celebrities just off assembly lines were. A local showman such as the one shown with her here would welcome both a visiting star and the unaccustomed sight of his house filled to capacity. A customized Sandra Dee, like other studio models catering to fad and fashion, could thrive but for a moment when a public embraced the idealized teen she personified. That having ended, Whatever Became Of … was a question few even bothered to ask. Dee was a soft object for ridicule once her era came under a succeeding decade’s microscope, but what in the end was more pathetic? --- being cruelly spoofed in Grease (1978) by a song called Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee, or having it sung by a cringingly over-aged Stockard Channing (three months older than Dee, being 34 at the time she played a teenager in that geriatric musical with its leading lady Olivia Newton-John a ripe 30)? The frightful revelations set forth in PEOPLE magazine and her son’s book, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, crushed whatever illusions fans might have clung to, leaving one with little but satisfaction for not having been a movie star like she so unfortunately was.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


So glad to see you remembered Harpo Marx's b'day. It is also Mr. Karloff's, who would have been 297 today, by my calculations, and his daughter, Sara's, whose a good-deal younger. And Warner Bros. child star Sybil Jason, who worked with my grandfather on a little film called "The Captain's Kid", and later supported Shirley Temple at Fox. And -- eh, oh yes, mine. So as one can plainly see, God truly broke the mold, went for broke and threw a gigantic Celestial-party on this day in history. Unleashing on the world, a mute, a monster, a muppett, and a big pain in the you-know-what!
Now, as no letter, or celebration would be complete without the "personal rememberence" by yours truly, here goes. I went all through school with a boy named Phil Savenick. His godfather was Pan Berman, who needs no introduction to this crowd. (He produced all the Astaire-Rogers films and "The Hunchback" and "Stage Door" at RKO, and later had a very distinguished career at MGM). Phil related this story to me not many years ago when we met and started talking. Through his godfather, a lunch was arranged with his family and Harpo. Everyone in his family was very excited at the prospect of sitting-down and breaking-bread with this legend. Think it was at Hillcrest, not sure. "Yeah -- and?" I asked. "Harpo ordered this herring and sat there shoveling it into his mouth, till I started feeling ill at the sight", Phil related. "Well, wha'd he say?" I asked. "Not much", Phil said.
Hope you and your family have a great Thanks, John, and to my good friend Mr. Lane, the same. (And don't eat too much herring!)

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never really appreciated the films of Ross Hunter although I did enjoy Airport on its initial release.However I can appreciate your argument in favor of Hunter's films especially with the following line:

"Balls-out melodrama is a necessary corrective to excesses of civility we get from pictures critics like."

I am reminded of the time I saw Now Voyager for the first time. I was watching nearly everything at the Vagabond Theater in Los Angeles because they ran original, nitrate prints (and original IB Technicolor) of damned near everything so I watched stuff I ordinarily wouldn't watch on a bet. Not only was Now Voyager immensely entertaining but a couple of college gals had talked their jock boyfriends into taking them to the film. By time Bette Davis shows up in the butterfly gown on board the cruse ship they were cheering her character as if she's just scored a touchdown. It all goes to show that if the flick is good enough even a chick flick can entertain the guys.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is IMDb inaccurate about the relative ages of Sandra Dee and Stockard Channing? They have Dee born in 1942 and Channing born in 1944.

10:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Imdb does have the birth date wrong for Sandra Dee. Theirs is the date Universal and Dee's mother put out for years in order to mislead fans as to her age. The correct date of 1944 was confirmed by Dee's son, Dodd Darin, in his excellent dual-biography of his famous parents.

RJ, I loved that Harpo story you told. I'd always understood that he was the most affable of the Marx Brothers off-screen and that Groucho was the most acerbic.

Anonymous, I've always believed the right chick flick can engage men, if they can first get over the embarrassment of going to see one. In any case, women's pictures of the 30's-40's were a lot gutsier than they are nowadays (I just watched "The House On 56th Street" with Kay Francis --- pretty rugged for a so-called "chick flick"). I'm beginning to feel a post coming on regarding this subject ...

5:28 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Your SPELLBOUND header today reminds me of the outside of the theater I managed when we played THE CARS THAT EAT PEOPLE (ha!).

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Make that a taxi for two!Your "masthead" for today is so impressive, that I almost wish you would consider keeping it up for several days longer!(or, in showman's parlance,"Extending it's run!") This was really what "going to the movies" was all about, wasn't it? (Remember Jean Harlow's great-line in "Dinner at 8" when she says to Beery, "You couldn't even get into the men's room at the Astor!")
I never had the pleasure of meeting Harpo, but yes, this is what I've heard about him. I can only tell you that we November 23rd Sag's are indeed affable, extremely easy-going, but very independent-people. We are the true "loners", as well as "seekers" of the Zodiac. It's true. Even if you don't put a whole lot of faith in astrology, for whatever reason, certain signs seem to hold true for those born under them.
From everything I've been given to understand about Harpo, this was very-much his way. And I heard Tony Martin, who had worked with all three of them, of course, say that Harp was the "student" of the three, always seeking to improve and expand his intellect, learning a new language, or reading or playing his harp. His autobiog. is still I think one of the greatest show-business bio's of all time, and really gives us a pretty good indication of what the hard, rugged life of the average vaudevillian was in those days.
Groucho I did meet several times, and what you say is true.
Finally, and closer to home, my mother used to tell me she dated Ross Hunter for a brief time in the late forties. She said he would take her to, I think she told me, the old Academy Theatre on Melrose, which was basically for industry-screenings, then waiting till there was a break, and taking her through the back door! That's true.
I'm afraid that his films were never my dish of tea. With Lubitsch, or Cukor, for example, one had all those "side benefits" you discuss, but also a great script and impeccable-direction. However, I do owe a great debt to Ross, as does our family, for his insertion into a film called "Throughly Modern Millie" of a song of my grandfather's, called "Jazz Baby", which gave it a new-lease on life and Miss Channing an Oscar nomination! One day I ran into Ross in Beverly Hills, and thanked him. "We found it in a music store" he told me, "And thought it would be right for Carol". Sure was!
Once again, John, best to you and your family, and to your loyal readers on Thanks.

12:54 AM  
Blogger PTA Transit Authority said...

Happy Thanksgiving... wishing all the best for you and your family, Richard.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The fellow sitting directly behind Janet Gaynor in your masthead today looks like John "Jock" Whitney, who was David Selznick's financier/partner at that time. Any idea?

Hope your Thanks was a nice one!

7:55 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Not certain if that's Jock Whitney, RJ, although I did an image search on him and it does look like the same guy. I'd say you're right. I wish I knew just what premiere Power and Gaynor are attending in that photo, but there was no caption with it.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


My guess, judging from the expression on Ty's face, is they either are watching Selznick's "Nothing Sacred" (co-financed by Whitney), or he's thinking about the deal his agent just cut that morning with Zanuck. (If that is Mrs. Whitney sitting next to him, I can well-understand why they called him "Jock"). R.J.

6:16 PM  

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