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Thursday, November 18, 2010

MGM's Remake Rally of 1956

1956 was the year MGM fired Dore Schary and let their pre-48 backlog go to television. It was also a parched season when most of what they released lost money. I don't know of anything short of geese laying golden eggs that could have survived such a drought as theatres suffered then. A lot of what Metro did was remake or reissue old properties. Sometimes that worked, more often it didn't. The Philadelphia Story came back musicalized as High Society and was a hit, while The Swan with Grace Kelly reprising Lillian Gish's 1930 performance lost $764,000. A Cinemascope'd updating of The Women called The Opposite Sex ran aground with $1.5 million gone. These last two intrigued me for stills found on both during Liberty storage searches back in the seventies. I wondered then how such things performed new in 1956, but wasn't inspired to watch either on televised pan-and-scan. What's worse than wide movies on a square tube? Warner Archive has lately released The Swan and The Opposite Sex on anamorphic DVD with bounce-around-the-room sound (that last a good thing). Both are gorgeous transfers that transported me back among sweet seats at 1956 flagships where they played as intended and hadn't again till now.

Very poor business. Metro has gotten so "arty" in the past few years that Leo's trademark on a newspaper ad is almost enough to kill a picture, said manager Jim Fraser of Red Wing, Minnesota's Auditorium Theatre. He was talking about The Swan, and for 104 minutes viewed last night, I sort of felt his pain. How old-hat was this in a year when Elvis hit and restless youth were shucking off movie choices parents made? Put yourself in Jim's place ... here's a show dusting off a play first performed in 1923, with Grace Kelly clothed to the neck and coldly patrician besides. She'd married Prince Rainier in April '56 and that was primary hook for merchandising The Swan. For comparison's sake, I looked at One Romantic Night, the 1930 Lillian Gish version also just released by Warner Archive (guess MGM acquired it with remake rights). Turns out this one, at 72 minutes, has more energy than 1956's successor. The Swan is a comedy of manners revolved around royal amours and class conflict, riveting stuff, I'd imagine, if you're descended from crowned heads, but deadly for patrons in blue jeans or pedal pushers. Most of the $1.7 million it earned (in domestic rentals) likely derived from urban carriage trade, or maybe those curious to see Grace Kelly courted by pretend-prince Alec Guinness (who did favor Rainier a little). A location boost for me was The Swan's outdoor filming at Asheville NC's famed Biltmore House, a palace completed by George Vanderbilt in 1895 and truly fit for kings. I've walked enough through the joint with Ann (she'd live there if they'd rent) so that it seemed like home week watching Metro principals frolic about manicured grounds (but not amongst interiors --- those were built back in Culver).

A filler spot on TCM told how June Allyson swung on Joan Collins while they were making The Opposite Sex and knocked some teeth out. It was accidental, but happily stayed in the print. Watch it now and you'll see (and hear) Joan's earring flying across the room as well. Allyson/Collins battle memories of Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford in 1939's The Women in addition to each other. The original was largely unseen since MGM tried a 1947 reissue ($162,000 in worldwide rentals), and now came time to jazz up same with color, expanded frame, and a cast including men, their sex verboten in the oldie that resolutely maintained conceit of femmes only for its 133 minutes. Turns out that template was friskier in situations and dialogue (1956 dropped, for instance, a noted exit line about names for ladies not used outside a kennel --- had Code restrictions tightened since 1939?). Cinemascope still in comparative infancy played havoc with actress faces and fashions. Figures go squat and dresses already expansive billow like circus tents. I might have done something better with June Allyson's hair using toenail scissors (and she utterly blows Norma's blockbuster "jungle red" line). Dress and deportment had evidently gone a long way (down) since 1939. There's just no consistency in the designs, as if every shop window had been raided willy-nilly. We can guess this was MGM's 1956 idea of what smart women wore, but how did real-life smart women respond? Metro sent starlets cross country to model outfits from the film and stir up interest in same when what they really needed for The Opposite Sex was a producer with Ross Hunter's fashion sensibility. He knew how to render rags glad and make women want to wear them (and consume films in which they were worn).

Too many shows out of a studio system in decline tried too hard to please everybody. Instead of going forward in confidence, even with a set-up that worked before, they'd plump up as if staging a Ziegfeld Follies. Such excess breeds fun in The Opposite Sex, where more always ends up amounting to less. June Allyson has a back story where she entertains at World War II camp shows with cameo guest Harry James, and later Jeff Richards rocks out with a cowboy number that for all I know charted beside Little Richard and Bill Haley. A truly weird and would-be comic interlude featuring Dick Shawn and Jim Backus only adds to a whimsical anything-might-happen flavor. Veterans (Ann Sheridan/Joan Blondell) who'd have been ideal as 1939 Women now play in support of Allyson, Joan Collins, and Dolores Gray, the latter succeeding (respectively) Shearer, Crawford, and Rosalind Russell. When in doubt (often) as to these ladies' properly filling heels of forebears, The Opposite Sex brakes for outsized production numbers joyously out of keeping with a story they're trying to re-tell. There's pleasure here (never "guilty" --- as I don't acknowledge such things) of watching a train jump tracks and careen down a mountain side, so polluted is The Opposite Sex by committee-driven mentality. Credited director is David Miller, who I'd envision being overruled as to everything he tried to do right (exemplary work on Sudden Fear four years earlier was his). The Opposite Sex is another for those who've seen the classics and are ready to revel in the dregs. It is beautifully served up by Warner's Archive (as is The Swan) and well worthy of view time just for fact we can finally experience something very near what 1956 audiences did.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

To paraphrase dialogue from THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN...the Biltmore House is not available for rent, so I guess you'll have to build.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

"The Opposite Sex" is my sister's favorite movie, but I find it downright unwatchable, if only because of the repellent Dolores Grey.

And I love Agnes Moorehead, but she's no Mary Boland (nor is Charlotte Greenwood Marjorie Main).

5:19 AM  
Blogger Linwood said...

Wasn't the Biltmore House also used in THE PRIVATE EYES?

1:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

It was.

6:18 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

A dear friend (still alive, and living in Palm Springs, by the way), named Jerry Antes, appeared in "Opposite Sex" as the leading man in the Calypso-number about bananas. Jerry told how he came to be involved: He was at that time under contract to Columbia, where he was under consideration to play the young-lead in "Pal Joey", which Harry Cohn ultimately decided on Sinatra to play. Meantime, across town at MGM, plans for the big Calypso number were to team Joan Collins with then wildly-popular Pop Star Harry Belafonte. At the last moment the studio got "cold feet" about the whole idea, and borrowed Jerry from Columbia.

He told me he was glad to get the assignment as it gave him a taste of what the "MGM treatment" was still like in those rapidly-waning days. He said that he was "very nervous" when on the first day of shooting he looked-out and saw Fred Astaire no less, standing behind the camera, watching. He told me he later discovered that this was a long-standing Metro tradition (meaning stars shooting on adjoinng sets -- Astaire was then shooting "Silk Stockings" on the lot) whenever they would shoot big production numbers.

Jerry apparently received a lot of fan mail as a result of his "Opposite" appearance, but when his agent approached Dore Schary he regretfully explained that the studio was not planning any musicals for the foreseeable future.

He's very good in the number, but thank God it comes within the first 15-minutes. I've never been able to wade thru the rest of the film.

A very good Thanksgiving, my dear friend John, to you and your loved ones.

As ever,


6:12 AM  

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