Monday, February 7, 2011

Ball of Fire is reBorn in a Song

When I discovered the classics and began appreciating it, I initially had a bias towards Musicals...specifically MGM musicals, until I realized Danny Kaye existed.  His tongue-twisting songs are most unforgettably heard in The Wonder Man, The Kid from Brooklyn, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, On the Riviera... just to name a few and such are selected as my personal favorites.  Although most of his movies bordered on "refined" slapstick, he definitely was a comic genius which unquestionably matched an inherent and exceptional musical talent.  What can I say, he had great "timing"!  

The first three cited movies with Virginia Mayo and the last one with Gene Tierney all worked for me, which obviously declares that I'm a great fan of the two actresses as well.  (Hold on - this is all going to change...)

A SONG IS BORN (1948) was the first Danny Kaye film I ever watched and even ahead of the original BALL OF FIRE (1941).  (I saw this movie in the 70s when i was still in my teens) It is not in my list of favorites though.  Perhaps this is due to Kaye's slight deviation from his usual extreme slapstick antics in an attempt to reprise Gary Cooper's Prof. Bertram Potts' character.  Ironically, Gary Cooper who usually maintains a more serious, sedate role and a somewhat stoic character, successfully pulls it off better in another comedic performance. He earlier did MEET JOHN DOE with Barbara Stanwyck.

Coop's Prof. Bertram Potts and a group of scholarly and elderly professors (Oskar Homolka, Richard Haydn, S.Z. Zakall, etc.) are working to finish an encyclopedia.  Philologist Prof. Potts' research takes particular interest in modern American SLANG while Prof. Frisbee's is in the new form of music - JAZZ, naturally to accommodate Danny Kaye's musical genre. Kaye's Hobart Frisbee, is a professor of Music working with fellow musician professors aiming at finishing an encyclopedia of music.  This remake version featured renowned musicians of that time: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell...what a treat!  The 40s was also the era of Barbershop Quartets, Dixieland revival, Bebop, and all that jazz.

Trivia: In 1948, when "A Song Is Born" was released, the American Federation of Musicians was striking the record companies and union musicians could not legally make records. Nonetheless, the union allowed Capitol Records to make an album of music from the film because the company agreed to donate the proceeds to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, In the year between the film shooting and the recording sessions, Benny Goodman had radically changed the personnel of his band - notably adding two bebop musicians, trumpeter Theodore "Fats" Navarro and tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray - so the version of "Stealin' Apples" on the record doesn't sound at all like the one heard in the movie.  

The common plot of both versions centers on the involvement of burlesque singer Sugarpuss O'Shea (BARBARA STANWYCK for Ball of Fire) / Nightclub singer Honey Swanson (VIRGINIA MAYO for A Song is Born) in the research work of the professors at the institution.  This is what happens in both versions: the professor goes "outside" of the institution and decides to conduct his research (slang / jazz) in the "real world"...and eventually, ends in a club where singer Sugarpuss/Honey performs.  After the show, goes backstage to invite the singer to join their research work at the institution. Instantly he is turned down.  Apparently the singer, a gang moll, is being sought after by the police who want to question her about her gangster boyfriend. 

Barbara Stanwyck (Sugarpuss O'Shea)
Complication surfaces when the singer decides to hide at the professors' institution in the pretext of accepting the research invitation. In the course of living with these professors, Prof. Potts/Frisbee inevitably falls in love with Sugarpuss/Honey (and so does she) and proposes marriage.  The situation worsens when gangster boyfriend gets into the picture...then real trouble begins.  (I could say more but then it would totally be a giveaway, enough of spoilers). 

Virginia Mayo (Honey Swanson)

Interesting to note is one detail I realized after watching both versions very recently again (2010): Mary Field's Ms. Totten comes out as the owner of the Encyclopedia Institution in both versions using the same name at that

In the 70s, I only cared to watch Danny Kaye's technicolor version. I came to watch Ball of Fire shortly thereafter, but it never impressed me in the same weight I favored A Song is Born,...then.  

Fast forward to present... 
Barbara Stanwcyk was never in my list of actresses until I discovered her early last year (2010). That changed it all, a real conversion.  Missy reigns in my list and I thus declare my biases: 

The original version surpasses the remake in many points.
  1. The screwball comedy was beautifully photographed in B/W - a real classic - despite the glorious technicolor the musical remake was filmed in.
  2. Coop's comedic performance was surprisingly funnier than Danny's. But I would have preferred Cary instead.
  3. Sugarpuss' "Drum Boogie", accompanied by Gene Krupa's band was more upbeat than Honey's "Daddy O"...of course it was swing boogie.  Daddy-O was just too blue.
  4. A Song is Born practically echoes the original script. The dialogue of Sugarpuss where "YUM-YUM" (kiss) happens was written in the context of slang. To have repeated the same dialogue (on account of..) in view of Jazz, didn't quite just fit.
  5. Pottsie was much too tall for Sugarpuss and using 2 voluminous books to reach up to him was appropriately necessary to yumyum him. Honey repeats the same strategy with Frisbee, which made stepping on one book look strange since she was already tall enough.
  6. Missy's "Hi-De-Ho" was a signature salutation, matchless and inimitably hers alone.  
  7. Ms. Stanwyck is "the only" BALL of FIRE.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Imitation of Life: Claudette's or Lana's?

1934 Original Version
The 1930s decade (and most of the 1940s as well) has been nostalgically labeled "The Golden Age of Hollywood" (although most of the output of the decade was black-and-white). The 30s was also the decade of the sound and color revolutions and the advance of the 'talkies', and the further development of film genres (gangster films, musicals, newspaper-reporting films, historical biopics, social-realism films, lighthearted screwball comedies, westerns and horror to name a few). It was the era in which the silent period ended, with many silent film stars not making the transition to sound (e.g., Vilmy Banky, John Gilbert, and Norma Talmadge). By 1933, the economic effects of the Depression were being strongly felt, especially in decreased movie theatre attendance. 

An African American (Delilah) offers a not so rich widow (Bea) with a young daughter, to work for her as housekeeper so as to provide a decent life for her own young white looking daughter and herself. Delilah prepares breakfast for Bea and after tasting her delicious pancake, sets out to start a business which rewards them with success and wealth. Racial & relational issues begin when Delilah's daughter rejects her African origins and regards herself as totally white. Beautiful film on relationships between mother and daughter. Remade in the 60s with the same title. They say that surprisingly, the remake is the better version.

Universal had difficulty receiving approval from the censors at the Hays Office for the original script they submitted for Imitation of Life. Joseph Breen objected to the elements of miscegenation in the story, which "not only violates the Production Code but is very dangerous from the standpoint both of industry and public policy." They also objected to some language in the script, and a scene where a black boy is nearly lynched for approaching a white woman who he believed had invited his attention. Breen continued to refuse to approve the script even up to July 17, when the film had already been shooting for two weeks.

Although the Lana Turner 1959 version may be the more successful one, filmed in the prototypical tradition of a SIRK ( soapish melodrama and richly photographed in color, I staunchly remain traditionally attached to the original b/w classic.  I'm a Claudette Colbert, fan through and through (although Missy comes first)...which simply explains the partiality. 

1959 Version
Setting this aside...The 1959's version ('34: Delilah with Peola and '59: Annie with Sarah Jane) in showcasing the interracial issue, as poignantly interpreted through a Mother and Daughter conflicting relational stance, provokes however a more tear-jerking reaction.  Both Louise Beavers and Juanita Moore portrayed the mother role beautifully and yet Juanita Moore had an unmistakable edge - the effectiveness in portraying her role which makes one empathize and sympathize up to the point of weeping uncontrollably...

Which version would you prefer?

A Song is Born...(Opening Frames by Huilifoj)