A Radio Treat

Two days ago, I listened to a radio broadcast from 1950, a live recording from March 23 to be exact, the day of the 22nd Academy Awards. Presented by Paul Douglas at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood with radio comments by Ken Carpenter, Eve Arden and Ronald Reagan, the show was a good two hours in length and filled with lots of joyful moments.

The show – although already exciting for any classic movie buff without great names such as James Cagney, Jane Wyman, Jimmy Stewart, Dick Powell and June Allyson, Anne Baxter and John Hodiac, Cole Porter, Ruth Roman and Barbara Hale – was entertaining from the start and blessed with a beautiful score presented by Gene Autry, Dean Martin and other wonderful performers. Despite the many differences in presentation compared to the lengthy ceremony I’ve long stopped watching each year, it amused me to find one announcement already existed back in 1950: the request for the winners to cut their thank you’s short. And trust me, the few people who said more than a heartfelt thank you, didn’t take center stage to present a short story about their lives. How refreshing to hear there once was a way to go about this differently, when recipients were in tears about their accomplishment without dwelling on it. How surprising to hear a young boy thank his parents and God – at least by today’s standards.

I know not everyone will share my sentiment, but I loved the mix of glamor and simplicity, such a charming combination. Stars and winners aside, the radio hosts also won my heart for their lively presentation and supportive attitude. Without making a fuss, they added to the style of a show that still showed signs of gratefulness and modesty towards their peers and audience. A different world, Hollywood in 1950, both good and bad, and so much fun revisiting with your eyes closed.

One, Two, Three

A Guest Review by Martin Duffy.

There’s a shot in Billy Wilder’s film One, Two, Three of Horst Buchholz riding his motorbike towards the Brandenburg Gates. He is approaching an East German checkpoint – not knowing that from the tail of his bike flies a large balloon with the words ‘Russki go home’. The scene, shot in mid July 1961, was one of several in the script to be shot at the Gates. Wilder had already cleared permission from the East Germans to do the shooting, but when he went back with cast and crew the following day to continue work East German troops blocked the Gates and he was refused access. Trying to negotiate, Wilder was told that first the East German authorities would have to read his script. Wilder replied: ‘I wouldn’t show my script to President Kennedy’.

The shooting plan had been to do exteriors and other locations in Berlin, then move into studio in Munich. Because of the East German refusal, however, the films budget took a jump because a section of the Gates and Unter den Linden had to be recreated in Munich. It had become a troubled return for Wilder to a city that had been his home in pre-Nazi times: some think the Vienna-born Wilder worked as a gigolo in Berlin, but he said he had only been a dancing partner for lonely older women in a nightclub.

The problem Wilder did not foresee in making this film was that tensions were building in Berlin, with an ever-growing tide of people fleeing the East. And an important part of world history struck a blow to the making of his film: a month into the shooting of One, Two, Three, the Berlin Wall was erected. Wilder described making the film as ‘making a picture in Pompeii with all the lava coming down’. The crew were relieved to move to Munich.

Recreating the area around the Brandenburg Gates was not the only fake in the film. The arrivals area of Tempelhof Airport was built on set in Munich. Then Buchholz had a motorcycle accident that threw the schedule into disarray and this set had to be taken down and rebuilt in Hollywood to complete the film after his recovery.

Though the film is a comedy, it was not a happy shoot. Wilder didn’t like Cagney. Cagney didn’t like the frantic performance Wilder demanded of him. Cagney also thought Buchholz was arrogant. Cagney retired after the film (making one feature film appearance twenty years later). Cagney loved sailing and the final – unintended – tipping point was when friends sent him a photo of themselves having a fine time on his yacht while he was miserably working in Berlin. All this, and a political landscape changing under their noses, was going on as Wilder was trying to take his swipe at Communism, Capitalism, and greed. Wilder was on a roll from the classic and hugely successful comedies Some like it Hot and The Apartment, and was doggedly sticking with black and white cinematography. But One, Two, Three failed at the box office and marked the start of a career decline. He rarely hit the box office jackpot again despite his towering reputation.

And so, for a comedy film set in Berlin, One, Two, Three is actually mostly faked Berlin and was an unhappy experience for many involved. But that shot of the laughing Horst Buchholz driving on his motor-scooter through the Brandenburg Gates is a major piece of Berlin film history.

Most of the above information is taken from Ed Sikov’s brilliant book: ‘On Sunset Boulevard, the Life and Times of Billy Wilder’.

Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Wilder with I.A.L. (‘Izzy’) Diamond.

The film is available on DVD.

About the author: Martin Duffy is a storyteller; he works as a film director, writer and editor. He also writes songs and has written several novels for young people and some non-fiction books. For more information please check the links below:

Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today, the lovely Barbara Hale celebrates her 90th birthday and this post is my way of wishing her well. So please feel invited to walk down memory lane with me through her career on screen and her public life which started in the funny papers when she was modeling for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill and ended when she retired from acting in 1994 to fully commit herself to her beloved family.

Born on April 18th, 1922*, in DeKalb, Barbara Hale grew up as the second of two daughters of Ezra and Willa Hale in Rockford, Illinois. Interested in art early on, Barbara was encouraged by her mother to pursue her goal of becoming a commercial artist. Working after school to show her dedication to her craft, her father gave his consent for her to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts after her high school graduation. Living at the YWCA where she shared a room with a friend, Barbara was soon asked to model for fellow students and finally landed a job posing for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill. She was a fashion model when a talent scout spotted her and offered her a chance for a trial contract with RKO in Hollywood. Young, ambitious and thrilled about acting, Barbara hopped on the train out West and landed her first job as the replacement of a sick extra in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day on her day of arrival in 1943.

Getting her education on the studio lot, Barbara immersed herself in her new profession, eagerly embracing singing, horseback riding, voice and dance lessons while continuing to work as a model for a variety of products. Prone to being sociable and charming, it didn’t take her long to meet fellow contract player Bill Williams with whom she fell in love on studio grounds. Working together on West of the Pecos in 1944, her first big part after debuting on Higher and Higher alongside Frank Sinatra, she soon knew she wanted to marry her “Ramblin’ Bill”. Although committed to founding a family while missing her own, Barbara kept working hard for her career and landed strong parts in First Yank into Tokyo and Lady Luck.

In 1946, Barbara and Bill got married and started working on A Likely Story. In 1947, a little more than a year after taking their vows, their first child was born, daughter Jody. Two more children followed in 1951 and 1953, son Billy and another daughter, Juanita. While being a dedicated mother and wife, Barbara kept working on movies such as The Boy with Green Hair, The Clay Pigeon and The Window until she left RKO when her contract ended with the studio. She started working for Columbia and secured herself a part in Jolson Sings Again, then also worked for other studios before tackling television. The Jackpot with Jimmy Stewart, Lorna Doone, A Lion is in the Streets with James Cagney and The Houston Story were some of her memorable films, as well as a number of Westerns such as The Oklahoman with Joel McCrea.

In 1956, Barbara was approached by Gail Patrick Jackson who urged her to join the cast of a new show called Perry Mason. Skeptical at first due to the young age of her three children, Barbara finally accepted the promising offer and became TV’s most famous secretary when the show went on the air in 1957. Rewarded with a congenial atmosphere on set, lasting friendships, two Emmy nominations and one win, Barbara soon had a reputation of being everyone’s favorite cast member. Adored by fans and press alike, coverage on the Perry Mason family and “Della Street” in her private life returned to an old-time high. Although strenuous at times, being on set six days a week (even when she didn’t have any lines) and leading a rich family life, Barbara embraced her part with full abandon and was grateful for the steady work.

In 1966, after nine years of television fame, Perry Mason was discontinued and Barbara took a well-deserved break from acting to unwind and enjoy more time with her family – her husband and their three children, then nineteen, fifteen and thirteen. In 1967, Barbara made her big screen comeback in a Western called Buckskin, continuing the family tradition of working with her husband on the same film. More common projects followed, including guest stints on Insight and Adam-12, as well as movies such as The Giant Spider Invasion and The Flight of the Grey Wolf.

After numerous guest stints on popular shows like Ironside, The Doris Day Show and Marcus Welby M.D. and supporting parts on movies such as Airport in 1970, Barbara also returned to making a living with commercials when she became the Amana spokesperson for Radar Range microwave ovens in the 70s. She also starred in two of her son Billy Katt’s projects, Big Wednesday and The Greatest American Hero before he joined her on the reprise of her career’s biggest success. In 1985, Barbara was asked to reunite with her longtime co-star and friend Raymond Burr for Perry Mason Returns, a TV movie that launched another ten years of steady work. After the death of her husband of forty-six years in 1992 and the passing of Raymond Burr only one year later, Barbara Hale continued her performance as Della Street in another four Perry Mason Mysteries before she retired from acting in 1994 for personal reasons. She has led a private life with her family in the Los Angeles area  since but given occasional interviews. Some of her latest interviews are available on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD which was released in 2008.

After this sketchy introduction to a very rich life and a darling lady what else is left to say but this: Bless your heart, dear Barbara Hale, for being such an inspiration, and best of wishes on your special day.

* Author’s note: There’s some confusion about Barbara Hale’s actual birthday. While most sources list April 18, 1922 as her day of birth, others say she was already born in 1921. I decided to stick with the most commonly used date. Should that be wrong, I’ll gladly make the necessary changes here on Talking Classics.

What’s My Line?

TV classics: What’s My Line?

USA 1950-67, 17 seasons,  876 episodes, 25 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Presented by John Charles Daly. Panelists: Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Louis Untermeyer, Hal Block, Steve Allen, Fred Allen, Mystery celebrity guests: Julie Andrews, Eve Arden, Desi Arnaz, Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Candice Bergen, Polly Bergen, Carol Burnett, James Cagney, Claudette Colbert, Sean Connery, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, Errol Flynn, Joan Fontaine, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, James Garner, Bob Hope, Grace Kelley, Gene Kelly, Deborah Kerr, Hedy Lamarr, Angela Lansbury, Jack Lemmon, Sophia Loren, Myrna Loy, Allen Ludden, Paul Newman, Debbie Reynolds, Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Jane Russell, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Ann Sothern, Jimmy Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Gene Tierney, Lana Turner, Robert Wagner, Betty White, Joanne Woodward, Jane Wyman, Robert Young et al.

Game summary: Four panelists are trying to guess the occupation of their guests and the identity of the mystery celebrity of the week.

Review: What’s My Line? was one of the longest running and most popular game shows on American TV. Launched as early as in 1950, the show was broadcast weekly on CBS for seventeen successful seasons until it was continued on a daily basis in syndication. Transferred to radio as well as to audiences worldwide, the format was a big success and didn’t go off the air until 1975. In its history, What’s My Line? featured a lot of famous mystery celebrity guests such as Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Elizabeth Taylor or Robert Young, some of whom appeared more than once.

With its easy format, the game show was an entertaining half hour of guessing what the weekly guests were doing for a living, for the panelists as much as for the TV audience. Broadcast live in the beginning, What’s My Line? lived of the chemistry between its regular panelists and their host John Charles Daly. Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen and Bennett Cerf stayed with the show the longest while the fourth spot on the panel was usually given to a famous incoming guest. The thrill of the show lay in the variety of professions the panelists had to guess by asking funny as well as witty “yes-and-no only” questions. The mystery celebrity guest was always the cherry on top of each episode when the blindfolded panel of four queried its way to revealing who was sitting next to their host.

Like so many of the classic game shows, What’s My Line? is a lot of fun to watch these days. The panelists, guests and celebrities are entertaining and hilarious at times. The program is innocent for today’s standards, classy and polite. The game is harmless and relaxing, a perfect show to watch at the end of a hectic day.

Selected clips available on youtube (see links above).

A Lion is in the Streets

Talkie of the Week: A Lion is in the Streets

USA 1953, 88 minutes, color, Warner Brothers Pictures. Director: Raoul Walsh, Written by: Luther Davis, Based on the novel by Andria Locke Langley, and loosely based on Huey Long. Cast: James Cagney, Barbara Hale, Anne Francis, Warner Anderson, John McIntire, Jeanne Cagney, Lon Chaney, Frank McHugh, Larry Keating, Onslow Stevens, James Millican

Plot summary: Peddler Hank Martin has a way with words and enters politics with the strong support of the simple  folks he has learned to manipulate with his slick charm and populist ideas. But his rise to fame comes as quickly as his downfall is inevitable.

Review: A Lion is in the Streets, produced by William Cagney, is a performance vehicle for his larger-than-life brother James Cagney. The plot, although haunting and engaging, circles around his main character Hank Martin and his scary rise to political fame in the South. Never mind if you feel reminded of All the King’s Men (1949, remade in 2006) and the real life story of Huey Long, the effect is the same, the overall storyline however is different, similarly excruciating, painful to watch but worthwhile nonetheless.

Fans of James Cagney may appreciate his bulldozing performance from beginning to end. For those who prefer a softer touch in conveying a roller-coaster of emotions, Jeanne Cagney delivers a breathtaking performance as one of Hank Martin’s most enthusiastic supporters, Jennie Brown. Barbara Hale supports James Cagney as Verity Wade, a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who is spellbound by Hank Martin’s tricks and marries him. Like Jeanne Cagney, her portrayal is much more refined and soft-spoken than Mr. Cagney’s, but every bit as memorable and stirring. These two women alone carry so much of the important emotional side of the movie, it’s almost as if they allow the audience to breathe after James Cagney has finished one of his whirlwind scenes.

All in all, A Lion is in the Streets is not your mellow Sunday afternoon relaxation flick. It was made in the early 1950s and thus has comments on McCarthyism, political extremism and fanaticism incorporated in its every pore. The film is not, however, a period piece in the classic sense. It is rather contemporary in its approach and morale, and ends on a feeling of queasiness in our entertainment-thirsty times.

Available on DVD and VHS.