Desk Set

Talkie of the Week: Desk Set

USA 1957, 103 minutes, color, 20th Century Fox. Director: Walter Lang, Written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, Based on the play by William Marchant. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Harry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore and Rachel Stephens.

Plot summary: When the Federal Broadcasting Network hires Richard Sumner to install an “electronic brain”, the head of the reference library fears for the relevance of her department and her very own job.

Desk_Set_1957Review: There are different reasons to pick a movie. The plot may delight you, the director or cast. You may have read the book a film is based on or you simply stumble upon a film on TCM or in the film department of a store. In my case, two reasons apply. First of all, I love Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as individual performers but as soon as they’re on screen together, my heart skips a beat. And then, so I gladly admit, I scan every store for classic film offers. The second my eyes fell on the sales sticker on Desk Set, a decision had been made to buy this film and enjoy it with a dear old friend. Now although said friend shares my enthusiasm for Miss Hepburn, she isn’t as enamored with Hollywood’s Golden Age as yours truly. So you can imagine her reaction when the film started to address computers and the pros and cons of upgrading the workplace a good 55 years ago. In her defense, she gave the movie a chance and ended up enjoying it despite her initial reservations. I was in love with it the moment I realized this was an adaptation of William Marchant’s play, written by Phoebe and Henry Ehpron who also penned one of my favorite comedies, The Jackpot (starring James Stewart and Barbara Hale). So yes, call me biased when I recommend this film to you but for anyone who’s fond of witty dialog, delicious acting and some depth in comedy, Desk Set is a true gem. To give away the storyline would be a crime, so I’ll refrain from saying more about the plot but this: not everything is what it seems, but you can always count on the Hepburn-Tracy chemistry now shrouded in legend. The film is available on DVD and as instant video. Here’s the trailer for you to judge for yourselves.

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Talkie of the Week: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

USA 1967, 108 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Stanley Kramer, Written by William Rose. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, Katherine Houghton, Cecil Kellaway, Beah Richards, Roy E. Glenn, Isabel Sanford, Virginia Christine, Alexandra Hay, Barbara Randolph, D’Urville Martin, Tom Heaton, Grace Gaynor and Skip Martin.

Plot summary: When Joey returns from Hawai’i, she surprises her parents with a fiancé who tests their liberal convictions.

Guess Who's Coming to DinnerReview: When Joanna Drayton (Katherine Houghton) returns to San Francisco to see her parents, she also brings a big surprise: vacationing in Hawai’i, she has fallen in love with a young doctor, John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), whom she wants to marry within a few short months. As if her whirlwind romance wasn’t enough to take in for her liberal parents, a newspaper publisher (Spencer Tracy) and an art gallery owner (Katherine Hepburn), Joanna’s fiancé is colored. Confronted with the boundaries of their own values, Matt and Christina Dayton have trouble adapting to their daughter’s open mind and fear for her future in a biased society. When John’s parents join them all for dinner, equally struggling with the situation, the moment has come for all sides to remind themselves of what they really want for their loved ones.

Set and produced in 1967, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner addressed a difficult topic in riotous times, winning praise from critics and movie goers alike. Rewarded with two Academy Awards and eight additional nominations, the film ripped into the heart of public turmoil by aiming at liberal hypocrisy and black on black racism. Fiercely honest about the obstacles of Joanna’s and John’s young love, the film was blessed with a cast that turned an already excellent script into a memorable motion picture. Starring Spencer Tracy in his last film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner turned out be a tribute to a beloved actor who died a few short weeks after production was completed. Posthumously nominated for his strong performance, Tracy led a cast of stellar actors including his longtime partner Katherine Hepburn. Strong as always in her performances, Hepburn created a genuine chemistry with Tracy despite his grave illness but also left room for the ensemble cast to shine. Sidney Poitier, soft-spoken and impressive at the same time, built a believable sparkle with Katherine Houghton, Hepburn’s niece, who was the only one who didn’t get an opportunity to give her character real depth.

Although some people may look at the topic and deem it outdated, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a classic that still resonates. Available on DVD, the film is touching on more levels than the plot may suggest and thus has the potential to remain popular for generations. Poitier’s rage, expressed in an emtional speech addressed at his father, reflects the frustration of many adult children, as well as the ingratitude of youth. It also gives us a glimpse into that sense of entitlement born in the late 60s, a social phenomenon still seething in Western culture today.

True Grit

Talkie of the Week: True Grit

USA 1969, 128 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Henry Hathaway, Written by Marguerite Roberts, Based on “True Grit” by Charles Portis. Cast: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, John Fiedler, Jeremy Slate, Alfred Ryder, Ron Soble, James Westerfield, John Doucette, Donald Woods, Edith Atwater, Carlos Rivas, Isabel Boniface, H. W. Gim, John Pickard, Elizabeth Harrower, Ken Renard, Jay Ripley and Kenneth Becker

Plot summary: 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father’s murderer and bring him to justice with a little help of Texas Ranger La Boeuf.

Review: True Grit was my first John Wayne Western, a fact I admit with some shame because he was such a heavy weight in Hollywood and a talented star in his fifty years on the silver screen, I should have started exploring his work much earlier than I did. But there are so many beautiful classics out there, so many favorites whose work I haven’t completely gotten my hands on just yet, John Wayne somehow fell behind as a priority. Once I did see him in True Grit, however, I felt inveigled to put him up high on my list. After all, his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn spoke to me much more than the only recently celebrated interpretation by Jeff Bridges.

Remake or original, that may be the question here to ask. Although, in 1975, John Wayne himself already reclaimed the part that had brought him his well-deserved Academy Award. In Rooster Cogburn, he starred with Katherine Hepburn, chasing after the murderer of her father, a plot that may sound slightly familiar to everyone who has seen True Grit in 1969 or 2010.  So was it so bad for the Coen Brothers to re-imagine this John Wayne classic? Well, it probably depends on how fond you are of contemporary interpretations. I didn’t like True Grit much when I saw the adaptation from 2010, but liked it better with John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. That said, I should add that the story itself is not my favorite, not so much for its general content, but for the character of Mattie Ross. But the original film in general is a real gem, telling the story of an interesting journey with an interesting end. So for anyone who enjoys a Western without any Indians, do pick this one as your after-dinner treat. You may be surprised how fast two hours can evaporate by watching a decent movie.

Available on DVD and BluRay. True Grit trailer available here.

Adam’s Rib

Talkie of the Week: Adam’s Rib

USA 1949, 101 minutes, black & white, MGM. Director: George Cukor, Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, Davis Wayne, Jean Hagen, Hope Emerson, Eve March, Clarence Kolb, Emerson Treacy, Polly Moran, Will Wright, Elizabeth Flournoy

Plot summary: Adam and Amanda are happily married until a case divides the two lawyers in court when he has to prosecute his wife’s female client.

Review: As one of the most successful romantic comedies, Adam’s Rib is a classic gem for its topic of equality between man and women, and for its splendid cast led by Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. Famous for their on screen chemistry and witty acting, the two stars brought a sparkle of energy to an already hilarious script. Written especially for the two actors as their sixth silver screen collaboration, the film was loosely based on the real life story of William and Dorothy Whitney and presented Judy Holliday in her first big part. Praised for the quality of their script, screenwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin got nominated for an Academy Award and was added to the National Film Registry in 1992.

As one of those classics that never gets old, Adam’s Rib is a film I simply cannot get enough of. I may be biased towards two of my favorite Hollywood veterans, but Spencer Tracy’s and Katherine Hepburn’s performances are a pure joy to watch. With their endless banter and their natural quality, they added life to a film that was already blessed with a talented director and an excellent score. The case they quarreled about as Amanda and Adam Bonner is a real hoot, especially due to the eventful courtroom scenes. In addition to that, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell and Jean Hagen did a wonderful job supporting the main stars, never outshining them but strong enough to leave a mark.

Available on DVD today, Adam’s Rib is the perfect treat for an evening at home with friends. It will entertain you and maybe stir a discussion about a topic that never really seems to get old. More than sixty years later, the sense of humor and style may be different, but that’s exactly what makes this film pure gold.

Adam’s Rib original trailer

The Approaching New Year

With the new year fast approaching, I’ve decided to have a look at 2012 because I may love vintage but I rather look ahead than back. So what’s cooking?!

On January 17th, America’s sweetheart Betty White is going to complete another decade. She’ll be turning  ninety. I know she just recently said that’s not an accomplishment but that it just happened, bless her for  counting her blessings like that. But still. Ninety is quite a milestone. And with her popularity, filmography  and attitude she definitely outshines an entire studio full of performers less than half her age.

 

On April 18th then, my personal Tinseltown darling, RKO’s 1940s starlet and Perry Mason‘s renowned girl Friday, Barbara Hale, will join Ms. White, my N Hollywood grandma and their club of Fabulous at Ninety. Although long retired, well-deserved and (apparently) happily so, Ms. Hale is still fondly remembered by Della Street fans and classic cinéastes from around the globe. More and more of her work has been published on DVD or online in recent years and I sincerely hope that 2012 will reveal more of her bubbly warmth for us all to enjoy.

Then several films and TV shows will celebrate their anniversaries. Here are some examples:

  • Ironside (1967-75, NBC)
  • The Lucy Show (1962-68, CBS)
  • My Little Margie (1952-55, CBS & NBC)
  • Perry Mason TV show (1957-66, CBS)
  • A Likely Story (1947, RKO, directed by H.C. Potter, starring Barbara Hale and Bill Williams)
  • The First Time (1952, Columbia, directed by Frank Tashlin, starring Robert Cummings and Barbara Hale)
  • Ivanhoe (1952, MGM, directed by Richard Thorpe, starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor)
  • The Miracle Worker (1962, United Artists, directed by Arthur Penn, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke)
  • Pat & Mike (1952, MGM, directed by George Cukor, starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1952, MGM, directed by Stanley Donen, starring Gene Kelley and Debbie Reynolds)
  • That Touch of Mink (1962, Universal, directed by Delbert Mann, starring Cary Grant and Doris Day)
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Warner Bros., directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis & Joan Crawford)

Of course there are many many more, e.g. Bambi (1942), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Mrs. Miniver (1942) or To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Also other TV shows like The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78) or The Flying Nun (1967-70).

The legendary Barbara Stanwyck had her screen debut as a fan dancer in Broadway Nights eighty-five years ago. She would’ve turned one-hundred and five on July 16th, Raymond Burr ninety-five on May 21st.

I could continue this list ad infinitum. But I rather wish you a smooth start into the new year and hope you’re looking forward to all the vintage treats that will be revisited and adored on this blog in the up-coming leap year.

Bless y’all!

Autobiographies

I’m a big fan of biographies, especially autobiographies – the kind that explores the essence of a person’s life (personal as well as professional) with a deep sense of self-reflection, irony and/or playful nostalgia.

Today, I am going to recommend some of my personal favorites, in alphabetical order because I couldn’t possibly decide which one I like best for they are all so intricately different in content and style (not that that should be surprising, after all, each book describes very diverse and unique personalities and their genuine careers and lives).

  • Allyson, June – “June Allyson”, 1983
  • Andrews, Julie – “Home – A Memoir of my Early Years”, 2008
  • Bacall, Lauren – By Myself and Then Some”, 2005
  • Ball, Lucille – “Love, Lucy”, 1996
  • Burnett, Carol – “One More Time: A Memoir”, 2003
  • Burnett, Carol – “This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection”, 2010
  • Davis, Bette – “The Lonely Life: An Autobiography”, 1962
  • Davis, Bette – “This’n That”, 1987
  • Hepburn, Katherine – “The Making of the African Queen OR How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Houston and Almost Lost My Mind”, 1987
  • Hepburn, Katherine – “Me: Stories of My Life”, 1991
  • Loy, Myrna – “Being & Becoming”, 1988
  • MacLaine, Shirley – “Dance While You Can”, 1991
  • McClanahan, Rue – “My First Five Husbands… And the Ones That Got Away”, 2007
  • O’Hara, Maureen – “‘Tis Herself: An Autobiography”, 2005
  • Palmer, Lilli – “Change Lobsters and Dance”, 1974
  • Powers, Stefanie – “One From the Hart”, 2010
  • Redgrave, Vanessa – “An Autobiography”, 1991
  • Taylor, Elizabeth – “Elizabeth Taylor”, 1964
  • White, Betty – “In Person”, 1987
  • White, Betty – “Here We Go Again”, 1995

I do realize that I failed to list autobiographies by men, but most of my favorites never wrote about their lives: Raymond Burr, Bill Williams, Robert Young, Spencer Tracey, Larry Parks or Cary Grant. Thus my negligence and probable ignorance. I do have Robert J. Wagner’s book “Pieces of My Heart: A Life” from 2008 and Rock Hudson’s “His Story” from 2007 on my reading list though – if that placates those of you who wonder if I, as a woman, may be a little biased towards female life stories and voices.

Remakes

Although it may sometimes seem as if remakes are a contemporary idea, they actually go back to the 1920s (e.g. The Battle of Sexes, made in 1914 and then again 1928, each directed by D.W. Griffith) and the 1930s when talkies became more popular than silent movies. When studio bosses decided to re-do successful films. Hollywood, after all, has always been an industry.

But as old as its core motivation, the discussion of remakes has also remained the same – is it necessary to re-tell a story that has worked before? Can’t Hollywood come up with new ideas? New characters and plots?

Well, in times of reshaping and relaunching TV shows from the 1970s and 80s, I guess the answer is clear. It is often cheaper to pick up on an already established franchise. May seem more sensible. Almost like an homage – although  how could it be  if everything that used to work and made a product genuine is being replaced, updated and beautified?

Opinions will always differ on remakes. I myself was thrilled when I first heard about a new version of The Women back in 2008. Annette Benning’s name truly pleased me when I saw it listed for the project. Then I saw the movie. And in spite of Ms Benning, it paled in comparison to the original movie from 1939 on all levels.

But remakes can work. There are examples, sometimes unknown to us today. Love Affair from 1939 for example, starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. It was remade by the same director, Leo McCarey, in 1957 with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, called An Affair to Remember. And then again under its original title in 1994, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Benning, plus Katherine Hepburn.

The Window from 1949 (see Talking Classic‘s first “Talkie of the Week” entry) was also remade in 1966, under the title of the short story the film was originally based on, The Boy cried Murder. I have not yet seen this version but would love to see how and if they made it work.

Father of the Bride and Father’s little Dividend from 1950 and 51, directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Spencer Tracey, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Bennett, were also remade in 1991 and 95. Then with an all-star cast led by Steve Martin and Diane Keaton.

What’s striking about the remakes of Father of the Bride and The Women though is the almost screwball-like quality paired with hysterics. Although equally well cast, the films don’t live up to the originals. It may be a reflection on the 1990s and 2000s, but the adaptations seem to lack a sense of sincerity in their otherwise entertaining and comedic plots. Steve Martin is not a Spencer Tracey, Diane Keaton is no comparison to Joan Bennett, nor is Meg Ryan a Norma Shearer. How could they be? They live in different times and so do the stories that were told so beautifully in their own time, with their original cast.

Now another remake is being discussed, green-lit by Warner Bros. The Thin Man is supposed to be redone, starring Johnny Depp and Rachel Weisz. I personally adore the original six movies which came to theaters between 1934 and 1947. William Powell and Myrna Loy. What better a pairing could you find? I am not convinced that you could replace them. Or that the plot will work in a new movie with a contemporary perception of Dashiell Hammett’s characters. Mind you, it worked to base a couple on Nick and Nora on TV in the 1980s. Hart to Hart was a good success. But William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora are so iconic – just have a look at the screen version of Bewitched  from 2005. Another example for an over-the-top version of a classic hit franchise. It disappointed fans and didn’t exactly score with the critics. However, the film did bring in some money, so if that’s the old motivation, I better keep spending it on the originals. And hope for more of them to be released on DVD.