A touch of class

July 17, 2012

This is the kind of person Celeste Holm was.

In the 1970s I wrote about her somewhere that her favorite stage role was Anna in “The King and I,” a role she took over in 1951 at the request of Richard Rodgers after the original Anna, Gertrude Lawrence, died during the run of the show. Celeste saw that and called me. “I wonder if you’d do me a favor,” she said. “Would you send that article to Richard Rodgers. I want him to know how I feel about that role.” I asked her why she didn’t send it to him herself, and she said that she didn’t think it would be “appropriate” for her to send someone an article about herself. “Well,” I said, “don’t you think Richard Rodgers is going to think it’s peculiar that someone he never heard of sends him a newspaper clipping from out of nowhere.” “Oh,” she said with a laugh that she once told me was only slightly removed from wisdom, “you’re a writer. You’ll think of something to tell him.”

So I complied — Celeste was just regal enough that a person didn’t seriously consider not complying — and Richard Rodgers was delighted, as he told me by return mail.

The fact that she managed that transaction so carefully was part of the elegance that enveloped her — a kind of sophistication that I associated with women like Arlene Francis and Kitty Carlisle Hart. But Celeste was anything but distant. A lot has been published since her death this week about her many civic and charitable works. And while that involved titled roles with public and private organizations, it always involved Celeste’s heart.

I saw that first hand on one occasion when I foolishly volunteered to produce a sort of cultural concert of music and drama to benefit an organization that provided services to mentally handicapped citizens. I recruited a bunch of professional performers, but I had no idea what I was doing. The program was what vaudeville used to call an olio — a bunch of unrelated parts, but in this case it was supposed to look like a coherent whole. To achieve that, I had written a script that tied the sundry parts together, and I asked Celeste if she would be the narrator. She, being Celeste, agreed, and I took the script up to her apartment on Central Park and together we tweaked it to fit her particular style of speaking.

As the day of the performance approached, however, I was convinced that the disparate pieces of the concert were going to unravel into an incoherent melange — with about 900 paying customers in the audience. As I anticipated a complete run-through of the various acts on the afternoon before the performance, I called Celeste. She and her husband, actor Wesley Addy, not only came to the run-through but took command of it, checking sound and lighting, talking up the performers so as to assure a smooth transition from act to narration to act to narration.

That night, when the lights went up and Celeste stepped up to a lectern, she looked down at the seats directly in front of her and saw a group of mentally handicapped people whom we had invited to the event. Celeste hadn’t anticipated these guests. Her eyes filled with tears. Instead of beginning the narration, she walked to the edge of the stage: “Thank you!” she told those folks. “Thank you so much for coming!”

JAMES CAGNEY

JAMES CAGNEY

Once in a while I put a movie on my Netflix list, and by the time its number comes up I can’t remember why I picked it. That’s what happened with the 1961 movie we watched tonight — a Cold War farce co-written and directed by Billy Wilder. After we watched it, I still couldn’t remember why I picked it.

This film in black and white stars James Cagney, Arlene Francis, Pamela Tiffin, and Horst Bucholz. Although it is full of references to America-Soviet issues of the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was based on a play by the Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar, who died in 1952.

The film concerns C.J. McNamara (Cagney), who heads Coca-Cola’s operations in West Berlin, but yearns to be named head of the company’s European operations, based in London. McNamara’s wife, Phyllis (Francis), is weary of life in foreign cities — and C.J.’s philandering — and pressures him to take her and the two McNamara kinder back to the United States.

ARLENE FRANCIS

ARLENE FRANCIS

C.J.’s life becomes further complicated when his boss in Atlanta dispatches his daughter to Europe to get her away from her latest boyfriend and asks C.J. to take charge of the girl while she’s in Berlin. Scarlett (Tiffin) turns out to be more than the McNamaras can handle, and she meets, mates, and marries Otto Piffl (Bucholz), a fiery East German Communist. C.J. has to keep Otto and the pregnant Scarlett at bay while he figures out how to make the match palatable to the girl’s parents — who set off on a trip to Germany.

However well this film may have worked in 1961, it hits the wall with a thud in 2009. It is riddled with what are now stale allusions to the Soviet Union under Nikita Krushchev as well as a steady diet of really bad jokes. In addition, the movie is a school of overacting. Wilder directs it as though directing the Marx Brothers, but Chico and Harpo are nowhere to be seen, and the actors who are in sight don’t have the chops to make this kind of comedy work. Everyone in the film, except Arlene Francis, seems to have been told that farce is measured by how loudly and how rapidly an actor can speak and how fast they can rush from room to room. Cagney — in his last starring role — opens the film speaking as though he is auctioning tobacco, and he doesn’t let up for an hour and fifty minutes.

PAMELA TIFFIN and HORST BUCHOLZ

PAMELA TIFFIN and HORST BUCHOLZ

Tiffin and Bucholz and a bunch of supporting players do their best to keep up with Cagney’s pitch and pace, and the result is an exhausting experience with too few rewards to make it worthwhile. In one scene there is an attempt at humor in which Cagney threatens Bucholz with half a grapefruit — a pathetically obvious reference to the scene 30 years before in which he pushed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in “Public Enemy.” It was almost as though Wilder were saying, “You should be laughing at this, folks; after all, this is James Cagney.”

The high points in this train wreck are a scene in which the uncredited Red Buttons, playing an Army MP, does a fleeting imitation of Cagney for C.J.’s benefit, and the closing title in which C.J. is chagrined to get a bottle of Pepsi out of a Coke vending machine. There is also some fascination in watching Cagney and Bucholz work together inasmuch as it is well documented that they hated each other and made no secret of it on the set.

JAMES CAGNEY in the closing frame of "One, Two, Three."

JAMES CAGNEY in the closing frame of "One, Two, Three."