This is your life?

April 26, 2009

FANNY BRICE  

FANNY BRICE

 

Last night, after watching a two-year-old Barbra Streisand concert on CBS, we switched to American Movie Classics to catch most of “Funny Girl,” the 1968 film starring Streisand and Omar Sharif. This is still an entertaining film in its way, but it seems interminable. Like it or not, it’s a shame that this film is responsible for the impressions most people today have of Fanny Brice and “Nicky” Arnstein, because the story line might as well be about two other people entirely. The characterization of Fanny Brice – her upbringing, her personality, her love life, her relationship with Florenz Ziegfeld – none of it is true. 

 

JULIUS "NICKY" ARNSTEIN

JULIUS "NICKY" ARNSTEIN

What’s even farther afield is the portrayal of “Nicky” Arnstein, who is presented in the film as a handsome, cultured, lovable rascal whose pride wouldn’t allow him to accept his wife’s financial help when his gambling luck ran out. In actual fact, Arnstein was a louse who shamelessly sponged off Brice for years. Brice – who had two other marriages – lived with Arnstein for six or seven years before they married, and he took full advantage of her resources and her status. He did time in Sing Sing before they married – this is not mentioned in the film – and he did 13 months in Leavenworth during their marriage after he was caught trying to transport stolen securities into Washington, D.C. Brice spent a lot of her money trying to defend him from the federal charge, and then he dropped her cold when he got out of stir. Why someone with Fanny Brice’s talent wanted to associate in any way with Arnstein I am not aware.

Apparently there were at least two reasons why the movie – and the Broadway show that inspired it – departed so far from the facts of Brice’s life. One was that the writers were trying to create good entertainment, not a documentary. The other was that Arnstein was still alive when this material was written and was known to be prepared to litigate anything derogatory said about him.

15180We watched the 1948 movie “I Remember Mama,” a masterpiece directed by George Stevens. I started to watch this on TMC a few weeks ago, but it would have ended at 2 a.m., so I gave up and put it in the Netflix queue. This film was based on Kathryn Forbes’ novel, a fictionalized memoir titled “Mama’s Bank Account.” The novel inspired a play that ran on Broadway for two years. The play led to this rather expensive movie, and the movie led to a successful television series – “Mama” – and an unsuccessful musical play, the last work of Richard Rodgers.

In all cases, the story concerns a Norwegian family living in San Francisco shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The central figure is Martha Hansen, the “Mama” of the title, played in this film by Irene Dunne and in the TV series by Peggy Wood. Irene Dunne was perfect in the role – as was Peggy Wood – and Dunne’s contributions were complemented by the fact that the rest of the casting was just as highly inspired. That included Barbara Bel Geddes as one of the Hansen daughters – Katherine – who narrates the film. Other choices that turned out to be strokes of genius were Rudy Vallee in the poker-faced role of a doctor who performs mastoid surgery on young Dagmar Hansen and Edgar Bergen in the comical role of a funeral director who courts one of Martha Hansen’s sisters.

ELLEN CORBY

ELLEN CORBY

That sister, Trina, was played by Ellen Corby, who later played the grandmother on the TV series “The Waltons,” and appeared in nearly 230 movies and TV shows. In this film, she is charming in her earnestness and naievete. A pivotal member of the cast was the prolific Austrian actor Oskar Homolka as Chris Halverson, the blustering uncle of Martha Hansen and her three sisters – but, it turns out, the most complex figure in the film. Dunne, Homolka, Corby, and Bel Geddes were nominated for Oscars for this film, and Nicholas Musuraca won the award for black-and-white cinematography. He certainly deserved that for the evocative images of both turn-of-the-century San Francisco and the intimacy of a work-a-day home.

Everything about this film was carefully done. It deals with the most commonplace of issues, but does it with profound insight. The story is a reflection on the resources of the human spirit, presented in a manner that is both uplifting and convincing.

Sic transit whatyacallit.

March 27, 2009

 

WILLIE AAMES

WILLIE AAMES

I got to wondering the other day about whatever happened to Dick Van Patten. The occasion for me to wonder was a TCM broadcast of the 1948 movie “I Remember Mama,” which was inspired by a novel and in turn inspired a Broadway play and a television series. Which brings us to Dick Van Patten, who played Nels Hansen in the TV show. The “Mama” properties have to do with a Norwegian family living in San Francisco in the early 20th century. It’s wholesome stuff. Van Patten became a more prominent figure when he starred as the patriarch in the later TV series “Eight is Enough,” another wholesome show. 

I didn’t finish watching “I Remember Mama,” because it would have kept me up until 2 a.m., so I put it in my Netflix queue. Before I got around to checking up on Van Patten, I read today that Willie Aames, who played one of Van Patten’s kids on “Eight is Enough” was selling his personal belongings in Kansas this week in order to pay off his debts. Aames also appeared in the series “Charles in Charge,” but apparently couldn’t hang onto the money he made. His drug habit probably didn’t help.

 

WILLIE AAMES

WILLIE AAMES

Life didn’t imitate art for the Bradfords – Van Patten’s TV family. Adam Rich, who played the youngest kid, has a string of arrests to his credit, including multiple substance abuse charges and break-and-entry. And Lani O’Grady, who played the eldest daughter on “Eight” died of a drug overdose, according to the Los Angeles County coroner. At one point in his life, Aames was ordained to ministry, a fact that prompted readers of the Dallas Morning News web site to quarrel on line today about why God hadn’t stepped in to lift Aames out of insolvency. Apparently these readers are unacquainted with concepts such as free will and personal responsibility.

 

DICK VAN PATTEN

DICK VAN PATTEN

Oh, I did check on Dick Van Patten. He’s doing fine, thank you, and still has that wholesome aura. He’s 80 years old now and has been happily married to Josephine Acerno since 1954. They have three sons, all of them actors, none of whom have been busted for drugs. Most of the Van Pattens are very good tennis players. Not pool, tennis. Dick Van Patten completely recovered from a diabetic stroke he suffered in 2006, and, as though to reinforce his wholesome image, founded a company that makes “Natural Balance Pet Foods.’

As George Ade said, “It all depends.”

“Roll ’em!”

March 16, 2009

CARY GRANT

CARY GRANT

I don’t understand why a television channel that exists solely to present movies – and presents each movie with some kind of historical context – does not let the credits run at the end of the film. I am referring to Turner Classic Movies. It’s frustrating. Last night,  for example, we watched “Talk of the Town,” a 1942 flick that starred Cary Grant, Ronald Coleman, and Jean Arthur. I was curious about the actor who played Coleman’s black valet, because the character was an elegant figure who exhibited a deep intellect and spoke with an almost Victorian propriety. No credits. I found out on IMDB that the actor was Rex Ingram, who was born on a riverboat in Mississippi and around 1916 became the first black man to earn a Phi Beta Kappa key at Northwestern University. Ingram – not to be confused with the white director of the same name – appeared in nearly 50 properties – most of them movies.

49-7REX INGRAM

Anyone who goes to a movie with me knows enough not to get up before the screen goes dark for good, and I know I’m not the only one who likes to see the names of the best boy and the caterer and – especially important – the music credits. Frequently, too, there is a lot of care taken in choosing the music that plays over the credits. I would never turn off “Dominick and Eugene,” for instance, without watching the credits roll over “Goin’ Down to Rio.” But the least I expect is to read the names of the actors in case I want to find out more about them. But that’s me – never satisfied,