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Monday, August 29, 2011

Dancing with Fred and Ginger

Of equal importance with the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s were the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. How these two even met is a mini-story of its own.

Born in 1899, Fred was a popular Broadway star during the 1920s along with his sister Adele. When Adele retired in the late 1920s, Fred started looking toward Hollywood. Ginger had some Broadway experience but by 1930 was still only nineteen years old. However, like Fred, she had Hollywood on her mind.

Both scuffled a bit out west but in 1933, RKO was looking for a dance team for their Dolores del Rio-Gene Raymond musical, “Flying Down to Rio”. In spite of their minimal film experience, Fred and Ginger were given the parts along with fourth and fifth billing. They looked a bit odd: He was a balding mid 30s guy while Ginger was a gorgeous young blonde babe of twenty-two. That was forgotten after they did their sensual eighteen minute dance of the Carioca. They started a Carioca dance craze and assured themselves stardom for the next six years after gliding across those white pianos.

Next came “The Gay Divorcee” where Astaire-Rogers started another dance craze with ”The Continental” along with a number to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”.

They were on a roll in the mid 1930s as they recorded successes like “Top Hat” (1935), “Follow the Fleet” (1936), “Shall We Dance?” (1937), and “Carefree” (1938).

After nine films in six years, they decided enough was enough and decided to move on. Their only film together after 1939 was “The Barkley’s of Broadway” (1949) which was a reunion flick and also their only film done in color.

Fred had gone on to other musicals with dancers like Rita Hayworth while Ginger tried straight acting. After playing so many light hearted musical parts, she surprised everyone by winning the Best Actress Oscar for “Kitty Foyle” in 1940. If you haven’t seen that film, check it out the next time it is on TCM. It is worth your time.

Fred danced his way up to 1976 with an appearance in “That’s Entertainment, Part II”. He also did a lot of straight acting and got an AA nomination for “The Towering Inferno” (1974). Ginger continued acting but after “Kitty Foyle” the good parts dried up.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing what they did best. (RKO Pictures)

As a side note, Ginger’s mother was the quintessential stage mother who didn’t think that Astaire was that good and that Ginger should have received more credit for her work. At one time she supposedly said “Ginger does the same things he does only she does them backwards with heels.”

Regardless, for a couple of kids from Nebraska and Missouri, Fred and Ginger did pretty well. In an early screen test one movie executive said that Fred “can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little.” So much for his evaluation!

Fred died in 1987 and Ginger followed him in 1995. A couple of years ago, Ginger’s childhood home and birthplace in Independence, Missouri was for sale at $20,000. There were no offers.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Film Censorship: Hays and Breen

What would Will Hays think if he was alive today and saw the nudity in films along with the dreaded “F” word used so frequently? Since he was brought in by the MPAA to “tone down” the action on the screen it was assumed he was a hardnosed guy. Actually, he was pretty mild mannered having worked in the Harding administration as the Postmaster General before Hollywood called in 1922.

Hays took the job and set some informal guidelines for the studios to follow. By 1927, he formalized the rules and, although he meant well, they were largely ignored. The studios liked the 48 year old ex-Postmaster because he kept the government off their backs, but 1927 was the Jazz Age so who wanted rules?

With sound taking over movies in 1930, it became apparent that stronger censorship was needed. On March 31, 1930, the Production Code (Hays Code) was adopted and as had been the case with the original Hays Code, was ignored. By 1934 the Catholic Legion of Decency was established with the goal of strictly enforcing the code. Also, the Production Code Administration was established in July, 1934 as a response to the lewd movie fare of the early 1930s. A tough character named Joseph Breen was named as its director and was very literal in his enforcement.

Will Hays: Mild mannered censor from Indiana

The era of 1930-1934 was known as the “pre-code era” because, even though a code existed, it was not followed. Take a look at films from the pre-code times and compare them to 1934 and afterwards when Breen took over. There were no more shots of a scantily dressed Fay Wray or thinly veiled nipples as in “Gold Diggers of 1933”.

A couple of Breen’s encounters were “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934) where he deleted a nude underwater scene involving a stand-in for Maureen O’Sullivan. Later, Breen battled with Howard Hughes in 1941 over whether there was too much use of Jane Russell’s breasts for promos of “The Outlaw”. The discussions went on so long that the film wasn’t released until 1943.

Joseph Breen of the Catholic Legion of Decency

Some of the rules enforced by the Production Code seem tame by today’s standards. Of course, nudity and profanity were not allowed and screen kisses had to be close mouthed and limited to six seconds. When two people embraced, one of them had to have his or her foot on the floor. Words like “broad”, “pregnant”, and “hold your hat” were not permitted. Hold your hat?) Also, seduction could not be used as a form of comedy.
This mentality lasted well into the 1960s.

Because of changes in attitudes, an influx of foreign films which clearly violated the Hays Code, and various social movements, the Code was disbanded in 1967 and replaced by the MPAA’s own rating system. Hays died in 1954 at age 74. He never got to see his Code replaced.

1930-1934 was an interesting period and besides being known as the “pre-code era” is sometimes called the era of “sound and sexuality”.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

TV Sitcoms: The 1960s

Television sitcoms in the 1950s contained a lot of carryover shows from radio like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Ozzie and Harriet, “The Aldrich family”, “Beulah”, and “The Goldbergs”. It was funny stuff but nothing new. The most successful new sitcom of the decade was “I Love Lucy” which ran from 1951 to 1957. Everyone loved Lucy and it showed in the ratings.

From the mid 50s into the early 60s, comedy slipped in favor of westerns which became more popular than anyone could imagine; more on that in a future post.

As the 1960s emerged, TV was searching for something to boost ratings. They came up with a lot of shows that I would call “screwball sitcoms”. Please don’t confuse the term “screwball” with the great movie comedies of 1934-1941. The TV shows were not in that league and many of them were just plain bad although two stand out as high quality productions: “The Dick Van (inappropriate term) Show” (1961-1966) and “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968).

A lot of the 60s’ sitcoms depended on gimmicks or “shtick” to gain an audience. One of the most popular entries was “The Beverly Hillbillies” with Buddy Ebsen . It somehow managed to stay on CBS as a rating’s giant from 1962-1971. The plot was oxymoronic: Hillbillies from the Ozarks invading the luxury of Hollywood with the result being the funny interaction of the two cultures. Robert Osborne even appeared in one 1962 episode.

Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett in "The Beverly Hillbillies" (TV Land)

CBS salivated over the ratings of “The Beverly Hillbillies” so it was quickly followed by “Gomer Pyle, USMC” (1964-1970), “Green Acres” (1965-1971) and “Petticoat Junction” (1963-1970). Gomer was a spin-off from “The Andy Griffith Show” and starred Jim Nabors as a marine bumpkin who was always irritating his nemesis, Sergeant Carter, played by Frank Sutton.

Frank Sutton (L) and Jim Nabors in "Gomer Pyle, USMC (

“Green Acres” starred Eddie Albert and was the opposite of “The Beverly Hillbillies” as it placed city slickers in the country with the expected hilarious results. “Petticoat Junction” followed the antics of the townsfolk of Hooterville, USA.

I used to feel sorry for quality actors like Ebsen and Albert having to participate in this canned laugh track fare but they were in the acting business and had to eat too. On the plus side, I’m sure they were well paid for those nonsensical shows.

The same goes for Ray Walston who starred in another gimmick show, “My Favorite Martian” (1963-1966). Do you remember the Francis the talking mule films with Donald O’Connor? In this show Ray plays a Martian who will only let co-star Bill Bixby know of his powers. Does that sound a bit like Francis only talking to Peter Sterling (O’Connor)? It was pretty bad.

Then there was “Bewitched” (1964-1972) where Samantha’s witchcraft was the gimmick usually at husband Darrin’s expense. It’s no wonder he slugged down those Martinis after work! “I Dream of Jeannie” (1965-1970) used a similar scenario where Jeannie (Barbara Eden) used her powers over her “master” Larry Hagman.

If you liked macabre humor there was “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters”. “Gilligan’s Island” and “McHale’s Navy” provided slapstick. Family humor was alive with “Dennis The Menace” and “Leave it to Beaver” along with the ever sweet “The Donna Reed Show”.

Most of these shows were inane but they did provide some innocent fun during the 1960s. Like the music of the time, TV was emerging from the innocence of the 1950s while also bringing a bit of carryover from that era. By the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1970s, wholesale changes were in store for the tube.

More on that later.