How to Marry a Millionaire (1953):  “Look at that old fella what’s his name..”

Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe

While Humphrey Bogart’s career soared, Lauren Bacall’s flatlined.  Her final Warner Brother’s film, Bright Leaf with Gary Cooper, opened on July 1, 1950 to mediocre reviews and a tepid box office.

Twelve days later Jack Warner finally gave Bacall her wish, and released her from her contract for $50,000 that would be paid out as a percentage of her earnings from future films with other studios.

She was only 25, with the world at her feet.

But a stumbling block had arisen in her career that was bigger even than Jack Warner.  As she writers in her memoir By Myself, “A funny thing happened to my career the first few years of being Mrs. Bogart.  Funny—peculiar.  Everyone thought I was terrific personally, but they stopped thinking of me as an actress.  I was Bogie’s wife, gave great dinners, parties, but work was passed over.”

It was an accurate assessment but also a bit unfair—Bacall herself continually put her duties as a wife and mother ahead of movie-making.  It was no wonder the scripts stopped coming.

In the three years after she cut ties with Warner, she had a second child (a daughter, named Leslie after Bogart’s friend and mentor Leslie Howard) went to Africa with Bogart, and turned down scripts that would separate her from him.

It’s a recipe for a good marriage and a happy life.

But not for a career in Hollywood.

She didn’t work for three years.

In 1953, she received a script for How to Marry a Millionaire, a comedy co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable.

Millionaire would give her a chance to test her comedic chops, something she’d long desired.  But Bogart was slated to travel to Italy to film Beat the Devil.

Bacall writes, “I wanted to go with him, but I would have to make Millionaire or forget my career all together…  [Bogie] was very good about it—Millionaire was the best part I’d had in years.”

It was their first separation in eight years of marriage.

How to Marry a Millionaire tells the story of three beautiful young women who plot to marry rich husbands.  Schatze Paige (Bacall) is the brains behind the operation, a cynical divorcee who won’t make the mistake of marrying a poor man for love again.

She convinces her friends Pola (Monroe) and Loco (Grable) to pool their money to rent an expensively furnished penthouse, on the theory that acting and looking rich will put them in contact with more rich millionaire men.  As time goes on, Schatze sells off the furniture to bankroll their lifestyle (and tells anyone who asks it’s being cleaned.)

Pola is blind as a bat without her glasses, which she refuses to wear around men as she thinks they make her unattractive.  She continually walks into walls and has no idea who she’s speaking to.  Loco is able to lure any man into lending her money for groceries and carrying them up to the penthouse, but overall she’s not too bright.

The three scheme their way into snagging three prospects, but Pola’s is a gambling swindler, and Loco’s is married.  Only Schatze chooses well, the old but kindly J.D. Hanley (William Powell, in his sixties).  He’s so kind that he feels it would be selfish to marry Schatze, given their age difference. 

In desperation, Schatze tries to convince him that older men are wonderful, practically winking at the audience when she insists, “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what’s his name in The African Queen.”

In the end, of course, all three women fall in love with poor but perfect men.  In the case of Loco, a forest ranger she mistook for a lumber tycoon.  For Pola, a man who also wears glasses and still thinks she’s beautiful when she wears hers.

And Schatze?  Well, on her wedding day, she switches out grooms from the rich J.D. to the gas pump operator who’s been pursuing her despite her attempts to brush him off.

And guess what?

Turns out he was a millionaire all along.

The film was a great success, the 5th highest grossing film of 1953, higher than Marilyn Monroe’s other hit that year, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Though Marilyn Monroe always had a way of drawing your eyes to her, How to Marry a Millionaire is Bacall’s film.

She finally proved to herself—and the world—that she could play comedy, and more importantly, make a hit without Bogart.

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The African Queen (1951):  A Rising Souffle

Visiting the African Queen as a kid with my grandparents…and yes, that is the actual Queen used in the film. It’s still on display for visitors in Key Largo, Florida.

Before they wed, Humphrey Bogart didn’t believe his marriage to Lauren “Betty” Bacall would last.  How could he?  They had two obstacles he felt would be insurmountable—their age gap and the fact that she was an actress.  Bogart had three failed marriages behind him that were destroyed in large part because of the career ambitions of his wives.

He loved her so much that he married her anyway, figuring himself a fool and hoping for five good years.

But Bogart was  wrong—it wasn’t only her fights with Jack Warner that kept Bacall mostly off the screen in those years—it was her devotion to being a wife first, mother second, and actress third.  

By the time filming began on The African Queen, they were six years in, had a two-year old son, and when Bogart signed up to film on location for six months in Africa and the United Kingdom, there was no question that Bacall was going with him. 

And so a quartet of legends packed up and headed for the Congo—leads Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, director John Huston, and Bacall, along for the ride.

Bacall, Bogart, Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn wrote an entire book filled with tales from the set—how she was violently ill and threw up between takes during an early scene when her character plays the piano.  How Bogart and Huston were never sick because they drank only liquor, no water.  Huston’s obsession with shooting an elephant.  How Bacall made herself useful—cooking, tending to minor wounds of the crew, and helping them write letters home.

Huston received a letter during filming, informing him that his daughter Angelica had been born back in the states.

Hepburn marveled at the love between Bogie and Bacall, who both became lifelong friends after their time making the Queen:

“[Bacall] and Bogie seemed to have the most enormous opinion of each other’s charms, and when they fought it was with the utter confidence of two cats locked deliciously in the same cage.”

Bacall and Bogart

The filming, as expected, was wrought with setbacks and problems.  Location films were extremely rare at the time, and only someone as ambitious and crazy as John Huston would’ve attempted such a thing.

Add to that the fact that no one was certain that audiences would want to watch a love story between a spinster in her mid-forties and a dirty, down on his luck river rat in his early fifties.

It was a gamble, but oh, how it paid off.

One of the best films ever made according to the American Film Institute, The African Queen opens at the dawn of World War I when the Germans burn down an African village, stranding British spinster missionary Rose Sayer (Hepburn).  She’s rescued by Charlie Allnut, a Canadian who delivers the mail in his old beat up boat The African Queen.

Hepburn, Bogart

Charlie intends to hide out from the Germans until the dust settles, and he tells Rose that the German steamship Louisa is blocking the British troops at the mouth of Lake Tanganyika.

Stalwart and naïve, Rose decides that they will find the Louisa and sink it with a torpedo that Charlie will DIY from material aboard the Queen.

Charlie thinks she’s nuts and tells her so, but she wears him down until he agrees to begin what can only be a suicide mission, figuring he can talk her out of it somewhere along the way.

And thus begins the adventure of a lifetime for two people who society had long ago tossed into the “loser” bucket.  Charlie and Rose face rapids, mosquitoes, leeches, and German sharpshooters in their hairbrained quest to sink the Louisa in service to the British empire.

Bogart, Hepburn

And poor Charlie has to face it sober after Rose pours all his gin overboard.

The film is adventurous, patriotic, romantic, and funnier than Huston and the screenwriters originally intended.  But the interplay between Bogart and Hepburn was magic, and Huston wisely went where the chemistry led him.

Shall I tell you if Charlie and Rose succeeded?

I shall not—it’s enough to know that they fall in love, and the rest you’ll have to find out for yourself.

The African Queen was nominated for four Oscars (Bogart, Hepburn, Huston, and the screenwriters) and after losing out for Casablanca, he finally won the Best Actor statue, his wife and biggest fan cheering loudest of all in the crowd.

Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Young Man With a Horn (1950):  Bacall Searches for the Spotlight

Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, and Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950)

By 1950, Jack Warner was no longer the undisputed king of the Warner Brother’s lot.  In the 1930’s and early 40’s, actors and actresses did as they were told.  Jack discovered them, signed them to long term contracts, and made them stars.

And how did they repay his generosity?

By fighting him every step of the way. 

James Cagney fought for more money and shorter contracts in the 1930s.  Bette Davis raged at Jack and took him to court in the mid-1930s for allegedly damaging her career with subpar roles (she lost).  Barbara Stanwyck refused to sign long term contracts to retain her ability to negotiate salary and choose her own roles.  Olivia de Havilland cut his knees out from under him when her 1944 court case against Warner’s resulted in the De Havilland Decision, which invalidated the studio practice of tacking suspensions onto the end of an actor’s contract.

Jack Warner had taken and thrown his fair share of punches in the name of business.

But Lauren Bacall proved a particularly thorny problem.

She refused to play parts that she felt weren’t any good and would damage her career. 

After their initial six years, Olivia de Havilland had made 23 films, Cagney 26, and Bette Davis a staggering 35, many of them bad roles Warner forced them to play.

In the same time period, Bacall had made only eight films.

Buying her contract from Howard Hawks had been expensive, and Jack wasn’t getting his money’s worth.  Warner thought Bacall was an ingrate, unwilling to pay her dues as her predecessors had done.

She wasn’t an ingrate—the studio system was crumbling, and Bacall took advantage of the walls her predecessors had knocked down.  She wouldn’t take bad roles—she’d wait out Jack Warner if she had to.

Jack had to proceed with caution, for Warner Brothers needed its top star Humphrey Bogart more than he needed them.  Bogart had not forgotten all the years Jack had strong-armed him into roles he didn’t want, played hardball over money, or generally disrespected Bogart (as he did all his actors.)

“Thank god I had Bogie,” Bacall wrote in her autobiography of the husband who had her back every step of the way.

She hadn’t made a hit movie without Bogart by her side onscreen.  No one was sure she could.

Young Man with a Horn does nothing to answer the question. 

Though Bacall got second billing, the film belongs to Kirk Douglas and Doris Day.  Douglas plays Rick Martin, an orphaned boy who finds salvation playing the trumpet.  Rick has trouble keeping friends, and often gets fired from his jobs for playing jazz instead of sticking to the big band script.

Douglas, Day

Playing jazz is the single animating force of his life.  Doris Day plays Jo Jordan, a singer who meets and cares for Rick.  Though there’s no doubt she loves him, Jo knows that Rick is married to no one but his trumpet.  The film utilizes Day’s talent and allows her to showcase her voice on several extended numbers.

We’re well into the film before Bacall’s character Amy arrives on the scene, an eccentric woman whose beauty and direct manner captivate Rick.  Amy is a compulsive dilettante, constantly looking for something that can capture her attention for more than a few months. 

Douglas, Bacall

They quickly realize their impulsive marriage was a mistake.  Her fascination for his love of the trumpet sours to jealousy when she cannot find her own creative outlet.  Rick neglects his friends and jazz playing for Amy and eventually resents her for it.

Rick has to hit rock bottom as a person before he finds his way to the top as a famous jazz musician. 

Today, the film is probably of most interest to Douglas or jazz aficionados.  Bacall is serviceable in the role but quite frankly, not given enough to do.

Not long after, Bogie and Bacall decided that, come hell or high water, she’d get out from under Jack Warner’s thumb. 

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

In a Lonely Place (1950):  The Best Bogart Film You’ve Never Heard Of

After fourteen years of taking orders from Jack Warner, Humphrey Bogart wanted more control over the pictures he made, more money, and more time off to spend on his boat.  Due to his massive success in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and the Bacall films, Bogart signed a very favorable 15-year contract in 1946 with Warner Brothers.

The contract gave him the right to choose his projects and directors, and to make films outside of Warner Brothers in his own production company, named Santana after his boat. 

He and director Nicholas Ray adapted Dorothy Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a woman who knows that her boyfriend is paranoid and violent at best, and a brutal murderer at worst.

There was talk of Lauren Bacall playing the woman—the Bogart and Bacall box office was still strong—but Jack Warner had his limits.  Bogart could make films under his own banner, but Bacall was still under contract to him.

Things worked out for the best, as I don’t think I’m alone in not wanting to see Bogart strangle Bacall, even in fiction.  Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife, took the role and did a marvelous job with it.

In a Lonely Place tells the story of Dixon Steel (Bogart), a jaded and alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter with a flaring temper that often ended with him slugging someone in a bar.  He takes a girl home with him one night to tell him what she thought of a novel he was going to adapt into a screenplay. 

He sends her home, but she’s found dead—brutally murdered—in the morning, and Dix is the prime suspect.  He would’ve been arrested immediately but for the fact that his neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame) witnessed the girl leaving his home alone.

Despite their inauspicious meeting at the police station, Dix and Laurel, two hard-boiled cases, fall in love.  Laurel is at first certain that Dix is innocent of the crime, but as she gets to know him, she sees flashes of paranoia and rage.

Dix is jealous and temperamental.  One night he gets road rage and nearly beats the driver of the other car to death.

Frightened, Laurel decides that despite her love for him, she must break off their engagement.  She has come to believe that he did murder the woman, and that he could do the same to her under the right circumstances.

Sensing something is wrong, Dix demands to know why Laurel is acting so cagey with him.  Realizing she is planning to leave him, Dix goes into a blind rage and begins to strangle her on her bed.

The strangling is interrupted by a telephone call—the police calling to tell Laurel that the true murderer of the girl has confessed, and Dix is finally in the clear.

The film ends as Laurel, disheveled and half-strangled, looks over at Dix, who is horrified at what he has nearly done.

“Yesterday, this would’ve meant so much to us,” she tells the bewildered police captain over the phone.  “Now it doesn’t matter…it doesn’t matter at all.”

Bogart and Grahame have a nice chemistry, and this biting noir hits all the right notes.

Perhaps director Nicholas Ray was in the right frame of mind to direct his wife in such a cynical picture, as their marriage was disintegrating during the filming and ended soon after.  There are tales, never fully proven, that Grahame slept with Ray’s 13 year old son Anthony from a previous marriage.

True or not, Grahame married her former step-son Anthony Ray ten years after the filming of In a Lonely Place.  Grahame had a son with Nicholas, and later two sons with Anthony.

That must’ve made for some interesting Thanksgivings.

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Review of In A Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame

Giant (1956):  Edna Ferber Takes on Texas

James Dean as Jett Rink sitting in a car during the movie Giant (1956).
James Dean in Giant (1956)
Opening banner for Giant (1956.)

Edna Ferber didn’t want to write about Texas.  She’d written eleven novels, several of them requiring prodigious research, so she knew the work it would take to get Texas right.  After an initial trip to Houston, she declared it a man’s job, not one for a Jewish woman who’d grown up in the Midwest, lived in New York, and vacationed in Europe.

But Texas wouldn’t let her go, and nearly a dozen years after the initial idea, Ferber wrestled her story onto the page in the form of Giant, an epic saga of the Benedict family over generations.

It was one of the top ten best-selling novels of 1952.

Quote from A Kind of Magic by Edna Ferber about not wanting to write about Texas.

Director George Stevens approached Ferber about making a film adaptation.  He needed a lot of money up front to make the film, so he convinced Ferber to forgo a flat fee and instead cut her in on a share of film’s profits. 

Stevens also saved money by using lesser known actors in the lead roles, knowing that Texas would be the star.

Those lesser-known stars?

Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.

Giants indeed.

Giant (1956), a film about Texas, opens in Maryland.  Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Hudson) has come to Maryland only to buy a horse, but returns to his Texas ranch with both the horse and a wife.

The storytelling starts zoomed in on Bick and Leslie (Taylor), then slowly zooms out over the next three-plus hours, getting wider and wider.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor on horseback while filming Giant (1956)
Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor

We start with the newlyweds—who only knew one another two days before their wedding—locking heads early and often as Leslie (Taylor), a daughter of Maryland, tries to adjust to Texas life in the 1920s.

A stranger in a strange land, Leslie must find her place on Reata, a hard-working ranch owned by Bick but run—for all intents and purposes—by his sister, Luz, who doesn’t take kindly to Bick bringing home a wife.

But when Luz dies tragically, the story zooms out a level.  Luz leaves a piece of land to Jett Rink (Dean), a white trash ranch hand who is in love—or at least lust—with Leslie.  Mainly for spite, Jett refuses to sell the land back to Bick.

Jett is a drunk and a rebel, and accuses the Benedicts of stealing their land from the Mexicans and Latin Americans who lived on it first.  Leslie, for her part, is always encouraging Bick to treat the poor Mexicans living in poverty around the ranch better. 

It takes decades for Bick to come around to Leslie’s point of view.

When Jett strikes oil on his piece of land, the story widens further to depict the nouveau riche of the Texas oil families of the day.  Bick initially resists having his property drilled for oil, but eventually succumbs and the Benedicts find wealth beyond their imagination.

In the final act the film zooms out one last time and becomes about the passing of one generation to another.  Bick has spent his life working his ranch, as both his father and grandfather did, only to find that his grown children have no interest in running the property.

Bick feels a failure, but to Leslie he has finally become the man she wanted him to be when he stands up for a Mexican-American family in a diner.

Giant—the novel and the film—were ahead of their time, and the film is almost startling in its relevancy to contemporary themes, with its focus on gender, race, and class relations.

It was well worth watching in 1956, and well worth watching today.

The film struck oil at the 1957 Academy Awards with nine nominations.  Both Hudson and Dean were nominated for Best Actor, and Mercedes McCambridge for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Bick’s sister.  George Stevens won for Best Director.

Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict
Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict

But in many ways the film’s success was overshadowed by the specter of James Dean, who died immediately after the film’s completion and never knew of its success or his nomination.

My readers need no introduction to the legend of James Dean, a legend built on a rebel temperament, car racing, and an early death, and not entirely supported by his work in the three films he completed before his death.

Edna Ferber spent time on the set of Giant.  She’d met Dean and was won over by his charm while not blind to his faults.  In her memoir A Kind of Magic, she writes that he was, “Impish, compelling, magnetic; utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next.  Definitely gifted.  Frequently maddening.”

Edna Ferber twirling a rope while James Dean and the cast of Giant watch
Edna Ferber with James Dean on the set of Giant

She was appalled by his car racing, and noted that his Warner Brothers contract included a clause that he could not own or race a car until the filming was completed on Giant.  On the day the filming ended, he bought the Porsche he would die in.  He was still set to return to Giant to do voice over dubbing for the famous scene in which a drunken Jett Rink gives a speech to an empty ball room.

Once she’d returned home, Edna Ferber wrote James Dean a letter thanking him for sending her an autographed photo of himself dressed as Jett Rink.

She wrote, “…when it [the photo] arrived I was interested to notice for the first time how much your profile resembles that of John Barrymore.  You’re too young ever to have seen him, I suppose.  It really is startlingly similar.  But then, your automobile racing will probably soon take care of that.”

We’ll never know if James Dean agreed with Ferber’s assessment that he looked like John Barrymore.

He was dead before the letter arrived, killed in an accident while driving his Porsche 90 miles an hour on the way to an auto race.

Giant (1956) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Kind of Magic.  1963
  • Goldsmith Gilbert, Julie.  Ferber:  A Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle, 1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Remake Rumble:  Sabrina (1954) vs Sabrina (1995)

Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford in their respective version of Sabrina
Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford
Remake Rumble Opening Banner - Sabrina (1954) vs. Sabrina (1995)

After last week’s post, reader rdfranciswriter commented:

So let’s do one last Remake Rumble for 2021, shall we?

The story of Sabrina Fairchild and the brothers who courted her originally flowed from the pen of playwright Samuel A. Taylor as Sabrina Fair:  A Woman of the World that opened on Broadway in 1953 starring Margaret Sullavan (last seen in this series in The Shop Around the Corner) and Joseph Cotton (last seen here as Joan Fontaine’s lover in September Affair.) 

The next year Billy Wilder set to write, produce, and direct a film version of the play and assembled a powerhouse cast—Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden.  The foursome would end their careers with 32 Oscar nominations and 9 wins among them, with each of the leads having a Best Acting Oscar on their shelf.

Sabrina tells the story of Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn), a gawky chauffeur’s daughter who lives on the estate of the wealthy Larrabee family.  She has forever had a schoolgirl crush on David Larrabee (Holden), the much older playboy who flits from woman to woman and barely knows Sabrina is alive.

But when she returns after two years in France all grown up, hair cut short and dressed like, well, Audrey Hepburn, David is instantly infatuated with her, not immediately realizing she’s a girl he’s known all his life.  His fiancé forgotten, he invites Sabrina to one of the Larrabee parties and suddenly she’s Cinderella at the ball, on the inside instead of watching the festivities from her perch in a tree.

Audrey Hepburn and William Holden in Sabrina (1954)
Audrey Hepburn, William Holden

But this will not do.

David’s mother is dismayed at the idea of him parading a servant’s daughter in front of their high-class friends, but his older brother Linus (Bogart) is against the relationship for an entirely different reason.  Linus is the one who does all the work in the family, running their massive empire, practically living in his office.  He’s arranged David’s upcoming marriage to Elizabeth Tyson like an ancient king, a bargaining chip to foster a merger between her family’s company and his own.

Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden in Sabrina (1954)
Hollywood Royalty: Bogart, Hepburn, Holden

Knowing David’s short attention span (and not suspecting Sabrina’s lifelong devotion to him), Linus sets on wooing Sabrina away from David and then tricking her into sailing back to Paris, believing that he will meet her on the boat.

But ruthless Linus is soon under Sabrina’s spell, and she begins to wonder if she’s loved the wrong brother all these years….

Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake keeps the spirit of the original in-tact and makes some minor improvements.  Sabrina (this time played by Julia Ormond) spends her time working for Vogue magazine, and this explains her fashion transformation better than the original, where she studies at a cooking school.

There is also a more pronounced physical change in Sabrina and it’s much more believable that David wouldn’t recognize her.

Greg Kinnear, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford in Sabrina (1995)
Greg Kinnear, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford

He also somewhat shrinks the age difference between his leads—Harrison Ford is twenty-three years older than Ormond, and looks younger than his years.  Bogart was thirty years older than Hepburn, and looked even older, as his health had begun to suffer (he would be dead within three years of Sabrina’s release.)

The Larrabee corporation is updated to buying and selling networks and televisions, cutting edge technology for the 1990’s.

And Linus buys Sabrina a plane ticket to Paris rather than a cabin on an ocean liner.

Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond in Sabrina (1995)
Ford, Ormond

But the broad strokes remain.  We still get to see David the playboy in action, a lovesick girl grow into a sophisticated woman, and Linus’ gradual realization that there’s more to life than the next big deal.  We also get to see David punch out his brother when he realizes just what Linus has been up to, and also see David finally grow up and do what’s best for his family’s company—and his brother.

As to the verdict?

Come on.  This is the Golden Age of Hollywood blog.  If I picked a 1995 remake over a film tailor-made for legend of legends Audrey Hepburn, with three Oscar winners in the lead roles and a multi-winner in the director’s chair, I’d lose my license to write here.

Remake Rumble Winner:  Sabrina (1954)

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford in their respective version of Sabrina

Remake Rumble:  Father of the Bride (1950) vs Father of the Bride (1991)

Spencer Tracy and Steve Martin, both as Papa Banks in their respective versions of Father of the Bride
Remake Rumble Opening Banner:  Father of the Bride (1950) vs. Father of the Bride (1991)

When it comes to Father of the Bride, only the names have changed.

In the original, Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett play Stanley and Ellie Banks, proud parents of Elizabeth Taylor’s about-to-be married Kay Banks.

In the 1991 remake, Steve Martin and Diane Keaton revive the parents as George and Nina Banks, and Kimberly Williams-not-yet-Paisley-at-the-time takes on the role of young and blushing bride Annie.

Other than that, only the addition of color separates the films.

Both open on patriarch Banks, disheveled and collapsed in his easy chair, just after the last guest has left his daughter’s wedding reception.  Papa Banks removes his shoe and rubs his aching foot as he regales the horrific tale of his daughter’s wedding.

Papa Banks has one daughter—a daddy’s girl through and through—and the news of her engagement (to a boy who isn’t worthy of her, naturally) sends him reeling. 

Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1950); Steve Martin and Kimberly Williams-Paisley in Father of the Bride (1991)
Elizabeth Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Steve Martin, Kimberly Williams-Paisley

As Papa Banks narrates the events to the audience, he makes a loveable fool of himself throughout the rest of the film.  While his wife and the fiancé’s parents are unequivocally thrilled, Papa Banks howls that his daughter is too young to get married, and dismisses his wife’s reminder that she was the same age when she married him.

Having financial responsibility for the wedding, he demands cuts to the guest list, and blows a gasket at the price of the wedding cake.

Both feature scenes of the father of the bride trying to squeeze his now middle-aged body into a tuxedo that was the peak of fashion—twenty years ago.

Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1950); Steve Martin in Father of the Bride (1991)

And in both scenes, the daughter overacts to a silly fight with her fiancé and threatens to call off the wedding—for about five minutes, until the equally distraught fiancé arrives to apologize.  (In the original the fight is about his desire to go fishing on their honeymoon; in the remake it’s because he buys her a blender as a wedding gift.)

Papa Banks covers his terror of losing his daughter by grousing over the extravagance and cost of every detail, but ultimately bends to his wife and daughter’s wishes down to the last canapé.

And just like any film with a gooey center, he realizes in the end that (just like his wife assured him) it was all worth it, and that, “a son is a son ‘til he finds a wife, but a daughter is a daughter all her life.”

Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride (1950); Kimberly Williams-Paisley in Father of the Bride (1991)
Two young brides…Elizabeth Taylor and Kimberly Williams-Paisley

Father of the Bride is a perennial favorite because even though he is an exaggerated figure, everyone knows a Stanley (or George) Banks.  A loveable curmudgeon who can’t quite grasp that the pigtailed daughter he once bounced on his knee is now a woman.  One who can’t accept that he will no longer be the man in his daughter’s life.  (Driven home in both films in a scene where the daughter dismisses her father’s advice that she wear a coat, then immediately acquiesces when her fiancé suggests the same.)

I prefer the original 1950 version, because I’m partial to old films, Spencer Tracy is more believable as a grumpy old dad, and the newer version veers unnecessarily into the absurd at points (as when Steve Martin falls into his future in-laws swimming pool, or spends the night in jail after causing a scene in a supermarket.)  Also, the over-the-top wedding planner played by Martin Sheen is similarly absurd and hasn’t aged well.

But these are nitpicks.  When it comes to the best version of Father of the Bride, the choice is truly yours.

Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1950); Steve Martin and Kimberly Williams-Paisley in Father of the Bride (1991)
Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1950); Steve Martin and Kimberly Williams-Paisley in Father of the Bride (1991)

It’s a story so universal and so beloved that it will likely be remade (virtually unchanged) for every generation to enjoy.  As of this writing, there are talks of a remake in development starring Andy Garcia in the title role.  Time will tell if this particular project makes it to the screen, but there’s no doubt that as long as there are daughters getting married, we will see Father of the Bride again.

I look forward to the next incarnation.

To see my thoughts on the original sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951), head on over to read my guest post this week at B&S About Movies.

Remake Rumble Final Verdict:  Father of the Bride (1950)
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Spencer Tracy and Steve Martin, both as Papa Banks in their respective versions of Father of the Bride

My Cousin Rachel (1952):  Third Oscar Be Damned!

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)
My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Olivia de Havilland’s biographers are unanimous in their verdict that after her Oscar-winning turn in The Heiress (1949), Olivia de Havilland made the inexplicable error of turning down the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Ellis Amburn dedicates an entire chapter in his biography questioning her Streetcar decision, noting:

“[Hedda] Hopper asked her [de Havilland] to explain why she refused to play…the best role of the century in the best play of the century.”1

But to say turning down Streetcar was a mistake is to completely miss the point.

For A Streetcar Named Desire was to be made at Warner Brothers.

Warner Brothers—still run by Jack Warner, who had bedeviled her since she was nineteen years old, forcing her to beg his wife for the opportunity to play in Gone with the Wind, then punishing her post-Wind by trying to work her to death.  Warner, who had hired lawyers to attack her as a spoiled actress during her lawsuit.  Warner, who had done everything in his power to permanently blackball her from Hollywood.

Though she was too classy to come right out and say it, hell would freeze over before Olivia de Havilland worked for Jack Warner again, third Oscar be damned.2

“I thought Vivien [Leigh] absolutely marvelous in the part,” she told biographer Victoria Amador in 2012.  “I have never regretted that I did not play Blanche.”3

I take her at her word.

So instead of taking the “part of the century” she made the gothic mystery My Cousin Rachel (1952.)

It’s 1838, and twenty-four year old Philip Ashley (Richard Burton in his first Hollywood film) is mourning the death of his cousin Ambrose, the man who raised him after his parents died when he was only a few months old.

Two years before his death, Ambrose left his home with Philip on the Cornish coast of England to seek better weather for his health.  While away, Ambrose marries Rachel, a woman Philip has never met.  Shortly before his death, Ambrose sent Philip a nearly incoherent letter that makes damning accusations against Rachel.  Though most of Philip’s confidantes believe the letter’s contents are the delusions of a man going mad, Philip wants revenge for Rachel’s part in his cherished cousin’s death.

He’s thrown for a loop when Rachel (de Havilland) arrives much younger—though ten years his senior—and far more beautiful than he expected.  His passion turns to lust and then a violent need to possess her.

The film is a game of cat and mouse—is Rachel guilty or not?  She certainly capitalizes on Philip’s desire for her, but is she a desperate woman with nowhere to go or a murderess looking for her next victim?

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

And Philip certainly gives Rachel reason to fear him.

The film is told from Philip’s point of view, and as he is forever tormented by the question of Rachel’s guilt or innocence, so are we.

It’s a good but not great psychological thriller that will have you wondering about Rachel’s motivations long after you’ve finished it.  (And don’t go looking for answers in the 2017 Rachel Weisz-Sam Claflin remake—you won’t find them there, either.)

Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

And here, dear reader, is where we will pull the curtain on the story of the De Havilland sisters. 

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine continued to work in film throughout the fifties and sixties, before turning mostly to television.  Both were still appearing onscreen in the 1980s.

Joan Fontaine is a legend of old Hollywood, the only actor in a Hitchcock film to win a best acting Oscar, and gave the world the forever gift of her perfect portrayal of the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca (1940).

Olivia De Havilland leaves behind her legacy of Melanie Wilkes, two Oscars for Best Actress, and the DeHavilland Decision, a law still cited today.  Jared Leto’s rock band used the law in 2009 to gain more money for their music, and Leto met De Havilland in 2010 to thank her for her courageous fight against the studios.

And as for the their lifelong feud?

They stopped speaking to one another for good in 1975 after their mother’s death.

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland with their mother
In happier times: Mother Lilian, Joan Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland

But there’s one final plot twist.

In 2017, the FX series Feud told the story of the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  In it, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland calls Joan Fontaine a “bitch.”

De Havilland so strongly objected to word “bitch” being used about her sister that at the age of 101 she sued the creators of the show, but this time she lost her legal fight.

The line between love and hate is never thinner than between sisters who don’t get along.

My Cousin Rachel (1952) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Notes

  1. Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  2. Olivia de Havilland did not return to the Warner Brothers studio for 35 years. In 1975 she starred in The Swarm, after Jack Warner had retired.
  3. Amador, Victoria. Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant.

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Richard Burton, Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Born to Be Bad (1950):  Love of the Grift

Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott
Born to Be Bad (1950)

By nearly every account—most especially her own—Joan Fontaine offscreen was miles apart from the naïve and adoring women she often played onscreen. 

Biographer Charles Higham (admittedly not the most reliable biographer, but that’s a story for another day) found her, “relaxed, super sophisticated, brittle, unromantic, and pagan,” as well as, “flippant, cool, tough, and somewhat offhand.”1

During the filming of Born to Be Bad, she was in the midst of her second divorce, the most acrimonious of her eventual four.  Though she was ultimately dismissive of all four of her husbands, William Dozier was the one who bit back the most in public.

“Joan would be smiling and charming and then there would be a barb,” Dozier said. “Finally, she lost one friend after another.  She’s the kind of woman who inevitably ends up alone.”2

As if proving his point, nearly twenty years later Fontaine would give the following quote to the London Daily Express while still married to Alfred Wright, eventual ex-husband number four:

“Obviously a wife has to do a lot of pretending to be successful; to make a difficult, selfish husband of hers feel that he is the greatest man alive even when she knows damn well that he isn’t.”3

Perhaps that’s why she was attracted to the role of Christabel Caine in Born to Be Bad, a woman who pretends to be innocent and sweet to lure unsuspecting men into her web of deception and discards them once they’ve served their purpose.

Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Zachary Scott, Fontaine

Christabel Caine arrives in San Francisco to attend business school and take over for her uncle’s secretary Donna (Joan Leslie), who is about to marry.  (Remember, reader—this is 1950.  There’s no need for a plot device to explain why Donna couldn’t possibly continue working after becoming the wife of a wealthy man.)

Donna is efficient, good-natured, and in love with fiancé Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), who has come by his wealth through family money but is down-to-earth and kind.  She agrees to host Christabel while the final wedding preparations are made.

Christabel’s uncle has described her as a young woman looking for honest work and a place in the world after spending months taking care of an elderly aunt.

Her uncle is the first—but not the last—man she’s snowed.

Christabel has an entirely different agenda—she means to replace Donna as the rich wife of Curtis Carey, not as her uncle’s secretary.

The film—and the audience—delights in Christabel’s ruthless machinations as she expertly plants the seeds that will lead to mistrust and the ultimate destruction of Donna and Carey’s relationship.

There’s a slight fly in the ointment—while Christabel’s plan is unfolding, she falls in love with Curtis’ friend Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan).  She tries to have it both ways, luring Curtis into marriage while having an ongoing affair with Nick.

And ends up losing them both in the end.

Joan Fontaine and Robert Ryan in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Robert Ryan, Fontaine

But even then, it’s clear that Christabel’s true love is the grift itself, and we are left with no doubt that in losing a husband and gaining a fortune, the now rich divorcée has gotten exactly what she wanted.  And lover Nick, for whom she had genuine affection?

Well, every war has collateral damage. 

Born to Be Bad is entertaining, and has the advantage of being made in 1950, when the production code was breaking down and allowed Christabel’s moral crimes to go unpunished.  In fact, the film ends with a satisfying wink to the audience, letting us know that Christabel will have no trouble finding her next mark.

We’re only sorry that we won’t be able to watch her put the poor sap through the ringer.

Born to Be Bad Verdict (1950):  Give It A Shot

Notes

  1. Higham, Charles.  Sisters:  The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

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Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)