Friday, August 19, 2011

THE GAZEBO: Home Sweet Homicide with a Hidden Hitch

Caution! Spoilers at Work!

In the mid-1980s, Ted Turner was colorizing every black-and-white movie he could get his mitts on. George Marshall’s MGM comedy The Gazebo (1959) was no exception. Frankly, when I first watched the colorized version on TBS years ago (the colorization looked strangely washed-out to me), I was surprised it wasn't filmed in color to begin with. Thanks to Warner Archive, The Gazebo is now available on DVD, and thanks to TCM, this wicked little comedy will be on tonight at 8:00 p.m. EST as part of Summer Under The Stars’ Debbie Reynolds Day!

If you can’t get Adrien Brody as your pianist, Debbie Reynolds and chorus boys will do!
Despite the gallows humor of its storyline, The Gazebo is one of those frenetic farces that 1950s Hollywood usually filmed in bright postcard colors. Who was more bright, colorful, and energetic, then and now, than Debbie Reynolds, The Gazebo’s unsinkable leading lady? Nevertheless, the film was made in black-and-white, with Helen Rose nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White, for Reynolds’ smart, perky costumes (which tastefully yet alluringly showed Debbie’s darling derriere to delicious advantage, if I may say so!).

George Wells adapted a script by Alec Coppel, who’d also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and uncredited contributions to To Catch a Thief. Fittingly, The Gazebo’s hapless hero Elliot Nash (Glenn Ford), is a TV writer who’s currently working on a Hitchcock script. He’s happily married to Broadway musical star Nell Nash (Reynolds), but said happiness is jeopardized by blackmailer Dan Shelby (we never see his face, but character actor Stanley Adams provides his voice. Fans of the TV version of The Odd Couple will remember Adams as chain-smoking pool-player Sure-Shot Wilson in the “Hustler” episode; but I digress….). Shelby has been shaking Elliot down, threatening to publish risqué photos of Nell when she was a hungry young artists’ model before she became a star, unless Elliot comes up with hush money. Does anybody really get blackmailed that way anymore, considering so many celebrities out there seem almost eager to air their dirty laundry every chance they get, as long as their names are spelled right? In any case, the blackmail threats result in a murder plot, a dead body and a panicky Elliot making like a mole to hide the corpse in the new gazebo that Nell bought for the Nashes’ Connecticut home (Nell’s one of those gals who never met a garden tchotchke she didn’t like, bless her heart).

The Gazebo's origins were British, but it was Americanized for Hollywood. I think it probably would have worked best with a British cast, but the American cast takes to black-comedy slapstick like a New York pigeon takes to bread crumbs, namely the scene-stealing Herman, who becomes a member of the Nash household after being mildly injured in Broadway traffic. Heck, Herman even gets a screen credit! Indeed, there are enough bird gags in The Gazebo (my favorite being Elliot’s power to make Herman and the neighborhood birds shut up on command. Too bad he couldn’t do that to the blackmailer so easily!) to make me wonder how long Hitchcock had been developing his 1963 film adaptation of The Birds.

Glenn Ford is amiable enough as our highly anxiety-stricken hero, but I can’t help feeling that Danny Kaye or Jack Lemmon would have been better choices to play the increasingly manic Elliot. Well, maybe they were busy, or maybe they simply weren’t under contract to MGM. Fortunately, Ford and Reynolds had previously co-starred in another Marshall comedy, It Started with a Kiss (1959), and their chemistry went a long way. (Click here for more about Ford and Reynolds’ relationship on and off the set.) Carl Reiner (with hair) makes a fine pesky friend as Harlow Edison, the Nashes’ friend, who also happens to be the District Attorney. The ever-jolly Harlow makes no bones about his unabashed crush on Nell, up to and including driving miles out of his way just to drop by for friendly nightcaps.

Still, I found The Gazebo’s perky American stars to be quite engaging. I’m accustomed to seeing Ford playing stolid heroic types, but here he acquitted himself nicely as a man who’s determined not to let his frayed nerves keep him from protecting his beloved wife. Despite not being Danny Kaye or Jack Lemmon, Glenn Ford was a pleasant surprise as our frantic hero Elliot. As the initial blackmail target (more on that momentarily), Debbie Reynolds is as pert and winsome as ever. Since she plays a musical comedy star, she’s given an energetic Bob Fosse-style song-and-dance number, “Something Called Love.” One quibble: charming though “Something Called Love” is, was it really necessary to have Reynolds hum it throughout the movie? Well, maybe the producers figured it had a crack at a Best Original Song Oscar nomination.

These are hip boots? Where’s Nancy Sinatra when you need her?
Perhaps it’s because they were under contract to MGM, but the great supporting cast is practically a North by Northwest reunion. Martin Landau, in his pre-Oscar days, played a heavily Noo Yawk accented thug, The Duke. Until then, I’d only seen Landau on TV’s Space 1999, in which his performance was rather wooden, so I was pleasantly surprised by his range and flair for comedy in The Gazebo. From that day forward, I was a full-tilt Landau fan! Then there was Landau’s fellow North by Northwest henchman Robert Ellenstein as Elliot’s peripatetic agent (no, not a secret agent!).

Since Elliot writes TV mysteries, is it any surprise that he keeps referring to Alfred Hitchcock? To wit:

* “I gotta finish that script I’m writing for Hitchcock….”

* “What would Hitchcock do at a time like this?” Luckily, at this point, Hitchcock calls Elliot to check on the progress of their screenplay, giving our hapless hero an opportunity to work out a solution with Hitch under the pretext of working out their script. We don’t hear Hitchcock’s voice, of course; use your imagination! :-)

* “To England and Connecticut and Alfred Hitchcock!” This comes after Elliot toasts the new gazebo with the corpse nestled snugly in the foundation. Of course, at this point our hero hasn’t confided in Nell about the body under the gazebo, so she and Harlow just give Elliot funny looks and chalk it up to too much champagne too early in the day.

The Gazebo definitely has all the earmarks of British stage farces: slamming doors, falling-apart contraptions, wacky misunderstandings, and matter-of-factly cuckoo dialogue. For instance, when the Nashes find themselves up against it, Nell laments, “I wish this had happened in Los Angeles…They’re always finding bodies out there; they don’t think anything of it!” There’s also a funny running gag about running water—that is, the Nashes’ plumbing, which Elliot keeps trying to sabotage in hopes of making Nell eager to sell the house so Elliot can give the proceeds to the blackmailer (this is before Elliot resorts to murder).

Whatever Norm Abrams can do, John McGiver can do funnier!
In addition to Landau and Ellenstein, other Gazebo scene-stealers include the hilarious Doro Merande as Matilda, the housekeeper who yells every word at the top of her lungs because she’s used to communicating with her hard-of-hearing mother (you might also remember Merande from The Snake Pit and Clifton Webb’s The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell); John McGiver (Fitzwilly, Mame, and Midnight Cowboy, among others) as Mr. Thorpe, the Nashes’ phlegmatic handyman who keeps calling the gazebo a “gaze-bo”; and Mabel Albertson as determined real estate agent Mrs. Chandler, best known and loved by Team Bartilucci as Darren’s mother on Bewitched and wealthy Mrs. Van Hoskins in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?

Hope these lovebirds won’t end up dead pigeons!
My favorite Gazebo scene answers the musical question, “How do you solve a problem like a blackmailer?” No, the answer isn’t “Keep paying the creep until you’re bankrupt.” It’s “Just say no!” Here’s the scene, all transcribed nice and pretty for your reading pleasure:

Harlow: “Certainly an ideal subject for blackmail, brand-new star on Broadway. I’m surprised Shelby never called you.”

(cheerfully): “Oh, he did.”

(understandably shocked, but trying to hide it): “He did?”

Nell: “Mmm-hmm. He came to the theater about two months ago, and he brought the pictures, and he threatened to publish them unless I gave him ten thousand dollars in cash.”

“Well, what did you do?”

“Well, I laughed in his face! Wouldn’t you?”

“Oh yes, I…I…” (He trails off into incoherent fumferring.)

“Still, it would’ve been quite a story for the scandal sheets.”

“Oh yes, it would have, but you know what would have happened then? You couldn’t buy standing-room-only for the next five years! I dared him to do it.”

(weakly): “Good girl.”

For Nell and Elliot, home is where the hearse is!
Good old Elliot, the world’s luckiest dope!


  1. Dorian, your kind and generous nature has always been the stuff of legend. But here I feel you've managed to outdo yourself, and royally, with your remarks on Ted Turner's attempts at colorization. I mean: "strangely washed out"????

    Yeah . . . and the Pacific Ocean is a tad on the damp side.

    I still have horror-filled nights whenever I recall what Turner's colorization gnomes did to films such as YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and CASABLANCA. In my opinion, TCM is the only thing keeping Turner from an eternity in the Bad Place!

    Never asked, Dorian, but by any chance do you have a mantlepiece? Just wondering so that, when you're award for Understatement Of The Year arrives, you'll have someplace to put it.

  2. Michael, thanks for starting my day off right with your ever-witty, entertaining skewering of Ted Turner's ill-advised colorization mania (there I go, getting all understated again :-)) You know, what I always disliked most about those movie colorizations was that all the women ended up looking like they had gray lips -- gahh, NIGHT OF THE LIVING TURNER! :-)

  3. Our ever-delightful friend and fellow blogger Yvette is having trouble with Blogger again (what's with them?), so I'm posting her feedback on THE GAZEBO here for your reading pleasure:

    "Dorian, I still can’t post comments on your blog and this time Firefox is no help.

    So here are my comments for your Gazebo (gaze-bo) post. :-)

    Thanks for another great review. It was so much fun to read. I had really and truly forgotten all about this movie. Hadn’t seen it in MANY years.

    Oh yes, I agree, if only Jack Lemmon or Danny Kaye had been available or even, Fred MacMurray. (Or if the film had been made earlier, Cary Grant would have been superb.)

    The film, I think, would have been classic, then instead of a sort of forgotten little gem. Not a diamond of the first water, but a nice little zircon.

    I mean, Glenn Ford is okay, but you’re right, he plays the part like a dope. Debbie Reynolds is way too smart for him. But, oh that wonderful supporting cast!

    Especially that squinty-eyed John McGiver, what a scene stealer! What a wonderful screen presence AND a howl to boot.

    I’m also a huge fan of Martin Landau from his MISSION IMPOSSIBLE days. I’d forgotten he was in the movie.

    You’re right too that the film looks like a theater piece. I love these sorts of door slamming, people running in and out, things. But for whatever reason they hardly ever resonate as well on screen. (Wasn’t this at one time a Broadway show?)

    (I remember the fabulous comedy NOISES OFF – backstage at a theater with doors opening and closing and people running up and down stairs – remember? I was lucky enough to see in London years ago – it was screamingly funny. But not the movie. That’s just the way it is, I suppose. Maybe there’s just something about this kind of enclosed frenetic comedy that needs the immediacy of a live performance.)

    At any rate, back to THE GAZEBO. Definitely worth a good look, I agree. Thanks for reminding me of it. I think I’ll see about watching it again.


    P.S. Sorry about having to post comments this way, but I’m hoping things will be back to normal soon."

    No problem, Yvette, you and your commentary are always worth going the extra mile for! And yes, THE GAZEBO was originally a British stage farce. I love your suggestions for casting Fred MacMurray or, in, say, the 1930s or '40s, Cary Grant in Ford's role. Heck, how about Cary Grant playing opposite Carole Lombard or Myrna Loy? Or William Powell and Myrna Loy, for that matter. Granted, Powell's rendition of Elliot Nash probably wouldn't have been as dopey! :-) Thanks for joining the conversation, as always!

  4. First, I have to agree with Michael -- you ARE kind about colorization. The first time I watched the colorized version of Dark Victory and saw Bette Davis' teeth look blue all through it, and then worst of ALL, watched Errol Flynn with orange hair in The Sea Hawk, I spit out my drink and almost had a stroke. Blasphemy -- thank goodness it died a quick death!

    I hope you will forgive me, but I skipped a lot of your article because I haven't seen The Gazebo, and talking to you about your article on it has me interested. What I did read makes me even more interested. I loved your description: "The Gazebo definitely has all the earmarks of British stage farces: slamming doors, falling-apart contraptions, wacky misunderstandings, and matter-of-factly cuckoo dialogue. For instance, when the Nashes find themselves up against it, Nell laments, “I wish this had happened in Los Angeles…They’re always finding bodies out there; they don’t think anything of it!”

    This sounds good! I'll come back when I see it and read your assessment then!

  5. Wonderful look at a seldom talked about winner in the mold of "The Trouble With Harry". I tend to think of "The Gazebo" as sort of a spoof of "Dial M for Murder".

    "The Gazebo" makes me laugh out loud. Not since "Arsenic and Old Lace" have I felt such empathy with a murderer. The "Hitch" references are a riot, and I think Ford acquits himself quite well in unfamiliar physical comedy territory.

    My husband continually pronounces gazebo as McGiver does in the movie. It's one of the things that drew me to him.

  6. Becky, I got a kick out of your agreement with Michael on my assessment of colorizing! What can I say, I always try to balance out the good with the bad even when, in the case of colorizing, the "good" point of view is undeserved! :-) But I laughed out loud over your spit-take response to the colorized DARK VICTORY and THE SEA HAWK!

    When you have an opportunity to watch THE GAZEBO from start to finish, I think you'll really enjoy it, and I look forward to seeing what you'll say about it!

  7. Caftan Woman, thanks for your praise and for joining the conversation, as always! I agree, THE GAZEBO definitely has a nice THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY vibe. Although I'd never thought about THE GAZEBO as having DIAL M FOR MURDER overtones, now that you've pointed it out, I must agree.

    I love your anecdote about your husband pronouncing "gazebo" like John McGiver did! Like you, one of the things that drew my hubby and me together was our mutual love of movies, especially comedies. I think loving the same kind of movies should be a prerequisite for any relationship, don't you? :-)

  8. Colorized movies can't even be given the honor of being referred to as films. And who decided that black & white wasn't cool enough?!

    Auntie Dorian, please tell you've watched some Mission: Impossible at some point. If you haven't...oh, you'd be missing an enormous amount of Martin Landau being a completely brilliant spy/man-of-disguise/magician named Rollin Hand. Because his character is essentially an actor, Martin gets to be EVERYTHING in the show at some point. He's the tough cop, merciless thug, terrified prisoner...and the list goes on.

    I hope my library decides to purchase this The Gazebo soon. I'm having a hard time keeping up withe all the Warner Archive films they've bought recently. It's such a nice problem to have. ;D

  9. Emm, fear not, your Auntie Dorian has indeed watched and enjoyed the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE over the years, first when I was a kid, and now more recently in reruns. I agree, Martin Landau was definitely quite the delightful chameleon on M:I, though the wooden SPACE: 1999 almost made me forget that; thank goodness I came to my senses! :-) Shall we draw up a petition for your library to get THE GAZEBO and other newer Warner Archives DVDs to get them ASAP? :-) Thanks for joining the conversation, Emm; it's always nice to have you drop by!

  10. Oh, I AM relieved! It would have been tragic for you to be unaware of such awesomeness. I'm such an enormous fan of the show -- I've had quite a crush on Peter Graves for a long while. I even love the man in Stalag 17! AND HE'S EVIL!

    YES. Do, do! I could use a few more rare old films in my life. ;D

  11. Emm, again you've proven you're a young lady of superb taste! Peter Graves in general and STALAG 17 in particular are favorites here at Team Bartilucci H.Q. STALAG 17 gave Graves a nice opportunity to show his range, as well as teaching us to be wary of chess pieces! :-)

  12. Dorian, thanks for recommending this film, I loved it. What I found most surprising was this is not the kind of film one usually associates with neither Debbie Reynolds, nor Glenn Ford actually. Reynolds generally represented, to me at least, nauseous singing nuns and titanic Molly Brown though admittedly there were the occasionally great film like "Singin' in the Rain," and some good ones like "The Rat Race" and "Mother." I was particularly surprised by Ford's comedic ability which went beyond what I thought he was capable of, but I agree someone with more of a comedic bent, like Jack Lemmon, would have added another dimension. I found the script sharp and loved when he ask Hitchcock for advice. Terrific film, thanks!


  13. John, I'm delighted that you finally got your hands on THE GAZEBO (isn't Warner Archive awesome?) and that we agree about many of its pros and cons. See, there's more to Debbie Reynolds than singing nuns and Molly Brown! :-) Glad to hear you enjoyed this daft little black comedy as much as Vin and I did!

  14. Nice piece on The Gazebo, Dorian -- a movie I've yet to see, though I'm familiar with the play (a friend of mine played Elliot in a dinner theater production here some years ago; dinner theater is the perfect setting for that play).

    On another topic that you touched on lightly: Y'know, I never really understood why people got so up in arms about colorization. I mean, so what??? Where was all this artistic righteousness for the first quarter-century of TV history, when Technicolor movies were routinely broadcast in black and white? To say nothing of all the late '20s and early '30s two-strip Tech movies that survive now only in black and white because prints were made for television, while the Technicolor Corp. took all its nitrate color matrices and dumped them in the Pacific Ocean. At least Ted Turner began his colorization process by first preserving the best possible B&W print, then turning the computer techs loose on a video copy.

    Moreover, for 40 years TV stations all over the country, as standard practice, slashed running times by as much as 50 percent to fit their puny time slots -- with three minutes of commercials every seven minutes -- and those prints inevitably found their way into theaters and private collections; I once paid good money to see a Yankee Doodle Dandy that completely eliminated George M. Cohan's entire childhood.

    For some reason, of all the crimes and depredations committed by TV against movie history, only colorization ever aroused any significant indignation, as witness the comments you've drawn here. Personally, I always suspected that the real problem with colorization wasn't Errol Flynn's orange hair, or Bette Davis's blue teeth, or Frank Sinatra's brown eyes in Suddenly; all that could be fixed with time. The real problem was the flesh tones; they never did nail those down (after all, everybody knows what human flesh is supposed to look like). I figured once they got the flesh tones right, all the brouhaha would simply evaporate -- but of course, that never happened.

    Again, I emphasize that I hold no brief for colorization. I'm just saying that in the great scheme of things, it's small potatoes. Any time Ted Turner might deserve in "the Bad Place" for it is as nothing compared to, for example, Jack Warner's sentence in Movie Purgatory for not making Yankee Doodle Dandy (and The Sea Hawk, and Jezebel, and The Strawberry Blonde and They Died With Their Boots On) in Technicolor in the first place.

    1. Jim, BRAVO to you on your superb thought-provoking comments about THE GAZEBO and the pros and cons of colorization! You're quite right about the flesh tones during the early Ted Turner Era being the real villain here. More to the point, I agree it's a shame that Jack Warner didn't film YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and so many other classics in Technicolor. Where's that time machine when you need it? :-) Thanks for joining the conversation with your always-valuable and fascinating food for thought, my friend!