Monday, November 17, 2014

Agnes Moorehead - What a Character!

Agnes Robertson Moorehead was born on December 6, 1900 Always a bright child, Agnes was a talented youngster, so it was no surprise that she became a brilliant character actress.  Indeed, Agnes enjoyed playing different characters for the fun of it so much, her mother would always say, “Who are you today, Agnes?”
The first time I had heard about Agnes Moorhead was when I was a little kid in New York City, living in the charming Country Club area of the Bronx.  We loved the smash TV sitcom Bewitched, the 1964 – 1972 comedy about witches in suburbia, starring Elizabeth Montgomery.  Being kids, we didn’t realize Ms. Montgomery was part of a film and TV dynasty, including actor/producer Robert Montgomery (Here Comes Mr.Jordan; They Were Expendable; Lady in the Lake; Ride the Pink Horse)Agnes always cracked us up as Endora, Samantha’s irksome yet hilarious mother, always a show stopper with her tart tongue and fabulous wardrobe, usually in hues of purple!  Indeed, friends often affectionately called Agnes “The Lavender Lady” or “Madam Mauve.”
Ever the world traveler, Agnes worked in France and studied with none other than the great mime Marcel Marceau! She taught public school English and drama for five years, as well as going to Paris to study pantomime.  No doubt that came in handy with the memorable Twilight Zone episode “The Invaders.”! 

Agnes covered just about every medium (no pun intended…well, maybe a little!), starting with singing at a St. Louis band radio station, and that particular medium stayed with Agnes all her life, from the 1930s  through  the 1950s, with shows ranging from Terry and The Pirates as The Dragon Lady; The March of Time; and so much more – makes me wish I could have been young with a great voice back then!

It seemed Agnes could do anything in any medium, bless her!  Agnes’ Radio triumphs included wicked Mrs. Danvers in
Rebecca; and Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number (a broadcast I’d love to hear if I could)!   Such was Agnes’ zeal to perform on the airways, she insisted on its pre-continuation of a later contratct with MGM — clever gal, our Agnes!  Even better, through her Radio work on The Shadow and The March of Time in 1937, Agnes met and befriended fellow actor Orson Welles!  Knowing a great performer when he saw one, Welles invited her to join him and Joseph Cotton as Charter members of his Mercury Theater of the Air, and Agnes was among the company responsible for the 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds", scaring the heck out of the populace -- and making a name for herself as well as the rest of the cast, with Agnes wowing Radio fans all the way, famous ever after  – oh, those Mercury scamps!

Agnes was practically bulletproof with her chameleon dexterity, thanks to her great voice, so it was only a matter of time when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater came a’knocking, starting as Citizen Kane’s mother, and the rest was history!

Agnes got her first Oscar nomination for her role as Auntie Minafer in The Magnificent Andersons (1942), as well as New York Film Critics.   She hit a home run with Lucille Fletcher’s thriller Sorry, Wrong Number 

Wish I could have seen them on stage as well!

Agnes didn’t get any Oscars (though she should have, in my opinion; nothing personal, Barbara Stanwyck!), but she was nominated four; times in her long career:  the aforementioned  The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948) AND Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). 
There was only one thing that could stop the unforgettable Agnes, and that’s death – and not just any death, but death from fall-out from the Atom Bomb, no less!   Poor Agnes; she and her fellow stars of The Conquerer had the unwitting misfortune to be filming on a site that happened to be on Ground Zero, and Agnes, John Wayne, director Dick Powell, and the rest of the all-star cast the cast, including Agnes, got uterine cancer.  No wonder Agnes said, " I wish I’d never made that picture.”
Agnes is always riveting and stunningly memorable, but my favorite is still the film noir Dark Passage (1947)  with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, based on David Goodis' noir novel.  Agnes  is stunning as Madge Rapf, a dame as mesmerizing as she is vicious, a dame who draws me to her out of one side of her mouth and pushes them away with the other.  She's the type who won't let anyone have something if she can't have it - a compulsion that causes her to go to quite serious ends!

Want to hear more about the amazing life and times of the late, great Agnes Moorhead? Read Agnes’s autobiography I Love The Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorhead!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Gunga Din - Go Blow Your Horn!

This is the British Empire Blogathon, hosted by The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires, from November 14 through November 19, 2014.  Enjoy the other bloggers’ posts, as well, eh what?

RKO’s 1939 adventure Gunga Din is an adventure of men who know when to have boyish fun, while also knowing when get they must realize when to also be dead serious!  Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t be pranksters, bless them!

Fun Fact:  Producer Pandro S. Berman had been Lucille Ball’s sweetie at the time Gunga Din was in theaters!

Story by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol  
Story by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem.
Music: Alfred Newman
Produced and directed by George Stevens (Giant; A Place in the Sun)

Cutter (Cary Grant) shows Din (Sam Jaffe)
how to be all military
The Place:  Colonial India, in an encampment of Her Majesty’s Lancers, where there seems to be a shortage of manpower, mostly because soldiers are disappearing – talk about foul play!  No, the luckless men aren’t going AWOL –they’re being murdered by the fearsome Thuggee cult! 

Who can get to the bottom of this evil mystery?  Meet our wild and crazy Lancers and best buddies:

Grant's perfect Stan Laurelesque expression
never fails to get a laugh from us!

*Cutter (Cary Grant from Notorious; North By Northwest.) He’s always wishing, hoping, and praying for riches; get in line, Cutter!  But he’d better be careful what he wishes wish for…

 *MacChesney, the most seasoned and brashest of the men, played by Victor McLaglen from The Quiet Man, who also won the Best Actor Oscar in 1935 for John Ford’s drama The Informant.  Our rowdy heroes are a lively bunch, boozing and brawling; men will be boys, bless them!  It’s great rollicking fun, while still being surprisingly moving.  

This isn't a Bollywood number -- these Thugee
mean business!
What should I know about it? Why axe me?
*Last but not least, we meet the more gentlemanly Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. from Green Hell); who’s about to marry his sweetie, Emmy (Joan Fontaine, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion).  As Ballantine’s soon-to-be son-in-law, he’s giving up derring-do to work with Emmy’s dad in the family tea business, and our boys are crestfallen that our three comrades will be leaving!  Will he really be content with a life of Oolong and Earl Grey tea after all the excitement they’ve had together?

Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks are truly a dream team, especially the nimble Grant, who was an acrobat in real life.  The gags about Annie the elephant especially crack us up! But it all turns dead serious when our boys’ yen for gold turns into a matter of life or death  when the riches they find turns out to be the Thuggees in the their rumpus room -- YIKES!     

Can Din and Cutter and the rest save the day? Sam Jaffe, always a brilliant character actor (The Asphalt Jungle), touches my heart the best; he’s a little fella, but he turns out to have a heart of a lion.  I defy you to watch the end without tears in your eyes, even if you think your're the biggest rough-neck in town! 

Fun fact: - Reginald Sheffield  played: Rudyard Kipling in Gunga Din!

Watch that first step, Annie - it's a Loo-Loo!!
As The New York Times said in 1939 (a great year for movies in any event) said: “All movies…should be like the five the first-twenty-five and the last thirty minutes…"
I get such a kick out of friendships among Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks.  I also enjoyed Robert Coote (Merry Andrew; TV’s The Rogues) as Higgenbotham, a cadet who majors in bumbling.

Want to know for about the Thuggee cult? Watch The Deceivers (1988), starring Pierce Brosnan (1988), one of my dear late Mom's favorite films! (It didn't hurt that Brosnan was and still is a hottie -- but that's a blog post for another time!)

Vinnie plays a few notes -- It's somewhat ironic that Sam Jaffe gets fourth billing in the film, even though he plays the title character. Not to mention that he was forty-seven when he played the role, thought Din was usually described as a "boy." Nonetheless, he unsurprisingly crushes the role.
The film is another example of an "of the time" movie - the Indians were treated as almost sub-human, and no issue was found with that. Heck, I'm amazed the original poem hasn't been the target of a call for erasure from history for its treatment of the people. It's probably saved by the fact that so few people have actually read it.

Likely the main reason Din gets such short shrift is the film takes the tale of the epic poem and demotes it to the "B" plot.  The main story is clearly that of the three Lancers, who are following a Rom-Com plot best seen in The Front Page, summarized as "Friends don't want to see one of their crew get married, and proceed to sabotage the nuptials."  It's so standard a plot it's been getting done for decades -- the most recent example of it I can recall off the top of my head was Saving Silverman, but I'll bet y'all can think of others.

Possibly the first example of the famous title credit
"Suggested by a true story"
Kali, the goddess of Death and her bully boys the Thuggee have made appearances in a number of films - in addition to The Wife's recommendation of The Deceivers, they also showed up in a slightly more disguised form in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and in a far funnier form in The Beatles' second filmic sortie Help! Phileas Fogg (David Niven) saved an Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine, a more sore-thumb example of what's now known as "whitewashing" than I can think of) in Around the World in 80 Days, and even Hammer Studios got in on the fun with the -grisly Stranglers of Bombay.

Like Nazis and Republicans, they make a great, easily hateable villain for a story. Even the master criminal Fu Manchu employed Thuggee as assassins.

There's been some controversy as to how much of the news of the Kali worshipers (where the modern word "thug" comes from, dontchaknow) that made it to Europe was real, and how much was a mix of xenophobic hyperbole. The Thuggee certainly existed, and killed many, though there's an argument that the motive was more Earthly that the religious aspect - Thuggee were certainly predominantly thieves, and the robbery was often more a goal than the ritual killing.