Monday, March 31, 2014

Feeling Like Cecil Flintridge

My desert island movie is 1937’s “Shall We Dance.”

 Why, certainly.

I’m not saying it’s the best movie ever made or that it’s even my favorite. It’s not even the movie I’ve seen the most. That honor would probably be either the original “King Kong” or 1957’s “The Spirit of St. Louis;” which is a mostly-mediocre account of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight starring James Stewart, who, despite being 25 years older than Lindbergh was at the time of the flight, still captures some of Lindy’s boyish charm – a charm that would later curdle when his pro-Nazi views came to light. I got hooked on it decades ago when KHJ – Channel 9 in Los Angeles – showed it on the Million Dollar Movie, in the days when that meant showing it every weeknight and two or three times a day on the weekend.

But if I were to be stranded on a desert island (a la the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs”), “Shall We Dance” (no question mark) would be the movie I’d chose to spend my days and nights with. It stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and features a score by the Gershwins. It has a great supporting cast, including the invaluable Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. It has my favorite of Astaire and Rogers’s numbers, “They All Laughed” (though it’s probably not their best number; that’d be either “Night and Day” from “The Gay Divorcee,” or “Cheek to Cheek” from “Top Hat,” or “Never Gonna Dance” from “Swing Time”).

Any movie with Horton or Blore is to be welcomed, and having the two of them is always a treat. At this point, I’d normally sing their praises without introduction, but (especially after a conversation yesterday where I asked someone if she’d ever heard of either Imogene Coca – and got a non-unexpected (though still disappointing) “no” – or the late Sid Caesar – another not-unexpected (though surprising in light of his recent death) “nope”) I realize I must introduce them to some members of my audience.

In the 30s and 40s, and even into the 50s and 60s, Hollywood was lousy with character actors, each of whom was an individual “type.” If you wanted a drunk, you hired Jack Norton or Arthur Housman. If you wanted a likeably hateful bureaucrat, you got Charles Lane. Tough guys who were actuall pushovers? Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber, or George E. Stone. A kindly (or not so kindly) mother? Beulah Bondi. An old maid? Elizabeth Patterson. A vaguely-effeminate desk clerk or salesman? Franklin Pangborn. Sam Levene was a police detective; usually homicide. Robert Emmet O'Connor was a street cop. They were legion and they were always popping up. They were as solid as rocks and were instantly identifiable. The queen of them all may have been Bess Flowers. She's less a character actor than a dress extra (though she played plenty of parts), but once you start looking for her, you can't escape her. She had nearly 1,000 credits.

Bess Flowers; just try to miss her in an old movie.

Now that I think about it, it was a Brechtian approach to casting. One of things Brecht used was the “gest;” that is, a gesture or piece of acting that acted as an identifiable shorthand for a personal characteristic. These men and women were living gests; that is, when you saw Marjorie Main, you knew her whole background as a crusty old broad who wouldn’t take any nonsense. Seeing Eve Arden meant you were going to get a series of dry wisecracks that were driven home with the skill of Babe Ruth meeting a fat hanging curve. Edward Arnold was a corrupt businessman. James Gleason was the seen-it-all New Yorker. Edna Mae Oliver the snooty society dame with a sense of propriety a mile wide. They were all likeable – no, loveable – even if they were known only as “That guy!” or “Oh, her!”

Horton’s specialty in this arena was fussy bachelors and husbands. Even though he was born in Brooklyn, you’d have thought he was as English as they come. They read as slightly gay, but never in a way that would upset the sensibilities of middle America in the mid-20th century. His characters were always easily upset (which is why he was hired; for those reactions and takes), but he was stalwart. In his last years, he was best known for narrating the “Fractured Fairy Tales” on the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. In “Shall We Dance,” he plays the head of an American ballet company headquartered in Paris, whose premiere danseur was a Russian named Petrov (Astaire, natch) who was, in actuality Peter P. Peters from Philadelphia. (Don’t ask. That’s how movies were plotted in 1937.)

 "Linda Keane" and "Petrov."

Blore was English and always played butlers or waiters. He specialized in outraged takes and mugging. His character was usually easily confused and struggling to keep up with the plot. (There are exceptions, of course; in “The Lady Eve,” he’s a sharp con man.) In reading up on him just now, I found this anecdote on his IMDb biography: “As sometimes is the case when personalities move into obscurity, their deaths are prematurely announced. Such was with Blore when The New Yorker journalist Kenneth Tynan reported him as already passed on. Blore's lawyer raised a flurry, as did the editor of The New Yorker, who claimed the periodical had never had to print a retraction. The night before the highly-profiled retraction appeared, Blore indeed passed away. And the next morning, The New Yorker was the only publication with the wrong information. It seems like Blore would have been particularly tickled with the irony of this last comedic bit in honor of his passing.” In “Shall We Dance,” he plays Cecil Flintridge, the floor manager of a barely-disguised Waldorf-Astoria.

 Blore looking frustrated; his usual state.

Horton and Blore share three particular scenes in “Shall We Dance.” The first is their meeting in the hotel. Their refusal to understand one another is a microcosm of the picture as a whole;; where everyone willfully ignores what everyone else has just done or said. One is what we’ve come to call “Susquehanna Street.” For various plot reasons (again, don’t ask), Blore is arrested for assaulting a process server. He calls Horton’s character to bail him out, and the two again misunderstand each other as Blore’s attempts to spell “Susquehanna” only lead them into a black hole of confusion. The last is a scene where they have a loud conversation in the rear of a nightclub audience that causes the other patrons to shush them. They shush the audience back, leading to a veritable parade of takes and garbagey reactions.

Horton looking outraged; his usual state.

As usual, I’ve gotten carried away and gotten away from my original point – which is actually fortunate, as I’ll explain tomorrow – but to get there will take many more words than are worth spending right now, but which will be next time.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Audition Horror Stories

A brief post tonight, if only to keep up my streak of days with a post.

I had my first round of auditions today (callbacks are tomorrow), and was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Not that I wasn’t expecting good actors – I got them in spades, even the people I didn't call back – but that I wasn’t expecting so many men or how, consequently, tough the casting choices are going to be.

What it didn't look like, but was the best image I could come up with.

One of the things about “The Farnsworth Invention” is that it has, by my count, 93 speaking roles in 43 scenes, so – short of casting 93 actors – there’s going to be a lot of doubling, tripling, and quadrupling – or more. I’ve broken down the casting at least five times (my initial spreadsheet was nine pages; I’ve gotten it down to one or two, depending), and while I think I’ve got the final version, it’s still subject to change dependent on what happens in rehearsal. (This also applies to blocking; I have a feeling that I may well stage a scene, look at it, and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s try it this way.” Fortunately, I’ve (finally!) got a long-enough rehearsal period that I have the luxury of being able to do that.)

Probably the right-size cast for "Farnsworth."

You never know what you’re going to get in an open audition. I’ve seen brilliant monologues and I’ve seen cringe-worthy stuff. My favorite example of the latter was in 1983. I was working the desk, checking people in for the Equity auditions for the Grove Shakespeare Festival. The festival itself was in Garden Grove – the heart of Orange County – but the auditions were at Santa Ana College. A fellow with a “European” accent – it wasn’t Spanish, French, German, Russian, or any identifiable-to-me dialect; it was “European” – came in asked where the bathroom was. It was a warm day and he’d driven down from Los Angeles, so I assumed he needed to either use the facilities or just “refresh” himself.

The Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove.

He’d been in the bathroom a few minutes, and I went in to either use the facilities myself or get him.

He was wearing a toga.

Not recommended audition wear.

I mentally rolled my eyes and rushed into the theatre to warn the producer and the directors, “There’s a guy in a toga in the bathroom.” They visibly rolled their eyes, and I went out to usher this actor into the lion’s den. The producer said, “Ah, I see you’re doing something modern.”

The actor muttered some humorous reply, climbed the stairs to the stage, and launched into a very bad version of “Franz, romance, countrymans” (sounding, in memory. like a bad Schwarzenegger impression). He finished and the producer went up on stage, put a friendly arm around his shoulder, and explained to him why his choices may not have been the best.
This was also the series of auditions where, in the non-Equity call, a kid (just out of high school) did some Shakespearean scene that had elaborate blocking and miming of props and other characters. It was astounding in its awful meticulousness. When he finished (after what seemed like about an hour), he thanked us and left, and we all turned to one another and asked, “What the hell was that?”

Even Will was appalled.

After seeing those, I’ve learned to both expect anything at an audition and that I’ll never see anything that quit matches those heights.

Though a boy can dream, can’t he?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Nothing Better Than a Bad Performance

Anyone who’s interested in show business has seen bad performances. Anyone who’s been in show business has seen bad performances. For that matter, anyone in show business has given at least one bad performance. (Don’t lie; you have and you know it.)

I was reminded of this today when a 1930 movie called “Danger Lights” was on TCM. “Danger Lights” falls in a period of filmmaking that I love. It’s not just that it’s a pre-Code picture, but it’s also got actors who are still trying to figure out how to act in a talking picture. There are few things I enjoy more than early talkie acting. It’s stiff and mannered and everyone involved is trying to figure out how to make the damn thing work. A clip from “The Lights of New York” (“the first 100% all-talking picture”) gives a good example. Wheeler Oakman – the guy in the tuxedo – is as stiff a concrete. He’s making noise. (“Take him … for … a ride”), but that’s about it. 

 The late Wheeler Oakman.

A word on pre-Codes, for those not in the know. From late 1927-early 1928 to late 1934, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association – or MPPDA (later to become the,MPAA) – pretty much let anything go in movies. While there were some restrictions on swearing and outright nudity (though they managed to get around that more than once), movies dealt with sex, divorce, substance abuse, and other topics. There’s a vibrancy and energy to pre-Codes that movies really don’t come close to meeting until, well, the 70s, when the Code goes out. (Though we still see remnants of it in the MPAA ratings of “G,” “PG,” etc.)

Busby Berkeley gets around the nudity ban in 
"Pettin' in the Park," the dirtiest number ever filmed.

The queen of pre-Codes was Barbara Stanwyck. In movies like “Baby Face” and “Ladies They Talk About,” she not only sleeps her way to the top, she’s utterly in charge of her own life. (She’d continue to be, post-Code; there are few actors of any gender who are ballsier than Stanwyck.) For my money, the king of the genre is Warren William. William, who’s all but forgotten today (except by film buffs) was the most reprehensible cad imaginable. He’d take advantage of anyone and never look back. I particularly recommend 1933’s “Employees’ Entrance.” When I describe it as an examination of a backstabbing department-store executive, it sounds dry as mummy dust, but there’s so much life, double-dealing, and sex in the picture that you never think about the setting. William’s leading lady is the 19-year-old Loretta Young, who reeks sex appeal; an appeal she’d soon lose. 

 Theresa Harris and Stanwyck in "Baby Face."

Young and William in "Employees' Entrance."

In his post-Code career, William was tamed. He still played cads and ne’er-do-wells, but none of them were as sleazy as they had been. Young, on the other hand, got all pious. I don’t like most of her post-Code pictures – she makes Doris Day look like a street-corner slut. One of my favorite anecdotes about Young, though, took place when Ethel Merman was rehearsing for a part on Young’s television show. Merman, who had a mouth like a truck driver, complained about her gown: “Oh, shit. This goddamn thing is too tight.” Young reminded her that they had a “swear box” on the set and that Merman would have to put in a quarter for using such language. Merman replied, “Here’s twenty dollars, Loretta. Go fuck yourself.”

 La Merman.

Anyway, “Danger Lights” has a relatively uninteresting plot. To quote the IMDb: “The tough boss of a railroad yard befriends a young hobo, and unwittingly places in jeopardy his relationship with the woman he loves.” The main reason I’ve DVRed it is because it stars Louis Wolheim, who’s one of my favorite actors. Wolheim looks like a washed-up boxer, with a mashed-in nose plopped onto a meaty face, but he was a marvelous actor – and a genius. In addition to English, he spoke French, German, Spanish, and Yiddish, and he’d been a mathematics teacher at Cornell before becoming an actor.

Louis Wolheim. Genius.

Wolheim is always good (TCM was featuring his movies today as a birthday tribute – Happy 134th, Louis, by the way), but the thing that stood out for me was the performance by Robert Armstrong. Armstrong is another actor who had a long career – almost 40 years on screen, with nearly 200 credits – but who’s virtually forgotten today. 

 Robert Armstrong.

The thing about Armstrong, though, is that, despite that long career, he’s mostly a terrible actor. If he’s known at all, it’s as his role as producer Carl Denham in 1933’s “King Kong,” which I consider the greatest bad performance ever given. As bad as he is in “Kong,” it’s an epic performance that goes so far, it crosses back over into good again (though it’s never less than bad). There’s something about “Kong” – now that I think about it – that promotes bad performances. The first remake in 1976 had Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange embarrassing themselves, and the less said about the abysmal digital mess overseen by Peter Jackson (I can’t say he “directed” it), the better.

 The King. Accept no substitutes.

As bad as Armstrong can be (and, in his favor, he’s sometimes actually pretty good; you just have to cast him right), he’s as nothing compared to Lois Chiles. Chiles’s low points for me were her performances in the 1974 “Great Gatsby” and, especially, 1979’s “Death on the Nile,” an Agatha Christie murder mystery that had at least one critic say that Chiles was so bad, the mystery was why that rest of the cast hadn’t murdered her.

Lois Chiles. Kill her! Kill her now!

But even Chiles can’t compare to Colleen Camp in the supremely mis-named “They All Laughed,” which was Peter Bogdanovich’s 1982 attempt to revive the screwball comedies of the 30s. Unfortunately, the whole affair comes off as created by someone who had never heard the word “comedy” before. Camp (who’s actually not bad in “Clue”) gives a staggeringly inept performance; it’s as though she were an illiterate who was seeing her lines written phonetically for the first time.

 "They All Laughed?" No; no, they didn't.

For myself, I hope to never be worse than I was in either “Angel Street” or “Gaslight.” I got called into the production late, and was asked to take over a large role on ten days’ notice. I agreed because I was young, stupid, and looked forward to the challenge. After I took the part, I realized that the character, “Inspector Rough,” came on and basically didn’t stop talking for fifty pages. I could handle learning that many lines in those days – a feat that would escape me now – and I decided to perform the part in the worst Irish accent in the history of the theatre. (I was going to limit it to the English-speaking theatre, but I was so bad that I’ll go international.) Fortunately, the production -- which was performed in the cafeteria of a junior high school – had its last week cancelled when some group had booked the space for a Thanksgiving dinner. Never have I been so glad to have a production to be over.

You may have noticed I gave two titles up there. It’s the same play. The original title was “Angel Street,” but it’s commonly done nowadays under the latter title because of the movie version, which changed the name. I just can’t remember under which of those titles we performed it.

We actually should have all played the whole thing under false names, but that’s another matter.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I Love the Things I Hate -- or Vice Versa

In the wake of the recent Houdinifest, I felt moved to take a look at my Houdini plays in order, not only to read them for the first time in years, but also to finally turn them into a virtual script rather than actual letters typed onto actual pages.

 It wasn't quite this primitive. It was an electric typewriter.

I haven’t done it yet, though. I have a feeling that I’m going to go through the thing, shake my head, and say “Well, that’s not funny” or “I thought this was good?” At the same time, though, I contradictorily think it’ll probably be better than that. Not that they won’t need rewriting – I’m sure the first play in the trilogy will need massive revisions – but I’d imagine they’re not totally lame. I had a similar reservation/realization a couple of years ago when I was visiting Eugene and dug my masters’ thesis off the shelves of the University of Oregon library. I skimmed through it, knowing it was probably the first time it’s been consulted since my committee read it in 1995. As dismal as I thought it would be, it actually wasn’t half bad. There are formatting problems (it was the first thing I ever wrote on a computer, and I somehow printed the whole damn thing boldfaced) and some minor things that needed fixing and rewriting, but the content itself wasn’t bad – and I highly recommend it to the hordes of folks who are looking into Chekhov’s influence on Irish playwright Brian Friel. It was less about the content being bad than it was about my being a different person with different experiences, opinions, and conclusions than that guy two decades ago. (Gulp!)

 Knight Library. Final resting place of my thesis.

I’m guessing that my Houdini plays themselves aren’t really that bad – I mean, the first one (the one that I’m thinking needs the most help) got a staged reading the first time I submitted it anywhere. The reception was good – my writer friends will understand that feeling when something you wrote gets an intentional laugh (always a good sign in a comedy) – and all the signs were encouraging. I know where it needs fixing (at least from my memory of it), and I’d actually like to resubmit the trilogy in the hopes of seeing an real production. I know there’s nothing – well, nothing other than money – to prevent me from producing them myself – though I would have to find an actor capable of performing some Houdini-esque feats of legerdemain (a couple of escapes; no disappearing elephants or getting out of locked milk cans). It’s more of wondering if I really want to collaborate with my mid-20s self (talk about throwback Thursday …) any more than I’d want to collaborate with my mid-40s self on rewriting my thesis.

Know any actors who can do this?

Speaking of looking for actors brings up the other thing on my mind. It’s something I’m putting off by the act of writing this – my upcoming auditions this weekend.

It’s not that I’m not looking forward to directing this show (“The Farnsworth Invention” at Palo Alto Players) – about which I’m sure I’ll be writing for the next few months – but that the whole “audition” thing is such a draining and hectic process. Over the next four days, I have to see 40-50 actors audition by performing monologues, determine if they’ll be suitable for the show (and for which roles), figure out who to call back, choose sides for them to read, contact them with those sides, schedule them, pair them up, see them do the callback scenes, make some tweaks, cast them, make sure they’re all contacted and have accepted, and then (if necessary) start digging up alternate actors to fill the roles I wasn’t able to in the original audition. And I’d like to get it all done before April 8th, when I leave to go to the TCM Film Festival in L.A. (I do have a little wiggle room in that I don’t have to start rehearsals until the 22nd, but I’d like to not make this a last-minute thing.) And, of course, I have to fit all this around “The Speakeasy” and starting the new job next week. 

Nothing against this guy, but I hope he doesn't 
show up Saturday. (The perils of using stock photos.)

I’ve picked the six scenes I’ll want to see at the callback, but I still have to type them up to edit them to a manageable size (a task, as I said, that this writing is delaying). I’d really rather not make the actors do seven-minute scenes when I (and I think most directors) can see if I’m getting what I want in the first 30-60 seconds. Granted, it gives the actors something to do and work with, but it’s tough to watch the same scene over and over – it’s easy to lose perspective in the repetition.

I have a love/hate relationship with auditions. The planning and prep – whether I’m the auditioner or the auditionee – is time-consuming (see above) and psychologically draining. I love seeing what actors can do (I never cease to be amazed by what they can do) and I love knowing that I’m about to start a new project, but it’s like knowing I’m going to have to climb a mountain (not that I’d do that). There’s just so much work to do to get it all right.

But I think I’ve put off the inevitable – and ritualized – typing of the sides long enough. Time to get to work.