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RING-A-DING GIRL: The Deceptive Lightness of Maggie McNamara

One snowy New Year’s Day, as I slothed out on the sofa for my seventeenth-or-so Twilight Zone marathon, I noticed something funny: most of my favorite episodes were written by Earl Hamner Jr. of Waltons fame—including The Hunt (an old man refuses to enter heaven without his dog), A Piano in the House (a vicious husband is undone by a mystical player piano), Stopover in a Quiet Town (a fabulous couple is trapped in a sterile suburban hellhole after a drunken night out), The Bewitchin’ Pool (a lonely brother and sister swim free of their nightmarish parents)…

…And Ring-a-ding Girl.

When first we meet the bubbly Bunny Blake (Maggie McNamara), she’s running late as usual, feverishly prepping for a flight to Rome, where she’s starring in a new film. The last thing she slips on as she’s flying out the door is one of the rings she collects as a publicity gimmick. But this one’s close to her heart—it’s from the folks back home in Howardville, who, years earlier, had jumpstarted her dreams by taking up a collection to send her off to Hollywood. And, this being The Twilight Zone, it’s no ordinary ring: it’s more like a crystal ball. As Bunny gazes into it, her sister, Hildy (TV veteran Mary Munday, whom you may remember as the crusty City Hall clerk in The Rockford Files), comes floating into view—and she’s desperate. “We need you, Bunny,” she cries. “Please come home.”

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Bunny is deeply shaken by the apparition—and convinced it’s much more than that. So she arranges to make a pitstop in her hometown en route to Italy—but when she arrives, everything’s as tranquil as it was the day she left home. Far from the frantic figure who appeared in the ring, Hildy is delighted by her sister’s surprise visit, and happily prepping for the annual Founder’s Day picnic. Giddy with relief, Bunny grows playful, impishly acting the star, sending up both herself and Hollywood as she sashays around the living room. “Wiggling—my one natural talent!” she laughs as she trails her fur coat casually along the floor. “Wind me and I light up! Turn me on and I give off incandescent sparkles!”

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But when she idly glances at the ring again, her mood darkens. She sees even more urgent pleas from an unlikely source: the town elders, who’d always disapproved of her glamorous ambitions. It suddenly hits her that for some reason, she must keep everyone away from the fairgrounds—even at the risk of much harsher rebuke.

Determined to use her star power for some good, Bunny takes to the local airwaves to announce she’ll be performing her acclaimed one-woman show at the high school auditorium that very afternoon, as a way to say thank-you to her hometown. When a reporter reminds her she’ll be competing against the picnic, she summons all of her sparkle and appeals directly to the camera: “People have a choice—coming to see me at three o’clock or going to Riverside Park and getting bit by a bunch of ants!”

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Meanwhile back at the house, her sister is mortified as the phone starts ring-a-ding-ing off the hook. But when Bunny returns, she sees how much it means to her to gather the town around her, and she softens. Bunny reluctantly glances at her ring again—as if seeking a sign of approval—and sees herself on the plane she took from Hollywood, which is in desperate trouble. Realizing her fate, she mournfully turns away from the unfolding disaster and pulls Hildy tightly toward her. “Thank you,” she says. “For what?” her startled sister asks. “Just for being my sister,” she smiles. And as fire engines and ambulances start to clamor outside, Bunny slips out the door and into the mist. “Goodbye, Hildy…”

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Just then the phone rings, and Hildy learns that a plane bound for Rome has crashed right in the middle of the picnic grounds, killing all on board—including Bunny—but sparing the locals. On television, a newsman explains, or tries to: “Most of the citizens in town are safe because they were attending an announced performance by Bunny Blake… witnesses have sworn she was in town this afternoon visiting her sister…” Who then finds the mystical ring, which had winged its way to Bunny just days before, lying on the floor of the living room.

Watching Maggie McNamara literally fade away at the end of the episode is especially heartbreaking, as this was one of the last times she ever appeared on screen. After a splashy start in the early 1950s, she could never quite find her footing, and fame never sat as lightly on her as it did on Bunny Blake.

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McNamara started out as a model—gracing the cover of Life before she was 20—all the while studying dance and drama in her hometown of New York. Success came quickly, perhaps too much so: at 23, she was starring on Broadway, replacing Barbara Bel Geddes as “professional virgin” Patty O’Neill in F. Hugh Herbert’s The Moon is Blue. When she reprised the part for Otto Preminger in the 1953 film, her wry, witty performance in a role that frankly could have been nauseating earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. (While the film is woefully dated now, it was banned in several states and failed to secure MPAA approval for its “adult content”—meaning everyone in it behaves like a horny 14-year-old—and for the use of such words as [gasp!] “virgin,” “pregnant” and “seduction.” Somehow it seems fitting that a film whose sensibilities about sex were every bit as infantile as those of the Hays Office actually helped to smash the Production Code.)

Preminger, who threw compliments around like manhole covers, was thrilled with her work—but years later, confided that he’d eventually felt guilty about hiring her at all. “Maggie suffered greatly after becoming a star,” he recalled in his memoirs. “She suffered a nervous breakdown.”

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After her stellar debut, McNamara was quickly cast in Jean Negulesco’s romantic drama Three Coins in the Fountain. As the girl who sets out to snare Louis Jourdan but is just too decent to see her scheme through, she’s delightful, torn between her ever-insistent conscience and her sense of triumph at winning this elusive and arrogant man—whom she’s now grown to love. The movie heightened her popularity but did nothing for her nerves. “I was terribly shy and used to work on myself to keep from showing it,” she once told a reporter. “When I was facing a camera I pretended that neither it nor the photographer were there.”

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McNamara was also terrified of giving interviews and of moving to Hollywood, thousands of miles from her close-knit Irish family. To the studios, her fear came across as stand-offishness, and they moved on to more malleable starlets. After a few smaller roles, work sputtered to a near-halt by the mid-1950s.

Aside from a part in Preminger’s 1963 film The Cardinal, McNamara spent the rest of her scant career in television, finally retiring from acting in 1964 after a memorable turn with Lillian Gish in Body in the Barn, an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. For the last 14 years of her life, she supported herself by working as a typist in Manhattan. At the age of 48, deeply depressed and still plagued by her lifelong anxiety, she took her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills. On her piano, the last remnant of her Hollywood life, she left behind a suicide note and an unfinished screenplay she’d titled, perhaps in a moment of wishful thinking, The Mighty Dandelion. But of course, anyone who’s seen a dandelion when summer’s gone and the cold is closing in knows how fragile it is, and how the slightest breath can scatter its pale gray petals to the winds.

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THE BURNING CRUCIBLE Fires The Imagination

If I wanted to introduce someone to silent film, The Burning Crucible is the last movie I’d show them.

And the first.

The last because it’s such a shock to the system it might scare them off. It’s totally subversive, completely unpredictable and impossible to define—bedroom farce, surreal nightmare, drawing-room comedy, romantic melodrama, goofy slapstick, detective story… it’s like the Whack-A-Mole of genres. Just when you think you’ve nailed it, something wildly different pops up in the next scene, or even the same scene. And that’s also why I’d show it first. At its height, this is what filmmaking used to be, when every possibility was explored and nothing was off the table, when labels were for film canisters, not for films.

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Starring Ivan Mosjoukine, who also wrote and directed, The Burning Crucible was potent enough to inspire Jean Renoir to abandon a life in ceramics for one in film: I was delighted,” he recalled. “Finally, I had a good French film before my eyes…” Really more of a French-Russian one: threatened with arrest and execution by the Red Army, the hugely popular Mosjoukine had fled his homeland for Paris, where he became the linchpin for cutting-edge artists from both countries.

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The film opens with a dream that shifts seamlessly, as dreams do, from one terrifying vision to another, including one where a prisoner chained to the stake is dragging a woman by her long braids into the fire… finally she breaks away and flutters like a moth from the flames. All of this chaos couldn’t be further removed from the dreamer’s waking life—and when Elle (Natalya Lisenko) finally emerges from her fitful sleep, she realizes the source of her nightmare: she’d fallen asleep reading the memoirs of “The Famous Detective Z” (Mosjoukine), a master of disguise and magnet for danger.

“What a stupid dream!” she laughs. “What connection can there be between these disturbing visions and the calm life and brilliant future in store for me?” Even as the title card fades, we know she’ll be shaken out of her complacency. But so will we.

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Elle is farcically pampered: her breakfast and tea trays pop out of her headboard (decades before similar goings-on in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast), her vanity table slowly descends from the ornate ceiling, and as she primps and preens with her giant powder puff, a fawning servant scurries in with… wait for it… a tray of puppies!

Even her most useful accessory, her doting husband (Nicolas Koline), pops out from a panel behind a picture. But the “good news” he’s come to deliver knocks Elle for her first jolt: He’s selling their lavish estate and resettling them in their South American homeland. Frantically, she flees to her beloved Paris streets, sending her husband on a hunt for her in a world where nothing is as it seems…

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Enter The Famous Detective Z, who’s tasked not only with finding Elle but taming her—a course that does not run smooth. Until then, the most ardent love of his life had been his grandmother…

To walk you through the plot would be as useless as bringing a coffee cup to Alice’s Tea Party. You really need to see it, and feel it, for yourself. It’s so inventive, visually astonishing and quirky it leaves you a little dizzy and drunk, and none too eager to reclaim your balance. You don’t want to leave this world, or Mosjoukine, behind; you’ve been spoiled for more linear films and less lyrical actors. 

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Mosjoukine was often called the Russian Valentino, which is a bit like saying Ingrid Bergman is the Swedish Ruby Keeler. Yes, he’s extravagantly romantic, and his eyes are truly hypnotic—but he’s also hilarious and brilliant and wry and touching and as physically fluid as Chaplin. In a single film, and without a trace of ego, he shows you there’s nothing he can’t do. If you’ve seen him, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, be warned: The Burning Crucible may be the start of a magnificent obsession.

The Burning Crucible is available from Flicker Alley as part of its five-film DVD collection, French Masterworks: Russian Emigrés in Paris 1923-1929. The other four fabulous films in the set are The Late Mathias Pascal (also starring Mosjoukine), KeanGribiche and The New Gentlemen. The prints are absolutely gorgeous, and contain both the original French as well as English subtitles.

This article is part of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Fritzi at Movies Silently and sponsored by The House of Mystery, an astonishingly stylish serial epic that has miraculously survived from the early 1920s and is now available in a beautiful DVD print from Flicker Alley. To read all the other entries, click here!

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The George Sanders Touch: Even More Fabulous When He Sings

Need a little warmth to soothe you through those chilly nights? Wrap yourself in The George Sanders Touch….. Songs for the Lovely Lady.

He had me at the over-long ellipses…

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And you needn’t be content just to gaze at the cover of this hard-to-find album, where a slightly sleepy George, who always wakes up in a dinner jacket, slyly hands you a… carnation. (Can’t you just hear him at the photo shoot? “A single red carnation? Really? For God’s sake I give roses to the lovely lady who delivers my laundry!”)

Every song is right here…

One number simply flows into the next—you don’t even have to get up to turn the album over! (You can also buy this in MP3 format from a number of sources, including Amazon UK, but then you don’t get the fabulous visual of George.)

“To the millions of motion picture fans around the world, George Sanders exemplifies nothing so much as the ‘beloved scoundrel’… to his intimates, however, Mr. Sanders represents a titan of talent, being equally at home at the keyboard of a piano, a multi-lingual diplomatic gathering or the Olympics,” gushes Natt Hale in the liner notes. Suddenly I picture George in his tennis whites, tickling out a bit of Gershwin on the ivories while ironing out Cold War tensions with Khrushchev. Which actually doesn’t seem all that implausible.

“During the course of his wanderings, George mastered a number of languages and learned to play the piano, guitar and saxophone,” Hale goes on. “With his background in world travel, it would be somewhat surprising if the erudite Mr. Sanders did not gain an uncanny insight into the customs, the heterogeneous habits and the emotions of many people. He is, therefore, a true cosmopolite, and this is the keynote of The George Sanders Touch. It is a worldly touch—a gentle caress one moment, a vise-like grasp in the next…”

Heavens to Murgatroyd.

Mercifully, George seems to have left his vise at home for this one and gone straight for the gentle clinches of comfy standards: Try a Little TendernessThey Didn’t Believe MeSeptember SongAs Time Goes BySomething to Remember You BuyIf You Were the Only Girl in the WorldThe Very Thought of YouAround the World, Wonderful One, More Than You Know and I’ll See You in My Dreams. There’s even a sweet song he wrote himself, Such Is My Love, captured here with some gorgeous George photos:

The whole thing is a bit dated, but in a good way. The second time through the album, I closed my eyes, let it wash over me—okay, caress me—and felt like I was right back there in 1958, listening on one of those big ol’ radios that seem more like furniture. Then I fell asleep. But I mean that as a compliment. I’ve listened dozens of times since, and even when I stay awake, I feel like I’ve had a good nap afterward. A nap with George. A girl could do worse.

On a couple of numbers, The Very Thought of You and Something to Remember You By, his velvety voice slinks in with kind of a deep-throated hum that’s a cross between Bing Crosby and really bad gas. It’s like having George Sanders sneak up over your shoulder and kiss your neck. After a really heavy meal. Sometimes when he goes very low, it sounds like he’s got a little indigestion going on, like maybe he’s trying to bring something up. But in a really elegant, charming way.

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George’s fabulous bass-baritone can also be savored in several films, including Jupiter’s Darling, Call Me Madam (where he knocks the cover off Marrying for Love, giving us a taste of the ballads to come) and The Jungle Book, where he voiced the villainous tiger, Shere Khan.
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And in 1949, he fought hard for—and won—the chance to play Emile de Becque in the Broadway production of South Pacific when Ezio Pinza left the show. But our George was always a complicated fellow, a mass of contradictions—and almost as soon as he signed the contract, he was seized with a hideous attack of nerves and had to wriggle out of it.

If you’re as achingly curious as I am about what nearly was ours, here he is singing This Nearly Was Mine

…and Some Enchanted Evening (both of which can be found on So Rare, Vol. 4: A Selection by Barry Humphries of his Favorite Gramophone Records).

It’s no surprise, given his stage jitters, that he reportedly turned down an even more audacious assignment a few years later. According to his close friend Brian Aherne, in the early 1950s, after hearing Sanders perform several arias on Tallulah Bankhead’s radio show and elsewhere, the manager of the San Francisco Opera Company offered him the role of Scarpia in an upcoming production of Tosca. George told him thanks anyway, but he didn’t want to be an opera star…

In 1967, he seemed ready to give the stage another go, signing on to play Sheridan Whiteside in Sherry!, a musical adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner. But he bowed out when his wife, Benita Hume, was diagnosed with bone cancer, which claimed her life later that year.

The stage seems to be the only place where George Sanders didn’t leave his musical mark. Here he is on television in 1956, on The Ford Star Jubilee, delivering pretty much perfect renditions of Cole Porter’s Thank You So Much Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby and C’est Magnifique.

And of course there’s the album. The whole thing, right here on this page. So go ahead. Hit the Play button, close your eyes, and curl up with George. You can thank me later.

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50 Classic Film Scenes in Black and White: The Original Fifty Shades of Grey

Had enough of the hype surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey, which has now made the transition from the page to the screen, much the way an awful cold might progress into pneumonia?

Wondering why a dreadful hack writer seems to think she invented sex? And let’s not even talk about the shameless worship of expensive stuff, which, let’s face it, is really what the whole thing’s about. If the book were less high-finance and more downmarket—say, Fifty Shades of Greyhound—the two lead characters would be the creepy pervs all the other bus passengers were desperate to get away from, even if it meant sitting by the stinky bathroom.

So let’s you and me get outta here and head back to a simpler time… and a way sexier one.

Slip out of those starchy clothes…

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…and get nice and comfy…

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…and slink slowly, sinfully and sensationally into fifty classic-film shots in glorious black and white: the original Fifty Shades of Grey.

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sis-sexy-14 Platinum Blonde (1931)  Directed by Frank Capra
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Hey is it hot in here or is it the classic films?