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No More Mr. Nice Guy! Gregory Peck Swaggers to a DUEL IN THE SUN

There’s always that little extra something when a nice guy plays a villain. Robert Walker as Bruno in Strangers on a Train. Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. And Gregory Peck as Smokin’ McHottie in Duel in the Sun. Wait what? Okay I’m being told his name was actually Lewt McCanles. Apparently I didn’t hear it over the sound of my own drooling.

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If you’ve ever wondered how Atticus Finch might have turned out if he were born in the untamed West and raised by an absolute bastard, here’s your chance. Everything you love about Gregory Peck is still there—the slouchy sexiness, the languid, easy manner, the casual gorgeousness. Only now, he’s a ruthless killer. But there’s just enough of that old sincerity there to keep a girl hanging in with him long after she ought to hit the road.

Poor Jennifer Jones never stands a chance.

To be fair, she was doomed before the movie even started. After Teresa Wright bowed out due to what may have been the luckiest pregnancy in the history of film, Jones was (mis)cast by her lover, David O. Selznick, as “half-breed” Pearl Chavez. Breathlessly snarling from behind hundreds of layers of Coppertone, she leaves you longing for the dramatic realism of John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

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After her father (Herbert Marshall) is hanged for shooting his wife and her lover, Pearl packs up her vast wardrobe of oddly form-fitting peasant dresses and goes off to live with distant relatives: the evil Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), his stoic wife Laura Belle (Lillian Gish), and their polar-opposite sons, Lewt and Jesse (Cotten at his most earnest and adorable). Almost at once, Pearl upends the whole household: the Senator hates her, Laura Belle dotes on her, Jesse wants to rescue her and Lewt just plain wants her. And he gets her so emphatically that the studio censors were sent scrambling for their scissors.

But that was the least of the offscreen woes. By the time shooting began in 1946, the already-manic Selznick, who was still married to Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Irene but having a very public affair with Jones, had become addicted to amphetamines—and fought so violently with everyone, they could have called the film Duel with the Son-in-Law. For starters, he blew through five directors—Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg, Sidney Franklin and William Cameron Menzies—and even briefly appointed himself, before King Vidor finally “won” the job.  (Von Sternberg stayed on to help shoot Jones in the most flattering light for her constant close-ups.)

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Legendary composer Dimitri Tiomkin also felt the producer’s speed-induced wrath. When Selznick heard Lewt and Pearl’s “love theme,” he reportedly screamed, “You don’t understand! I want real f##king music!” No slouch himself, Tiomkin is said to have shot back, “You f##k your way, I f##k my way!” before storming off the set and threatening to quit. (The score went on to become the first movie soundtrack ever cut as an album, featuring Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops—thus adding “musical director” to the long list of roles Selznick never should have tried to assume.)

When the producer bought the Niven Busch novel on which the film is based, he saw it as his next Gone With the Wind—and his ham-handed fingerprints are on every frame. Like GWTW, it’s “presented by David O. Selznick” with a lengthy musical prelude, accompanied by sweeping, gorgeous shots of the red earth of Tara—oops, I mean the red hills of Texas. This segues into a voiceover by Orson Welles that pretty much gives away the entire plot, as a heavenly choir “oohs” and “aahs” in the background. (Because having Orson as your narrator isn’t enough; you really need some backup singers.) Every moment of the film is so DRAMATIC, you get the feeling that if someone said  ”Pass the salt,” it would be met with a great swell of trumpets.

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Only a steady, veteran cast, rounded out by Walter Huston, Otto Kruger and Charles Bickford, keeps the film from blowing off the screen. In fact there are so many good actors, it’s almost as if every time Selznick showed a director to the door, he roped in another star from the back lot. Peck’s performance as the lethally irresistible gunslinger is especially impressive, since he had to play the saintly father in The Yearling every morning before presumably downing a lunch of rusty nails and rotgut and swaggering over to the western set in the afternoon. “I didn’t do much acting,” he later laughed. “I rode horses, necked with Jennifer, and shot poor old Charlie Bickford.” It’s hard to say what may have upset Selznick more: Peck’s sweaty sessions with Jones or his stubborn refusal to overact.

At the time, Duel in the Sun was one of the most expensive films ever made, weighing in at a bloated $6 million, in part because of the lengthy editing process: the directors and the second-unit team clocked more than 26 hours of film. (Selznick went on to spend the princely sum of $2 million on promotion.)

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Shot by Technicolor genius Harold Rosson, the finished product looks gorgeous, and Jones actually garnered an Oscar nod, as did Gish. Audiences liked the film well enough for Selznick to eventually make his money back, but critics derisively dubbed it Lust in the Dust.

Before its release, the preening producer screened the movie for British writer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who shot their films on paper-thin budgets and were underwhelmed by what the Hollywood mogul had done with his millions. As the closing credits thundered by after the final shoot-out, Pressburger whispered to Powell, “What a pity they didn’t shoot the screenwriter.” Who was, of course, David O. Selznick.

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THE GARDEN OF ALLAH: Lovely to Look at, Delightful to (Be)Hold

The Garden of Allah. Oh my God this movie could not be more ridiculous. I’ve seen it four times.

The first time, I was home with the flu. And while I’m not suggesting you goose your temperature a few degrees before you watch, it couldn’t hurt. The whole thing feels like a long, languid, luscious fever-dream: Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich and Basil Rathbone at the height of their fabulousness, lovingly shot in color (in 1936!) by the brilliant Harold Rosson, who, along with W. Howard Greene, won an honorary Oscar for his work on the film—only the third ever shot in three-strip Technicolor.

Rosson used the skills and techniques he’d mastered in black and white to soften the tones of the Technicolor process, which required intense lighting that could render a palette harsh and even downright garish. The results are nothing short of hypnotic: you don’t so much watch this film as let it wash over you. It may be the only time in your life you ever cry out, “Good God, look at that beige!” 

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Rosson unspools such magic it almost distracts you from the storyline. For that, he should have gotten another award.

When we first meet Domini Enfilden (Dietrich), she’s moping around the convent she grew up in, where she’s now returned. As Sister Mary Backstory helpfully explains, Domini gave up many years of her life caring for her father and now that he’s gone, she’s alone and unhappy. Meanwhile in the background, the other nuns are chanting what sounds suspiciously like a Max Steiner  score…

“Why not leave the cities you have found so lonely, why not try something different?” suggests Mother Superior (Lucille Watson, shedding her usual battleaxe gear for a wimple). “Perhaps the desert…”

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And so off she goes.  On her lonely quest for spiritual renewal, Domini swans around North Africa, with no one but David O. Selznick’s entire wardrobe department to keep her company. There she meets Boris Androvsky (Boyer), an escaped Trappist monk—hey, there’s a phrase you don’t hear a lot!—who falls in love with her, and who can blame him: Dietrich plus Rosson equals some sort of exponential gorgeousness you can’t even quantify. I’d marry her just for that blue dress.

Meanwhile, Rathbone, who’s Italian for no apparent reason, lurks off in the corner, having little to do but spout profundities and look insanely dashing in a keffiyeh.”A man who refuses to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert,” his Count Anteoni warns Boris.

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But do Boris and Domini listen? No, because “the desert calls and its voice is always heard.” (Apparently the only things that grow there are aphorisms.) They marry and set up housekeeping in a little tent or three, where they’re happy for a good ten minutes or so. But then they take in a band of soldiers seeking food and shelter, and, well, no good deed goes unpunished. Boris’s cover is blown when, at dinner one night, someone recognizes the special liqueur he used to make back at the monastery, which he’s now taken to whipping up around the house.

Spoiler alert (in case you didn’t see this one galloping toward you on a camel): Boris then realizes he must go back to the monastery (even though he’s happy as all get-out with Domini and was miserable as a monk). When last we gaze upon them (and thanks to Rosson, after an hour and a half, we are still gazing), Boris is heading inside as Domini wanly waves her silk hanky at him from the front gate. (And as silly as the whole business sounds, be sure to have a hanky or two handy yourself.)

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To stand in for the North African desert, director Richard Boleslawski scouted out Buttercup Valley, California and Yuma, Arizona, which were easier to reach but no less stifling. According to Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva (who makes an early cameo as a convent student), during the outdoor love scenes, the heat sometimes melted the glue on Boyer’s toupee and sent it sliding down his face, taking Marlene’s make-up with it. Eventually, before each take, the ever-practical diva would pat her co-star’s head to make sure his requisite hairpiece—which he loathed and never wore off-camera—was still fixed firmly on his head.

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Under the lens of Harold Rosson, I’ll bet even the glue would have looked gorgeous. He never won a competitive Oscar, but earned nominations for five films. Ironically, only one was in color, though that was a doozy: The Wizard of Oz. He was also tapped for Boom TownThirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Bad Seed as well as The Asphalt Jungle, where his stark and gritty tone proved pivotal to John Huston’s story, which was downbeat even by noir standards. And Oscar completely overlooked his stunning work on Singin’ in the RainGentlemen Prefer Blondes and the beautiful but deeply absurd Duel in the Sun.

So thank heavens he was recognized for his work on The Garden of Allahwhich may have spelled the end of his Oscar run, but was just the beginning of an amazing career.

 

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TORCH SONG: Joan Crawford in Blackface—And That’s Not All!

Early on in Torch Song, the 1953 MGM “musical” starring Joan Crawford as an uber-diva, she’s kvetching to her producer (James Todd):

Crawford: “The script needs jokes, the music needs cutting and the staging—aaugh, it stinks!”
Todd: “You don’t think it’s going to be a flop?”
Crawford: “No show Jenny Stewart’s in is going to be a flop—if I have to pull every trick in the book to make it hang together!”

Torch Song, on the other hand, doesn’t hang together. And everyone involved with it should have hanged separately.

But let’s start with what’s good about it. (Don’t worry—it’ll only take a paragraph!) Before filming began, Crawford reportedly sashayed into director Charles Walters’ office wearing only a robe, opened it up as one might a Christmas gift, and declared, “I just want you to see what you’re getting!” Walters, who was gay, was not impresssed. But I gotta tell you, I’m a straight woman and when I saw her body in this movie, I was mesmerized. The 47-year-old Joan shows off a teeny-tiny waist and fabulous legs so trim and firm you could bounce quarters off them. If I were built like that, I’d be flashing busloads of strangers on Fifth Avenue.

When we first meet Crawford as Jenny Stewart, she’s swanning around the rehearsal hall, badgering and bullying everyone in sight. The music’s all wrong. The director’s an idiot. And her dance partner (played by director Walters, a former Broadway hoofer) is clumsily crashing into her carefully framed arc. Yes, yes, we get it: If only she had a pair of rollerskates, she could be an actual Bitch on Wheels.

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After her browbeaten pianist hightails it out of town, Tye Graham (Michael Wilding), a sensitive war veteran who was blinded in battle, steps in to take his place—and immediately challenges the star about slowing down the tempo of the number they’re working on. Wilding does his best to mix it up with Crawford, but he never really stands a chance. By the early 1950s, she had morphed from being tough to being downright hard. (Were there ever two badder hombres than Joan and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar?) Watching her spar with Wilding is like watching a bulldozer plow through a mountain of meringue. Still, we know he’s going to tame and soften her—because we’re beaten about the head with that notion pretty much from “Hello.”

“Did you ever hear of a defense mechanism?” the pipe-smoking pianist asks. “You’re scared. Women need admiration. More than food or drink, women need admiration.”

The entire plot is so telegraphed I’m not sure if it was directed by Charles Walters or Western Union.

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The one actor Crawford does have chemistry with is her old friend Marjorie Rambeau, who snagged an Oscar nomination playing her earthy mother. “They don’t make beer like they did when your father was drinkin’ it. You could taste the hops!” she recalls a bit mistily after flouncing on the sofa for a snack. “And the pretzels don’t have enough salt on ‘em to make a cat thirsty!” When she leaves, you’ll find yourself plaintively calling after her, “Come back! Please, please for the love of God come back!”

Oh and poor Gig Young is floundering around in this stew as well, playing Jenny’s agent and occasional paramour—and as usual, he doesn’t get the girl and he does get drunk, early and often. But about midway through the film, he vanishes, perhaps to join some sort of Supporting Actors’ Witness Protection Program. Or maybe he’s hiding under here:

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In a rare misfire, costume designer Helen Rose seems to have gone on a quest to buy up every hideous piece of cloth west of the Pecos. The sheer volume of the fabric is matched only by the glaring intensity of the colors. (I know this was the Atomic Age, but must the clothes look radioactive?) The blouses are big, stiff taffeta numbers, and the giant, swooping skirts are the type that stand on their own even with no one in them. (And if they had any shame, they would run away.) The only relief is provided by a lovely, simple pair of white cotton pajamas that seem to have wandered in from another movie. Not to be outdone for sheer godawfulness, Joan’s coiffure looks like some sort of plastered-in-place tribute to Winged Victory—over even a monsoon.

With hair and costumes this dreadful, it’s no wonder that when Joan throws a cocktail party midway through the movie, she doesn’t invite a single female guest. Who needs the (potentially well-dressed) competition?

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But hey, this is an MGM musical right? So how about the music? Well, while no one would accuse Louis B. Mayer of being a progressive, he was always far ahead of the curve when it came to recycling songs. And almost every tune in this film began its life somewhere else.

The opening number, where Crawford chews out Walters, is “You’re All the World to Me,” which Fred Astaire famously danced on the ceiling to in Royal Wedding. At least they had the good grace to come up with a new arrangement for that one, which is more than they did elsewhere.  India Adams, who dubs the vocals for Crawford, had done the same for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon. And when “Two-Faced Woman” failed to make the cut in that film, they just brought the whole song over—lock, stock and embarrassment. For some reason that only the saints or perhaps Satan can understand, Crawford and the entire chorus do this number in blackface:

Was it done to distract (horrify?) the audience away from Crawford’s leaden footwork? Because when the one-time Charleston champion does a two-step, you can practically hear her counting to two. Her wildly joyless dancing conveys all the warmth and grace of your high school gym teacher. And when she mouths the truly awful lyrics, she heaves like she’s purging an alien from her body. Though you can hardly blame her for that.

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If you miss the final scene because you’re too busy picking up what’s left of your jaw after it crashes to the floor, rest assured that Crawford and Wilding do finally succumb to their total lack of chemistry and wind up embracing in a lumpen heap on the floor of his apartment.

If you need a palate cleanser after all that, and God knows I do, take a look at these fabulous behind-the-scenes pix of Joan limbering up and stretching under the watchful eye of her poodle. If they’d had any sense (or taste!), they would have scrubbed Torch Song entirely and just shot an amazing exercise video with these two:

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