Welcome to an April-foolish Monday edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we embed free films for you to watch right here!
From 1969, it’s Stuart Rosenberg’s The April Fools.
We first meet Howard Brubaker (Jack Lemmon)—newly promoted to a corner office on Wall Street—as he awkwardly elbows his way through a shady parade of partygoers who look like Holly Golightly’s hangers-on eight years down the line. But then—literally across a crowded room—he spots Catherine (Catherine Deneuve), also in need of rescue, and together they flee into the warm city night.
After an awkward outing at a jungle-themed cafe and the obligatory bout of gyrating at a groovy ’60s club, they come to the aid of Grace (Myrna Loy, luscious in a sherbet-colored caftan), a grande dame in distress whose chauffeur is too sloshed to drive her home. To her castle. Where husband Charles Boyer awaits. (Wait, is this still the movie, or one of those old-Hollywood fever dreams I sometimes fall into after a couple-too-many glasses of sherry?) Grace draws Catherine into a tarot card reading as a roundabout way of advising her to hang onto Howard and give her husband the air.
Oh yes did I mention both Howard and Catherine are married to other people?But they’re fed up with their social-climbing spouses and tired of the pretext they’re forced to keep up… you get the feeling that before they met, they were too beaten down to even realize how miserable they were. After finding Catherine, Howard tells his best friend, “All my life I’ve been tense and I never knew it.” Yes. That feeling where you’d grown so used to the pain you were barely aware of it any more—until someone came along and made it go away.
Shirley MacLaine was originally set to play Catherine, but bowed out to make Sweet Charity and barnstorm for Bobby Kennedy for President. (His brother-in-law Peter Lawford stayed on in the film, as Catherine’s husband.) And as adorable as a Lemmon-MacLaine reunion might have been, Deneuve, who can express pain and weariness with the slightest shift of her brow, gets the mood just right. And her cool grace plays perfectly off her co-star’s essential Jack Lemmon-ness.
So on this April Fools Day, what do I wish most for you? That you find someone who looks at you the way Jack Lemmon looks at Catherine Deneuve. Or the way he looked at Shirley MacLaine. Or even the way he looked at Walter Matthau. Honest to God, no one has ever poured more pure, unabashed how-did-I-ever-get-so-lucky love into a single gaze.
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you free, fabulous films! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?
There’s a certain luminous quality that shines through when a director is in love with his leading lady. In Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman, starring Barbara Stanwyck, it’s all over the screen.
This was the second film for these kindred spirits—whose relationship got off to such a rocky start, the real miracle is that they ended up working together at all.
In 1930, as Capra prepared to shoot Ladies of Leisure, he got an urgent call from Columbia boss Harry Cohn.
“He asked me to talk to an ex-chorus girl who made a hit in a stage play called Burlesque,” Capra recalled in his memoir, The Name Above the Title. “He had a hunch about her. I was annoyed. I had a girl already set.
“She came into my office sullen, plainly dressed, no makeup,” he went on. “Obviously hating the whole idea of the interview, she sat on the edge of her chair and answered in curt monosyllables. I didn’t want her before she came in, and what I saw of this drip made me sure of it. After about thirty seconds of the usual inane questions… she jumped to her feet and and snapped, ‘Oh, hell, you don’t want any part of me,’ and she ran out. I phoned Cohn. ‘Harry, forget Stanwyck. She’s not an actress. She’s a porcupine.'”
When Stanwyck came home in tears, her husband, comedian Frank Fay, called Capra in a rage. According to the director, it went something like this:
“Look, fella, what the hell did you do to my wife?”
“Do to her? I couldn’t even talk to her!”
“Well she came home crying and upset. No one can do that to my wife!”
“Listen, funny man, I don’t want any part of your wife, or of you. She came in here with a chip on her shoulder, and she went out with an axe on it.”
Fay chalked Stanwyck’s defensiveness up to nerves and urged Capra to view a brief screen test she’d made for The Noose, for Alexander Korda over at Warner Bros. The director reluctantly agreed to spare the three minutes.
“The test flashed on the screen. Nothing in the world was going to make me like it,” Capra recalled. “After only thirty seconds I got a lump in my throat as big as an egg… never had I heard or seen such emotional sincerity. When it was over, I had tears in my eyes. I was stunned.”
Capra bolted from the screening room to call Cohn:
“Harry! Harry! We’ve got to sign Stanwyck for the part…”
“What’re you, nuts? A half-hour ago you told me she was a kook!”
“Yeah, yeah but I just saw a test of her—she’ll be terrific… don’t let her get away.”
Within the hour, Stanwyck was signed for Ladies of Leisure. But it was her next project with Capra, The Miracle Woman, that’s probably the biggest sleeper of his long and legendary career.
Based on the play Bless You, Sister by Robert Riskin and John Meehan—with generous dollops of inspiration from the notorious evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson—The Miracle Woman centers on Florence Fallon (Stanwyck), whose father, a preacher, has been shunted aside by his congregation for a younger man.
On the morning he’s to deliver his final sermon, Florence takes to the pulpit to announce he’s just died in her arms—and delivers a blistering diatribe of her own: “You killed him! For thirty years, he tried to touch your stony hearts with the mercies of God—and failed. Why? Because you don’t want God!” As she starts to single out the churchgoers for their sins and hypocrisies—drinking, carousing, the usual stuff—they scurry from their pews toward the exits.
It’s the kind of scene that usually caps off a movie rather than opening one—but Stanwyck is just getting started. And so is Florence: one of the few people who doesn’t flee the church is Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy), a local huckster who tells her how she can “get famous, get rich, and get even.”
“Religion is like anything else,” he purrs, sidling in closer. “It’s great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away.” The two team up for a traveling tent show called the Temple of Happiness, complete with fire, brimstone and “miracles”—designed to bring desperate people closer to God and further away from their money.
One day, as Florence promotes the show on a local radio station, she actually saves someone. John Carson (David Manners), a flier who was blinded in the Great War, has just had the latest in a long line of rejections from music publishers sending back his songs. He’s mailed them off to every company in the phone book, from A to Z. “Where do you go after Z?” he despairs. His answer: to the window. But just before he’s set to jump, he hears Florence’s voice from an apartment across the courtyard: “What did God give man the backbone for? To stand up on his own two feet! Beethoven wrote his greatest symphonies after he went deaf… God can forgive a sinner, but not a quitter!”
John backs away from the ledge as if struck in the face, and shows up at the tent show that night—even taking to the stage to help Florence re-enact the parable of Daniel in the lion’s den. (With real lions. In these days before process screen photography, the only thing separating the actors from the animals was a thin piece of netting. “I could smell their breath,” recalled Manners, but I’m guessing the poor lions were even more miserable than he was.)
John is thrilled when Florence follows up their first meeting with several visits to his dingy little flat—but he’s nervous and awkward, falling back on sleight-of-hand card tricks to entertain her. To express his growing affection, he even hides behind his wooden dummy, who confides, “He keeps me locked up until he gets in a jam and then he hauls me out.”
(Yes, he does card tricks and a ventriloquist act. Somebody shoot me. But in the hands of David Manners, it’s touching and charming.)
Florence is falling hard too, and the more time she spends with John, the dirtier she feels onstage as a “miracle woman.” His tenderness and trust wear down her bitterness until she can no longer tolerate the fraud she’s neck-deep in—but she can’t seem to pull herself out either. “I don’t know how to play on the level any more,” she confesses to John. “And God wouldn’t believe me under oath.”
Determined to restore Florence’s faith in herself, John pulls some gallant fakery of his own—and even though she sees through it, she’s inspired enough to give up the grift, whatever the consequences. Much as she leapt to the pulpit of her father’s church, she takes to the stage and tells the gathered faithful a few truths they don’t want to hear. The results are shattering.
Capra saidThe Miracle Woman failed to follow his intended vision of “one woman’s life in three acts: disillusion, venality, conversion.” Credit Stanwyck with that “failure”: nothing is ever that cut-and-dried with her. Even at her most “venal,” a conscience is beating beneath—and when she regains her faith, it’s with a wariness that never completely melts away.
As Capra quickly discovered, much of Stanwyck’s power came from throwing everything she had into her first take—whether the cameras were rolling or not. “All subsequent repetitions, in rehearsals or retakes, were pale copies of her original performance,” he recalled. To harness that raw emotion rather than squander it on prep work, “I had to rehearse the rest of the cast without her, work out the physical movements without her.
“And the crews had problems,” Capra explained. “I had to take the ‘heart’ of the scene—the vital close-ups of Barbara—first, and with multiple cameras so she would only have to do it once.” He would go over the scene in the dressing room with his star, working through the emotions while never allowing her to act anything out. Then, as she stepped onto the soundstage, he’d gently remind her: “No matter what the other actors do, whether they stop or blow their lines—you continue your scene right to the end.” He marveled that “she remembered every word I said—and she never blew a line.”
Capra and Stanwyck would go on to make three more films together: the melodrama Forbidden, the wildly underrated The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and the classic Meet John Doe.
“Underneath her sullen shyness smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt,” Capra recalled in his memoir, still thunderstruck decades later. “Naive, unsophisticated, caring nothing about makeup, clothes or hairdos, the chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces. She knew nothing about camera tricks, how to ‘cheat’ her looks so her face could be seen, how to restrict her body movements in close shots. She just turned it on—and everything else on stage stopped.
“It’s true that directors often fall in love with their leading ladies—at least while making a film together,” he admitted. “I fell in love with Stanwyck, and had I not been more in love with Lucille Reyburn I would have asked Barbara to marry me after she called it quits with Frank Fay.”
When she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1987, a radiant Stanwyck said the time she spent with Capra was the key to everything that came after. “Frank Capra… taught me what film was all about and what film could do for me and what I could do for film… each day was a learning process and it was wonderful… that’s why I’m here tonight—Mr. Frank Capra.”
A typically modest assessment of her own power onscreen, which a gifted director felt instantly, honored reverently, and harnessed brilliantly.
I used to slog through the bloated Oscar show every year just to see the honorary awards for Lifetime Achievement, which were grudgingly doled out to classic stars and directors the Academy had criminally ignored throughout their careers. But then a few years ago, they banished them to a smaller event that’s not even televised. (“You’re being honored for decades of brilliant work? Hey, we’ll be sure to post a link on YouTube!”) Then this year, they planned to squeeze the Cinematography, Editing, Live-Action Shorts and Makeup/Hairstyling awards into commercial breaks. (They claimed they were “forced to,” but somehow when folks like Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron blasted them for it, they backed down. So “forced to” was really more like “try to get away with.”)
If they shaft living Academy members this shamelessly, God help those who are gone. Which brings us to our annual list of snubs from the Oscar memorialreel.
HOLLYWOOD, CA – SEPTEMBER 18: Actor and one of “The Munchkins” from the “Wizard of Oz” Jerry Maren is immortalized with a hand and footprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre on September 18, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
As usual, they somehow found time to get several publicists in there, and who among us doesn’t count their press releases among our favorite film moments. But they left out Stanley Donen. I actually had to rewind the whole thing to make sure that was true. How long would it have taken to make a last-minute addition for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar winner?!?
Just as a palate cleanser, to get that awful taste out of your mouth, here he is accepting his award in 1998, and throwing in a little soft shoe:
Also snubbed were actors Verne Troyer, Ricky Jay, R. Lee Ermey, David Ogden Stiers, Charlotte Rae, Hugh Dane, Scott Wilson, Dick Miller, Jo Andres, Anthony Vajna, Eunice Gayson, Philip Bosco, Michele Carey, Peter Donat, Douglas Rain, Louise Latham, Dolores Taylor, Sondra Locke, Bob Einstein, Pamela Gidley, Harry Anderson, Liliane Montevecchi, Vanessa Marquez, Ken Berry, Bibi Ferreira, Carmen Argenziano, Joe Sirola, Nita Bieber, Kristoff St. John, Clive Swift, Louisa Moritz, Kevin Barnett, Verna Bloom, Robert Mandan and Louis Zorich; writers Harlan Ellison and Christopher Knopf; producers Arnold Kopelson, Meg Randall, Alan Johnson, Gary Kurtz and Philip D’Antoni (who produced Bullitt and won an Oscar for The French Connection); directors Stan Dragoti, Michael Anderson, Vijaya Bapineedu, Larry Brand and Lewis Gilbert; composer Arthur B. Rubinstein; stuntman Jimmy Nickerson; and designer Hubert de Givenchy.
Classic film always seems to get slammed especially hard in the memorial reel, which gets more painful as there are ever-fewer artists left to honor. Left out along with Donen were Donald Moffat, Allyn Ann McLerie, Mary Carlisle (still an active supporter of classic film when she was over 100), Connie Sawyer (whose career spanned ten decades), William Phipps, Tom Reese, Dewey Martin, Jean Porter, Liz Fraser, Jerry Maren, Carol Channing, Kaye Ballard, Chuck McCann, Julie Adams, Joseph Campanella, Patricia Morison, Clint Walker, Rose Marie, and Charles Aznavour. And Gloria Jean and Susan Miller, who, 77 years after co-starring in W.C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, died five days apart.
Whenever they’re called out on their slights (even overlooking Oscar winners), the Academy’s stock responses are: the show is so very short on time (while still managing to fit in lame bits, canned banter, and endless commercials), and there’s a longer list on the website. But all that does is set up a creepy A-list/B-list for dead people. (Does this never end in Hollywood?) It’s gotten to the point where pre-show lobbying campaigns have become a sad annual ritual.
I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as they keep dissing people, we’ll keep trying to honor them here. And the ones we miss, please point out in comments so we can add them (the timeframe is from last year’s March 4 telecast to tonight’s show).
Godspeed and heartfelt thanks to all of them—from the little people out here in the dark…
This has nothing to do with classic film, but I feel like you’re family, so I hope you’ll bear with me in remembering my sweet, beloved Linus, who we lost last week. He lived to be sixteen years and eight months old, but his life seemed to go by in the blink of an eye.
We adopted him when he was just shy of three; he had been so horribly abused that a neighbor called the woman who ran the local no-kill shelter and begged her to somehow get the people who had him—I refuse to call them his family—to surrender him. In his early days with us, his trauma surfaced in heartbreaking ways, as when my husband Tim pulled on a pair of heavy boots to go out and shovel snow—and Linus wailed and shook violently, ran to a corner, and tried to dig his way into the wall.
When we first met him at the shelter, he was clearly anxious to be let out of the kennels. Far and away the smallest dog there, he broke free of his handler, snuggled into a spot on the sofa between us, sighed, and settled in. He was home already. While we waited to sign the final adoption papers—we’d already been through an application process the FBI would gaze upon in awe—I ran through a bunch of names in my mind. “What about Linus?” I asked Tim, thinking of the Peanuts character. “He’s looks so sweet and thoughtful, like he’s got a lot on his mind.” And when we got him home, the first thing he did was burrow deep into his carrier and pull out something that had been scrunched up in the back: his blanket.
He sniffed his way around his new home, and just to make sure we knew it was his, he peed on every rug. Then he curled up on the sofa with his brand-new stuffed bear, chewed the nose off and gleefully pulled out the stuffing.
The bear would be first of a long string of victims which ran the gamut from stuffed toys to silk eye masks.
Linus 1, Mister Fluffy Bunny 0.
And oh, yes, that poor Santa hat—his revenge for the 15 seconds he had to wear this silly outfit for a Christmas card photo.
He literally loved his soccer ball to bits, and no shiny new replacement—even if it was exactly the same thing—ever made him as happy. So I’d just grab his old one, gather up the trail of stuffing strewn across the living room floor, and sew it all back together again.
Only the Grinch was spared from being torn apart, and they became such fast friends that I took to leaving him out all year.
When we first brought Linus home, we weren’t sure how long his walks should be. No one had ever bothered to take him for a real walk before—at the shelter they’d heard he’d been let out in the yard maybe once or twice a day. And being a dachshund, he took a whole bunch of steps for every one of ours. So we decided to just walk him until he got tired.
He never got tired.
After three or four miles, I’d be splayed face-down on the sofa, and he’d be like, “So, where are we goin’ now, Ma?”
Before moving upstate, we split our time between there and Brooklyn. And sometimes before we even got to the street, he’d meet Patty or Helen or Michelle from our apartment building, who all adored him. And oh was it mutual. He’d squeal and yip, waggle his butt, and run up and smoosh against them, just unable to contain himself. And he’d bark at their husbands.
Down the street we sometimes ran into Jeff and John, who’d swoop off their stoop the minute they saw Linus. They even bought dog biscuits to keep on hand for him. One night when we passed Jeff, we didn’t stop because he was on the phone. But he let out a whoop and waved us over. He proceeded to tell the guy on the other end Linus’s entire life story—and then ignored him completely talk to Linus, asking over and over, “Who’s a good boy?”
We’d often stop at the coffee shop on our walks, where he’d make new friends. In the summer, I’d often hear a sudden “Ooh!” only to turn and discover Linus had rubbed his cold nose against someone’s bare calf. And then there was the firefighter with arms roughly the size of Bluto’s, who cooed baby-talk to him and treated me to a cappucino because he loved him so madly.
It took my breath away how open-hearted Linus was, after all the horrors he’d been through. People hold grudges for years, sometimes forever, over the tiniest slight. But once Linus was safe and happy and loved, he was willing—happy, even—to give the whole human race a second chance. He was such an old soul, such a sweet spirit.
For all his years in our family, Linus went with us just about everywhere. He especially loved the “come-withs” in the country. And because he was crazy-smart, he picked up on clues instantly. When he saw Tim make any move toward the Linus bag—the little canvas pouch with his portable water dish and snacks—he’d go crazy. He also went nuts when I took my bra out of the drawer, because it meant I was going somewhere so probably he was too. It got to the point where if we were heading out without him on the weekend, I had to sneak my bra out when he wasn’t looking.
We took him on our vacations…
…on camping trips…
…on family visits to the lake and cruises up the Hudson…
…on day hikes (where once he was super-excited to meet a countryman)…
…to every park we could find (whether he was allowed there or not)…
…to street fairs and festivals…
…and to restaurants, where, on the rare occasion we dined outside without him, we’d get grilled about it by the waiters. (“We were just out shopping and we didn’t know we’d be stopping to eat!” we’d plead, heads down, like guilty criminals.) At one place where we dined often, the manager would greet him with a full plate of bacon. One day, a woman at a nearby table complained, “You served that dog before you waited on me!” and he replied dryly, “He’s a regular.” To know Linus was to love him to the point of obliviousness to all else.
And, um, yes, he had a little portable bed, to protect him from the hard ground. (Though sometimes after we finished our meals, he’d venture off just far enough to sneak a peek at what the people at the next table were having.)
He also had a bed to cushion his naps in the backyard. Okay fine, two beds.
Mostly, though, he roughed it.
Oh and he had a bed in the car, though sometimes it was more of a pillow.
Though having fluffy beds pretty much everywhere, including three in the house, didn’t stop him from checking out other options.
Linus was so sweet and supremely silly…
Once, in a rare attempt at hunting, he somehow wound up in a stack of planters, while the chipmunk had long since scampered down the driveway.
When it was too chilly for the yard but just warm enough to get near it, he loved to watch the world from the screenporch.
Being so close to the ground, Linus was not a huge fan of the cold and wet. (When we got a couple of inches of snow, I’d croon, “It’s up to your knees out there…”) He’d take a few steps and then lift a chilly front paw as if to say, “Taxi!” And I’d pick him up and carry him out to the plowed road for a quick walk. Then he’d come in for a vigorous pat-down with his super-absorbent doggie towel, play-fight with it after he was dry and happy, and burrow under his blankets again.
Always a sun puppy, in bleakest February he’d follow the scant rays around the house. (I call this The Linus in Winter.)
On sleepy weekend mornings, Linus had a little ritual he loved. I’d give him breakfast and take him out for a walk—and then he’d all but march me back to bed. (Tim was usually still there.) He’d head toward the bedroom, stop and turn around to make sure I was following him, and harrumph at me if I wasn’t moving fast enough. Then he’d stand by the bed and wait to be lifted up, barking at me to follow him under the covers so the three of us could snuggle.
He also made a huge fuss whenever Tim came home. You’ve seen the heartwarming videos of dogs whooping and jumping and hurling themselves wildly at returning soldiers, who’ve been away for years? That was Linus when Tim came back from the deli.
He loved belly rubs…
…and deep, long snoozes, and honest to God you’d sell your soul to sleep like that for five minutes.
And if he snoozed on something I needed, I’d just wait until he woke up.
He was also great at self-snuggling, where one minute he was lying flat on his blanket and the next he was a dachshund burrito.
Linus never met a snack he didn’t like (that’s a telltale yogurt ring on his face)…
…and his devotion to whatever you had on your plate bordered on the monastic.
A couple of weeks after we brought him home, we went out to a family dinner and brought home a big, fat, juicy steak bone. When we gave it to Linus, he didn’t seem to know what to do with it at first—because apparently in his almost three years of doggie life, no one had ever given him a bone. But he quickly caught on, and wouldn’t let go. We somehow managed to pry it away from him for his nightly walk, but upon returning, he raced down the hall, frantic to reclaim his prize. After that, he got lots of bones.
When my Mom visited, she actually teased us about spoiling him. Imagine. And then there was this.
But how else would I treat my best editor? When I was stuck for a word, I could always turn to him for support. Or, more often, just chuck what I was working on and curl up with him.
He’d also sense our miseries and truly sympathize. Whenever I cried, whether from something real or even an old movie, I’d soon find him clinging close to me.
Every autumn, on the Feast of St. Francis, we took Linus to be blessed, which I think may have helped him through the health crises in his life.
In the summer of 2007, a few weeks after my company closed its doors, I was spending some time with Linus upstate. One day, rather than racing around the yard, he seemed sluggish, mostly sitting in one spot under a tree. I chalked it up to the weather, which had grown more sultry as the afternoon wore on, and thought it best to bring him inside. But when I picked him up, he howled in pain. Trying (and failing) not to panic, I softly cradled him into his bed and called the vet, but they’d already closed. So I called a cab to get to the emergency vet in the next town.
An hour passed. No cab. By now the sky was black, and it was pouring. I called again (I vaguely remember screaming). A half-hour later, the cabbie drove right past me as I stood on the screenporch frantically waving my arms. I ran outside, caught up with him and jumped right in front of the car.
By the time Linus made it to the vet, his back legs were paralyzed. He had ruptured a disc and needed emergency surgery, but whether he’d ever walk again was highly uncertain. They brought him into the back, gave him steroids, pain medication and sedatives to stabilize him overnight, and told me to get him to Cornell veterinary hospital first thing in the morning. I called Tim from the front desk, sobbing so hard he could barely understand what I was saying.
As I waited for him to drive up from the city, I sat outside crying on a bench under an awning, as the rain pounded against it. A woman who’d seen me inside came out, sat beside me, and pulled my head onto her shoulder. “He’ll be alright,” she said over and over, like a lullaby, or maybe a prayer. I’ll never forget her. (And she was right.)
During the drive up to Cornell, I sat in back with Linus. Bundled in blankets, he clung to my lap, drifting in and out of a fearful, fitful sleep, trembling the whole time. When we arrived, they whisked him into surgery within an hour, removed the ruptured disc and fused the ones on either side. They were going to keep him for another three days, but he was so scared and miserable in his cage—he hadn’t spent a night without us since we first brought him home—that they let him leave a day early, giving us strict instructions on how to get him back on his feet.
Naturally, at first, he was wobbly as a newborn foal. I’d hold him as he took a few halting steps and then lose his footing and stumble to the ground. I started to look into scooters, in case he needed one. But then suddenly, less than a week after surgery, he went from staggering to running, in a single motion. So there we were in the yard, him scampering around like he’d never left, like it was just another Tuesday, and me crying my head off. I started to call Tim, but then I put the phone down. I wanted Linus to surprise
him when he came home.
The only lingering result of his trauma was that occasionally when he sat down, he would swing one leg out to the side, like Rita Hayworth in her pinup shots.
I told Tim if anything ever happened to me, he should take me to Cornell and tell them I’m a German Shepherd.
A few years later, a routine vet visit turned up some disturbing lab results. So we went back to Cornell, where a battery of tests revealed a dangerous tumor. He needed surgery right away, and the only available slot was the day before Thanksgiving. For the second time, everything went perfectly, and in their post-op report, the clearly perceptive vets actually wrote, “Linus is a very good dog.” Tim and I had our holiday dinner at the only place we could find open, a bar in downtown Ithaca. I ordered a cocktail, only to have the waiter snap, “Today we have beer and wine and that’s it.” Yipes. But since he was stuck working, I could hardly blame him for sounding like Sheldon Leonard in It’s a Wonderful Life. (“We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere!”)
And once again Linus, desperate to go home, was released early, enjoying some post-holiday deli turkey on the trip back.
But the following year, Linus was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, which is something of a plague for dachshunds. Every story I dug up was more horrible than the one before, and the typical prognosis was two years. Linus was blessed with another four, and until he was near the end, fate was somewhat benevolent to him. But in the last few months, one by one, a series of cruel symptoms came crashing down on him. Cushing’s attacked his retinas, dementia darkened his wonderful mind, and sometimes he struggled to stand. Before, the vets always had an answer. Now they had none.
Often I’d pick him up, wrap my arms close around him, and try to will time and trauma away. Do your worst to me, I’d plead, but leave his little fourteen-pound body alone.
It’s one of the cruelest twists of nature that they get so much less time on this earth than we do. I would have happily shared my years with him if I could have.
The night before Linus died, Tim and I slept on either side of him, guardians at the gate with nothing left in our desperately depleted arsenal but how much we loved him. At first, he shared my pillow, his nose pressed against my neck. But then he shifted, resting his head on my hand and curling his body into the crook of my arm. Then he sighed and settled down, just as he did those first few moments we welcomed him into our family.
Despite his age and his illness, losing Linus was an awful, sudden shock. Losing someone you love so much always is; there’s no “preparing” for it. It’s not just a turn of phrase to say I don’t know what to do without him. I really don’t. I can’t put his beds and blankets and bowls away, but I can’t bear to look at them either. I can barely breathe.
I know he lived a long, happy life, and he was loved like crazy, and we’ll always have our memories of him. But none of that helps right now. I’ve collapsed in tears in the diner, in the supermarket, on the street, everywhere. And it’s worse at home. I wake up crying and go to sleep the same way. I miss everything about him, even the smallest things, like the sound of him lapping at his water bowl and his paws click-clacking on the floor. As little as he was, he filled the house. And he filled my heart. Losing him has thrown open the gates to a very dark place I can’t find my way out of without him.
Goodnight and sleep safe, my sweet, silly, beautiful, beloved pup. You were such an indescribable blessing, beyond any words I can find. I have no idea if there’s a God, but there better be a Heaven for you. May the angels hold you as close as we did for all those wonderful years.
Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY! This week, we’re off to see The Wizard of Oz on the big screen, courtesy of TCM and Fathom Events. For tickets, just click here!
But before heading out, let’s take a peek at what was really going on behind the curtain. The Kansas tornado was nothing compared to the blizzard of cast and script changes—not to mention the many mishaps, including a couple of near-fatalities. Even Toto didn’t escape unscathed…
Dorothy: Both MGM unit head Arthur Freed and music maven Roger Edens fought for Judy Garland, but Louis B. Mayer—who often derided the painfully insecure teenager as “my little hunchback”—pressured producer Mervyn LeRoy to do whatever it took to land Shirley Temple for the lead. Fortunately, all attempts to get 20th Century Fox to loan out the wildly popular moppet went nowhere. (However, the long-standing rumor that MGM offered to swap the services of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for Temple is false; Harlow succumbed to renal failure in June 1937, before MGM even had the rights to the book.) Deanna Durbin, whom Mayer openly preferred to Garland, was also considered—but because the film initially had a sub-plot involving Betty Jaynes, another operatic singer, she was dropped from the running. So Mayer had to “settle” for Judy. (Oh and her ruby slippers were originally silver, as they were in the book. But in the age of Technicolor, red won out.)
The Scarecrow: Buddy Ebsen was the first loose-limbed, lanky dancer to step into the role, which would have worked out much better for him, as we’ll soon see… but Ray Bolger ultimately carried the day (and the hay). He also carried lines on his face from the rubber prosthetics for more than a year after filming ended. For that kind of grief, you’d think they’d have left his original dance number—longer, trippier, and choreographed by none other than Busby Berkeley—in the film:
The Tin Man: Much to his disappointment, Bolger was first cast in this clunkier role. If he’d only had the heart… but he longed to be the Scarecrow, the part he’d seen his childhood hero, Fred Stone, play in the 1902 Broadway show—which is what inspired him to hit the boards in the first place. “I’m not a tin performer—I’m fluid!” he reportedly pleaded to LeRoy, who finally caved in, allowing Bolger and Ebsen to swap roles. Ebsen was an absolute peach about the whole thing, even teaching Bolger the “wobbly walk” he’d perfected in rehearsals. But no good deed goes unpunished, and this one almost killed him: after about a week of breathing in the toxic aluminum powder that covered his “tin” face, Ebsen was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. (At first, Mayer—who assumed other people’s morals were as low as his own—thought the actor was faking an illness as some sort of contract ploy. So he dispatched his minions to the hospital—where they found Ebsen strapped into an iron lung.)
When Jack Haley, on loan from Fox, arrived to replace him, the make-up artists were much more careful: they protected his face with a thick layer of white greasepaint and diluted the aluminum powder into a paste. (Oh, and they never told him why his predecessor left the film—on a stretcher.) Ebsen didn’t vanish entirely, though: his voice can still be heard in the group vocals, as there was no time to re-record them.
And given all the gruesome drama surrounding the Tin Man, perhaps it’s appropriate that they used chocolate syrup to produce his tears—a technique later used by Hitchcock for the blood circling the drain in Psycho.
The Cowardly Lion: Bert Lahr’s costume was made of actual lion pelts—and weighed almost 100 pounds. The valiant wardrobe team did their best to rinse the sweat out of the sopping-wet suit at the end of each day, but, in the words of one unlucky staffer, “it reeked.”
The Wicked Witch of the West: Initially, the witch was fashioned along the glamorous lines of the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When she morphed into something decidedly more hag-like—including green skin, a long, pointy nose and a wart or ten—Gale Sondergaard, MGM’s original choice, pointed her pumps toward the exit. Margaret Hamilton was cast just three days before shooting began. Told by her agent she was up for a part in the film, she asked which one. “The wicked witch—what else?” he helpfully replied. (That 10% they get? It ain’t for morale-boosting!)
She didn’t get much more respect after she signed on: her dressing room was a makeshift canvas tent, while Billie Burke had a hideaway that MGM dreams are made of. “She had a pink and blue dressing room, with pink and blue powder puffs and pink and blue bottles filled with powder and baby oil—and pink and blue peppermints,” Hamilton later recalled, admitting that she sometimes popped in for a nap on the glamorous Glinda’s days off.
And God knows she needed the rest, as she proved to be the second casualty on the set: In the scene where she seems to disappear in a cloud of fire and smoke, she very nearly did. At the last minute, a moving platform was supposed to lower her out of harm’s way, but her cape got snagged and she was trapped amid the flames—which fed on the greasepaint and copper makeup slathered on her face, arms and hands. Before she could be pulled free, the fire had seared into her skin, leaving her with second- and third-degree burns. Wise woman that she was, she later refused to do a post-production pick-up scene that involved a flaming broomstick. So they had to make do with maiming her stand-in: the smoke mechanism exploded, burning and permanently scarring Betty Danko’s legs.
The Wizard of Oz: After Ed Wynn refused the part because it wasn’t big enough, MGM turned to W.C. Fields, who thought the paycheck wasn’t big enough. During a few protracted rounds of haggling—they offered $75,000, he wanted $100,000—the producers burned while Fields fiddled. They finally gave out and offered the role to Frank Morgan.
Oh and here’s a story you might have to close your eyes and click your heels together to believe, but some swear it’s true, and if it isn’t (which is probably the case), it should be: When wardrobe staffers went scavenging through second-hand stores to find the perfect tattered coat for Morgan, they returned with an armload of samples for Victor Fleming to choose from. He settled on one he thought conveyed just the right touch of “shabby gentility”—and, idly turning out the pockets, found a label with L. Frank Baum’s name on it. An MGM publicist reportedly contacted the tailor and Baum’s widow, who confirmed it was his (he did live in L.A. for a time), and the studio presented her with the coat at filming’s end.
Toto: Shirley Temple may never have made it to Oz, but she did meet Toto five years before Garland did. Terry the terrier appeared in 16 films, including Temple’s Bright Eyes, as well as Fury, The Women and George Washington Slept Here. In Tortilla Flat, she re-teamed with Morgan and Fleming, and in Twin Beds, she reunited with Hamilton. Her $125 weekly salary for Oz was more than double than that of the Munchkins, who each earned $50 a week. And as it turned out, Terry should have gotten combat pay: one of the Wicked Witch’s heavy-heeled henchmen stepped on her tiny paw and broke it, sidelining her for several weeks. After filming, Garland, who’d fallen in love with the dog, wanted to adopt her, but the owner wouldn’t… surrender Terry.
All of which bring us to the director. Or directors. Richard Thorpe, whose previous work consisted mainly of quickie westerns, was first at the helm, but LeRoy felt he was shooting the film more like a low-budget oater than a lavish fantasy, rushing scenes along and not giving the production the care it deserved.
While he searched for a replacement, LeRoy left the project in the tender hands of George Cukor—who, in his brief stint as caretaker, made some critical changes. First, he ditched Garland’s blonde wig and heavy glamour-girl makeup, which made her look ridiculous and feel worse.
He also told Garland to relax and simply be herself—a lovely, vulnerable teenage girl—which was just what the part called for. Then he did something less crucial but pretty fabulous: he brought in Adrian to design the Wicked Witch’s costume. Which, if you peer beyond the black-on-black, is a real work of art, with its lace bodice, cut-out mutton sleeves, and pouch dangling fetchingly from the hip. To her pointy hat, Adrian added a long, silky-sheer scarf that floats menacingly behind her, like an ill wind.
Cukor was never meant to stay on when production began in earnest; he was due over at Gone with the Wind. Victor Fleming took the reins in October 1938, and oversaw everything but the sepia-tone scenes (including the Over the Rainbow number) that book-end Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. But the following February, he was called away suddenly… to direct Gone with the Wind after Cukor was fired. Fleming’s close friend King Vidor came aboard to gently shepherd the crucial Kansas scenes through to completion, but never publicly acknowledged his involvement until after Fleming’s death in 1949.
And as if Fleming didn’t have enough on his mind during the shoot, he also had to protect Garland from her scenery-chewing companions on the Yellow Brick Road, seasoned old vaudeville pros who were none too excited about surrendering the spotlight to her (as she laughingly recalls in a clip from The Jack Paar Show, below). Ironically, her only close friend on the set was Hamilton, a former kindergarten teacher who gave her some much-needed mothering.
Whew! There’s enough material behind the scenes of The Wizard of Oz for a whole other movie… but in the meantime, enjoy seeing the original again on the big screen!
TINTYPE TUESDAY is a weekly feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click here—and why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?
She sizzled onscreen with the hottest leading men in Hollywood—Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Robert Donat, James Stewart, Ronald Colman—but Marlene Dietrich’s most memorable co-star may have been a balding, jowly, irascible middle-aged man. While entertaining the troops during World War II, she ventured within a mile of the German front lines on the arm of Gen. George Patton. When asked why she’d take such a huge risk—especially when the Nazi government had placed a seven-figure bounty on her head—she replied, “Aus anstand.” Out of decency.
A staunch anti-Nazi, the Berlin-born actress had become a U.S. citizen in 1939, refusing a personal request from Adolf Hitler to return to Germany as the centerpiece of his propaganda campaign. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was one of the first in line to sell war bonds.
After barnstorming the country for a year and a half, selling more bonds than any other star, Dietrich headed…
Merry Christmas, my wonderful classic-movie family of friends!!
Here’s a little ditty I wrote, sung to the tune of All I Want For Christmas Is You, celebrating some of the men we all love so much! I say “some” because if I included them all, all I’d get for Christmas is carpal tunnel syndrome.
I hope you like it! Here goes:
I don’t want a lot for Christmas
There is just one thing I need—
All my favorite classic-film gents
Underneath the Christmas tree!
Silver tinsel may be lovely Tucked among the red and green, But it isn’t half as nice as Presents from the silver screen!
Clark and Cary and Tyrone,
I just want you for my own! Make my wish come true! Baby all I want for Christmas Is you… and you… and you…
William Powell and Buster Keaton, Bogie, Coop and Colin Clive! I’ll be decked out in my Deco Waiting for you to arrive!
I would even hang Silk Stockings
High upon the fireplace
If Astaire would come a-calling
With his elegance and grace!
And I want Gene Kelly too,
Singing till the Rain is through!
Make my wish come true!
Baby all I want for Christmas
Is you… and you… and you…
I would laugh for Melvyn Douglas
Louder than Miss Garbo did, And I’d dance for Warner Baxter Better than that Keeler kid!
I’ve reserved a spot for Errol
Right there next to Joel McCrea!
Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda,
Say hello to Charles Boyer!
Hi there, Bob Montgomery!
Grab a spot beneath the tree!
Walter Huston toooooooooo!
Baby all I want for Christmas
Is you… and you… and you…
BAXTER , Warner, 193O , Fox, Renegades.
Leslie, Basil, Claude and Ronnie,
I would surely be a ditz
If I didn’t mistletoe with
Some of those enchanting Brits!
Clear the floor for Jimmy Cagney
Tapping out a Christmas tune!
Let the downstairs neighbors gripe but
I say he can stay till June!
Warren William, Ray Milland!
Join our merry little band!
Joseph Cotten toooooooooo!
Baby all I want for Christmas
Is you… and you… and you…
August 1928: English actor Leslie Howard starring in ‘Her Cardboard Lover’. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)
“I’m so aristocratic on stage it’s a wonder I don’t come out blue when I take a bath.”
Probably best known as the hopelessly haughty Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice—who seemed to smell cabbage whenever Elizabeth Bennet stepped into the room—Frieda Inescort took a wry view of her typecasting. But there was so much more to her than that.
Born with the new century in 1901, Frieda was the daughter of John “Jock” Wrightman and Elaine Inescourt, an Edinburgh journalist and actress who met when he reviewed her performance in a play. Favorably, I assume, as Elaine seemed to be a bit of a galloping narcissist: After her husband divorced her on the grounds of abandonment and adultery, she basically carted Frieda off to convent schools for most of her childhood while she pursued her social life and career—the latter, at least, to limited avail. (Later on, her deep resentment of her daughter’s success left the two permanently estranged.)
With sporadic schooling but possessed of a bearing beyond her years, Frieda was barely out of her teens when she sailed to the States as the personal secretary of Lord Waldorf Astor and his American wife, Nancy. When they headed back home, their adventurous charge stayed on in New York to seek out a stage career, working at the British consulate by day. She made her Broadway debut at just 21, opposite Leslie Howard in A.A. Milne’s comedy The Truth About Blayds. There, she was spotted by Philip Barry, who cast her as the lead in his new play, You and I.
Frieda worked steadily through the 1920s, with key roles in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever and Alfred Wing Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells, and as the headstrong Mary Howard in When Ladies Meet (later played by Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford onscreen). She also shone as Eliza Doolittle in the Theater Guild’s national tour of Pygmalion. But knowing how fragile a stage career could be, she usually kept a day job—and while working at the publishing house of George Putnam (who later married Amelia Earhart), she met her husband, Ben Ray Redman, who soon became the literary critic for the New York Herald Tribune.
She had always resisted the lure of the screen, turning down roles in silents and early talkies. But when Redman was offered a consulting job with Universal Studios, the couple went West. Picking up her stage career in Hollywood, she was quickly singled out and signed by a scout for the Goldwyn Company, and in 1935 made her film debut as Fredric March’s sympathetic secretary in The Dark Angel.
Her natural warmth, set off by her wide eyes, patrician profile, and soothing, melodic voice, should have made her a natural for leading roles. But at 34 (!), she was deemed too old, and quickly settled into secondary parts. Sometimes she supported stars, as in Mary of Scotland, but more often she lost out to romantic rivals, as in Another Dawn, Give Me Your Heart, Beauty for the Asking, You’ll Never Get Rich, and most famously, Pride and Prejudice, where the temperature dropped 30 degrees every time the icy Miss Bingley appeared onscreen.
But every now and then, we got a tantalizing glimpse of what Frieda’s career as a leading lady might have looked like. In Archie Mayo’s Call It a Day—where she’s sixth-billed but clearly the heart of the film—she even gets to cut loose in a comedy, as the befuddled calm at the center of a spring storm that drives her whole family a bit mad. And watching her try to politely fend off Roland Young, as a thoroughly confused but violently smitten suitor, is pure joy.
Early on in the film, they do their best to dowdy her up a bit—at 36, she’s supposed to have been married 22 years, with a grown daughter (21-year-old Olivia de Havilland)—but she’s still pretty breathtaking, especially in the last scene, when Orry-Kelly really comes through for her. She should have had bushels of roles, and scenes, like this.
Even in as broad a film as Call It a Day, Frieda never acted “out loud,” instinctively knowing when to underplay. Utterly natural, she never gave a “look at me” performance, which, I suspect, is one reason she didn’t get the bigger roles she deserved. (That, and of course the fact that, by her mid-thirties, much-older studio bosses had deemed her one step short of decrepitude.)
Her other, rare leading roles were mostly in B-films such as Convicted Woman, Shadow on the Stairs, and Portia on Trial, where she stars as a feminist attorney defending a woman who shot her lover—kind of a precursor to Amanda in Adam’s Rib, but with roughly twice the vitriol. (Sample: “You seem to be a frustrated, mentally snarled woman!”—and that’s from the guy who loves her.)
Walter Abel watches Frieda Inescort while they stand before the judge in the 1937 film Portia on Trial. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Higher-profile films usually found her back in supporting roles. In The Letter, she was Bette Davis’s elegant rock, quick with a cocktail and a silk-clad shoulder. (And like Bette—who needed no double as she furiously crocheted her way through a murder trial—Frieda was one of Hollywood’s inveterate knitters, sending lovely, intricately crafted gifts to friends and colleagues.)
In the mid-1940s, when good movie roles grew inexplicably scarcer, Frieda returned to Broadway for The Soldier’s Wife, The Mermaids Singing and a hit revival of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. After touring with the Shaw play, she returned to Hollywood, often focusing on the fledgling medium of television, including a recurring role on Meet Corliss Archer and a guest turn on Perry Mason. Her last major movie role was as Ann Vickers, Elizabeth Taylor’s increasingly alarmed mother, in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun.
In 1960, while filming a small role in her last movie, The Crowded Sky, Frieda began struggling with her balance and muscle control. Soon after, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and within a year she was walking with the aid of a cane. The following August, her husband of 35 years, overwhelmed by career and financial woes, called her into the bedroom and calmly informed her he’d just swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. He succumbed to an overdose before help could arrive.
The shock and stress of his suicide accelerated the pace of Frieda’s disease, and by the mid-1960s, she was confined to a wheelchair. Determined not to feel helpless, she threw herself into raising funds for local MS organizations. Deeming no task too humble, she’d often join other volunteers collecting donations in malls and outside supermarkets. When her condition worsened and she could no longer live on her own, Frieda reluctantly surrendered her independence and moved to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. She died in February 1976, at 74.
This article is included in the “What a Character!” blogathon. To read the rest of the entries, just click here!
Does the current crop of Christmas movies make you yearn to go back to 1947? I mean even more than you normally do? Then let’s journey together back to that magical time…
…when the lovely Maureen O’Hara was ready to pretty much punch someone in the face. She’d just flown home to Ireland after back-to-back shoots on The Homestretch and Sinbad the Sailor, and was all set to curl up with a cuppa and relax for a spell. So just imagine her excitement when she was suddenly summoned off the sofa and clear across the ocean to New York to star in a little confection called Miracle on 34th Street.
Luckily for 20th Century Fox, she fell in love with the script the instant she read it.
Which is more than you can say for Darryl F. Zanuck, who didn’t want to make the “corny” film at all. Director George Seaton, who’d thrown his heart into the project, fought back hard—finally wangling a paltry $630,000 budget out of the cynical studio boss in exchange for a promise to direct The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, which Zanuck was willing to pour five times as much money into. (And which we all gather ’round the TV to watch every year! Oh wait…)
For O’Hara, a divorced working mother herself, the part of Doris Walker was an especially good fit, and also a chance to cast her glow on the kind of role rarely seen in films of the 1940s. (The powerful Legion of Decency found the portrayal of divorcées on screen to be “morally objectionable.”)
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present a newly restored print of the Oscar¨-winning Christmas classic ÒMiracle on 34th StreetÓ on Thursday, December 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The 35mm print to be screened is from the collection of the Academy Film Archive, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox, and is presented as part of the AcademyÕs Gold Standard screening series. Pictured: Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood, and Maureen O’Hara in a scene from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, 1947.
Once the perfect leading lady was on board, the search for Santa was on. The first choice was Cecil Kellaway, who turned down the part but suggested his cousin, Edmund Gwenn. “I’ve never seen an actor more naturally suited for a role,” O’Hara later recalled.
So much so that until she saw him in street clothes at the wrap party, Natalie Wood—who said she’d been “on the cusp of not believing in Santa Claus”—thought her beloved co-star was the real thing. And this was no sheltered, impressionable child: known as “One Take Natalie” for her photographic memory, Wood was whip-smart and had what Seaton called “an instinctive sense of timing and emotion.” And if she felt Gwenn was Santa Claus, who are we to argue?
Unbeknownst to the thousands of spectators lining the streets of New York, Gwenn was also Santa Claus at the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, even greeting the crowd from the store’s marquee. To make sure he got ample footage, Seaton set up 14 cameras all along the route. “It was a mad scramble to get all the shots we needed because we only got to do each scene once,” recalled O’Hara. “The parade couldn’t stop because we needed a second take!”
In fact, in an era when soundstages ruled the day, almost the entire film was shot on location—during a winter so bitterly cold that the chill sometimes froze the cameras.”One scene was shot in Port Washington, New York, where a woman let us warm up in her house,” O’Hara later laughed. “The crew put the cameras in front of her living room fireplace to thaw out… finally the cameras defrosted and we were able to finish the scene. Her generosity was one of the miracles in Miracle on 34th Street!”
The closeknit cast also helped to warm things up. “John Payne was a wonderful person to work with,” O’Hara remembered. “And he became one of my dearest friends.”
O’Hara was especially close to her screen daughter: “I played ‘Mom’ to more than forty children during my movie career. But Natalie always held a special place in my heart. She called me ‘Mama Maureen.'”
The scenes in Macy’s were shot after hours, which thrilled the adventurous eight-year-old: “Natalie loved to work at night because she got to say up late. With all the shoppers gone, we walked through the store and examined all the toys and girls’ dresses and shoes,” said O’Hara. “It was a special time for us.”
“Mama Maureen” was also kinder and more lenient than Wood’s own notorious stage mother: “I brought a bag of chocolates for Edmund every day. We hid the candy from Natalie because her mother didn’t want her to have any.
“One day, Edmund got some chocolate all over his white beard, and Natalie spotted it immediately. We let her sneak some, but we made sure her mother never caught us.”
Wood found a special way to thank her movie mother for her much-needed warmth. “At least once a week, she gave me a little ceramic figurine she’d made,” O’Hara remembered. “I took them all down to my home in the Virgin Islands but when Hurricane Hugo hit, they were all literally blown away. I couldn’t find a single one.”
When the movie wrapped, the cast and director were pretty confident audiences would love seeing the film as much as they loved making it. But Zanuck remained unconvinced—and in another stroke of genius, decided to release the film in June, when, he argued, movie attendance was higher. This left the studio scrambling to promote a Christmas film without ever calling it a Christmas film. Which brings us to this head-smackingly odd trailer:
In it, the studio boss, who’s something of an imbecile (did Zanuck see this?), bellows, “What do you make a trailer for? To give the public an idea of what kind of picture to expect!” Then—Irony Alert!—they completely sidestep the fact that this is a Christmas movie. The boss wanders out onto the lot, buttonholing passing stars like Rex Harrison and Anne Baxter for their opinions of the film. They all love it, for wildly different reasons (Peggy Ann Garner calls it groovy!) but no one dares utter the “C” word.
Joining the long list of films that succeeded in spite of studio bosses rather than because of them, Miracle on 34th Street ultimately found its (sandal-clad) audience, recouping its skimpy budget several times over. And along with The Bishop’s Wife, it was one of two Christmas films vying for Best Picture at the 1948 Academy Awards ceremony. Both lost to Gentlemen’s Agreement.
Gwenn fared better, taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor against a brutal field. Literally. Two of his rivals—Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death and Robert Ryan in Crossfire—played noir characters legendary for their viciousness. So the next time you see Tommy Udo push Mrs. Rizzo down that flight of stairs, just remember that ultimately, he was beaten by Santa Claus.
As you can hear in the clip below, the applause that greets his name—or as presenter Baxter would call it a few years later, “waves of love coming over the footlights”—make it clear who the winner will be. “Whew! Now I know there’s a Santa Claus,” Gwenn tells his adoring colleagues. “He’s an elusive little fellow… he turns up in all sorts of places under all sorts of names and disguises. The first time I met him, he told me his name was George Seaton…” And later, his voice breaking, “Thank you, all of you, for making the evening of my life such a happy one.”
Actor Edmund Gwenn (right) and writer George Seaton (left) holding their Oscars for the film ‘Miracle on 34th Street’, with presenter Anne Baxter, at the 20th Academy Awards, Los Angeles, March 20th 1948. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
And finally, here a few bits of Miracle on 34th Street trivia to toss around the Christmas table:
Remember when Kris Kringle is taking his sanity test, and to show off his memory, he proudly proclaims that the Vice President under John Quincy Adams was Daniel D. Tomkins? Um, no, he served under James Monroe. Adams’ veep was John Calhoun, whose picture is too scary to put in a Christmas story. (Google him. Yikes.) So the next time you watch the movie with friends, be sure to smugly point out this mistake! (And never be invited back!)
Macy’s Christmas window displays were made by Steiff, famous for their stuffed bears and other toys. After the movie wrapped, the store sold them to FAO Schwarz, which later sold them, improbably, to the Marshall & Ilsley Bank in Milwaukee, where they’re showcased every year in the main lobby.
Gene Lockhart, who plays the judge, was also Bob Cratchit in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. And Percy Helton, who played the drunken Santa Claus, also popped up as the train conductor in White Christmas. Oh and speaking of making a bit too merry, here’s a Gimbel’s ad from the year Miracle on 34th Street came out:
The movie also gave us the gift that keeps on giving: the film debut of Thelma Ritter, who went on to win six Oscar nods while never moving out of Queens. And typically, she’s the one who sets the whole Christmas détente between Macy’s and Gimbels in motion.
Ever wonder what Kris Kringle and the little Dutch refugee who sits on his knee are talking about? Here’s the translation:
Kris Kringle: I’m happy you came! Little Girl: Ooh, you are Sinterklaas! Kris Kringle: Well yes, of course! Little Girl: I knew it! I knew you would understand me! Kris Kringle: Of course! Tell me what you would like to get from Sinterklaas. Little Girl: I don’t want anything… I already have everything… I just want to stay with this lovely lady. Kris Kringle: Do you want to sing something for me? Little Girl (singing): Saint Nicholas, little rascal, Put something in my little shoe! Put something in my little boot! Thank you, little Saint Nicholas! Saint Nicholas little rascal, Put something in my little shoe! Put something in my little boot! Thank you, little Saint Nicholas!
The house Natalie Wood bolts into at the end of the movie still stands, at 24 Derby Road in Port Washington. It looks almost exactly the same today, but for the addition of a window that changed the roofline.
It seems only fitting to give the final word to Maureen: “I’m so proud to have been part of Miracle on 34th Street.” And we’re so grateful you were. We still miss you, dear lady. And we’ll never forget what you told us:
TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click here—and why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?
"Going to the fortune teller's was just as good as going to the opera, and the cost scarcely a trifle more - ergo, I will disguise myself and go again, one of these days, when other amusements fail." - Mark Twain, Letter to Orion Clemens, February 6, 1861