Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Overlooked - 1953

For the past ten days or so I’ve been popping out posts at a furious (for me) clip. They’ve all been about 1953. Each intended as a modest sidebar to Stinkylulu’s upcoming Supporting Actress Smackdown. But since these posts were all so full of digressions and detours, I never did arrive at my intended destination. Which was to be a discussion of the overlooked performances from ’53. The ladies who didn’t get so much as a look-in. Not even a chance to say they were happy just to be nominated. ‘Cause Oscar didn’t do right by them . I have a list of deserving ladies for ’53. And one actress on that list actually did have an Oscar win in her past. As for the rest, they may have enjoyed various degrees of fame, fortune and fulfilment – but they all wound up with just as many Oscars as you and I have. Unless, of course, there are some Oscar winners reading this. Which I somehow doubt. Anyway, I dragged myself in from work late tonight only to realize that the Smackdown goes into orbit tomorrow morning. And I still haven’t written a thing about my intended subject. So, now, fuelled by diet Coke and Lipitor, I make an eleventh hour stab at it. The clock’s ticking – and I may fade out. But here goes.
First of all, in 1953, movie musicals were still going full-tilt. I mean in a year that produced something as perfect as "The Band Wagon", can you tell me anyone seriously believed that the entire genre would soon be more or less consigned to the scrap heap? A whole generation of musical film stars seemed to go out of style overnight – most of them in their prime. Suddenly a legend like Gene Kelly couldn’t get a lead. Ladies who’d been ruling the roost at Metro just seemed to vanish. Esther Williams’ pool was drained. Kathryn Grayson made her last film in ’56. She was only 33. Jane Powell left movies a year later. At 28. Nowadays, so many of the "serious" pictures that helped dethrone these stars seem dated and naïve, actually trivilalizing important issues with pat solutions and lots of pussyfooting, 50’s style. The musicals had an intentional innocence but the best ones managed to express that quality with wit and charm; the musical elements took you places words couldn’t go, of course. But a generation of pros before the camera and behind it, people who understood and loved the genre, often managed to bring all the facets together, creating bubbles that seem more iridescent as the years go by. As timeless as something out of the Arabian Nights. 1953 produced a bumper crop of blithely entertaining musicals. Besides "The Band Wagon", there was "Calamity Jane" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". Not to mention breezy, under-rated pleasures like "Dangerous When Wet" "The Farmer Takes a Wife" " I Love Melvin"and "The Beggar’s Opera". All films I never get tired of. Even the ones that disappointed me a little like "Kiss Me Kate" had incredible things going for them – great casts, sensational scores – beautifully orchestrated and performed. No surprise that Kathryn Grayson rocked that Eleanor Parker wig from "Scaramouche". But who knew Howard Keel would look so good in tights? And, oh what I’d give to see that "Kiss Me Kate" choregraphy in its original 3D!
But the Academy rarely liked to nominate musical performers. And - I mean - in what year during the 40’s wasn’t Judy Garland nomination worthy? Yet during that whole decade her name never once made it to the ballot. Yes, I know Jean Hagen pried a nomination out of the Academy for "Singin’ in the Rain". But she has little or nothing to do with the film’s musical segments. I certainly don’t think of her as a musical performer. I believe Debbie Reynolds has gone on record as saying she’ll never quite come to terms with the fact that Donald O’Connor wasn’t nominated for that picture. Me neither. And could Fred Astaire have possibly been more sublime than he was in "The Band Wagon"? What did he have to do to get a nomination? Oh, right. I forgot. Totter around near a towering inferno .
Anyway, the "overlooked" choice I’m spotlighting here is a musical lady who provided additional snap crackle and pop to one of the year’s very best films. That would be Nanette Fabray in "The Band Wagon". This was a picture that made a big impression on audiences and critics in 1953. And quite deservedly. As I said, the golden age of the movie musical was nearly over, even if nobody knew it then. And that observation’s especially poignant when you re-watch "The Band Wagon", probably the greatest of all Metro’s musicals. Certainly I’d rank it that way. Just as people often say silent films were reaching a climax of achievement when sound came in to deliver the death blow, so musicals were enjoying a rich, creative heyday in the early 50’s. Nowhere more so than at MGM. And there was no finer director of musicals anywhere than Vincente Minnelli. He and the famous Freed unit seemed to find special inspiration in The Band Wagon" ’s Comden and Green script about putting on a show. A new theme by no means. But no musical ever had a better screenplay. In this case performed and mounted with passion and affection by people who really were the best in the world at what they did. Dialogue and musical sequences achieve – and sustain - a kind of zen show-biz serenity that makes it almost impossible for a lover of movie musicals to watch it without smiling and/or tearing up. Liza Minnelli has commented on her father’s awesome ability to combine a sense of reality with theatricality. "The Band Wagon" illustrates that from beginning to end. You really care about the characters. Certainly, Astaire never had a better written role. And though it might not be right to say he rises to the occasion, considering his permanently buoyant state of grace, he does seem to play Tony Hunter, aging (and fading) musical comedy legend with an extra level of personal investment. If Norma Desmond had had a sense of humour about herself, and had reacted to changing times by covering up the insecurities with a little rueful insouciance and modesty , well I guess she wouldn’t be Norma Desmond anymore. But she’d be an awful lot like Astaire’s Tony Hunter.
Nanette Fabray is joined at the hip for most of her scenes in "The Band Wagon" with Oscar Levant, a classical musician who had about the same connection to acting as Zsa Zsa Gabor does. In the 40’s and 50’s he parlayed his celebrity into a small string of movie appearances, inevitably the cynical Sad Sack, alternately courting and deflecting approval. Fabray and Levant play Lily and Lester Allen, a kind of affably frantic version of Comden and Green. Irascible Levant wasn’t known as a high energy team player, so I’d have to guess that a great deal of the vim and vigor generated by Lily and Lester comes from Fabray and Minnelli. However they got it, they got it. Lily and Lester get progressively (and hilariously) more shell-shocked as they watch wunderkind director Jeffrey Cordova, (Jack Buchanan, another nomination that shoulda been) turn the little musical comedy they wrote into a combination Greek tragedy/ Wreck of the Hesperus. From her first appearance at the train station, brandishing a slapped-together " Tony Hunter Fan Club" sign, Fabray’s a joy. One of those people who can mug and make you want more. Then dial it down ever so nicely. And - largely thanks to Fabray’s authentic warmth - you genuinely believe, right off the bat, that Lester, Lily and Tony really are old friends. The whole picture communicates a feeling of camaraderie, a sense of community and shared purpose, in the face of chaos.
Fabray isn’t, of course, the leading lady. That spot’s reserved for willowy Cyd Charisse. No, Fabray’s definitely a second banana here. Plucky –and similar in some ways to earlier MGM examples of the type. Though not as man-crazy as Betty Garrett . And definitely not as sour as Nancy Walker, who often came off like some kind of shrunken head hanging from the belt of whatever musical she was attached to. Like them, Nanette Fabray was no glamour-puss. But she was cute enough to have been considered viable as a Warner Brothers starlet in the late 30’s. You can see her - in vintage Technicolor - as one of Bette Davis’ ladies in waiting in "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex". After that initial Hollywood foray, Fabray headed for the stage, eventually becoming a much admired musical comedy star on Broadway. She was a gifted comedienne that didn’t have to sing at all to be terrific. But sing she did. Her speaking voice is easy to recognize. There’s a certain quality that makes you think she’s not getting quite enough air. Or maybe someone’s pumped just a little bit of helium into her. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But it’s distinctive – and definitely part of her appeal. When she sings, you get the sense of a great big Broadway voice coming through a funnel. But it sounds great. Fabray is down-to-earth , one of us. Attractive but no picture perfect beauty queen. Her clothes in "The Band Wagon" suggest the housewife down the block, 1953 style. Yet, at the same time, it’s crystal clear she’s a Broadway Baby through and through.
Onscreen she’s an eager beaver – but one you’d definitely want to spend lots of time with. Considering it’s a supporting part, it’s amazing how many highlights one remembers from Fabray’s performance. That fabulous scream in the back alley behind the theatre! Her conflicted reaction as Cordova woos the backers with his one-man version of the show. This is great!/ Help! Get me out of here. And of course, she shines in the musical numbers. Can you believe how quickly she arranges that kerchief on her head in the "I Love Louisa" number? The camera's only off her for moments. Plus, of course, she carries off every bit of musical comedy business like it’s no sweat. That "Triplets" number couldn’t have been easy to do. But she makes you want to get up there with her. I’m glad she gets the spotlight firmly on her for one number. It’s "Louisiana Hayride". I’ve always loved the song – and I’ll forever associate it with her. Of course, the Technicolor’s a dream. But so’s she. In great voice, too. And I love every single piece of comic schtick she pulls out during that roll call bit. "Sweet Pea Oglethorpe" "Ah is hyuh" "Jonquil Jezebel" " Mmm hyuh" . Moving through the whole thing with the unerring instinct and assurance of a Broadway legend.
The entire performance is warm, funny, smart, resourceful, charismatic. And she hits bull’s-eyes in every one of her musical sequences. Yet never once tries to stop her co-stars from shining too. If all this isn’t worth a supporting actress nomination, what is? I love this woman. I also love "The Band Wagon". And the fact that if Nanette Fabray could only be in one MGM musical, it was the best one ever.

That’s it. I’ve run out of steam. No energy left right now to properly praise my other "overlooked" ladies of ’53.

Check out Stinkylulu’s Smackdown tomorrow ( I mean, later today)

The nominees that year were:
Grace Kelly "Mogambo"
Geraldine Page "Hondo"
Marjorie Rambeau "Torch Song"
Donna Reed "From Here to Eternity"
Thelma Ritter "Pickup on South Street"

Reed was the eventual winner. See who gets to wear the Smackdown crown.
My guess would be Ritter. But who knows?

And finally, my 1953 ballot would have read this way
Nanette Fabray "The Band Wagon"
Grace Kelly "Mogambo"
Allyn McLerie "Calamity Jane"
Jeanette Nolan "The Big Heat"
Teresa Wright "The Actress"

Now I lay me down to sleep..

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