Sunday, May 16, 2010

Best Of The Best: Henry Fonda

Jezebel (1938) - This was Warner Bros. answer to MGM's Gone with the Wind, with all the usual differences between the two studios intact; headstrong belle Julie (Bette Davis) insists on wearing a red dress to that season's cotillion, a function at which all the ladies are meant to wear white; scandal - rather than hilarity - ensues. Owing to the moral strictures of the time (those of 1938, not 1852, like there's much difference) for her impertinence she begs to redeem herself by going in search of her lover (Henry Fonda), who has been quarantined (along with half of New Orleans) during an outbreak of yellow fever - even though to my mind scarlet fever would have had greater symbolism. Nevertheless, although we leave her picking her way through stacks of corpses at the fadeout, audiences at the time knew that she was already dead, in a very literal sense the silver screen's first fashion victim.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) - In typical Hollywood fashion Fonda's Lincoln is altogether prettier than history's Lincoln; also in typical Hollywood fashion, the facts of the plot don't necessarily jibe with those of any official biography. Hollywood lore has it Fonda was reluctant to play such a great man, echoing Lincoln's own humility to a tee, and thanks to that as well as the accomplished direction of John Ford and the film's quality-minded producer Darryl F. Zanuck, the film is rendered emotionally true if occasionally factually spurious.

PhotobucketThe Grapes of Wrath (1940) - Long considered Fonda's greatest role, much of the credit for that goes to John Steinbeck, whose fictional characters were often flawed yet triumphed in spite of it. Steinbeck's novel loses none of its sweep here as the Joad family travels from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl, encountering the usual technological, geographical, and classist obstructions along the way. Although the movie and the novel differ greatly in both their politics and endings - Steinbeck's original being too honest for the Hollywood of the time - it is still a very satisfying experience to watch. Filmed in sepia to great emotional effect by legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, if anything the visual aspects of the film are distracting, necessitating multiple viewings; how many depends on how distracted you are by pretty things.

The Lady Eve (1941) - No actor of this era could have asked for a better sparring partner on film than Barbara Stanwyck; director Preston Sturges makes the most of her inherent larceny (in real life she was an orphan who came up the hard way from Brooklyn and through the Broadway chorus) by pairing her with the painful earnestness and puppy dog eyes of Fonda, and demonstrated his flair for comedy - even if it did set him up for a string of roles in which he was routinely pussy-whipped to within an inch of his life. Featuring a cast comprised of the cream of Hollywood's character actors, neither Stanwyck nor Fonda ever looked lovelier.

The Big Street
(1942) - Before we loved Lucy she played a variety of roles in which she wasn't the slightest bit lovable (and a couple in which she was a little too lovable, if you catch my meaning); this is one of the former. Exactly why nice guy Henry Fonda falls for a mercenary bitch like Lucille Ball is a mystery, but maybe it shouldn't be; goodness knows, it happens often enough in life, so why not in the movies? Damon Runyon's story - originally entitled Little Pinks - is typically mawkish, but is herein honed to a shine by screenwriter Leonard Spigelglass, who milks the third act so effectively by the time The End appears onscreen you won't be crying anymore because you'll have run out of tears.

Mister Roberts (1955) - By the time Fonda was cast in this one he'd been away from Hollywood for awhile, immersing himself in his first love - the stage; only the insistence of director John Ford managed to sway the gnat-like attention spans of studio executives into casting him. Also notable as the final film role of William Powell, it has the kind of heavyweight cast that only a Steven Soderbergh or a Woody Allen could get away with today, including James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, and Ward Bond.

12 Angry Men (1957) - The ultimate jury room thriller is mainly shot on a single set, in close-up, and by the end of it the claustrophobia has become almost palpable, exactly as intended; not only will you see every bead of sweat on every brow and every upper lip, you'll have them yourself. Director Sidney Lumet's first feature film stays close to the script of the play on which it was based, explores themes such as bigotry, and allows Fonda the chance to liberal the place up with his trademark panache in his courageous defense of a defendant guilty only of being the wrong colour.

Advise and Consent (1962) - Allen Drury's novel was suitably lurid to have censor-busting director Otto Preminger fairly salivating to direct it. A heavyweight cast featuring Charles Laughton, Don Murray, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, and Burgess Meredith among others does justice to the heavyweight themes on offer, and reminds us that politics didn't become a dirty game a few years ago, but probably always was one. So as to give the nation's prudes the collective collywobbles, Preminger set some of the film's scenes in a gay bar - by general consensus the first time any director had ever done such a thing*.

*Although you'll never convince me that Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz wasn't entirely set in one.

On Golden Pond (1981) - Fonda's final film marked not only the first time he'd ever worked with fellow legend Katharine Hepburn but amazingly also the first time they'd ever met! In fact, the hat he wears throughout the film had once belonged to Spencer Tracy, and was a gift from her; one almost wonders what Tracy would have done with the role - for about two minutes, that is, after which you'll find it hard to believe anyone else had ever assayed the role, even though Ernest Thompson's play had been performed before (and has been performed since). Unusual in its depiction of the elderly as (gasp!) human the film was prescient in that the gold in the pond was likely due to the reflection of all the Oscars it would garner.
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In Memoriam: Henry Fonda

In a day and age when Orthodox rabbis couldn't go to the movies due to the preponderance of ham they were bound to find there, few performances were as kosher as those of Henry Fonda - who was born on this day in 1905; in fact, contemporary critics initially often found fault with his low-key performances, soft voice, and the subtlety of his body language. Thanks in large part to him the movie-going public's tastes gradually began to shift, putting Fonda's star even higher in the firmament nearly thirty years after his death than it was at its apogee in the early 1940s.

PhotobucketOf course, his style of naturalism didn't stop executives from pairing him with actresses so overblown they could have found work as hurricanes; a frequent costar in his early days was noted e-nun-ci-a-tah Bette Davis, whose teeth marks could be found all over the scenery in films like That Certain Woman (1937) and Jezebel (1938). Though these films had assured his enduring fame, over the next five years he starred in a string of others that cemented his reputation: The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), and Tales of Manhattan (1942) are just three of the 22 acclaimed performances he made in this period, in films any actor would be glad to have on their resume.

Enlisting in the US Navy at the American entry into World War II, Fonda served on board the USS Satterlee as a quartermaster, during which time the ship saw action in the English Channel. He was later transferred to the Pacific theatre and as a result of his service there Fonda was later awarded a Presidential citation and a Bronze Star.

Whatever damage his wartime service might have done to his career, it did nothing but improve his popularity... Without missing a beat he stepped back onto the sound stages of Hollywood, and over the next three decades aged into the grand old man in films like Mister Roberts (1955), 12 Angry Men (1957), Advise and Consent (1962), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968); lending gravitas to dramas and thrillers, verisimilitude to Westerns and especially war movies, as well as a kind of exasperated charm to comedies, in any of the 106 productions in which he appeared after his screen debut in 1935 Henry Fonda was as reliable a brand to the makers of films as Panaflex or Kodak.

Fonda's last role - apparently undertaken when he knew he was dying - was in the 1981 film On Golden Pond, in which he costarred with Katharine Hepburn and his daughter Jane Fonda*; his performance as Norman Thayer - who faced the inevitability of his own mortality by becoming cranky - earned him an Oscar at the 54th Academy Awards. Owing to his ill-health Fonda was unable to attend, and the award was accepted by his daughter Jane instead.

Henry Fonda died in August 1982.

*Whose birth had halted production during the filming of Jezebel.

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"When" by Rowlf the Dog

Choosing my favourite Muppet is a kind of Sophie's Choice not even Meryl Streep and William Styron combined could make; one thing many of those Muppets I like best have in common, though, is that they are performed by Jim Henson, and such is the case with Rowlf the Dog. Like many kids I'd always wanted a dog for as long as I could remember, and in the years before our family finally got one, I had a Rowlf puppet which satisfied my need in much the same way an inflatable lover is an adequate substitute for a real one (which is to say, not very much, but better than nothing).

Although I grew up watching The Muppet Show in its initial run, after watching Season One on DVD I was amazed to discover that many of Rowlf's finest moments were shown in the UK but sacrificed for commercial consideration in North America; imagine my delight in not only discovering a vast quantity of new material decades after I thought I'd seen it all, but doing so in flawless audio and video quality.

This song, simply entitled When, was written by Abe Burrows, and performed with the usual flair by Henson in Episode 219, during Season Two of the show; in this instance, though, Rowlf's performance wasn't the UK Spot. As a tribute to him, for years after Henson's death Rowlf fell silent, appearing only now and then to occasionally tickle the ivories; those who knew him said Rowlf was the character that was closest in style and substance to Henson himself. I can think of no better tribute to Henson on this, the anniversary of his death, than to let Rowlf sing again...
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The Death of Jim Henson

Even as sensitive as I am, few celebrity deaths have upset me as much as that of Jim Henson; as bad as it was that day - actually this day in 1990 - the more of his works I discover, the deeper I go into his legacy, the more acutely I feel this particular loss...

PhotobucketBy no means was I alone in my grief; Henson's death, coming as it did after such a short illness and at such a young age as well, sent shock waves through the entertainment industry. I suspect there are very few people in Generation X who weren't in some way touched by Henson in the course of their lifetime, whether it was the lessons they learned in sharing and compassion from Sesame Street, or the manic trip through the legacy of vaudeville represented by The Muppet Show, the rumination on the importance of community that was Fraggle Rock, or the lyrically lovely 1982 film The Dark Crystal that serves as the apex of his career as surely as it sets out the timeless dance between good and evil.

The real lesson of his death, though, is one which we would all do well to remember... Despite his laid-back persona, Henson was a driven workaholic. In the weeks before his death he was suffering from persistent flu-like symptoms, which he felt would go away on their own, and so he didn't bother to seek treatment. The day before he died his breathing became laboured, and he began coughing up blood; finally convinced to seek medical attention, he checked into New York Hospital. He never came out. Less than 24 hours later - on this day in 1990 - he was dead of multiple organ failure; the cause of death was later determined to be a virulent form of Streptococcus. Had he gone to hospital even a few hours earlier, he might be alive today.

Although they were often subtle, Henson's works could all be counted on to have a moral to their story; the moral of the story of the life (and death) of Jim Henson is surely to look after your health, or it will look after you.
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In Memoriam: Tamara de Lempicka

The work is entitled Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) and is just one of the iconic works for which Tamara de Lempicka was responsible; painted in 1929 for the cover of the German magazine Die Dame, and acclaimed at the time as an expression of the emancipation of women, it is pointedly a self-portrait. Whereas she could have easily spent her entire life as an indolent socialite, though, her own emancipation involved making herself a career out of painting the portraits of indolent socialites, approaching it - in the time-honoured tradition of the artist - with a fervour bordering on obsession.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1898 into a well-to-do Polish family, de Lempicka was living in Russia when the revolution struck, sweeping her first husband into jail. For weeks she combed every prison in St. Petersburg until she found him, and thereafter the reunited couple made their circuitous way to Paris - and a degree of freedom previously unavailable to her.

If in her early life de Lempicka happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as she came into her own as both a woman and an artist she was soon enough in the right place at the right time; she quickly became a fixture of the city's bohemian demi-monde, and a portrait by her a sought-after status symbol among the swells. While ensconced in the French capital her style would become influenced by Cubism, and the pastel colours of her early work gradually crystallized into jewel tones, just as the figures she depicted became increasingly glamourous, harder, and more aloof.

Having seen World War II coming from a long way off, in the summer of 1939 she took an 'extended vacation' to the United States, remaining there - save for the occasional jaunt back to Europe - for much of the rest of her life. As styles changed and hers fell from favour, she married a wealthy aristocrat, affixed the title of Baroness to her name and tended to her reputation during that prickly time in an artist's career that comes between 'novelty' and 'dead'. Her ministrations paid off; by the early 1970s galleries began to collect her, retrospectives were launched, and she developed the cranky hauteur that the public expects of its artists.

When Tamara de Lempicka died in March 1980 she was already an icon, representing the soigne side of first wave of feminism; it took a third-wave feminist and obscure pop singer named Madonna to ensure that not only did de Lempicka's originals fetch record prices at auction, but that every poster store in the world carried at least one copy of the picture she'd painted so many years before, of a cool blonde with an enigmatic expression at the helm of an Italian sportscar, even if many of those who purchased it had no idea that the painting was of the artist herself.
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"When I Think Of You" by Janet Jackson

File this one under 'Forgotten Favourites'; while conducting research* into which video to show for Janet Jackson's birthday some years ago, I encountered what had at one time been my favourite song of hers. Funny, isn't it, how things that once mattered so much sometimes have a way of slipping our minds...

The third of an amazing seven singles from her 1986 album Control - and her first number one hit - When I Think of You was written by the hugely successful songwriting team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and features an innovative video directed by Julien Temple.

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Pop History Moment: The 1st Academy Awards

On this day in 1929 the 1st Academy Awards were handed out in the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles; as per usual, they were given for achievement in the previous year (1927-8). The ceremony was hosted by Douglas Fairbanks and took less than 15 minutes; there were 270 guests, who paid $5 each for their tickets.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAnd the winners were...

Best Picture - Wings (Paramount)
Best Picture (Unique and Artistic production) - Sunrise (Fox)

Best Director - Frank Borzage (drama - Seventh Heaven), Lewis Milestone (comedy - Two Arabian Knights)
Best Actor - Emil Jannings (The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command)
Best Actress - Janet Gaynor (Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise)

Writing (Original Story) - Ben Hecht for Underworld
Writing (Adapted Story) - Benjamin Glazer for Seventh Heaven
Writing (Titles) - Joseph Farnham* for Fair Co-Ed, Laugh, Clown, Laugh, and Telling the World

Art Direction - William Cameron Menzies, for The Dove and Tempest
Cinematography - Charles Rosher & Karl Struss, for Sunrise
Best Engineering Effects - Roy Pomeroy, for Wings

Honorary Award - The Jazz Singer
- awarded to Warner Bros. for pioneering the talking picture

Honorary Award - The Circus
- awarded to Charlie Chaplin, for acting, writing, directing and producing

In subsequent years the rules were streamlined: actors would thence win for a single portrayal rather than a body of work in a given year. Over the years some awards have been deleted, others added, a process which continues to this day, with new categories for Best Original Musical (2000) and Best Animated Feature (2001) being the most recent additions.

* On June 2nd, 1931, Joseph Farnum became the first Academy Award winner to die; he was also a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the only person to ever win an Oscar in this category.

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POPnews - May 16th

[Not only was Andrew Johnson the first US President to be impeached, there were two attempts... The first, begun in November 1867, failed by a vote of 57-108 in the House of Representatives in December 1867; the second, more serious, attempt began in February 1868 and concerned Johnson's removal from office of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and replacing him with Lorenzo Thomas, for which the President was charged with High Crimes and Misdemeanors in violation of the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson's real crime - namely being the sort of douchebag who was opposed to black suffrage - wasn't, alas, a crime.]

1204 - Baldwin IX, Count of Flanders was crowned the first Emperor of the Latin Empire.

1532 - Legend has it Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor of England.

1770 - 14-year old Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette married 15-year-old French Dauphin, Prince Louis-Auguste - the future Louis XVI - at the Palace of Versailles; she'd already married him by proxy on April 19th in Vienna.

1771 - The Battle of Alamance, a pre-American Revolutionary War battle between local militia commanded by Governor William Tryon and a group of rebels called 'The Regulators', occurred in present-day Alamance County, North Carolina; the Regulators were decimated, ending the so-called War of the Regulation.

1777 - Lachlan McIntosh and Button Gwinnett shot each other during a duel in a field owned by James Wright near Savannah, Georgia; while McIntosh recovered from his injury Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, died three days later.

1811 - During the Peninsular War the allied forces of Spain, Portugal and Britain under William Beresford and Joaquin Blake defeated a French army commanded by Jean de Dieu Soult at the Battle of Albuera.

1836 - Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old first cousin Virginia Clemm.

1866 - Philadelphia's Charles Elmer Hires invented root beer, apparently as a substitute to regular beer; his product, Hires Root Beer, is still widely available and is thought to be the oldest continuously produced soft drink in the US, a claim shared by Vernor's ginger ale.

1868 - President Andrew Johnson was acquitted by one vote - that of Edmund G. Ross, the junior Senator from Kansas - during his impeachment proceeding in the US Senate. There would be two more votes, on May 26th, before the matter would be put to rest.

1877 - When royalist President Marshall MacMahon dismissed moderate republican Prime Minister Jules Simon it caused a political crisis in France's Third Republic; a subsequent republican election victory meant that a parliamentary interpretation of the constitution prevailed over a presidential one, eliminating any hope for a restored monarchy in that country.

1910 - The US Congress authorized the creation of the United States Bureau of Mines.

1918 - The Sedition Act of 1918 was passed by the US Congress, making criticism of the government an imprisonable offense; despite being upheld at the time by such cases as Debs v. United States it was later repealed as unconstitutional, just one of many abuses of power condoned by the administration of Woodrow Wilson.

1920 - Pope Benedict XV canonized Joan of Arc, officially making her a saint.

1943 - The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was crushed by the Nazis.

1966 - The Communist Party of China issued the May 16 Notice, marking the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

1969 - The Soviet space probe Venera 5 landed on Venus; during the 53 minute descent the data it collected regarding the planet's atmosphere was transmitted back to Earth.

1975 - India annexed Sikkim after the mountain protectorate held a referendum in which the popular vote was in favour of the merger, making it the nation's 22nd (northernmost, and least populous) state.

1992 - The Space Shuttle Endeavour landed safely after a successful maiden voyage, mission STS-49.

2003 - 33 civilians were killed and more than 100 people injured in a series of terrorist attacks carried out by twelve suicide bombers in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, the worst in that country's history.
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