In Hollywood, where glamour, physical beauty and talent are of great advantage, the subject of disability is very rarely explored. When the movie industry do decide to give viewers a glimpse into the lives of people suffering from any form of disability, the film usually garners critical acclaim and is often greeted with Academy Awards.
It’s a shame that the many facets of disability is not often examined. The subject is fascinating and it doesn’t stretch credulity like a lot of other film plots. Millions of people worldwide are inflicted with some form of disability.
Some of our most beloved stars had some sort of disability. Actor Lionel Barrymore was a victim of arthritis and spent his later years in a wheelchair. Although, Lionel was crippled with pain, he never let his mobility hindrance his career or lifestyle. Other stars like, Marilyn Monroe, James Stewart, Elvis Presley, Anthony Quinn and James Earl Jones, lived with a lifelong speech impediment, known as stuttering. Being a stutterer myself, I know that it proposes an obstacle, and it can be difficult at times when you want to speak, but being the professionals that they were, they never let their stuttering affect their career.
As what Robin stated in her 2016 announcement post, disabled characters run the gamut from the sympathetic to the heinous, the monstrous to the victorious. Some portrayals of disabled characters are well developed and three dimensional; others, whether heroic or wicked, are sadly lacking in depth.
To pay tribute to those on-screen characters or real life film stars who have endured any form of disability, Robin from Pop Culture Reverie and myself from In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood are hosting the 2nd addition of the Disability In Film Blogathon, which Robin launched solo two years ago.
Before we go any further, there are some ground rules that must be adhered to.
1. Entries must cover some topic related to disability in film, excluding mental illness or terminal illness.
2. No more than two duplicate entries per person. Please check the roster to see what topics have been claimed.
3. If you want to do more than one post, that’s fine, but our limit is, no more than three posts per person.
4. No previously published material. All entries must be newly posted.
5. Since October is Disability Awareness Month, the Blogathon will take place on October 24th – 26th, 2018.
6. Posts must feature one of the banners below and a link back to the blogathon post on either my blog or Pop Culture Reverie.
7. To express your interest in participating in the blogathon, leave a comment on my blog, along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover, or you can always register by email at: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover. We look forward to having you join us in October.
In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood :The stars who stuttered, The Spiral Staircase ( 1946 ) and TBD.
Pop Culture Reverie :The Sessions & The Lookout.
Cinematic Scribblings :Immortal Love ( 1961 )
The Stop Button : My Left Foot ( 1989 )
The Midnight Drive-In : The X-Men movies or possibly I Borg.
Real Reegie Midget Reviews : The Rain Man ( 1988 )
“You may have bought the Lakeside Arms Mr. Parsons, but you haven’t bought my home, because I own it and I haven’t sold it.”
Ethel Barrymore achieved success in many forms of entertainment. The stage was her destiny and her sweeping presence is etched in the hearts of theatre-goers world wide, but it was her short yet memorable tenure in motion pictures in which she is fondly remembered for today.
It can’t be argued that Ethel had trouble adjusting to motion pictures, but as much as she detested the art of film making, she was still capable of achieving the same amount of adoration and greatness on celluloid as what she attained in the theatre. As an actress, Ethel was in full command. Her indomitable screen presence was a great asset to any film, but unfortunately, due to her advancing age, Ethel was mainly relegated to secondary roles.
For Ethel, all those years of being cast as supporting characters was about to change. For the first time since she left the stage, Barrymore secured a leading role in the 1951 remake of Kind Lady, in which she played Mary Herries, an elderly victim who finds her colossal residence being taken over by a group of criminals who proceed to sell her paintings and other possessions. On its release, the film didn’t garner the popularity that its predecessor did, and nor did it make much of a dent in the filmography of its cast. However, it did enhance Ethel Barrymore’s chances of starring in more leading roles.
Kind Lady is indisputable proof that Ethel Barrymore was still able to take on a lead role. Although Barrymore would only work sporadically after this due to illness and a twelve month suspension, the movie industry were apparently impressed by Barrymore’s starring performance.
When no starring vehicles came her way, Ethel thought it was just a fanciful dream and that her days of playing leading ladies were over. What she didn’t know is that hope would become reality once more, but it would take seven more films, the death of brother Lionel, incessant debts and deteriorating health for it to happen.
By the mid to late fifties, Ethel Barrymore’s frequent bouts of illness were beginning to dominate her entire lifestyle. To further exacerbate matters, she was drowning in debt, but with inefficient energy she was unable to pour all her dynamism into work. The only way to elude her financial problems was to act, though that task was proving to be more and more difficult. Her last movie role was in 1954 when she played Aunt Jessie Tuttle in Young at Heart, starring Doris Day and Frank Sinatra. Since then, her health has largely impacted her ability. Finally, help came in the form of her close friend, Katharine Hepburn who realized that her frailty was her most challenging burden. Hepburn expressed her concern by approaching George Cukor about setting up a fund where everyone could contribute.
In August 1956, the Ethel Barrymore Fund was established. Although the fund was no secret from Barrymore, Hepburn continuously made Ethel think that only George Cukor and her circle of closest friends were contributing. There was no way in the world that Ethel was going to accept money from anybody, but Hepburn was deeply touched by Ethel’s graciousness and she wanted to try and eliminate Barrymore’s debt as best she could.
Ethel’s response to the outpouring of generosity has never been documented, but one can imagine that she would have been moved with happiness. Perhaps, her accepting the lead role in the 1957 film Johnny Trouble is a slight indicator of her feelings. What we do know is that Barrymore was independent and depending on others was not in her vocabulary. We can also assume that after all these years, Barrymore was still clinging to the hope of acquiring one more starring role.
Nobody alive these days knows Ethel’s exact motive behind wanting to make Johnny Trouble, but its true to say that she didn’t want to be viewed as being wholly dependent. She also couldn’t stand laying idle for long periods of time, and since she was currently in semi-retirement, she probably felt inactive and useless. I think she wanted to prove to the world that her illness was not an hindrance to her capabilities and that she still possessed her theatrical skills.
At the time that Ethel Barrymore signed with the independent company Clarion to make Johnny Trouble, almost everyone was shocked by Barrymore’s decision to return to the screen. In the years prior, Barrymore’s health worries were starting to fuel significant problems. These troubles were clearly apparent in Young At Heart when Ethel appeared decrepit and old. Although her mobility seemed normal in the film, Barrymore spent most of her time on set in a wheelchair.
This paints a clear picture of why everybody thought that Ethel Barrymore’s sudden decision to make another film seemed anything but normal. They were generally concerned about Ethel’s condition, and were worried that if she took on a leading role in a movie her health would rapidly disintegrate. Ethel on the other hand, was obstinate. She was not going to take no for an answer. She was determined to show the world that magic could still be spawned whenever she was in a scene.
Johnny Trouble may not have been the success that Ethel was initially anticipating. In fact, some state that it was a rather sad departure for a Barrymore, but its true to say that she still went out with a bang. Despite being cheaply made and sinking into obscurity shortly after, the film boasts some familiar names who would continue to attain greater prosperity in the proceeding years. Directed and produced by John H. Auer and written for the screen by Charles O’Neil and David Lord who based the film on a story by Ben Ames Williams, Johnny Trouble is an endearing remake of Someone To Remember ( 1943 ).
“This is the first time you’ve scuttled me without offering me a cup of tea.”
Coincidentally, Johnny Trouble is the last film John H. Auer directed. However, he did direct an episode of U.S. Marshal the following year and he continued to produce television series until 1960, when he decided to leave the industry for good. As a director and producer, Auer received little recognition. Born in Hungary in 1906, Auer developed an intense interest in film when he was still only a child. By the time he was twelve, John was already acting in European motion pictures, but like a lot of child stars he found it difficult to transition into adult roles. As a result, he decided to embark on a business career. That remained his soul focus for a while, but deep down he yearned for a more prestige profession in the entertainment industry and moved to the United States in 1928 to secure work as a director.
Johnny Trouble is a tale of inaccessible dreams, blossoming friendships of the unexpected kind, and the spirit of trust. It is also the story of Katherine Chandler ( Ethel Barrymore ), an invalid elderly who has been told to leave her residence when her apartment complex is purchased by a local college and is soon to be remodeled and transformed into a boys dormitory. This creates a difficult problem for all involved except for Katherine who has permanently resided in her suite for decades and refuses to move. Katherine fears that if she vacates she may never see her son who disappeared twenty-seven years ago, and if she remains she is convinced that her son will someday return.
“How will I look to him? Will he recognize me? Would he be glad?”
Problems continue to arise, but eventually the chaos is put to a halt when Katherine is permitted to stay. The arrangement seems bizarre. Almost anyone would find the destruction a daily interference, though Katherine does not view it as an impediment to her lifestyle. She continues to carry on with her normal day to day routine as if nothing is happening. Even once the boys arrive everything seems to be mundane in Katherine’s world until she forges a close friendship with the boys who treat her as their collective grandmother. One of these students is Johnny Chandler ( Stuart Whitman ) whose behavioral traits closely mirror those of Katherine’s son Johnny. When Johnny Chandler enters her life, Katherine is convinced that he is her grandson, and at last her dreams of reuniting with her son who disappeared twenty-seven years earlier are finally in her reach or are they?
While the plot reaches the depths of sentimentality, it never actually hints at being too mawkish or sugary. However, Katherine Chandler embodies all the core characteristics of a saccharine person. She is lovable and extremely sweet, but she also carries an air of stubbornness. Her amiable persona and the way she exudes eccentricity is why the boys find her so appealing. They don’t look at her through the lens of her syrupy nature. They see her as a grandmother figure who they can have tea and cake with every afternoon. But their connection is much deeper than that. Katherine is their pillar of strength and their tower of comfort. Whenever they are embroiled in a difficult situation, they can always rely on Katherine’s support.
On the other hand, the boys have improved Katherine’s life. Before the students entered the picture, Katherine was stuck in the perils of loneliness. The only contact she got with the outside world was when her longtime chauffeur Tom McKay came to take her to church. Most of the time she sat there reminiscing about the past and wishing that her son will return. At least when she meets Johnny Chandler she gets to relive those memories she has of her son, and it made her all the richer in believing that if Johnny is her grandson than the dream of seeing her real son could come true in the imminent future.
Johnny Trouble is strongly anchored by Ethel Barrymore who infuses splashes of majestic charm and a special kind of grandeur to her role. The rest of the cast are given their moments to shine, but they are mostly aided by the presence of Barrymore. The only other star of the film who is capable of reaching the same heights as Ethel is Cecil Kellaway whose performance of Tom McKay brings a mixture of comedic relief and dramatic tension to the film. Tom is the only one who holds the key to the truth about Katherine’s son and he’s hidden the secret from her for many years. Although, Kellaway was also relegated to character parts, he had a brief stint as a leading man in Australian and American films earlier on in his career.
Ethel Barrymore had previously worked with Cecil Kellaway in Portrait of Jennie ( 1948 ). After their first collaboration the two instantly developed a friendship that touched more on professionalism rather than an intimate bond. Kellaway was never a frequent visitor at Barrymore’s residence, but there’s a strong possibility that he has a been a guest on several occasions.
In addition to Ethel Barrymore and Cecil Kellaway, the film also features a performance by Carolyn Jones, who is best remembered for donning the famous role of Morticia on The Addams Family. In Johnny Trouble, Jones plays Julie Horton, Johnny’s love interest who is trying to amend the complications in her relationship, but falls pregnant in the process. The part of Julie is pivotal to the story and without her presence the plot would fall rather flat. Julie adds depth to the film and provides more dramatic content.
The next major character would be Johnny Chandler who is portrayed by Stuart Whitman. At the time of filming, Whitman was still relatively unknown to audiences, but his status soon catapulted to great heights. As Johnny Chandler, Whitman does an exceptional job at playing an unruly and rebellious student who becomes the object of Katherine’s obsession. Barrymore and Whitman surprisingly have solid chemistry and its because of this that their characters don’t stretch credulity.
Ethel Barrymore’s son, Samuel Colt played the small role of Mr. Reichow in the film. Although Colt was usually only given unaccredited parts in motion pictures, Barrymore was instrumental in Samuel’s brief tenure in film. On the home-front, Samuel had no direction in life. He didn’t know what career to pursue and he certainly wasn’t interested in marriage. The only profession he knew was caring and escorting his mother around, a duty that he continued until Ethel’s death.
Johnny Trouble was Ethel Barrymore’s final screen appearance. The actress wanted so desperately to continue on working. In early 1958, she signed up to play Jesse James’s mother on TV’s Playhouse 90, but her deteriorating health which caused her to have a bad fall and break her arm at home forbidded her to take on the role. This fueled major upset, but her emotional stability started crashing down when she found out that she would never return to her beloved Mamaroneck estate. By now, Ethel was confined to her bed with an oxygen tank parked permanently by her side and waiting for the inevitable to happen. As time progressed, her health rapidly declined, and on June 18th, 1959, Ethel Barrymore finally passed away at the age of 79.
Jack Larson (Eddie Landis) and James Bridges (Ike) met during the making of the film. They became domestic partners in 1958 and remained so until Bridges’ death in 1993.
The Shakespeare which Johnny Chandler (Stuart Whitman) reads to Nana (Ethel Barrymore) is an excerpt from Sonnet 29 ; which reads as follows: Sonnet 29 When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate; For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings. ~ William Shakespeare.
Ethel Barrymore: Born, Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
Cecil Kallaway: Born, Cecil Lauriston Kellaway on August 22nd, 1890 in Cape Town, Cape Colony, South Africa. Died: February 28th, 1973 in West Hollywood, California. Aged: 82.
Carolyn Jones: Born, Carolyn Sue Jones on April 28th, 1930 in Amarillo, Texas. Died: August 3rd, 1983 in West Hollywood, California. Aged: 53.
Stuart Whitman: Born, Stuart Maxwell Whitman on February 1st, 1928 in San Francisco, California.
“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!”
In Victorian Era, London, lived, Joseph Carey Merrick, a seriously deformed and tortured soul who became the face of curiosity after years of being disrespectfully exhibited at freak shows, where his grotesque appearance earned him the nickname of the “Elephant Man”.
Joseph Merrick was born on August 5th, 1862 in Leicester, England. During his short yet challenging life, Merrick was constantly the subject of criticism when freak show hosts were benefiting from his misery. Fortunately, his formidable years of humiliation would ultimately come to a halt when he was rescued by Sir Frederick Treves, an eminent British surgeon who provided him residence at the London Hospital. After weeks of examination, Treves discovered that behind that hideous facade lived an extremely sensitive human being who exuded innate knowledge and had the capabilities of being loved.
The story of Joseph Merrick explores compassion, warmth, cruelty and degradation, but most of all, it is an inspirational account of a courageous human being whose life was destroyed from Proteus syndrome which left his face and body severely deformed. On the inside, Joseph Merrick was a man of profound intelligence who was interested in love and romance. Sadly, Merrick wasn’t destined to experience an intimate relationship or even marriage, but in his last few years he was blessed to be around people who loved and understood him.
After years of living in constant pain, Joseph Merrick passed away on April 11th, 1890 at the London Hospital. In the years that proceeded, Merrick’s life has inspired researchers and historians as well as the entertainment industry who saw great potential in his story and wanted to capitalize on his situation. Joseph Merrick was first revived in 1977 when a stage play titled The Elephant Man opened at the Hampstead Theatre in London. The success of the production led the show to moving to the National Theatre and Off-Broadway before closing to critical acclaim in 1981.
While the stage production was hitting triumphant peaks, the movie industry brought the life of Joseph Merrick to the screen in 1980 when a motion picture of the same name was released. The film was based on the book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu, and starred John Hurt in the role of Joseph Merrick.
DAVID LYNCH: DIRECTOR OF THE ELEPHANT MAN.
Often touted, “The greatest unknown director in the world.”, David Lynch was the only candidate that was deemed suitable to direct The Elephant Man. Despite being almost anonymous outside of the United States, Lynch made his directorial debut three years earlier with Eraserhead ( 1977 ), a significant cult classic that spawned his future success as a director.
As a first-time director, David Lynch was impressive. His work greatly astonished Mel Brooks personal assistant, Stuart Cornfeld, who immediately suggested David Lynch to Jonathan Sanger and persuaded him to send him a copy of the script. Upon reading the screenplay, Lynch expressed enthusiasm and automatically realized that The Elephant Man would be perfect for his next project, but before he was employed, Sanger and Cornfeld had to convince Mel Brooks that Lynch was the ideal person to direct The Elephant Man by arranging a private screening of Eraserhead at 20th Century Fox. At the time Brooks had not heard of David Lynch, though when he discovered that Lynch possessed all the qualities he was after in a director, he was elated that Lynch was being hired.
For David Lynch, The Elephant Man was a challenging project that would really test his directorial abilities. Instead of delving into familiar territory, Lynch had to detour away into an unknown region and direct a more conventional film that explored human courage and the severity of a medical condition that plagued a once existing figure. The task of traveling into foreign land and analyzing Merrick’s life was stimulating, but it also brought strain and grueling demands that Lynch wasn’t accustomed to enduring. The hardest part was adapting to the twelve week schedule, which he described as “so expensive and so many people involved”. However, David soon found that these minor problems were only secondary. He began to realize that a lot more could be achieved with a legion of crew members involved.
Overall, David found that directing The Elephant Man was a pleasurable experience. His fellow crew members held him in high esteem and the cast noted that he was amiable and easy to work with. They also thought that his talents transcended beyond the capacity of any other new director of motion pictures.
MEL BROOKS ASSOCIATION WITH THE ELEPHANT MAN AS CO-PRODUCER.
Mel Brooks is a highly revered member of the motion picture community. During his successful tenure in film, Brooks has served as director, producer, actor and composure. These days however, he is best remembered for his unique and prolific flair for comedy. Although he was largely associated as a comedienne, Brooks prospered outside of the genre.
Mel Brooks played a pivotal part in the production of The Elephant Man, but due to his prominence in comedy he was mainly absent from the set during filming. He feared that his association with the film might tarnish his image as a comedienne. As a result he launched his own production company titled, Brooksfilms, where a large number of straight drama films were produced.
Despite his absence from The Elephant Man, Mel Brooks was the instrumental force behind the production. He was responsible for the casting aspects, and in his spare time he spent long hours guiding the script and suggesting structural development with the writers. It has been said that Brooks contributed a lot to the films success.
JOHN HURT AS JOHN ( JOSEPH ) MERRICK.
John Hurt was one of the most influential actors Britain has ever produced. From the moment he embarked on his theatrical career, Hurt evoked considerable popularity by portraying a diverse range of characters and demonstrating a gamut of emotions. The depths of his talents along with his sheer versatility and his utmost professionalism were among the assets that Mel Brooks, David Lynch and Jonathan Sanger continued to marvel at. It is because of these reasons that John Hurt was the only star they considered to play John Merrick.
The part of John ( Joseph Merrick ) called for an actor who could become the character they were portraying. While many stars didn’t appear authentic when it came to playing a particular person, John Hurt had the ability to successfully morph into the character and he always made it look believable. With that in mind, Mel Brooks instantly knew that John Hurt could give a realistic portrayal of John ( Joseph ) Merrick.
The only worry was that John Hurt might not accept, but luckily, Hurt had no other commitments at the time, and was looking forward to taking on the challenge. His biggest concern was the extraordinary make-up job that was involved. He knew that he would have to undergo a rapid transformation to play Joseph Merrick. This meant long hours and little sleep, but with his utmost determination, he was positive that he could handle it. John Hurt later stated, “That make-up job? – It’s one thing sitting in a make-up chair for seven hours watching oneself getting prettier and prettier. But I was getting uglier and uglier! I was uncomfortable. I couldn’t eat once the make-up was on. I started at 5.am. with my head shaven, and by midday we had the head and the face done. Then it was time to do the body. It was evening before we began to shoot. It was such a performance that we could only do it all every second day.. Without the crew and cast, becoming John Merrick would have been real hell! In fact, it was a kind of joy. From David Lynch down to the electricians, they were fantastic people to work with.”
For a large majority of actors, the role of John Merrick would require an innumerable amount of research, but John Hurt approached his role with a different perspective. Like the previous characters and historical figures he portrayed, Hurt didn’t engage himself in hours of study. Instead of reading books and visiting museums etc., John Hurt was able to paint a clear picture of Joseph Merrick by just reading the screenplay. When the question about his lack of homework was proposed to him in interviews, John Hurt said, “It’s just the way I work. I know some people do endless research and are tremendously successful with it. But I find if the script doesn’t tell you enough then I think there’s something wrong with the script. I prefer to work imaginatively than totally out of observation. Of course one observes. But imagination to me is what heightens things. I think perhaps there are two major categories into which performances can be put. One performer will go to the character. Another takes the character to himself. I’m of the former really. I prefer to take whatever gifts I have to the character, so it doesn’t really matter whether it looks like me or somebody else. It’s the character I’m playing – I hope! – rather than the other way round. With John Merrick I was playing a role I wanted from the moment I first heard of it in Mel Brooks’ office.”. He then went on to state, “Merrick was obviously an amazing man. He was in constant pain, suffering from a disease that, to this day is still incurable, and he was destined for a very short life, dying at the age of 27. But with the help of Frederick Treves and others, his enormous courage and quiet dignity enabled him to find some enjoyment in his last few years.”
ANTHONY HOPKINS AS FREDERICK TREVES.
Frederick Treves was a man who embodied compassion and empathy. All most every actor wanted to play him, but nobody campaigned for the role harder than Anthony Hopkins who immediately felt that he was the perfect star to fulfill the role from the moment he read the script.
After his recent successes in motion pictures, Anthony Hopkins was the first in line to play Frederick Treves. The actor who is greatly recognized for his ability to portray an assortment of different characters from villains to a man of tremendous humanity, possessed all the ingredients that were required to play a highly respected physician who sees the beauty in a poor, gentle soul who is trapped behind his hideous deformities. In real life, Hopkins personified cordiality, and in many ways his personality paralleled with Frederick Treves. Upon securing the role, Hopkins stated, “I like Treves very much. He’s a nice quiet man and I’m very fond of him. The lovely thing about the story is that it’s about care. Treves was a remarkable man who stuck his professional neck out for John Merrick. He was genuinely concerned about him and felt a real love for this other human being who was in a terrible predicament. I think that makes Treves a very full and rich man. Like all dedicated men, he was a bit of a fanatic. A bit eccentric. Perhaps a bit blinkered even. But a lovely man.”
Unlike John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins believed that research should take higher precedence over imagining a character without studying the role. For his portrayal of Frederick Treves, Hopkins read Treves book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences. While this was his main source of information, he occasionally searched around for other related facts, but most of his knowledge was grasped from Treves’ autobiography.
Set in Victorian London, The Elephant Man follows the story of John Merrick ( John Hurt ), a beloved man who suffered from a combination of Proteus syndrome and other medical conditions which left his face and body severely deformed. Although Merrick leads a miserable existence, he finds happiness in the hands of Frederick Treves ( Anthony Hopkins ) who becomes his pillar of strength, and supports him through his trials and tribulations.
THE SUPPORTING CAST.
“My life is full because I know I am loved.”
In addition to John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, The Elephant Man boasts the talents of Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller, who help round out the supporting cast. John Gielgud only plays a secondary role, but he is still an important character with a sizable part. As Francis Carr-Gomm, the governor of the London Hospital, Gielgud adds serious depth to the film and supplies a bit of tension. This is clearly apparent in the scenes where Francis expresses his disapproval over Treves providing Merrick with housing at the hospital. He is not willing to accept an incurable case and continues to stay firm on his decision until he finally realizes that Merrick is indeed quite scholarly. Mothershead, the steely and abrupt matron supports Francis’ idea, but compared to Francis, she takes a while to warm up to the decision.
I’m not sure how I feel about Wendy Hiller’s character. For most of the movie she appears rather aloof. Her relationship with Merrick seems to be somewhat distant at first, and its only when Merrick is guaranteed permanent residence by Queen Victoria that her personality becomes more amiable. Of course, Mothershead isn’t malicious and her intents aren’t harmful or anything. She just takes a while to adjust to John Merrick and the severity of his condition. Her biggest problem is that she doesn’t know how to react to someone as hideous looking as John Merrick, but that could be a challenge that anyone could face on their first introduction to John.
The one person who does emanate warmth when she enters into John Merrick’s life is Madge Kendal ( Anne Bancroft ), a dignified stage actress who is immediately accepting of Merrick’s condition and helps him find much deserved happiness. Despite her limited screen time, Bancroft infuses the very few scenes that she is in with feelings of sincerity and tenderness. She doesn’t look at him through the lens of his disability. She sees John Merrick as a man who epitomizes beauty and who is not incapable of love.
The relationship between John Merrick and Madge Kendal transcends any ordinary bond. The two forge a short but glorious friendship, and in the heartfelt moments they spend together, Madge introduces Merrick to Shakespeare, a kind and deeply touching gesture. It is during these times that Madge discovers that Merrick is profoundly interested in the theatre, but due to his condition he has never had the privilege to attend a stage production. Madge remedies that. She invites John Merrick to one of her shows and dedicates her performance to him.
Perhaps my favorite part in the movie is the Romeo and Juliet scene where John Merrick welcomes Madge Kendal in his room. After John reads a bit of the Shakespeare book he has just received from Mrs. Kendal, Madge touchingly says “Oh, Mr. Merrick, you’re not an elephant man at all. You’re Romeo.”. This particular scene clearly exemplifies the sweetness that Madge inhabits and the compassionate person that she is. You can watch that scene here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep-gKH1I_IY
“Why, Mr. Merrick, you’re not an elephant man at all.”
“Oh no… no… you’re Romeo.”
At the time of filming, Bancroft was married to the films co-producer, Mel Brooks. Brooks was the mastermind behind Bancroft being cast in the role of Madge. The Elephant Man was not her only collaboration with Brooks however. Bancroft had appeared in Silent Movie ( 1976 ) as well as playing an unaccredited part in Blazing Saddles ( 1974 )
The film is made up of many sweet components, but along with all the sugar, there is also a bit of spice. The Elephant Man introduces a few villainous characters who are only interested in profiting from John Merrick’s misery. These people see his macabre appearance as some form of entertainment for the general public, and they make him an exhibit at freak shows, where Merrick is viewed as a monstrosity. Seeing Merrick as the victim of humiliation is painful to watch, but it does paint a clear picture of the tribulations that Joseph Merrick endured in real life.
“Life!… is full of surprises. Consider the fate of this creature’s poor mother, struck down in the fourth month of her maternal condition by an elephant, a wild elephant. Struck down!… on an uncharted African isle. The result is plain to see… Ladies and gentlemen… The terrible… Elephant… Man…”
In The Elephant Man, the main antagonist is Bytes ( Freddie Jones ), a merciless showman who is drawn into the perils of alcoholism. We are first introduced to Bytes at the beginning of the film when John Merrick who is kept by Bytes is the star attraction at a Victorian freak show. Right away, Bytes is represented as a deplorable person whose motives are corrupt. All he wants is to earn a considerable income by making Merrick’s life a living hell. To further exacerbate matters, he often beats Merrick badly, which is fatal for somebody of Merrick’s condition.
It’s true to say that Bytes doesn’t understand the nature of John Merrick’s illness. He views Merrick as useless. To Bytes, Merrick is an absurd oddity whose restricted by an extreme handicap. But what he doesn’t know is that Merrick’s deformities do not affect his brain. In actuality, John Merrick has more intelligence than Bytes himself.
The Elephant Man is filled with many characters who inhabit different personalities, some who model civility like Frederick Treves and Madge Kendal and some who are the essence of cruelty and sadism, but the heart of the film is John Merrick. As John Merrick, John Hurt delivers a touching portrayal of a man whose life was ruined by his severe deformities. Playing a person with abnormal body distortions is quite challenging and complex. The role required an actor with an air of professionalism. John Hurt hailed from this pantheon and he certainly was no stranger to depicting real life figures on screen, but John Merrick was by far the most difficult. For his performance, Hurt had to endure hours of wearing heavy make-up, which meant that he was forced to go without food and sip through a straw. John Hurt received an Academy Award nomination for his role, but lost to Robert De Niro who won for his performance in Raging Bull.
On its release, The Elephant Man was financially successful. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including John Hurt’s nomination for “Best Actor”, but lost in all categories. The fact that Elephant Man was not even recognized for the extraordinary make-up effects sent the movie industry into an outrage. A letter of protest was sent to the Academy’s Board of Governors, requesting that the film be given an honorary award. However, the Academy rejected, and did not even take their frustration into account. Although, the make-up artists did receive their only category in the next years Academy Award and An American Werewolf in London was the first recipient.
The Elephant Man may have been robbed at the Academy Awards, but its progress at the BAFTA Awards proved to be more successful. John Hurt took home the statuette for Best Actor while the film won for Best Film. In addition to its winnings, the film was nominated in four other categories.
Although it was a difficult film to make, The Elephant Man reached critical acclaim on all levels. From the masterful cinematography by Freddie Francis to John Morris’ exceptional music score, this heartfelt and moving production gives viewers a rare glimpse into the life of one of London’s most unfortunate citizens.
Following the death of the real Joseph “John” Merrick, parts of his body were preserved for medical science to study. Some internal organs were kept in jars, and plaster casts were taken of his head, an arm, and a foot. Although the organs were destroyed by German air raids during World War II, the casts survived,, and are kept at the London Hospital. The make-up for Sir John Hurt, who played Merrick in this film, was designed directly from those casts.
The last lines, spoken by Merrick’s mother, are quoted from Alfred Lord Tennyson‘s poem, “Nothing Will Die.”
A lifelong smoker, Sir John Hurt still managed to smoke his cigarettes through the heavy facial prosthetic make-up, whenever the urge came on, during the lengthy hours on-set.
Sir John Hurt kept the prosthetic cast of Joseph “John” Merrick’s head after the shoot. He stored it in a cupboard in his house. Several years later, his house was burgled while was out, a friend phoned him and said, “There has been a burglary at your house.” John asked what was taken, and the reply was, “Nothing! The robber must have opened the cupboard and the mask fell out! The burglar must have fled the scene in fright!”
Sir Frederick Treves great nephew played a cameo role in the movie.
John Hurt: Born, John Vincent Hurt on January 22nd, 1940 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England. Aged 76. Died: January 25th, 2017 in Cromer, Norfolk, England. Aged: 77.
Anthony Hopkins: Born, Philip Anthony Hopkins on December 31st, 1937 in Margam, Port Talbot, Glamorgan, Wales.
John Gielgud: Born, Arthur John Gielgud on April 14th, 1904 in South Kensington, London. Died: May 21st, 2000 in Aylesbury, United Kingdom. Aged: 96.
Anne Bancroft: Born, Anna Maria Louisa Italiano on September 17th, 1931 in The Bronx, New York. Died: June 6th, 2005 in Manhattan, New York. Aged: 73.
Wendy Hiller: Born, Wendy Margaret Hiller on August 15th, 1912 in Bramhall, Cheshire, England. Died: May 14th, 2003 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England. Aged: 90.
Back in September 2015, I hosted a blogathon dedicated to Lauren Bacall. This was my second ever blogathon, and the result was triumphant. Sadly, I wasn’t able to host it the two previous years, but this year I’ve decided that I want to shine the spotlight on Lauren once again, and here’s hoping that I can replicate the success of the last one.
Anyone who knows me will know that Lauren Bacall has played a pivotal part in my life. At the end of 2011, I wrote to Lauren’s home address in New York. After hearing reports from my Mum and Grandma who attained front row seats to see Lauren being interviewed live on the Mike Walsh Show in 1979, I wasn’t expecting any fruitful activity to occur, but to my surprise, I was coming home one day and I noticed a big envelope sticking out of the letter box. I took the envelope out of the box, and discovered that the parcel was from no other than Lauren Bacall. Inside the envelope were a myriad of personalized photographs with my name on it. I was that euphoric that I wrote to her again, and to my amazement, she got back to me the second time and signed even more photos. Lauren was extremely generous.
As a token of gratitude, I’m celebrating Lauren’s 94th birthday on September 16th with this blogathon. I was hoping to announce it sooner, but I’ve been under strain lately, and have been drowning in journalism assignments yet again.
1. Bloggers are welcome to write about anything relating to Lauren Bacall from her filmography, her television appearances and stage work to her storybook romance and marriage with Humphrey Bogart. There are tons of things that you can talk about.
2. To give everyone a chance to participate, I’m allowing no more than two duplicates. I know this sounds very fair, but I like to make sure that bloggers attain the topic of their choice.
3. Because there are a wealth of topics to be discussed, I’m not limiting how many posts you want to do. I only ask that there be no previously published posts. I’m only accepting new material.
4. The blogathon will take place on the dates, September 14th – 16th ( Lauren’s birthday ), so please have your articles ready by then. Early entries are allowed.
5. To express your interest in participating in the blogathon, leave me a comment with your choice of topic and the name of your blog. If you wish to register by email, my email address is: email@example.com. Once you receive confirmation, please select one of the banners below, and I’ll see you in September.
In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood :TBD.
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films : To Have and Have Not ( 1944 )
The Story Enthusiast : How To Marry A Millionaire ( 1953 )
The Wonderful World Of Cinema : Key Largo ( 1948 )
The Stop Button : The Big Sleep ( 1946 )
Love Letters To Old Hollywood : Written On The Wind ( 1956 )
Caftan Woman : Young Man With A Horn ( 1950 )
Real Weegie Midget Reviews :Applause ( 1972 )
The Midnight Drive-In : Blood Alley ( 1955 )
Taking Up Room : Designing Woman ( 1957 )
Movie Rob : Dark Passage ( 1947 ), The Shootist ( 1976 ) and Written On The Wind ( 1956 )
Critica Retro : Harper ( 1966 )
Old Hollywood Films : Lauren Bacall: A life in pictures.
Karavansara : Murder on the Orient Express ( 1974 )
Overture Books and Films : How To Marry A Millionaire ( 1953 )
Anybody Got A Match? : Lauren’s life after Bogart.
Whimsically Classic : Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Pop Culture Reverie : The Big Sleep ( 1946 )
Phyllis Loves Classic Movies : The Gift of Love ( 1958 )
“Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?”
For millions of people world wide Christmas is the happiest time of the year, but for some families the highly celebrated annual tradition can suddenly turn into a disastrous affair.
The famed movie family named the Stanley’s endured nothing but turbulence one snowy Christmas in Ohio when their home became a place of recovery for the acidic tongued radio personality, Sheridan Whiteside who dominated the household and controlled the first floor of the luxurious dwelling.
This bizarre situation is extremely rare in real life, but in the 1942 film, The Man Who Came To Dinner, the family were struck with the troubles and frustrations that Moss Hart experienced when the renowned writer and broadcaster, Alexander Woollcott spent a catastrophic weekend at his house. Moss Hart would later describe the incident as sheer hell. However, the chapter of events did spark inspiration for a future project, and that is when Sheriden Whiteside was born.
The story of Sheridan Whiteside was first brought to life in 1939 when a play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman opened to critical acclaim at the Music Box Theatre in New York. After a successful 739 performances the show moved to London and was a hit with English audiences. In 1942, Sheridan Whiteside and his entourage were introduced to the movie going public when Julius and Philip G. Epstein adapted the wildly celebrated play into a motion picture starring Bette Davis and Monty Woolly.
During one of those performances in New York, Bette Davis entered the doors of the Music Box Theatre and was about to witness what she thought would be a perfect vehicle for her and acting veteran, John Barrymore. Davis had been desperately wanting to work with Barrymore for years, and finally her dream was close to coming true. She persuaded Jack Warner to purchase the screen rights for her and John Barrymore, but suddenly that dream of working with Barrymore was soon extinguished when Jack Warner tested Barrymore for the role of Sheridan Whiteside, and the screen test proved to be disastrous due to Barrymore’s excessive drinking, which made it difficult for him to deliver the witty, razor-sharp and fast-paced dialogue.
For Bette Davis, The Man Who Came To Dinner was not the dream project she had envisioned it to be. She had still clung to the hope of someday working with John Barrymore, but when all those aspirations were shattered, she was faced with continual disappointment and regret. Her emotions exacerbated in May 1942 when Barrymore passed away, leaving a distraught Davis realizing that her wish would never come true.
The filming of The Man Who Came To Dinner was not something that Bette Davis fondly remembered. The casting of Monty Woolly in the role of Sheridan Whiteside fueled a myriad of problems for Davis who was not impressed by Woolly reprising the role on screen. In later years, Bette stated, “I felt the film was not directed in a very imaginative way. For me, it was not a happy film to make; that it was a success, of course, did make me happy. I guess I never got over my disappointment in not working with the great John Barrymore.”
To further complicate matters, Bette Davis had to take several weeks off filming to recover at her home in New Hampshire after being bitten hard on the nose by her dog, which caused a noticeable wound. Anxious to resume work, Davis returned to the set before her nose was fully healed. This caused a few difficulties, but any obstacles were quickly vanquished when they decided to shoot with Bette’s back to the camera. Hal B. Wallis later stated, “We shot for two days with Bette’s back to the camera,” said Wallis. “This was fine, except that every time the other actors saw her, they broke into fits of giggling led by Monty Woolley. It became impossible for them to speak their lines.”
While Bette Davis endured constant hardships on set, Ann Sheridan was also under strain. At the time of production, Sheridan was hard at work on Kings Row ( 1942 ) and was forced to rotate back and fourth between films. Her hectic schedule fueled enormous amounts of pressure, which resulted in her often feeling fatigued.
“You know, Sheridan, you have one great advantage over everyone else in the world. You’ve never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside.”
Despite Bette’s frustration over John Barrymore not receiving the part of Sheridan Whiteside, Davis would have much preferred it if one of the original choices were chosen for the role. Initially, a long lineage of stars heavily campaigned for the role. Among those actors were Charles Laughton and Orson Welles, who also wanted to direct the film. When both Laughton and Welles were deemed unsuitable, Robert Benchley and Laird Cregar done screen tests, but producer Hal B. Wallis thought that Cregar was too “overblown and extravagant” and Benchley “too mild mannered”. This led to Jack Warner urging Wallis to consider Cary Grant, though Wallis bluntly refused by saying that Grant was “far too young and attractive.”
The only possible solution to this never-ending search was Monty Woolly, the highly revered stage actor who had created the role of Sheridan Whiteside on Broadway. Prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, Woolly had appeared in an array of moderately successful motion pictures, but his presence in films was not as recognizable as his work on stage. At first Jack Warner was hesitant of Monty Woolly playing Whiteside and was concerned that his homosexuality would be clearly apparent on screen, though eventually he agreed.
The making of The Man Who Came To Dinner was onerous for all involved, but the result of a dismal set and the bitter disputes was a successful motion picture that would be profitable at the box office. Bosley Crowther from the New York Times observed, “Any one who happened to miss the original acid-throwing antic on the stage – and any one, for that matter, who happened not to have missed it – should pop around, by all means, and catch the cinematic reprise. For here, in the space of something like an hour and fifty-two minutes, is compacted what is unquestionably the most vicious but hilarious cat-clawing exhibition ever put on the screen, a deliciously wicked character portrait and a helter-skelter satire, withal. Woolley makes The Man Who Came to Dinner a rare old goat. His zest for rascality is delightful, he spouts alliterations as though he were spitting out orange seeds, and his dynamic dudgeons in a wheelchair are even mightier than those of Lionel Barrymore. A more entertaining buttinsky could hardly be conceived, and a less entertaining one would be murdered on the spot. One palm should be handed Bette Davis for accepting the secondary role of the secretary, and another palm should be handed her for playing it so moderately and well.” In conclusion, he said, “The picture as a whole is a bit too long and internally complex for 100 per cent comprehension, considering the speed at which it clips. But even if you don’t catch all of it, you’re sure to get your money’s worth. It makes laughing at famous people a most satisfying delight.”, while Time wrote, “Woolley plays Sheridan Whiteside with such vast authority and competence that it is difficult to imagine anyone else attempting it” and added, “Although there is hardly room for the rest of the cast to sandwich in much of a performance between this fattest of fat parts, Bette Davis, hair up, neuroses gone, is excellent as Woolley’s lovesick secretary.”
In a film directed by William Keighley and produced by Jerry Wald, audiences are invited to join the misadventures that occur when New York radio personality, Sheridan Whiteside ( Monty Woolly ) visits the home of Ernest and Daisy Stanley ( Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke ) during his cross-country lecture tour. Problems arise when Whiteside slips on the icy steps of their house and is confined to the Stanley’s home for several weeks to recuperate.
“Go in and read the life of Florence Nightingale and learn how unfitted you are for your chosen profession.”
From the moment Sheridan Whiteside enters the property, the Stanley’s are immediately thrust into the throes of destruction when Whiteside monopolizes the entire household and dominates the lives of everyone in it. For the Stanley’s, disaster continues to flow. First they are banned from using the first floor. Then they discover a hefty telephone bill from Mr. Whiteside’s use of the phone, and next they find their house cluttered with peculiar gifts for Whiteside, which include an octopus, penguins, and an Egyptian mummy.
The Man Who Came To Dinner is not your average Bette Davis film. Despite being first billed, Davis really only has a supporting but pivotal role. Here she plays Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s unyielding secretary who knows the tricks to her employers egotistical games and cannot be fooled by his match breaking plans. It’s interesting to watch Bette Davis playing second fiddle to Monty Woolly’s, Sheridan Whiteside. We’re so use to seeing Bette portray the central protagonist in larger than life and often villainous roles. Instead, Bette’s scene stealing attempts are eclipsed by Monty Woolly playing Sheridan Whiteside, the antagonist of destruction.
As I mentioned before, Monty Woolly was still relatively unknown to movie going audiences when he made The Man Who Came To Dinner. Prior to donning the famous role of Sheridan Whiteside on stage and screen, Woolly had starred in a few films, but his soul focus was the stage. It’s true to say that Sheridan Whiteside was his passage to stardom.
In addition to Monty Woolly and Bette Davis, the film features a stellar ensemble cast. Ann Sheridan portrays, Lorraine Sheldon, a selfish and uncouth actress who is not shy to chase after men, while Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell play the Stanley’s whose home is turned into a hospital and museum when Sheridan Whiteside arrives. Mary Wickes and Ruth Vivian reprised their roles from the original Broadway production. Also present in the film are Reginald Gardiner and Jimmy Durante who both deliver memorable performances.
“My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102 and when she’d been dead three days she looked better than you do now.”
After The Man Who Came To Dinner, Davis would go on to make two more films in 1942. The second was In This Our Life, in which she teamed up with her frequent co-star, Olivia de Havilland for the third time. The most successful of these three films is the perennial classic, Now Voyager, where Davis plays Charlotte Vale, an unattractive and frumpy spinster who undergoes therapy and transforms into an elegant and sophisticated young woman of society. For her performance, Bette attained an Academy Award nomination, but lost to Greer Garson who received the Oscar that year for Mrs. Miniver.
For a film that is lively, witty and contains sharp biting dialogue as well as vibrant characters, look no further than The Man Who Came To Dinner, a timeless classic that can be enjoyed any time of the year.
The authors asked Alexander Woollcott if he would like to play the part of Whiteside when the play opened on Broadway. He declined. The authors then approached Monty Woolley, who at that time was a professor at Yale. They wrote him “would it amuse you to play the part of Whiteside?” to which Woolley replied “it would amuse everyone.”
In addition to Sheridan Whiteside being based on Alexander Woolcott, several of the films characters were inspired by member of the Algonquin Round Table.
Mary Wickes made her film debut in The Man Who Came To Dinner.
The poem that Whiteside quotes with the line “Harriet Stanley took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks” was actually written about the real Elizabeth “Lizzie” Borden, who was tried but acquitted of the hatchet murders of her mother and father in Falls River, MA, in 1892.
Bette Davis: Born, Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5th, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Died: October 6th, 1989 in Neuilly, Sur Seine, France. Aged 81. Cause of death: Breast Cancer.
Monty Wooley: Born, Edgar Montillion Woolley on August 17th, 1888 in Manhattan, New York. Died: May 6th, 1963 in Albany, New York. Aged: 74.
Ann Sheridan: Born, Clara Lou Sheridan on February 21st, 1915 in Denton, Texas. Died: January 21st, 1967 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 51.
This post was written for the Christmas In July Blogathon, hosted by Drew’s Movie Reviews. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.
“We’re the only two people in New York who don’t think we’re married.”
“Think? I know we’re not.”
“I’m beginning to have my doubts.”
He was one of the worlds most influential dancers. She was a highly revered star in Hollywood who succeeded in all corners of entertainment, and together they glided their way to unparalleled virtuosity by making a screen team like no other.
The above passage refers to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the commercially successful dance partners whose iconic collaboration spanned for sixteen years. The couple first came to the fore in 1933, when they played supporting roles in Flying Down To Rio, alongside acting veteran, Dolores del Rio. From that moment on, audiences knew that they were in for a visual treat of spectacular dancing.
Although they are best known for their memorable turns in productions like Top Hat and Swing Time, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers prospered in everything they did. By 1937, the two seemed to have developed a continuous pattern of success. That same year they teamed up for the seventh time in the romantic comedy, Shall We Dance, a film that combines the art form of ballet with tap dancing.
Shall We Dance may have earned less at the box office than the previous Astaire & Rogers films, but that doesn’t mean that the production was flawed. A large part of the films eminence is due to George and Ira Gershwin’s association with the vehicle. Without the Gershwin’s input, Shall We Dance could have been a disastrous affair, but instead, the famous songwriting duo helped propel the film to super-stardom.
The Gershwin’s are often hailed as the sole contributors of success for Shall We Dance, but the instrumental force behind the production was Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who brought the film to life. The idea was first conceived in 1936 when On Your Toes was a victorious hit on Broadway. Initially, the play was envisaged as a motion picture starring Fred Astaire, but Astaire declined the offer, thinking that his character would closely mirror his debonair image that was developed in his contemporary films. At first it was a major disappointment for the studios, but Astaire’s refusal eventually led them to presenting it as a stage production.
Ray Bolger, who is best remembered today for his memorable portrayal of the Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz ( 1939 ), played Astaire’s role in the stage production. At the time, Bolger was still relatively unknown to audiences, but with the success of On Your Toes, Bolger’s status ascended, and soon he discovered that a promising career in Hollywood was on the horizon.
This was a busy period for Fred Astaire. Three months before the filming of Shall We Dance commenced, Astaire and his wife, Phyllis decided that a short vacation to Europe was on the cards. The two had been yearning for a relaxing holiday for a while, but due to Astaire’s hectic schedule they were unable to get away. A few days before departure, Fred received a call about an offer to appear on the radio for the coming fall season. He knew from the start that this was something that he could not pass up. The proposal was for a thirty-nine week, one hour variety show, in which Fred was to be the master of ceremonies as well as performing four of five songs and dances that were accompanied by comic sequences. Initially, Astaire saw this as a challenge, but he was determined to vanquish any fears that he may have had.
While Fred Astaire was busy preparing for his role in Shall We Dance, Phyllis consumed all of her free time on the planning and blueprints for the building process of their long awaited dream home. This was a task that proved to be tedious, especially since Phyllis insisted on having a property with an extra two acres. However, Fred was too absorbed in rehearsals for Shall We Dance to even worry about the plans that Phyllis was making.
After their long association, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were eager to nurture solo careers of their own. Outside of their partnership there were territories left uncharted that they desperately wanted to explore. Director, Mark Sandrich, who helmed several of the Astaire/ Rogers vehicles was well aware of their plans, but he had different ideas that didn’t parallel. Instead, Sandrich and RKO were more interested in the popularity of their on-screen relationship, and started to map out their upcoming film schedule.
Directed by Mark Sandrich, and produced by Pandro S. Berman with the screenplay by Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano, Shall We Dance is a romantic tale of false misunderstandings. Set in the world of dancing, the story revolves around Peter P. “Petrov” Peters ( Fred Astaire ), an American ballet dancer who dances for a leading ballet company in Paris. Much to the disapproval of Jeffrey Baird ( Edward Everett Horton ), the owner of the ballet company, Peter becomes immersed in the idea of combining ballet with the “warmth and passion of tap dancing”. His sudden interest in tap makes him discover Linda Keene ( Ginger Rogers ), a famous tap dancer who he develops a strong affection for and desperately wants to meet.
“I told you, I haven’t even met her. But I’d kinda like to marry her… I think I will.”
Peter’s obsession ultimately leads to a rather awkward meeting with Linda who is currently stuck in her own quandary and wouldn’t care if Peter faded out into the horizon. To Linda, Peter is just another one of her admirers, but for Peter, Linda is more than a distinguished tap dancer. She is the object of his affection, and he yearns to be in her presence even if it means following her on the same ocean liner that is headed to New York.
Linda is looking forward to sailing to New York the following day and eluding all her existing troubles in Paris, but what she don’t know is that Peter will be on the same ship waiting for her, and a series of misadventures will arise, including a fast spreading rumor that Peter and Linda are secretly married.
Shall We Dance was initially intended as a farewell vehicle for the famous screen team, but with their popularity soaring to astronomical heights, Astaire and Rogers were destined to remain dancing partners for a little longer. The couples soul focus at this point was to branch out and disseminate their talents individually. However, their goals of achieving acclamation alone would have to be put on abeyance for a while. They’re triumphs as a duo guided them to starring roles in Carefree, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and The Barkley’s of Broadway.
“What are the grounds for divorce in this state?”
Some reviewers have stated that the film is not in the same league as Top Hat and Swing Time, but despite those critical remarks, it’s hard to determine where the fault lies. Shall We Dance benefits from George and Ira Gershwin’s exceptional music input. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a long association with the Gershwin’s and had formed a close friendship. In his autobiography, Steps In Time, Astaire wrote, “George Gershwin was with me a lot through the making of Shall We Dance. We enjoyed reminiscing about our past associations on the stage with Arrons and Freedley. George was very keen about the progress of the entertainment world. He was always impressed by the growing numbers of talented new young people and their ideas.” Sadly, George passed away shortly before the films release, but at least audiences are treated to a phenomenal showcase of their songs to remember them by.
The Gershwin’s may have committed all their energy into making Shall We Dance the spectacular motion picture that it is, but it’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who make the film utterly entertaining. Astaire and Rogers are the ones that draw our attention. They’re magnetic chemistry, and their indelible dancing abilities are factors that cannot be denied. It also helps that their characters are always amiable, sympathetic and possess an air of comicality. Peter P. “Petrov” Peters and Linda Keene embody all of the following ingredients, and they make “us” the audience wish that we were in their presence.
Fred Astaire perfectly executes the role of Pete Peters, a suave and sophisticated hoofer who is the epitome of virtuosity. His capabilities as a dancer make him the pillar of admiration. He is just as adept at jazz and ballroom as he is ballet, and its because of his current enthusiasm for tap that he becomes embroiled in a scheming fake marriage plot with Linda Keene.
Ginger Rogers deftly portrays Linda Keene, the disillusioned musical comedy star who wants to withdraw from performances to focus on getting married. Her plans are halted when she crosses paths with Pete Peters whose main intent is to pursue a romantic relationship with her. In the long run, Pete’s motives create havoc and leave the two in turmoil when they have to try to squash a never-ending rumor that both Pete and Linda are secretly married.
An honorable mention goes to Edward Everett Horton whose portrayal of Jeffrey Baird, Peter’s bumbling manager brings comicality to the mix. Horton also starred alongside Fred and Ginger in The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, but his performance in Shall We Dance is a favorite among many film enthusiasts.
Another feature that I find redeeming is the fact that the film doesn’t rely heavily on the music to carry it through. While some films don’t seem to have a story-line, Shall We Dance has what Fred Astaire describes in his autobiography, Steps In Time as a “complex plot” and a “background that has plenty of scope for different dance ideas”. What Astaire wrote is true. This is one movie that has a synopsis that has the power to put their talents to use. It’s not just the plot however that makes Shall We Dance succeed on so many levels. The film boasts an array of popular music scores, which include, I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, and Slap That Bass, where Astaire dances in the ships art-deco style engine room while the African-American’s are hard at work. This particular number was unusual for its time, but the mixed race elements of the scene are done with great care. Of course, there are many other wonderful music scores that help elevate the production. The films most pivotal number and my personal favorite is Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, where we see Astaire and Rogers tap dancing on roller skates around Central Park’s skating rink. In this scene Astaire uses the circular form of the rink to introduce a variation of the “oompah-trot” that he and his sister Adele made famous in vaudeville.
Once you combine all the elements together, what you get is a frothy and delightful romantic comedy that is brimming with plenty of wit, verbal sparring, astute dialogue and a cleverly constructed script. Shall We Dance is a testament to the talents of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers whose presence make this film magical.
The scene where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance on roller skates took about 150 takes, according to one of the VHS versions of the film.
At the end of the roller skate dance number in the park the stars flop onto the “lawn”. In the film both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appear uncomfortable as they get up. This is because both were bruised from more than fifteen earlier takes and were actually in pain.
Fred Astaire: Born, Frederick Austerlitz on May 10th, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. Died: June 22nd, 1987 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 88.
Ginger Rogers: Born, Virginia Katherine Rogers on July 16th, 1911 in Independence, Missouri. Died: April 25th, 1995 in Rancho Mirage, California. Aged: 83.
Edward Everett Horton: Born, Edward Everett Horton on March 18th, 1886 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: September 29th, 1970 in Encino, California. Aged: 84.
This post was written for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Blogathon, hosted by Michaela from Love Letters To Old Hollywoodand myself. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.
It’s time to get your dance shoes on, and get ready to celebrate one of Hollywood’s greatest screen teams, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
For the next three days that’s what Michaela from Love Letters To Old Hollywood and I will be doing. For those bloggers who are joining the party, please send your entries to either Michaela or me, and we’ll link them as soon as we can. A big thank you to all participants. We look forward to celebrating Fred and Ginger with you.
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is the first to the party, and she talks about Fred and Ginger’s most famous collaboration, Tap Hat ( 1935 )
First of all, I want to wish the legendary, Dame Olivia de Havilland a very Happy Birthday for today. Secondly, I can’t describe how excited I am that Laura and myself are celebrating this special occasion for the third consecutive year by honoring Olivia with a three day blogathon.
Laura and I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who took the time to participae in the blogathon. We look forward to reading your entries.