If you're looking for a blog with meaningful content on the important issues of the day, you've come to the wrong place. This is the shallows, my friend. Nothing but shallowness as far as the eye can see. Let someone else make sense of things. I like it here.
- I love my grown children, miss all the dogs I ever had, and I cry at the drop of a hat, I believe in true love, destiny, fairness, and compassion. If I could be anywhere right now, it would be the ocean. My favorite city is New York, but I am always longing for London and craving more time in Copenhagen. I'm drawn to desolate places, deserted buildings, and unknown byways. I don't care how society perceives me as long as my gut tells me that what I'm doing is right. I am interested in paranormal things, spiritual things, historical things, and things that glow at night. I like to drink, I smoke when I write, I can't stand small talk, and despite my quick temper, I would rather kiss than fight. I'm selfish with my writing time, a spendthrift with my love. My heart has been broken so many times that it's held together with super glue and duct tape. The upside is that, next time, I won't be tempted to give away what I no longer have to give. But I will let you buy me a Pink Squirrel.
IN A WORLD FILLED WITH COMPLEX POLITICAL ISSUES, SOCIAL INEQUALITY, AND FINANCIAL UNCERTAINTY, I CONSIDER IT MY GIFT TO YOU, MY READER, TO OFFER THIS SHALLOW LITTLE HAVEN, WHERE NOTHING IS TOO SHALLOW, TOO INSIGNIFICANT, OR TOO RIDICULOUS TO JUSTIFY OUR ATTENTION. IN OTHER WORDS, IF IT'S NOT IMPORTANT....SO WHAT? NEITHER WAS MARILYN MONROE'S BRA SIZE. AND THAT STILL SELLS MAGAZINES, DOESN'T IT?
Saturday, April 14, 2012
CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD: WHEN FRED MACMURRAY WAS HOT
In 1935, James Cain, who had made a name for himself as the author of the bestselling crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, published his second contribution to the genre, a novella called Double Indemnity. The novella was based on a real life murder that took place in New York in 1927, which Cain had covered whilst working as a journalist in that city. The murder had been carried out by an unhappy Queens housewife called Ruth Snyder and her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray, who assisted Snyder in taking out a large insurance policy on her husband before the murder--an insurance policy that included what was known as a "double indemnity clause", which meant that the beneficiaries of the policy would receive double the original amount if the insured happened to expire due to accidental causes. Unfortunately (for them), Ruth Snyder and her lover were not exactly what you could call criminal masterminds, and the form of accidental death they chose for Snyder's husband was a staged burglary, during which they garroted him, stuffed his nose with chloroform-soaked rags, and killed him.
The dumb-ass duo were quickly identified, caught, charged, and convicted of the crime. Both were sent to Sing Sing where they were summarily executed by virtue of the "electric chair", affording Snyder the dubious legacy of being the first woman to be executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Enter James Cain, whose fictionalized version of the case received rave reviews and was soon making the rounds in Hollywood as the potential source for a movie. After a bidding war among several major studios, movie execs at Paramount finally bought the rights to the novella for $15,000. However, whatever joy they felt in obtaining the rights were soon overshadowed by the problem of how to make a movie in which the two main characters were inherently dishonest, self-centered, and unrepentant regarding the monstrous crime for which they had been convicted. Hollywood stars lived and thrived on the adulation of their fans. What fan wanted to see the object of their adoration play a cold-blooded murderer with no redeeming qualities whatsoever? Not only that, but they needed someone to turn the novella into a screenplay. And then someone had to direct it. It was a minefield of possible naysayers. But then someone thought of Billy Wilder.
Billy Wilder was the talented son of Jewish parents who operated a successful cake shop in Austria-Hungary (now a part of Poland) before moving to Berlin when Wilder was still a boy. Following the rise of Hitler's murderous Third Reich in the late 1920s, Wilder left Berlin for Paris, and then, in 1933, relocated to Hollywood, where he began pursuing a career as a screenwriter. Short (tiny, really) and decidedly eccentric, Wilder didn't have much success with his chosen profession until, finally, in 1939, he collaborated with fellow German immigrant Ernst Lubitsch on the screenplay for Ninotchka, a "screwball" comedy starring Swedish drama queen Greta Garbo in her first role as a laugh-magnet. The movie did so well that Wilder soon became a hot commodity in the previously indifferent Hollywood community, and, in 1942, made his directorial debut with an otherwise forgotten film called The Major And The Minor. When Paramount execs approached him with the offer to direct a film based on Caine's novella, Wilder was all about the "yes" word, but told them that he was going to need a co-writer. After some deliberation, it was decided that the best man for the job was Raymond Chandler, creator of fictional P.I. Philip Marlowe, the dark, complex, infinitely witty protagonist of "The Big Sleep", "Lady In The Lake", and "Little Sister." Although Chandler had no experience writing screenplays, Wilder admired his ability to weave dialogue and action within the framework of a story. Unlike Caine, whose sparse, journalistic writing style had been honed in New York newspaper offices, Chandler had a knack for creating characters and putting them in situations which allowed them to display a complex variety of emotions without ever missing a beat when it came to that all-important hard-boiled banter. What better writer to take on a project like Double Indemnity?
The problem was, Raymond Chandler was every bit, if not more, eccentric than Wilder. Although he had been born in Chicago, Illinois, Chandler was the son of a British woman of Irish descent who had immigrated to the United States to live with family after being estranged from her husband. When Chandler was two years old, his mother relocated back to England, taking him with her. That's where Chandler grew up, and where he first fell in love with the idea of becoming the successful author of dreamy, romantic stories which took place in idyllic English gardens and chintz-draped drawing rooms. Somehow, though, after spending his formative years in English boarding schools and his early adulthood making an unenthusiastic stab at a career as a civil servant, he decided that he would be much happier living back in the United States. And so, in 1912, he returned to America, settling first in San Francisco, and then, following the end of WWII (during which he served with the Canadian RAF), Los Angeles, where he and his wife, Cissy (a woman 18 years his senior whom he married in 1924) lived for the remainder of their lives.
After working at a number of different jobs, including one as an oil executive, Chandler realized that his true vocation was still that of writer, and so he began writing crime stories for pulp magazines, gradually perfecting the character of Philip Marlowe, in which guise the former English schoolboy treated the world to some of the best, most influential "hard-boiled" dialogue to ever see print. By the time Wilder approached him with the idea of collaborating on the Double Indemnity screenplay, Chandler was firmly ensconced in his role as one of America's top crime fiction authors. Although he agreed to work with Wilder on the screenplay, he was not used to working with a collaborator, especially one as unapologetically quirky and controlling as Wilder. It was a battle of wills from the very start. Wilder had a habit of walking around the writing room with a whip that he liked to crack against his thigh, which bothered Chandler immensely, as did Wilder's refusal to take off his cap during writing sessions, which, according to a distressed memo Chandler sent to studio execs, made the crime writer feel as though Wilder intended to just up and leave the room at any moment, a prospect which sometimes kept him from being able to concentrate on the work at hand. Another issue for Chandler was Wilder's alleged propensity for barking out orders to him, such as "Open the window, Ray", to which Chandler took great offense. Somehow, though, the two men managed to finish the screenplay. But having solved that problem, they were now faced with the larger one of finding actors to play the protagonists. Wilder decided to ask Barbara Stanwyck.
Barbara Stanwyck (born Catherine Ruby Stevens in 1907) was one tough cookie. When she was four, her mother had been killed when a drunken stranger pushed her off a moving street car. Following her mother's death, Stanwyck's father took off to work on the Panama Canal and was never heard from again. In her teens, Stanwyck dropped out of school to join the Ziegfield Follies, a job which she held for several years, supplementing her income by working as a dance instructor at a speakeasy which catered to a gay and lesbian clientele. Eventually, she found her way to Broadway, where she received accolades for her role in a play called "The Noose", precipitating a summons to Hollywood where she made a screen test for a role in the silent film, Broadway Nights. She didn't get the role, but, after being cast as the star of another film called The Locked Door, she was well on her way to a storied career as one of Hollywood's classic chosen few. By the time Wilder broached the idea of playing the lead role in Double Indemnity, Stanwyck was one of the most sought after actresses in the industry as well as one of its most notorious hard-asses. After reading the screenplay, she had no trouble telling Wilder what she thought of it, which was that she wanted nothing to do with it. "People are going to hate this woman," she told him. "She's a terrible person. Why would I want to play a murderer?" Wilder's reply? "Well, you are an actress, aren't you?" The words hit home. Stanwyck agreed to do the film. Now all that remained was to find an actor to play her lover and fellow murderer.
Fred MacMurray, best known in the latter years of his career as the "Dad" in the 1960s sitcom My Three Sons and his work in such G-rated Disney fare as Flubber, was a native of the Midwest, an incongruously wholesome member of the Hollywood community whose academic prowess had earned him a full scholarship at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he was known for his chops as a singer and a saxophone player. After college, MacMurray sang with a series of big bands before making the move to Broadway and, following his success there, to Hollywood. He was an unlikely choice to play opposite Stanwyck in a movie like Double Indemnity, even though in writing the screenplay, Wilder and Chandler had opted to make the Judd Gray character slightly more likable than the Ruth Snyder character by reinventing him as an opportunistic insurance salesman whose criminal actions are the result of misguided lust rather than the pathological sense of indifference to the sanctity of human life which drives the character as written by Caine. Even so, MacMurray's initial response to Wilder was the same as Stanwyck's. He was an actor known for his work in light, romantic comedies. Sometimes he played the saxophone as well. He was not the actor that Wilder was looking for, he insisted. Case closed.
Except it wasn't. Wilder wanted MacMurray. Like all great directors, he just had a feeling that MacMurray was right for the role, and he refused to take MacMurray's "no" for an answer. So he invoked a contractual clause that gave him the right to "force" MacMurray to take the role, which made MacMurray very unhappy, but being the upstanding guy that he was, MacMurray sucked it up and signed on to play "Walter Neff", insurance salesman, adulterer, and reluctant murderer opposite Barabara Stanwyck's "Phyllis Dietrichson", bored housewife, adulterer, and far less reluctant murderer.
Film critics have written volumes on the film noir masterpiece that is Double Indemnity. It would be presumptuous and futile to attempt to do a better job here. But there are very few film scholars who do not include Double Indemnity in their list of greatest American films of all time. From the moment Walter Neff makes his first visit to the Dietrichson house and is instantly mesmerized by the sight of Phyllis Dietrichsom standing at the top of the stairs in a bathing towel, it's clear that this is a film with a dark underbelly. The love affair between the doomed pair may take place against the sunny backdrop of a California summer sky, but the sun's rays are speckled with dust as they ooze in past the shuttered corners of the living room windows in the dark, gloomy house where Phyllis and her husband co-exist within the framework of a loveless marriage that is already as dead as her husband will be shortly after signing (without realizing it) the insurance contract with the fateful double indemnity clause. The lust that drives Neff to agree to assist Phyllis in carrying out the murder is the usual, understandable kind (she's gorgeous, despite the awful, cheap-looking blonde wig she insists on wearing), but it has no staying power. Neff has already begun to rethink it before the murder even takes place. Ironically, it's his stellar record as a top notch insurance salesman that keeps him in the game. He wants to see if he can get away with it. He's a player, a womanizer, with no close family ties. If he loves anyone at all, it's not Phyllis, but Barton Keyes, a claims adjuster who works for the same company, with whom he shares the film's most poignant moments. The relationship between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes has been called the film's "real love story." Perhaps it is. But although it's clear from the start that the two men feel a strong sense of affection for one another, it's equally clear that, when it comes to an innate sense of right and wrong, Keyes is miles ahead of Neff.
When first offered the role of Keyes, Edward G. Robinson, like his two co-stars, wasn't sure he wanted to do it. The veteran actor (born Emmanuel Goldberg in Bucharest, Hungary in the late 19th century) was used to playing the lead roles in films like Little Ceasar and Kid Galahad. But he was smart enough to realize that, as an aging actor, he was better off taking a supporting role in a good film than he was waiting for another starring vehicle that might never come. In agreeing to play Barton Keyes, Robinson not only ensured his place as a participant in one of the most lauded film noirs of all time, he provided the film with its only true depiction of conscience. As much as Keyes loves Neff (and he does, without question), he loves the concept of justice more. The fact that it is Keyes who, without meaning to, turns out to be the "key" element in the taking down of Neff and Phyllis, is film noir at its finest.
When Double Indemnity hit theaters in 1944, it was praised by critics and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, none of which it won. MacMurray's riveting performance as the amoral, but ultimately tortured Walter Neff was an aberration in his long career, in which the only other "bad guy" role he ever played was that of Shirley MacLaine's philandering boss in The Apartment, the 1960 film also directed by Wilder, and which co-starred Jack Lemmon. Barbara Stanwyck went on to star in many more films, receiving four Academy Award nominations in all, and, finally, garnering an Emmy for her work in the 1980s TV series Falcon Crest. Raymond Chandler continued to write books about Philip Marlowe and, in 1951, co-wrote the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Strangers On A Train. But although they never again worked together in a film, the five huge talents behind Double Indemnity deserve the gratitude of anyone who has ever settled down in front of a television screen to watch a "classic film noir" movie. Double Indemnity was...and remains...the standard bearer of the genre.