My Week of Film – December 9 to 15, 2019

While reading Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin by David Kaufman (2016), I had the urge to watch a couple of Mary Martin films.

When I was a child, there were three exciting TV events: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland (1951) and Mary Martin’s Peter Pan (1960).  When one of those three were listed in the tv guide, there were no bounds to our excitement.  They would be broadcast in the evenings and that meant we had eaten our dinner and gotten into our PJs, ready for the evening.

I showed a taped-from-television version of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan to my children when they were young, and have only the slightest recall of being rather disappointed although they were fine with it.  So I decided to revisit the film while reading the biography and since I couldn’t find my taped version (which is probably not watchable any longer), I streamed it onto my large tv from YouTube.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly sharp, but as I had nothing better, I endured.

Although Mary Martin had, as the title of the book implies, a glittering stage career, whenever her name is mentioned in daily life, people automatically think of her as Peter Pan.  But this role was played by her well after she became an established Broadway star.  She’d soared to fame in her 1938 Broadway debut Leave It to Me! when she steamily sang My Heart Belongs to Daddy.   Following that, whether the musical was considered a success or not, she was world-famous and people clamoured to see her in: Nice Goin’! (1939), One Touch of Venus (1943-1945), Pacific 1860 (1946), Lute Song  (1946), Annie Get Your Gun (1947 and 1957), South Pacific (1949-1951 and 1957), Kind Sir (1953), Peter Pan (1954), The Skin of Our Teeth (1955), The Sound of Music (1959),  Jennie (1963), Hello, Dolly! (1965-1966), I Do! I Do! (1966-1969) and Legends (1985-1987).  That’s 50 years of stardom!

Besides her 1954 Broadway stage show, the tv studios filmed Peter Pan three times; in 1955, 1956 and 1960.  The YouTube version I watched claimed to be made in 1954 (1955?).  Watching it with a different eye than just for entertainment sake, I couldn’t help but a) be impressed with the fact that so much of the dialogue and most of the songs were familiar, meaning that I had stored a lot of this musical in my childhood brain, and b) that Mary Martin was still a perfectly believable Peter Pan.  If this was the earliest version, she would have already reached the age of 42 or 43.  If it was the latter, she would have been 47.  Yet, here she was, seemingly a boy of ten.

The Lost Boys

Very much a stage play, with simple props compared to today’s elaborate costumes and set designs, Martin was always well-rehearsed.  She was myopic and until she was able to wear contact lenses, everything had to be in its correct place so that she would make no misstep in her perfectly timed performances.

Everyone knows the story of Peter Pan so there is nothing to give away.  Sondra Lee, who played Tiger Lily, was different in appearance than what we would expect her to look like nowadays.  Here Tiger Lily was a blonde and looked nothing like a Native Indian woman.  Although the songs were fun, I doubt it would be politically correct today for Jules Styne to write an Aboriginal song entitled “Ugg-a-Wugg”.

Sondra Lee and Mary Martin

Cyril Ritchard played the dual role, as all actors did, of the Darling father and Captain Hook.  He was delightfully campy, making Captain Hook anything but threatening.  Considering that Ritchard was in very few films, I was particularly excited that I had seen three within the past few years including Piccadilly (1929) with Anna May Wong, the artist in both of Hitchcock’s 1929 silent and talky versions of Blackmail, and just a few week’s ago as the ill-tempered performer in the 1938 film I See Ice!  I would say that his role in the Hitchcock film(s) was for me his most memorable.

Cyril Ritchard

I would also say that if you have a desire to see Mary Martin in Peter Pan, purchase a copy of her film rather than watch this same fuzzy YouTube version.  I think it will be a much more satisfying experience.

The more and more I read about artists in the acting profession, the more and more I discover that many gay people chose to be married.  Martin was no exception.  Besides being briefly married when she was still a teenager to the father of her son Larry Hagman (I Dream of Jeannie, Dallas) she met and married Richard Halliday (executive producer of Peter Pan) in 1940, staying together until his death in 1973.  Despite the fact that he was also homosexual, they produced a daughter, Heller.  Halliday, though, was much more than a husband.  He was the controlling force in Martin’s life, the bad cop to her good one when something needed to be executed in her favour in their theatrical world.  People generally loved Mary Martin, while most could barely tolerate her highly efficient, alcoholic husband.  A strange, tightly-bonded relationship to be sure.  When he died, Martin missed him deeply and began a similarly structured relationship with press agent Ben Washer.  Tragically, in 1982 he died in a car accident.  Mary, Janet Gaynor and her last husband, Paul Gregory, were also in the taxi cab that was hit by a drunk driver and although only Washer was killed, Gaynor was so badly injured that she never recovered, enduring many operations and eventually dying in 1984 just prior to her 78th birthday due to her injuries.  Gaynor was one of the women, along with Jean Arthur, who it seemed Mary had more than just a platonic friendship with.  Lynn Fontanne, who was the Narrator for Peter Pan, was married to Alfred Lunt.  Friendly with Mary and Richard, they also had a lavender marriage, similar to the Hallidays.

I was also interested in seeing one of Mary Martin’s early film roles.  Quite a number of years ago, I saw the unmemorable Night and Day (1946) starring Cary Grant depicting the life of Cole Porter (the 2004 De-Lovely is a much better and possibly more accurate film) as well as Main Street to Broadway (1953) which I saw in March 2014 at Cinefest in Syracuse where, in both films, Mary Martin plays herself.  I saw Love They Neighbor (1940) many moons ago at a TFS screening, so that wouldn’t count since I really have the vaguest of memories–and none of them are of her. When my friend gave me a copy of what is probably her best film, Birth of the Blues (1941), directed by Victor Schertzinger, also starred Bing Crosby, I was extremely happy and grateful.  I actually watched it before viewing Peter Pan, since watching Pan was kind of a last-minute decision, but felt it would be the better film to lead this post with.

I watched this film about a month ago, so will have to jog my memory as to what stood out.  To begin with, there should have been a subtitle to the film: Birth of the Blues – For White Folks.  The film starts out with Bing Crosby’s character, Jeff Lambert, still a boy (coincidentally or purposefully played by a young actor named Ronnie Cosby), completely wild about the Blues.  He’s found by his parents once again to be making music with those black folk and gets a walloping for it.  Not so much because he’s hanging out with them, but because he’s playing the “devil’s music”.  But he grows up quickly enough and no matter how much corporal punishment he had to endure, it didn’t spank the love of the blues from his soul.

Brian Donlevy, Mary Martin, Bing Crosby

He has gotten himself a band but he lacks a coronet player, so when he finds out there’s a mighty fine one in the jailhouse, he heads down there for an audition.  Memphis (Brian Donlevy) impresses him and while they are jamming, the band in the street and Memphis from his cell, Betty Lou Cobb’s (Mary Martin) carriage loses its wheel, putting a stop to the music. So now the three principals which form a triangle, appropriate since it’s a musical symbol, have all been introduced.  Add in two important supporting cast members, caretaker Louey (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson) and Aunt Phoebe (child actress Carolyn Lee) and the story is set for the next 60 minutes.

Mary and Bing

Of course, it turns out that Betty Lou can sing, joins the band which immediately makes them more employable.  They get involved with Blackie (J. Carrol Naish), a racketeer who runs one of the less prestigious nightclubs, and along with his gang including Limpy (Warren Hymer), the musicians make Dixieland Jazz and Blues a respectful form of music.  Blackie is the only true menacing character, adding a bit of chill to this light story.

There’s a lovely little scene where Louey explains to Betty Lou how to sing like “them coloured folks”.  But when Louey gets hurt in a fight, the most serious and touching scene is when all the people, black and white, gather at his bedside.  His wife, Ruby (Ruby Elzy) sings a gospel song, praying for his recovery.  Ruby Elzy had a short life, dying at the age of 35 following surgery to remove a benign tumor.  She was an opera singer who entertained Eleanor Roosevelt and the wives of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices at the White House in December 1937, appeared in a number of musicals on Broadway, and played opposite Paul Robeson in her only other major film, The Emperor Jones (1933).

While the founding fathers of the Blues were barely alluded to, the only passing mention was of the great Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, followed by big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman.

There’s also a scene that takes place in a movie theatre while a silent film is being screened.  I couldn’t recognize it and wondered if someone knew which movie it was.

You can view a pretty good print of the film, if you don’t mind the Japanese subtitles, here.  Certainly a film worth seeing!

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