FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 8

The lockdown continues and with all the time in the world, I just couldn’t write; as of tomorrow we’re going into what is called “Emergency Brake”.  Whatever.

Several years ago, I read June Havoc’s first memoir Early Havoc.  A typical 50 cent 1959 Dell paperback publication with a sensationalized cover stating, “June Havoc now dares to tell the whole true story of her shocking youth!” had me intrigued.  I was interested enough in reading about this actress who appeared to be a vastly different person than her older sister, the more famous Gypsy Rose Lee.  It’s hard now to remember all the minute details but the gist of her bizarre child upbringing and teenage-hood was this: from about the age of two or so she supported her mother and sister as a vaudevillian.  This ended when she was no longer “cute” and her mother changed her focus onto her older daughter, grooming her for stardom in burlesque.  At the age of 12 with very little to no formal education, no longer wanted at home, June hitchhiked her way across the country to become a marathon dancer.  If you don’t know what these marathons were, they were mostly a shady business where men and women would pair up, and in front of a paying audience dance 24/7, the winners being the last couple standing.  If the company of mostly men who put these marathons together weren’t completely crooked, absconding with the funds, the poor couple would win some sort of monetary prize.  Off hand, you can view this type of business in films such as Hard to Handle (1933) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969).

A couple of years ago I found June’s 1980 memoir, More Havoc, this time in a nice hardcover.  It continued with her adventures.  She no longer danced in marathons but had moved back to the New York area to try her luck on Broadway.  At around the age of 29, she became an “overnight” sensation in “Pal Joey”.  Like everyone, but certainly like people in show business, her life was full of ups-and-downs.  She had a daughter to take care of, had a famous sister who failed in the film business, and a very strange mother.  So, while still reading the book I decided to watch her films that I had access to, starting with Timber Queen (1944) mainly for the reason that with a title like that I recalled that I had this rarity on my shelf and I had definitely never seen it.  Although not a particularly good print, June had a decent role.  The two “stars” were Richard Arlen (which is probably another reason I picked up a copy) and Mary Beth Hughes.  June is Mary Beth’s best friend, and while the story is somewhat serious, both Havoc and Sheldon Leonard as Smacksie (a funny twist on Maxie, I suppose) are the comic relief.  So, let’s say this film waffles between both categories.  Both women are in show business, singing at Smacksie’s nightclub.  Smacksie’s sidekick is George E. Stone as Squirrel.  Arlen is an army pilot veteran and gets involved with Mary Beth who is the widow of a war buddy.  He first accuses her of marrying his friend for his shares in a timber company, but typically and eventually he realizes she married for love, and the gang of five help her to keep the land which is sought after by an unscrupulous former colleague of Arlen’s.  It was quite entertaining, but I have to admit that a better print would have increased the enjoyment value.  I recall there was an aspect of patriotism, reminding the American public that the War was still going on, specifically asking viewers to buy war bonds in a couple of the scenes.  I’m not sure this would exactly be considered propaganda, but it was very noticeable that support for America in war was a prominent feature.

Smacksie, June and Squirrel

Although he was prolific, I can’t say I know the director Frank McDonald.  But I was interested to see that the screenplay was written by Maxwell Shane who only directed eight films, yet for me that’s where his fame lies.  He not only directed two versions of the same story ten years apart, Fear in the Night (1947) and Nightmare (1956), but also directed the excellent The Glass Wall (1953) starring Vittorio Gassman and Gloria Grahame.

The next Havoc film I watched was Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).  I had seen this many years ago and although I remembered the gist of the story, I didn’t remember if I liked it or not.  It’s the story of a reporter, Philip Green (Gregory Peck), a widower with a young son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) who gets a new job back in his old town of New York.  For the time being, he lives with his mother (Anne Revere) so she can help with the care of Tommy while he figures things out.  His boss gives him an assignment on anti-Semitism, and it takes Philip a while to figure out an angle on how to present this story in a captivating fashion.  Meanwhile, he meets his boss’s niece Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) at a cocktail party and the two hit it off.  At first, he considers interviewing his best friend, Dave (John Garfield), who is Jewish, but then rejects this as being a weak approach to writing the article.   Eventually Philip comes up with a clever way of approaching the subject matter.  Since only four people know he’s not Jewish, he will pose as a Jew. 

Celeste Holm plays fashion/society columnist Anne, a glamorous woman who is straightforward and seems to have no prejudices and is interested in Philip.  She seems like a better match, we think.  The film is directed by the talented Elia Kazan (only 21 credits to his name as director and they’re pretty well all films of merit).  The screenplay was originally written by Moss Hart and although American film historian Richard Schickel thought it was too wordy, like a play, I thought it was natural and well constructed dialogue.  Kazan made revisions, so who knows who exactly was responsible for what dialogue.  Havoc’s role as Green’s Jewish secretary was a minor one in the film, evoking someone who prefers to hide her ethnicity. It was important to the story that she portray a secular Jew who doesn’t want anyone to associate her with the idea of what is stereotypical.  This leads us to learn that she has prejudices against certain categories of Jews herself. 

Sometimes when I watch films where people are supposed to be Jewish, I have a hard time accepting it.  For instance, in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), I never for a moment thought of Jessica Tandy as a Jewess.  She was also in the not particularly good film Used People (1992) which I went to see because Sylvia Sidney had a minor role in it.  It’s a story of whether or not a Jewish and an Italian family can unite through marriage.  I still thought Jessica Tandy didn’t seem Jewish, yet I thought that Sylvia did, and I thought that was just because Sidney is such a good actress.  I learned later that it might have helped that she was Jewish and was able to convey that ethnicity due to just that fact.  However, in  Gentleman’s Agreement, Havoc comes across less Jewish than Peck does, and this may just be one of the points that the film was making. Interesting that the one Hollywood studio head, Darryl Zanuck who produced the film, was not Jewish. Nor, of course was director Kazan, but Laura Z. Hobson, writer of the novel the film was based on was along with credited screenwriter Moss Hart.

Peck, Revere and Dean Stockwell

The DVD that I own came with a commentary track.  Although they were each discussing certain scenes completely separate from each other, I listened with interest to the three commentators: Richard Schickel, who did the majority of the talking, Celeste Holm and June Havoc who gave their thoughts on portions of the film.  Both women gave their thoughts on anti-Semitism.  If I’m remembering correctly the commentary was recorded around 2010 and it felt a bit eerie that all three of the participants were now deceased.  It was like listening to ghosts.

The next Havoc film I watched was The Iron Curtain (1948) which she made immediately after Gentleman’s Agreement.  Back in October I had been adding notes for this film to the Toronto Film Society’s (TFS) website and I discovered that a pretty nice copy was available on YouTube.  Besides Havoc, it starred Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney and it was based on real-life people AND took place in Canada—Ottawa to be exact.  The outdoor scenes were actually shot on location and, having visited the city many, many times, I easily recognized most of the streets and buildings.  Surprising how little the architecture has changed. 

The film is based on the true story of the defection of Igor Gouzenko.  One of the first films made during “the cold war” times, it’s directed by a favourite director, William A. Wellman.  If this film was made today, the actors would have the right accents, but being Hollywood of the late 1940s, our three main Russians—Andrews, Tierney and Havoc—sounded American.  At least, I thought, Dana sprouted a Russian-style haircut while tensely curtailing his emotions.

Here, June’s role is also small, playing Nina Karanova, somewhat of a Russian femme fatale, though not necessarily interested in the pursuit of money but of proving loyalty.  Can Gouzenko be trusted with post-war espionage secrets? 

Gene Tierney, Edna Best and Dana Andrews

An interesting aside for me was that the Gouzenko’s helpful neighbour was played by British actress Edna Best.  She wasn’t in a lot of films, being more of stage actress, but I was mostly aware of her due to the fact that she had been married to Herbert Marshall.  They had met while acting together on the stage in England.  This would have been her last Hollywood film although she continued to act for TV.

I next chose to watch My Sister Eileen (1942), a film I had seen and remembered quite enjoying when I had seen it at a TFS screening back in August 2015.  Directed by Alexander Hall, it’s the story of two sisters, one with the dream of being an actress (Janet Blair) while the other wants to be a writer (Rosalind Russell).  You can tell that this film was based on a play mostly for the fact that 9/10ths of the film takes place in their Greenwich basement apartment.  Lots of fun and craziness abound, with Brian Aherne playing the magazine editor who is interested in Russell for more than just her stories.  Again, Havoc has a small role as one of the former residents of the apartment.  Loud and colourful, she makes the most of her few minutes on screen. 

Conned into renewing their lease by veteran actor George Tobias, promising their will be no more dynamiting, the sisters sign the papers just as the drilling begins!  All this noise to build the latest subway section, and here to give us our last guffaw are those three jackhammers, Moe, Larry and Curly.

What is a fun if not somewhat ironic twist is that 20 years later Rosalind Russell plays Havoc’s mother Rose Hovick in Gypsy, who in real life appeared to be a complete narcistic horror.  Although I haven’t seen the film—basically because it’s a musical—I would only now be interested to see how Rose is depicted.  I see in the cast credits that June is played by two actresses only with a year’s difference between their ages, Morgan Brittany (aka Suzanne Cupito) and Ann Jillian.   

The last film I’ll mention which featured June Havoc, again with a small but very entertaining role, is in the Mitchell Leisen directed film, No Time For Love (1943), which I saw at TFS in February 2019.  This was likely one of the last TFS screenings before Covid hit.  It’s the story of he-man, but as we learn, educated Fred MacMurray and photographer Claudette Colbert who have a love-hate relationship; that is—yes you guessed it—until love wins out.  June plays the role of empty-headed, leggy chorus girl Darlene.  She’s actually a lot of fun and her last scene with Colbert pulls no punches when it comes to the showdown between the two women for MacMurray’s affections.

Besides the fact that the two stars get down and dirty in the underground tunnel that’s being dug below the Hudson River, there is a most delightful superhero fantasy sequence with Colbert dreaming of MacMurray as her damsel-in-distress saviour. 

What you might find of interest, and somewhat of a surprise to learn, is that Captain Marvel was based on Fred MacMurray!  Writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck created the character of Captain Marvel.  Beck later said, “Captain Marvel himself was based on the actor Fred MacMurray, who was known as a pretty down-to-earth guy.  At the time, Fred MacMurray was a very popular actor and I used him as the basis for Captain Marvel.  He had kind of a slanted forehead, wavy hair, and a big chin.”

I’ll end this perfectly named Havoc post here.  Hope I’ll be able to go back to work one day in the not-to-distant future.

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