Rita Moreno and West Side Story at the Redford Theatre

Rita Moreno West Side Story

The Redford Theater in Detroit has a great history of rolling out the red carpet whenever a movie star visits the theater. In the past, I’ve attended unforgettable VIP events when Tippi Hedren and Karolyn Grimes were there and I’ve seen how they rolled out the red carpet for Pam Grier and Shirley Jones for screenings of Foxy Brown and The Music Man. When Rita Moreno came to town over the weekend for screenings of West Side Story, the reception was exactly what I have come to expect from the Redford.

Before the movie on Saturday night, I had the honor of attending a VIP event with about 200 other fans where we were treated to desserts and a special discussion and Q&A session with Rita Moreno.  To be in the same room as Rita Moreno is an electrifying experience. At 82, Moreno remains incredibly vibrant, hilarious, and so full of energy that you can’t help but pick a little bit of it. As I was standing in line for dessert, I was standing just inches away from her and I saw multiple people come up to her in awe of how amazing she looks. She must have heard it a few more times after that because when she came out on stage, she came out jokingly asking, “I look good?”

If you ever have the chance to listen to Rita Moreno talk about her life and career, you really need to listen to what she has to say.  She’s a remarkable storyteller and has so many insights about what it was like to be an immigrant and to be a Hispanic performer in show business. Early in her career, the only roles open to her were horrifyingly stereotypical roles as Native and Hispanic women; all roles she despises. She very un-affectionately refers to those as her “dusty maiden” roles and denounced them harmful, degrading, and humiliating. Over the years, she’s heard the suggestion that she simply should have done something else if she didn’t like the stereotyped roles she was being offered, to which she explained that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When she was cast in Singin’ in the Rain, she had hoped that would open doors for her to get away from the stereotypical roles, but unfortunately, it did not. She later spent years in psychoanalysis, due in no small part to years of having those offensive images forced upon her.

When it came to talking about people she worked with, she really didn’t hold back. Of West Side Story director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, she described him as a man with a lot of self-loathing issues, which seemed to channel their way into the way he worked with people. But she also called him a genius and said that she wishes he was still alive so she could work with him again. Rita worked with James Garner on The Rockford Files and also had the distinction of being his screen partner for his first ever screen test. According to her, the screen test was a complete disaster for both of them. They were asked to do a scene Grace Kelly and William Holden had done together, so Rita was stuck wearing an awful wig and make-up that she said made her eyes look red and her teeth look yellow. As for Garner, she called him, “A beautiful man and a crappy actor…at first.” She explained that he needed to find his niche and that scene was definitely not it. Once he found his stride, though, he was wonderful and the two remained friends for a long time.

She also spoke with great fondness of her time working on The Electric Company and her appearance on The Muppet Show. She encouraged us all to look up her performance of “Fever” with Animal playing drums:

For the movie, it was a packed house; very close to sold out. The crowd was absolutely crazy for Rita, it was hard to get anywhere near her. As a special treat, before the movie started again after intermission, we were treated to an appearance by dancers from the Casali School of Dance, who did a performance of the song “America” while Rita watched from the audience. The dancers were amazing and Rita was so gracious. When she got on stage to take a picture with them after the performance, she couldn’t resist breaking out a couple of dance steps of her own.

Rita remains a very busy woman. Lately, she’s appeared on the TV Land sitcom Happily Divorced with Fran Drescher, which she said she really misses working on, lent her voice to the movie Rio 2, and just recently finished a movie for the Hallmark Channel. She is now working on a Spanish language album with Emilio Estefan.

Rita Moreno Autographs

What’s on TCM: October 2014

Janet Leigh Psycho

Happy October, everyone! I don’t know about you, but I am so looking forward to watching a whole lot of classic horror movies this month. The idea of coming home after work and spending a chilly Fall evening at home watching something eerie sounds like a quality night to me. And luckily, TCM will definitely be delivering in that department this month. Every Thursday night this month will be all about ghost stories. Some will be perfectly creepy for Halloween, others are more lighthearted ghost stories like Topper. Either way, I’ll definitely be tuning in for those. Other great days for classic horror fans are October 28th, October 30th starting at 8:00 PM, and of course, October 31.

Janet Leigh will be TCM’s Star of the Month, so we’ll have the chance to see the ultimate slasher film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, on October 29th at 8:00 PM. Janet Leigh’s films will be shown every Wednesday night this month.

October’s Friday Night Spotlight series will highlight movies set in Africa.

One night that is definitely not to be missed is October 6th. Starting at 8:00 PM, TCM will be showing 28 shorts from animation pioneers Windsor McCay, Bray Studios, and Van Beuren Studios. These are true landmarks of animation, the vast majority of which have never been shown on TCM before. And where else are you going to have the chance to see Gertie the Dinosaur in prime time? This is going to be a real treat.

Now, let’s get on to the rest of the schedule!

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Joan of Paris (1942)

Joan of Paris PosterWhen five RAF pilots are shot down over Nazi-occupied France, the pilots, led by Paul Lavallier (Paul Henreid), head to a bar to steal some civilian clothing so they can blend in until they can find a way out. They’re found by a German soldier, but they knock him out, take his wallet, and decide to split up and meet again at a cathedral in Paris. Before they can get away, more German soldiers arrive and start shooting at the pilots, hitting the pilot nicknamed Baby (Alan Ladd) in the shoulder. When word about the German soldier gets back to Gestapo leader Herr Funk (Laird Cregar), he puts the word out for shopkeepers to be on the watch for the stolen money, which was marked with a distinctive stamp.

Father Antoine (Thomas Mitchell) is an old friend of Paul’s and he’s the father at the cathedral where the pilots are meeting. Paul gets Father Antoine to help him hide the pilots and make contact with British intelligence. At Father Antoine’s suggestion, the pilots hide in the sewers while Paul, who suspects he’s being followed, goes into a nearby cafe to get away. There, he accidentally tears barmaid Joan’s (Michèle Morgan) dress sleeve and sneaks upstairs to hide from his pursuer. Unbeknownst to him, he sneaks into Joan’s room and when she comes in to change her dress, he overhears her praying for a new dress. Paul comes out of hiding to offer Joan the money he stole and tells her to buy a new dress and asks her to deliver a message to Father Antoine.

Joan buys the dress as Paul told her to, but the stamp on the money gets the attention of the shopkeeper. When Paul goes to see Father Antoine, he’s followed and arrested by the Gestapo. He’s brought to Herr Funk and talks his way out of it, but Funk only pretends to buy his story in hopes Paul will lead him to the other pilots. When Paul gets the name of an important British intelligence contact, he needs Joan’s help to get the information he needs to escape and get the pilots to safety. While working together, Joan and Paul fall in love and Joan is willing to risk anything for the sake of helping Paul.

What a way to end this year’s installment of Blogging Under the Stars! The whole point of doing this event every year is to get myself to watch movies I’ve never seen before and hopefully discover some great stuff I might have otherwise overlooked. Joan of Paris is exactly the type of movie I spent this month wanting to find. I loved everything about it. A wonderfully romantic story full of non-stop intrigue and suspense; phenomenal direction by Robert Stevenson; beautifully lit and designed sets. Paul Henreid and Michèle Morgan both gave great performances; Morgan in particular seemed so perfectly understated. Definitely keep an eye out for this one, it doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as it should.

The Dolly Sisters (1945)

The Dolly Sisters 1945

As little girls, twin sisters Jenny (Betty Grable) and Rosie Dolly(June Haver) immigrate to America with their uncle Latsie (S.Z. Sakall). They arrive in New York and are a  hit dancing for diners in a restaurant. Years later, they’re still dancing in that restaurant, but decide to go into vaudeville to help Latsie with a debt he owes. On the train to their first job, they meet Harry Fox (John Payne), who leads them into believing he’s a big star and is left in an awkward position when he arrives at the theater and finds himself being billed beneath a seal and the Dolly Sisters. It isn’t long before Harry and Jenny fall in love.

Harry and the Dolly Sisters go their separate ways, but Jenny and Harry promise to wait for each other. When they cross paths with Harry again, he helps them get the attention of Oscar Hammerstein, who launches their career. While the Dolly Sisters’ career is on fire, Harry’s isn’t doing as well and struggles with the fact that Jenny is so much more successful than him. They’re on the verge of ending their relationship when one of his songs catches the attention of a big publisher and Jenny decides to retire to marry Harry.

Jenny’s retirement is short lived, as just before Harry’s first show is set to open, he enlists in the Army and is sent overseas. Jenny and Rosie take the stage again and are a smash hit in Paris and London. Jenny still loves Harry, but when he sees a picture in a magazine of her talking to Tony, the Duke of Breck (Reginald Gardiner), he becomes extremely jealous and demands she come back to America with him. Jenny is forced to choose between Harry and Rosie, as she and Rosie already have a contract to perform in Paris again. She ultimately chooses Rosie and her career, but her divorce from Harry absolutely devastates her.

A depressed Jenny turns to gambling and Tony to ease her pain, while Rosie falls in love with Irving Netcher (Frank Latimore). Tony wants to marry Jenny, but she refuses to leave her sister until she overhears Rosie telling Irving she won’t marry him and leave Jenny all alone. Reluctantly, she agrees to marry Tony, but as they’re on their way to get married, they get into a car accident, disfiguring Jenny. After some plastic surgery, Jenny and Rosie hit the stage together one more time as part of an all-star benefit show, where she’s reunited with Harry.

The Dolly Sisters were a real sister act who got their start in vaudeville and rose to starring in shows produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Like most biopics, The Dolly Sisters is pretty highly fictionalized. First of all, Jenny and Dolly are played by Betty Grable and June Haver, two blondes. The real Dolly Sisters were not blonde. The movie shows them as being devoted to being a sister act, but in reality, the Dolly Sisters did attempt to have careers separate from each other. The real Rosie Dolly also did not wait until her sister was on the verge of her second marriage to get married herself; she and Jenny each married their first husbands fairly close in time to each other. The Dolly Sisters also suggest that Jenny was the only one notorious for her gambling, but in reality, they both were.

Despite The Dolly Sisters creative liberties with reality, it’s still a pretty enjoyable movie. Betty Grable and June Haver are extremely believable as sisters. The only movies where I’ve seen more convincing looking twins are in cases when an actor is doing a dual role. The Dolly Sisters is full of extravagant musical numbers, which I have a such a weakness for (except for the musical number involving blackface.) The story is full of melodrama and soapiness, but it’s entertaining and when I watch Betty Grable movies, that’s exactly what I’m looking for — pure entertainment.

What’s on TCM: September 2014

Melvyn Douglas Greta Garbo Ninotchka

Happy September, everyone! Summer Under the Stars is always a tough act to follow, but TCM does an awesome job of doing so. There are two huge things that I am very excited for. The first of which is Melvyn Douglas as Star of the Month. I have always loved Melvyn Douglas and he never seems to quite get as much credit as he deserves. There’s also a ton of his movies I’ve never seen, so I’m really happy to have the chance to see more of his work.

The second thing I am so, so excited to see is that every Friday this month will be a 24-hour marathon of pre-code movies! That’s right, 24 glorious hours of wild, fast-paced, innuendo-laden movies! Friday Night Spotlight isn’t just for prime time this month! With my annual 30 Days of Pre-Codes event, it’s no secret that I adore the pre-code era. If you have yet to explore much of this wild and fascinating era of film making, this is a golden opportunity because you’ll have the chance to see so many of the pre-code essentials (Baby Face, Three on a Match, Red Headed Woman, Design for Living, just to name a few) as well as many other great ones. Don’t miss The Story of Temple Drake on September 12 at 2:30 AM or Call Her Savage September 26 at 2:15 AM. They’re on late at night so it might be easy to overlook those, but they’re a couple of my favorite pre-codes and I don’t see them on TCM very often. If you only know Clara Bow as a silent film star, you’re going to be in for a real treat with Call Her Savage. 

Now, onto the rest of the schedule…

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Lydia (1941)

Lydia PosterAfter dedicating her new home for blind children, Lydia MacMillan (Merle Oberon) gets a surprise visit from her former lover Michael Fitzpatrick (Joseph Cotten).  Lydia is an elderly philanthropist who, despite having some grand romances in her lifetime, never married and had children of her own. Instead, she dedicated her life to helping blind children. The reunion soon grows to include her other past loves, Bob Willard (George Reeves) and Frank Andre (Hans Jaray). She hasn’t seen any of them in years and they naturally start reminiscing about their times together.

Michael first met Lydia when she was a young girl living with her wealthy grandmother Sarah (Edna May Oliver). His father was the family’s butler at the time and when Michael, then a recent med school graduate, comes to visit, Sarah gives him a job as the family physician. Lydia likes Michael and gets him to escort her to her first ever formal ball. However, it’s immediately clear to Michael that she really loves football player Bob Willard (George Reeves). Sarah is extremely unimpressed with Bob, but Lydia nearly elopes with him.

After her failed relationship with Bob, Michael heads off to war and Lydia has a chance encounter with a blind child. Seeing the deplorable conditions the child lived in, she was inspired to start a school for blind children. The school is her true passion in life and she’s willing to sacrifice love for it if she has to. However, she does fall in love with Frank, a blind pianist who comes to teach at the school. The only man she comes close to marrying is Richard Mason (Alan Marshal), who she was met to marry one New Year’s Eve, but Lydia is left standing at the altar.

The heartbreak of being left by Frank drives Lydia to accept a proposal from Michael, but she calls it off after the death of her grandmother, preferring to focus on helping blind children instead. All the reminiscing makes Lydia realize that she meant something different to each of the men in her life.

When I decided to write about Lydia today, I didn’t have terribly high expectations for it based on the 6.6 stars it currently has on IMDB. However, I was pleasantly surprised. A little slowly paced, but there were moments that I loved. The movie’s finest moment is when Lydia is reminiscing about walking into her first formal ball and how breathtaking it all was for her. It’s a wonderfully dreamlike sequence that is made even greater when it’s juxtaposed against Michael’s less-rose tinted recollections of the same ball. The story may not be particularly unique, but I liked Merle Oberon and Joseph Cotten enough for it to be worth watching  just for them.

Watch the Birdie (1950)

Watch the Birdie 1950

Rusty Cammeron (Red Skelton) works at his family’s camera shop, but business isn’t going too swimmingly. The bank is coming after them for money they owe, so when a customer comes in and tells Rusty there’s money in taking pictures of famous people and selling them, Rusty convinces the customer to leave his camera so he can use it to go out and try to get some shots. Rusty tries getting footage of Lucia Coraline’s (Arlene Dahl) yacht being christened, but only succeeds in taking an unplanned swim. Lucia rescues him, but the borrowed camera is at the bottom of the lake.

Lucia has a soft spot for Rusty and after hearing his financial woes, she sends some of her employees to his store the next day to buy enough stuff for him to pay off everything he owes.  She also hires him to come shoot footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at the Lucky Vista Housing Project, which she’s an investor in. Rusty’s attempts to film the ceremony are a complete disaster, but he does unwittingly end up getting footage of Lucia’s manager, Grantland Farns (Leon Ames), making plans to sabotage the housing project.

When Rusty screens the footage, the audio and the footage don’t match up, but Grantland wants that footage back before he can get it straightened out. He sends Miss Lucky Vista (Ann Miller) to seduce him and get the film back, and despite her best efforts, he doesn’t fall for her. But Lucia does catch them together and assumes the worst. By now, Rusty and Lucia have fallen in love, so the whole incident is very upsetting to both of them, but they both straighten everything out to reveal the truth about Grandland.

Watch the Birdie is basically a very loose remake of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman. The overall plots aren’t particularly similar, but a number of sequences are lifted straight out of The Cameraman. While Watch the Birdie never even comes close to touching the genius that is The Cameraman, it is good for some laughs. I loved beginning exchange between Rusty and a kid who came into his store and I got a kick out of Red Skelton narrating the opening credits. But, unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. It’s not terrible, it’s just not as good as it could have been.