Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hollywood Home Tour - Walter Pidgeon

"All aboard the Silver Scenes Hollywood Home Tour Bus! Make sure you got all your belongings. Everybody in now? Off we go! 

"Since we've had a long lunch break, I'll be speeding up the bus quite a bit and showing you folks a number of beautiful Hollywood homes before we take our next break. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. 

710 Walden Drive, Beverly Hills

"The first home will be coming up on your left in just a couple hundred yards. This is Walter Pidgeon's Spanish stucco estate that he purchased in the late 1930s, just about the time when he was really making a name for himself in Hollywood. His mother, Edna, also lived with him and his wife, Ruth Walker, for a time at this house. The famous architect Walter Neff built this lovely home in 1926, but don't be deceived by its humble front, it is over 5000 square feet in size. 

"You enter the house through a rotund foyer and then as you make a turn into the living room you'll catch your breath as you see the two story cathedral beamed ceilings and exquisite iron railings throughout the place.

"Pidgeon's neighbors at the time included his long-time screen partner Greer Garson, as well as Arthur Hornblow Jr ( 704 ), Joe E. Brown ( 707 ), Gloria DeHaven and John Payne ( 708 ). 

"However, no use straining your eyes trying to catch a glimpse of Pidgeon...he no longer lives here. In the 1940s he purchased an English-style home ( very befitting to his onscreen persona ) over on Strata Corda Road in Bel-Air, where he still lives today. We'll be driving over that way later in the tour, so you can bring out your cameras at that time."

Up-to-Date News : This Neff estate fetched a whopping $7 million in 2013 when it was listed for sale. Pidgeon passed on in 1984 after suffering a series of strokes at his home in Bel-Air. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mrs. Mike ( 1949 )

Speakeasy and Silver Screenings are hosting the O Canada Great White North Blogathon for the second year in a row, and for this event we wanted to write a little bit about Mrs. Mike, an overlooked gem from 1949. 

Evelyn Keyes stars as the titular Mrs. Mike, a gentle young Bostonian who, for the love of the Mountie she married, forsakes the comfort of the city to go off and face hardships and loneliness in Northern Alberta in 1907. 

Kathy O'Fallon has the youthful woman's zealous thoughts of what life would be like married to such a heroic figure as Mike Flannigan ( Dick Powell ), a sergeant of the Northwest Mounted Police, whom she meets while visiting her uncle in Canada. Mike warns her of its hardships -- "It's no life for a city gal" he proclaims -- but, being staunchly Irish, she boldly declares she is plucky enough to persevere. And persevere she does! Mr. Mike was mighty proud of her, and so were audiences by the end of the picture, but she had to learn many a lesson before she came to realize just what fortitude becoming a Mountie's wife required. 

Mrs. Mike was based upon the real-life adventures of Katherine Mary O'Fallon Flannigan, a city gal who went to visit her uncle in Alberta and fell in love with a Mountie. Kathy took the stories of her Canadian adventures to Hollywood believing it to be good material for a film. A talent agent felt it would make a better book however, and introduced her to husband-and-wife authors Benedict & Nancy Freedman, who fictionalized her 5-page outline into a novel. 

"Mrs. Mike" went on to become a best-selling book, republished and translated around the world into over twenty different languages. Surprisingly, none of the major studios purchased the screen rights to "Mrs. Mike". An independent producer, Samuel Bischoff, eventually approached the Freedmans for the rights to the novel, casting crooner Dick Powell in the lead. Powell had found great success with his first dramatic role in Murder, My Sweet ( 1945 ) and continued to play in dramatic pictures from then on. In this film, he portrays Mike as a very noble servant-of-the-people, level-headed in all situations and courageous. Dudley Doright could pick up a tip or two from Mike Flannigan. 

Most American's conception of Canada is that it's cold and densely wooded with Mounties guarding every five square miles, ready to aid anyone in danger or capture an errant criminal. Films like Mrs. Mike helped forge these conceptions, showing us a region of Canada that is beautiful but isolated from the rest of civilization. Only stout-hearted souls are brave enough to endure the loneliness of the country and survive on their own. These Albertans are strong people who have come to expect hardship. They do not regard life as easy, but they do not complain. As a Mountie, Mike is required to live in these isolated outposts and protect and serve the villagers, but the villagers themselves choose to stay, wanting to create a new settlement and make a better life for themselves and their children. 

When Kathy first arrives at Fort Wilderness, the second outpost Mike gets transferred to, she is amazed at the other women's patience and courage. But the coldness and ruggedness of some of these women frighten her and she fears that in ten or twenty years she will turn into the kind of people she and Mike were sent out to aid. It is not until she sees the lifestyle of these hearty folk that she realizes the comforts and conveniences of the city that she took for granted. Women give birth to babies without doctors or medication and parents must be grateful if their children lose only a limb in an accident or an epidemic and not their life. So many women that she speaks to talk of their "first" family and their "second" family, since they often lost all of their children at once to some malady. To Kathy it seems as though life in the wilderness is not living at all, but merely surviving and she begins to wonder if she should have just stayed in Boston. 

Mrs. Mike is a gentle drama and a very entertaining picture. It is a testimony to all pioneers who had the courage to venture into unknown lands and create settlements. In addition to Powell and Keyes, the film also features K.M Kerrigan, Angela Clarke, Will Wright and Nan Boardman. 

Be sure to check out all the other great posts about Canadian films and actors over at the O Canada Great White North Blogathon's main page available here!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Snowball Express ( 1972 )

Johnny Baxter ( Dean Jones ) is your average hard-working American family man, stuck in an accounting job he doesn't like but staying on because he has a wife and two children to support. "In the five years I've been there I moved from accounts receivable to accounts payable", he explains to his wife. Fate intervenes one day when a lawyer visits his office bearing good news - his great uncle passed away and left him the Silver Hill hotel in Silver Hill, Colorado, a hotel that at one time was making $11,000 a month. Before you can say "money pit" he cleans his desk and walks right out the door, never to return to his boring job. His family is not pleased to hear that they will be moving to a town they never heard of and helping to run a hotel which none of them have the faintest idea how to do, but they follow along and come to find that embarking on an adventure blindfolded can be fun. In essence, trying something new is what Snowball Express is all about. 

The 1970s are generally not considered great years for the Disney company and the films they released during this time were not critically-acclaimed pictures. However, all of them ranked high on entertainment and Snowball Express is one of the best from this decade featuring a great cast, a clever script, and plenty of laughs. Seeing Dean Jones attempt to ski is worth the price of the DVD alone. 

Dean Jones had struck a chord with audiences in Disney's That Darn Cat in 1965 and he quickly became the studio's busiest leading man, often playing underdogs or losers just waiting for a good break. In this picture, his character, Johnny, is quite a gambler. He takes a chance packing up his family and heading out West, bluffs his way into a mortgage agreement with a scoundrel banker, and then gambles the entire property on the hopes of winning a snowmobile race...even though he never sat on a snowmobile in his life. But sometimes we all have to take risks to achieve what we want and what we think is best. 

Snowball Express, in its own light-hearted way, tells the story of a man who wants to leave his mundane routine and strike out on something entirely new. He doesn't want to do this without his beloved wife's, or his children's, consent, and yet, if need be, he would leave them and trek out on his own.......yep, because in the 1970s, men were still men. Papa Baxter was the modern version of our forefathers, who packed up their families in covered wagons to head out into the unknown territory of the West in the hopes of creating a better life. 

Once Johnny and his family arrive at Silver Hill, they find one obstacle after another to overcome, in typical Disney fashion, before they can settle down into their new home. But the Baxter family soon learns that no matter how tough things may become, if they stick together and love and support one another, everything will turn out well in the end. This is a common theme in Disney films...a message of hope. 

Snowball Express boasts a strong cast of supporting players including Keenan Wynn ( playing the villain, yet again ), Harry Morgan, David White, George Lindsay ( "Goober" ), Mary Wickes, and Dick Van Patten. Morgan, as the Baxter's grizzled hired man Jesse McCord, delivers some of the best quips in the film with his deadpan expression. 

Nancy Olson is wonderful as Johnny's wife and was frequently cast in Disney films as a strong but sweet-natured woman. Johnny Whittaker ( Family Affair ) and Kathleen Cody portray Johnny's children, and Disney regular Michael McGreevey appears as a local teenager eager to help the family convert the hotel into a ski resort.

Snowball Express was filmed on location in Colorado with Crested Butte standing in for Silver Hill. The finale - the spectacular snowmobile race - shows the beautiful winter landscapes of the area and is the highlight of the film. 

If you are considering quitting your job to buy a hotel, or just want a great way to spend an hour and a half, then take a gander at Snowball Express. It's an underrated gem from the marvelous Disney studio.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game

We're saluting all of the friendly neighborhood postmen across America with our latest entry in the Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game. This is one happy looking fellow and neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep him from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. Who he is delivering mail to we will not tell you....that's for you to guess! 

As always, if you are not familiar with the rules to the Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie game or the prize, click here

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Director Henry Koster and James Stewart

James Stewart and director Henry Koster made a wonderful team. They worked together on five films, beginning with the highly entertaining Harvey. Stewart had made numerous comedies in the 1930s and 1940s and had a natural knack for comedy, but in the 1950s and 1960s he was turning more and more towards dramatic roles in westerns, biopics, and war films. The few comedies that he made in this period, almost all of which were directed by Koster, gave him a chance to return to the charming, and rather clumsy, type of characters that fans came to love in his earlier films. 

The Director

Henry Koster arrived in Hollywood from Germany in 1936 and, along with his friend, producer Joe Pasternak, managed to convince Universal to let him make Three Smart Girls. The film was a great success, pulling Universal from the verge of bankruptcy, and it launched the 14-year old Deanna Durbin, who was making her first film, to stardom. His next film - 100 Men and a Girl - established Durbin, Pasternak, and himself on top and for the next decade they were busy with Durbin's musicals. It wasn't until 1947 that Koster attempted a dramatic picture - The Unfinished Dance. This film, made at MGM, demonstrated Koster's flair for elevating a good story and script to great entertainment. His follow-up film, The Bishop's Wife ( 1948 ) earned him his first Academy Award nomination for best director. 

Henry Koster with James and Gloria Stewart

A Key Collaboration 

James Stewart was a favorite actor among many directors. He made eight films with Anthony Mann, four with John Ford, and three with Frank Capra. The five-picture collaboration he had with Henry Koster began with Harvey ( 1950 ), a film which Stewart claimed was his favorite motion picture. His portrayal of a whimsical middle-aged man who has an invisible giant rabbit for a companion earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. 

Preston Sturges had initially expressed interest in purchasing the screenrights to the popular stage play "Harvey" in the mid-1940s, but luckily Universal bought it first and it became a project for Henry Koster. Sturges may have made the film more amusing, but Koster gave it heart, and plenty of it. Like Frank Capra, Koster had a way of reaching out to his audience, leaving them with a little moral to ponder when the film is over, but he did so in a much subtler manner. His films tend to give you a warm feeling and inspire sympathy for one's fellow man. 

Henry Koster had directed some of the biggest names in Hollywood ( Loretta Young, Celeste Holm, Elsa Lanchester, and Richard Burton all received Oscar nominations for roles in Koster films ), but working with James Stewart was a special experience for him. "[Working with him was] without any doubt one of the most pleasant experiences in my life....It must have been his spirit. There was very little friction, ever, only ambition and craftsmanship and precision, just doing it right professionally. On top of that he put the whipped cream of great talent."

Harvey became Koster's biggest success to date and was a fan favorite upon its initial release. Stewart and Koster were both unable to attend the premiere of the film however, because they were in England, already hard at work on their next picture - No Highway in the Sky ( 1951 )James Stewart once again portrayed an eccentric character, but this time as a aeronautical engineer with a dire warning for an airline company. 

James Stewart and Glynis Johns in No Highway in the Sky

Three Fox Comedies

James Stewart had a busy filming schedule throughout the 1950s, filming numerous westerns, two Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, and biopics such as The Glenn Miller Story ( 1954 ) and The Spirit of St. Louis ( 1957 ). It would be more than a decade before he would reunite with Henry Koster for Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation ( 1962 ), a colorful creampuff comedy geared towards teens and adults alike. 

Based on a novel by Edward Streeter ( "Father of the Bride" ), it tells the story of a businessman ( Stewart ) who wants to spend a vacation alone with his wife minus their children. Instead, he finds himself hoodwinked into spending the summer at a ramshackled house on the beach with his whole brood - grandchildren, son-in-laws, and all. Maureen O'Hara couldn't look any more stunning than she did in this film, and singing-sensation Fabian drew in the younger female audience. The film was strewn with little incidents that all bore Koster's trademark of subtle humor. 

Audiences loved seeing Stewart playing a harassed father and the success of the movie inspired Koster to produce their next film together, Take Her, She's Mine ( 1963 )James Stewart reprised his befuddled-father act, this time playing a lawyer concerned that his daughter ( Sandra Dee ) is becoming a "loose" woman while away at college. It seems everyone recognizes that his daughter has matured into a woman except Papa. This was a subject not often tackled in movies. Writers Henry and Phoebe Ephron penned the play based upon their own experiences with their college-aged daughter, Nora. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson adapted the play into a script, adding a clever running gag of Frank Michaelson ( Stewart ) constantly being mistaken for James Stewart! 

Take Her, She's Mine lacked the charm Mr. Hobbs possessed, but nevertheless it did well at the box-office, and so Koster and Stewart teamed up once more for a third comedy in the same vein - Dear Brigitte ( 1965 ). Billy Mumy starred as a 10-year old boy genius who devised a system for picking winning horses. He has a crush on Brigitte Bardot and gets his wish of visiting her in France after he agrees to help his father's university raise scholarship funds.   

James Stewart was reunited with his No Highway in the Sky co-star Glynis Johns to play Mumy's parents, both bewildered by the fuss the media is making over their son. Dear Brigitte was one of the last of the light-hearted family comedies made in the 1960s, and while a handful were produced after this, they often dealt with more serious "teen issues" involving sex and drugs. 

After Dear Brigitte, Henry Koster made one more film - The Singing Nun - before deciding that it was time to hang up his hat and retire from directing. He spent his leisure hours persuing another great passion - painting. He even created a painting of his dear friend Jimmy Stewart. 

Jimmy, on the other hand, continued acting on stage and in films throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Twenty years after the release of Koster and Stewart's first film together, he starred in a triumphant Broadway revival of "Harvey" opposite Helen Hayes. 

This post is our contribution to the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon being hosted by Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch. Head on over to her site to check out more posts on popular directors and the stars they made multiple films with. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Homes of Barbara Stanwyck

Some say that you could judge a man by the books he reads. Well, you could also say that one could judge a woman by the house she keeps. Her nesting instincts make a house one of the most important aspects of her life, and they reveal - by their architectural style and decor - the type of house that the woman finds most comfortable. A house, in many ways, suits the homeowner's personality... that is, if it is one's ideal home. Since Hollywood stars could afford just about any home that they wanted, and in any location, you can pretty much be assured that they only bought ( or built ) what they wanted.

As an example, let's take a look at Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most beloved actresses of the golden era, and the various houses that this lady called "home" :

Barbara arrived in Hollywood in 1929 with her husband Frank Fay, a vaudevillian. Roles in such films as Shopworn ( 1932 ), Baby Face ( 1933 ), Annie Oakley ( 1935 ) and Stella Dallas ( 1937 ) quickly made Stanwyck one of the most popular actresses in tinsel-town. During Barbara's rise up the ladder of success, she and Fay had been renting a house at 707 North Arden Drive in Beverly Hills. After her divorce to Fay in 1935 she moved to a small house with English gardens at 615 North Bedford Drive right across from Zeppo Marx, her close friend and manager, and his wife Marion. 

Barbara and Zeppo's homes as seen from an aerial view
In the mid-1930s, Stanwyck purchased an 11-acre ranch in Northridge, California ( the Van Nueys district ). At the time the US post office listed only 40 names as residents, the area was so sparse. There was no place to buy groceries either, so residents had to venture to San Fernando and Beverly Hills to shop. Zeppo Marx bought 87 acres adjoining her property and - since they shared a passion for horses and racing - combined their lands to create an 100-acre thoroughbred ranch called "Marwyck".

Robert Finkelhor, a young architect who had designed Harpo Marx's residence in 1936, was hired by Stanwyck and Zeppo Marx to design their homes. Finkelhor created a sprawling French and English Tudor inspired home with three bedrooms, a trophy room, seven bathrooms, two servant's rooms, and a three-car garage. The backyard included a large swimming pool, stables for the horses, and a tennis court. 

"If you happened to drop in at the ranch, you wouldn't feel comfortable unless you dressed to romp with the dogs, go riding in the hills, or walking through the alfalfa," reported a 1939 press release about Marwyck. 

Marwyck's stables were kept full as a horse-breeding and boarding ranch. Each year there were 15-20 horses that called Marwyck their home. In season, these horses would be out racing at Bay Meadow and other tracks across America. As for one year alone, 72 mares were bred at the ranch. A six-furlong racing track allowed the yearlings that they bred to be trained at a young age. Stanwyck and Zeppo Marx were not directly involved with the racing or breeding, but let manager Harry S. Hart handle this aspect.

When Barbara Stanwyck ( or "Missy" as friends called her ) wed Robert Taylor in 1939, they lived on the ranch together and he helped run the farm and train the horses. Taylor was a great rider and enjoyed being on the ranch. 

Since they often were in Hollywood making pictures, they also purchased a house at 273 South Beverly Glen Boulevard in Westwood ( valued today at over $5 million ) This 5,900 square foot home featured cross-beam wood ceilings and arched doorways. It had six bedrooms and five bathrooms and was located just off of West Sunset Boulevard.

In 1950, they sold Marwyck to actor Jack Oakie, who named the ranch Northridge Farms. After Stanwyck and Taylor divorced in 1952, she spent most of her time at this house until she eventually moved to a French inspired home seen on the front of this picture postcard. We weren't able to determine the address for this residence but it is possibly 1017 North Beverly Drive in Los Angeles. 

Robert Taylor loved the ranch life that he was accustomed to and in 1950 built a fabulous seven bedroom estate on over 110 acres in Mandeville Canyon. Today, this property is one of the most expensive parcels of real estate in Hollywood. 

Barbara Stanwyck eventually downsized to a three-bedroom, 3000 square foot home, built in 1958 at 1055 Loma Vista Drive in Beverly Hills, were she remained until her death in 1990 at the age of 82. 

We hope you enjoyed this look at the homes of Barbara Stanwyck. This post is our contribution to the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon being hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to head on over to this fab site to read all about Stanwyck's films and her private life. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Eustace Lycett - Special Effects Artist

Eustace Lycett is another one of those names that all Disney fans will recognize in a flash. His name has appeared on the credits, preceded with "Special Effects By", in over 44 different films released by the Walt Disney Studios. 

Lycett once described the era of pre-computer special effects in this manner: "A special effect in a motion picture is any technique or device that is used to create an illusion of reality in a situation where it is not possible, economical, or safe to use the real thing." 

What he neglected to state was that special effects artists are the magicians behind creating the illusions that bring that extra sparkle to the films we watch. Without this talented man's contributions many of the Disney films that we love would not have had that special "magic" that he brought to them. 

Lycett was born on December 21, 1914 in Staffordshire, England. His father, a mining engineer, regularly moved his family wherever he could find work. After spending years in Chile, they came to America where, as a young lad, Eustace attended Cal-Tech studying for, and receiving, a degree in mechanical engineering in 1937. 

Eustace found work at Walt Disney Studios just three days after his graduation. Under the wing of Ub Iwerks, a pioneer in animation and head of the studio's process laboratory, Eustace and other technicians worked together to develop a more advanced version of one of Iwerks' inventions - the multiplane camera. The improved camera was immediately put to use in Disney's first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 

Eustace worked in the background at the studio on many projects throughout the 1940s, eventually becoming head of the Special Processes Department at Disney in 1953. He helped work on special filming processes for Grand Canyon ( 1958 ), Disney's Oscar-nominated live-action short; Sleeping Beauty; and The Shaggy Dog ( 1959 ). One extremely good special effect - forced perspective - was employed in Darby O'Gill and the Little People ( 1959 ) to make King O'Brien, king of the leprechauns, appear to be only 1-2ft high. And who can forget the glowing-green banshee? These effects deserved an Academy Award, but Lycett was overlooked. However, the flying car effects he created for The Absent-Minded Professor ( 1961 ) earned him his first Oscar nomination. 

Lycett specialized in travelling mattes and optical reductions and also frequently employed the sodium vapor process, commonly known as the "yellowscreen". This photochemical film technique originated in England in the 1950s and the Walt Disney Studios used the method extensively in the 1960s and 1970s as an alternative to the common "bluescreen" process. When handled with care it can produce lovely results without the common glow around heads that the bluescreen process produced. 

A special sodium vapor camera had to be used in order to capture actors performing in front of the yellowscreen and Disney reportedly had only one such camera made. In this example from Mary Poppins ( 1965 ), Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews are performing the Jolly Holiday sequence in a soundstage in front of a yellowscreen. Eustace took this footage and re-exposed it onto the film of the moving background art ( created by Al Dempsey and Art Riley ) and created one fresh negative from these two sequences. 'Ave you ever seen the grass so green as it appeared in yellowscreen? 

Lycett's work on Mary Poppins earned him his first Academy Award ( shared with Peter Ellenshaw and Hamilton Luske ). The 1960s was a busy decade for the Disney special effects department and Lycett had a hand in practically all of the Disney live-action films released at this time: Moon Pilot ( 1962 ), Bon Voyage ( 1962 ), Summer Magic ( 1962 ), That Darn Cat! ( 1965 ), Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N ( 1966 ), and The Love Bug ( 1968 ) to name but a few. 

For The Gnome-Mobile ( 1967 ), he employed audio animatronics to make the forest animals speak and re-used the forced perspective technique, this time to make the dwarfs appear to be pint-sized. Audio animatronics were also used in The Happiest Millionaire ( 1967 ) for the alligator sequences. 

A highlight of Eustace's career was the marvelous marching knights-in-armor sequence that he helped create in Bedknobs and Broomsticks ( 1971 ). While Eglantine Price's maneuvers on her flying broomstick were enjoyable to watch, it was these marching soldiers at the finale that made the most memorable impression on theatre-goers. For this film he earned his second special effects Oscar. 

During the 1970s, Lycett worked on such films as Snowball Express ( 1972 ), Treasure of Matacumbe ( 1976 ), Freaky Friday ( 1976 ), Pete's Dragon ( 1977 ), Return from Witch Mountain ( 1978 ), and The Cat from Outer Space ( 1978 ). 

Eustace Lycett retired from the Walt Disney Studios in 1980. His last film, The Black Hole, earned him his last Academy Award nomination for special effects. Lycett's career was not limited to the silver screen...during the 1960s he helped create Rocket to the Moon, a major Disneyland attraction, and "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln", a human-animatronic. 

Lycett passed away in 2007 at the age of 91. A 43-year career in the field of movie magic gave us a plethora of great film scenes to marvel at, and we still ask "How did they do that?" when we see the special effects used in these Disney classics. 
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