A bootleg soft-shoe for a Sunday morning

You can always grab my attention with a musical, good, bad, or indifferent. Phil Hall, dug up an interesting case in this week’s entry in his always interesting column The Bootleg Files. “Where’s Charley” starred Ray Bolger, best known by far as the Scarecrow from 1939’s “Wizard of Oz,” starring in a film version of the Broadway musical that had revived his career from a post-Oz rut. The stage play had been a very successful vehicle and the movie was a hit but, according to Hall, the widow of songwriting great Frank Loesser, performer Jo Sullivan, disliked the movie so much she somehow managed to singlehandedly suppress it for all these years.

The sequence featuring the show’s break-out hit, “Once in Love with Amy,” goes on very long and during the later portions you may find yourself recalling Pee-Wee Herman as Bolger gets a bit too silly. With all that, this excerpt — which comes from a badly faded print — shows a nice piece of work. Bolger had real grace enough to get over the fact that he was 48 and playing an Oxford student.

In my experience about 95% of “lost” movies turn out to be disappointments and this looks too stagy and twee. So what? I think it’s high time we were allowed to see it for ourselves, complete with that score by Loesser. You can hear Jo Sullivan talk about her late husband’s work, which included such classic scores as “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” on this Fresh Air interview.

  

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Frank Loesser centenary movie moment #1

If you were listening to NPR news this morning, you might have caught a very nice interview with Jo Sullivan Loesser, the widow of Broadway legend Frank Loesser, best known for his songs for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Guys and Dolls,” a real contender for the best musical comedy score of all time.  The occasion is that this is the year Loesser, who died in 1969, would have turned 100.

So, here’s the key number from “How to Succeed,” in which young, extremely fast-rising executive and ex-window washer J. Pierrepont Finch serenades his favorite person in the world. The film version, directed by David Swift, isn’t a particularly brilliant piece of cinema in terms of taking the piece from stage to screen, but it documents the play on film rather nicely, as you’ll see below.

Of course that’s a young Robert Morse up there as Ponty. I’m not sure how widely known it is to younger viewers of “Mad Men,” but Morse is better known these days as the conniving and sagacious Bertram Cooper, until recently the senior mucky-muck of ad firm Sterling Cooper. (Any similarities between the often somber TV show and the sprightly satirical musical aren’t, of course, all that coincidental.) Morse is an even better actor today, but the above shows how skilled he was at age 35 back in 1966-7 (when he still looked about 20).  Daniel “Please don’t call me ‘Harry'” Radcliffe, who really is still practically a zygote, is going to be taking on the role shortly on Broadway, which will be interesting.

After he’s done…well, I wonder if Vincent Kartheiser (i.e., Pete Campbell) can sing at all. I’d pay to see that.

  

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RIP Jean Simmons

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If things had gone a bit differently, she might well have been as huge a superstar as such contemporaries as Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood — she certainly had the talent and screen presence to do so. However, as I’m reminded by her New York Times obituary, an ugly situation involving a sexual proposition the married actress got from Howard Hughes may have prevented Jean Simmons from reaching the super-stardom she deserved as much as anyone. The vindictive aviation and filmmaking magnate may have deliberately put her in films he thought were inferior and refused to allow his film studio to lend her out for the lead in “Roman Holiday,” the role that deservedly made Audrey Hepburn a more or less instant star.

Nevertheless, Ms. Simmons, who sadly passed on yesterday at age 80 from lung cancer, outlasted her Hughes contract and gave witty and altogether enchanting performances in numerous and diverse films, ranging from break-out teenage performances as the young Estella in David Lean’s still-definitive 1946 version of “Great Expectations” (she’d eventually play Mrs. Havisham in a TV production) and as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 “Hamlet.” As a puckishly beautiful adult actress who pretty much owned the word “luminous,” she had no problem quietly stealing scenes on an epic scale from the likes of Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus,” Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s underrated “The Big Country,” and, most famously these days, Marlon Brando in her only musical appearance, “Guys and Dolls.” Brando was easy to outshine musically though she was also easily his acting equal or superior, but here she shows she would have had to chops to almost hold her own musically with with costar Frank Sinatra, if only the script had called for it. What she lacks in polish, she more than makes up for in sheer commitment.

An admitted survivor of alcoholism, Simmons was a class act on every level who famously complimented Hepburn on her great “Roman Holiday” performance, as painful as it must have been to watch and even though it’s not clear that she wouldn’t have been just as good in the role. She kept working through most of her life — her last significant role was her voice work in the English-language version of “Howl’s Moving Castle” — and her loss to the world of entertainment is not a small one. She was often low-key, but she was never dull.

There’s more from David Hudson, Edward Copeland, Jose at the Film Experience, and Glenn Kenny. The L.A. Times also has an excellent and very detailed obituary.

  

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