Saturday, August 31, 2013

FIG TREES (2009)—An Evening Class Question for John Greyson

"Engaged solidarity" is the term I would use to describe Canadian visionary John Greyson, who first came to my attention through his lyrical and formally-challenging films, of course, and then later through his staged protest of the Toronto International Film Festival's City to City spotlight on Tel Aviv. With strenuous commitment, Greyson has fought for the rights of others caught in situations where they can barely fight for themselves. In a horrible stroke of unjust irony, Greyson now finds himself in a position where he is dependent upon the solidarity of others to free him and his companion Tarek Loubani from forced incarceration in Egypt.

For those distracted by how Ben Affleck will destroy the Batman franchise, or titillated by Miley Cyrus's flagrant twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards, here's the recap (per Nation's Sarah Woolf): "Award-winning filmmaker John Greyson and emergency room physician Tarek Loubani have been detained in Tora prison, near Cairo, since August 16. The two landed in Cairo on August 15 with the intention of visiting Gaza's largest medical complex, Al-Shifa hospital, where Loubani was to continue medical work and Greyson was to explore the possibility of a new film project. Upon their arrival, the men were unable to make the trip into Gaza because the Egyptian government had closed the Rafah crossing the previous Monday, citing security reasons. (Rafah is Gaza's only access point to the rest of the world, other than the tightly controlled borders with Israel).

"The pair decided to stay in Cairo and await the border's reopening. The following night, the men apparently became lost after curfew and stopped at a police station to ask for directions to their hotel. At around 10:00PM Cairo time, Justin Podur, their emergency contact, received a ten-second phone call from Loubani: 'We're being arrested. It's the Egyptian police. Call the Consulate. I have to go.' "

As of today's date, August 31, 2013, the two Canadians have been unlawfully detained for two weeks, and counting. Efforts to secure their release have been mounted through a dedicated website, online petitions via and LabourStart, and ongoing statements of support from around the world. If you've not already done so, please consider signing these petitions and adding your own statement of support.

On Wednesday, November 14, 2012, Greyson was invited by the Pacific Film Archive to their screening of his opera-documentary Fig Trees (2009), where I seized the opportunity to ask Greyson a question of personal concern.

* * *

Michael Guillén: John, it's so wonderful to have you here in Berkeley to talk about your film Fig Trees. This is my third time to see it. Its complexity continues to sparkle and its inversions become more articulate each time I see it; but, it is a very difficult film for me to talk about and to ask you a question about, so please pardon me if I'm not so articulate.

As a film within the documentary genre, I am struck by the notion that it conforms to recent discussions regarding "elevated genre." Fig Trees elevates the documentary genre. I'm equally struck by your refusal to cater to melodrama. I know that when I first saw it—and I had, of course, watched whatever films were available on AIDS activism—I was surprised that I wasn't more emotionally overwhelmed. I'm a long-time survivor of HIV since 1986 and—this time watching Fig TreesZackie Achmat's comment that at one point you have to stop performing death and pay attention to the fact that you're going to live resonates particularly for me.

All these years later, I find myself in a peculiar position regarding this period of activism, the 1980s, as a period of time that is being forgotten or presumed resolved. My question is: as someone who is informed on AIDS activism, where does the activism stand now? What are we called to do now with regard to the issue of HIV and AIDS?

John Greyson: I'm glad you asked that because one of the triggers for us to put Tim McCaskell into the documentary came out of a graduate course I was teaching. I showed them some excerpts from the installation on which the film was based. Although the installation focused on AIDS in Africa, part of the installation likewise featured the same queer content you see in Fig Trees. A student raised his hand and said, "I don't understand why there's all this gay stuff in relation to AIDS. AIDS is an African thing, right?" This was a well-meaning, thoughtful student; but, his question revealed that for twentysomethings there is little awareness of the "gay plague" and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s in North America. His question was so dumbfounding to me and I thought, "Man, just to tell Zackie's story isn't enough. Things get erased so quickly."

One of the great things that has happened more recently these past couple of years, maybe this year in particular, is that there are a number of compilation documentaries that have been made about AIDS activism and this period of the late '80s-early '90s within the American movement; David France's How To Survive A Plague (2012), for example. I haven't seen this yet; but, I'm sure it's an extraordinary distillation of all of the energy of video activism at the time. At the time, there was an outpouring of hundreds of thousands of videos that we thought would be around forever but, of course, they immediately fell off the cliff. But compilation films like How to Survive A Plague will live on and preserve some of that.

In terms of AIDS activism today, AIDS action continues to be active in Toronto where both Tim McCaskell and I have ended up doing a lot of activism around queer solidarity with Palestine, which has been a sort of sideways move. It's interesting because—as you know from Fig Trees—Tim started in anti-Apartheid work in South Africa. Now he's doing anti-Apartheid work with regard to Israel-Palestine; but, he's also continued doing AIDS activism where his focus is at a local level with particular populations. It's a very similar situation here in the States, I think, where HIV in prisons remains an incredible crisis. HIV among first nation peoples continues to be a real concern, what with the number of new infections among young gay men.

We're going through this particular fight against the aggressive criminalization against any partner who doesn't fully inform. The definitions for that have been set by the courts in the most draconian way so that—if full declaration isn't made when sleeping with somebody—the courts will step in and define what "full declaration" is. There has been a lot of mobilization and organization around these legal issues. The work continues, which is great. For my twentysomething students who think AIDS is only an African problem, some of these public campaigns have been useful.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

TCM: ELMER GANTRY (1960)—The Evening Class Interview With Shirley Jones and Ben Mankiewicz

In March-April 2011, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) promoted the second edition of their Classic Film Festival by way of their "Road to Hollywood" tour, featuring free screenings of classic films in 10 cities across the States, including San Francisco, where on Wednesday, April 20, Shirley Jones and TCM's weekend daytime host Ben Mankiewicz accompanied a Castro Theatre screening of Elmer Gantry (1960), a film which earned Jones a Best Supporting Actress Oscar®.

With her recently-published and controversial memoir piquing prurient interests (Shirley Jones: A Memoir)—let alone a cease-and-desist order from former Dynasty star Joan Collins (who is demanding the book be removed from book shelves everywhere)—Jones is being fêted today on TCM as part of their annual "Summer Under the Stars." Now seemed as good a window as any to transcribe my conversation with Jones and Mankiewicz, conducted during the "Road to Hollywood" tour. My thanks to Christine Slaton, then the senior publicist for Allied, for arranging time for me to sit down with the two of them to have a conversation. This transcript is cobbled together from that conversation and the on-stage interview later that evening on the Castro stage.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Welcome to San Francisco.

Shirley Jones: Thank you.

Guillén: I understand this isn't your first visit and that you were actually in San Francisco when Burt Lancaster phoned you up to ask if you'd read for Elmer Gantry?

Jones: That's exactly right. I was at the Fairmont Hotel with Jack Cassidy. We were touring with our nightclub act.

Guillén: Before we get into discussing Elmer Gantry, I'd like to relay a question from one of my readers in Portland, Oregon who swears she's your greatest fan. She's followed your career through stage, screen, records, nightclubs, television, etc., and was intrigued by your having worked in so many entertainment formats. She wondered if you preferred one over the other? And how that has worked for you, shifting between these different opportunities?

Jones: I feel grateful that I've been able to do that and that I've had those opportunities. I started out as a singer singing at the age of six in the church choir, so singing was a gift given to me. I thought everybody could sing! I sang at all the local Lions Club and Rotary Club events all through grammar school and all through high school. I won a beauty contest and became Miss Pittsburgh, though I'm sorry to say I didn't win Miss Pennsylvania; but, I got a scholarship to the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which had three little theaters, and they taught dance, ballet, acting and singing. So during the summers when I was in high school, I would go study there.

But as much as I loved what I was doing when I did it, my dream in life was to become a veterinarian. I'm a big animal person. So I enrolled in college and the July before the Fall semester, my parents took me to New York and I called up a friend who I had worked with at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and he said, "Come up, Shirley, and we'll sing a couple of tunes." I did and he said, "Listen, Rodgers and Hammerstein's casting director is having open auditions for anybody that wants to come up and sing for them." They had about three or four shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long that they had to keep replacing chorus people all the time.

I had never been to a professional audition of any kind. I was a young, naïve girl who had only done stuff at the Playhouse so I said, "Oh, I don't think I can do that." He said, "C'mon, give it a try." So he talked me into it. I stood in line around the block with all these other young girls making their way to the stage. Finally I got there and sang for the casting director and he asked, "Miss Jones, what have you done?" I said, "Nothing." Which was true. He said, "Well, could you wait a few moments? I'm going to call Mr. Richard Rodgers, who happens to be across the street rehearsing the orchestra for Oklahoma!, which is about to open, and I'd like to have him hear you in person." Well, I didn't even know who Richard Rodgers was. "Okay," I said.

A few moments later, down the aisle comes this gentleman and he says, "Miss Jones?" And I said, "What did you say your name was again?" "Richard Rodgers," he said. I'll never forget that moment. I sang for him and he said, "Miss Jones, could you wait about 20 minutes? I'd like to call Oscar Hammerstein." This was my first audition anywhere for anyone. I thought this was what happened at every audition! I said, "Well, I guess so."

Now my pianist, he said, "Shirley, I hate to do this to you"—it was some kind of holiday weekend—"But, I can't wait. I have an airplane to catch." Richard Rodgers said, "Nevermind. We'll think of something." Well, I stood there alone for about 30 minutes when all of a sudden down the aisle comes a very tall gentleman and he said, "Miss Jones? Do you know the score of Oklahoma!?" I said, "I might know some of the music, but I don't know the words." Of course, I'm talking to the lyricist. He said, "Nevermind. I happen to have the score here." I said, "But Mr. Hammerstein, I don't have anyone to play. My pianist had to leave." Richard Rodgers said, "We have the full City Center symphony across the street." I had never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sung with one. I said, "Oh, I don't know if I can do this." Well, they took me by the arm and took me across the street.

Now, I can't read music. I still can't read music. Fortunately, I have a good ear; but, I can't read. So the orchestra played "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" and "People Will Say We're In Love" and—once I'd heard the music—I stood with the score in front of my face and I sang these two songs for the two gentlemen in the audience. Well, I never got to college. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show; that was South Pacific in the last six months of the Broadway company. I was one of the nurses. It wasn't a big role. I only had one line. We were all actors. I had studied some Shakespeare at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and I figured I was ready for my acting debut.

Guillén: Apparently, Rodgers and Hammerstein had bigger plans for you?

Jones: Obviously they did have other plans that I was not aware of. After South Pacific closed, they put me in a show called Me and Juliet, one of their lesser hits on Broadway that was about to go on tour to Chicago. While I was in that show, a producer and writer from Hollywood, Fred Zinnemann and Arthur Hornblow, Jr. came to New York because they were going to be making a motion picture of Oklahoma! Richard Rodgers called me and said, "Would you come up and read and sing for these two gentlemen?" I sang for them, read for them, and they said it was a very good audition but they told Rodgers and Hammerstein that they thought I was too green to be able to handle the role of Laurey.

Guillén: They wanted a movie star?

Jones: Yeah, they wanted someone who had been in the business longer than six months, which I could certainly understand. So I thought that opportunity was over. I went to Chicago with Me and Juliet playing a featured part. In the meantime, they screen tested and read every young woman on both coasts for the role of Laurey in the motion picture of Oklahoma! All the young movie stars in Hollywood, like Debbie Reynolds, and all the young women in shows on Broadway. While I was in Chicago, Richard Rodgers called me and said, "We'd like to send you to California to screen test for the role of Laurey." I was very excited.

I went to California and I screen tested with Gordon MacRae—which was unusual because ordinarily they don't have someone like that do it—and the director Fred Zinnemann. After the test, Zinnemann said, "Miss Jones, have you ever worked in front of a camera before?" and I said, "No, never" and he said, "Well don't change a thing; you're a natural." I went back to Chicago and a week later Richard Rodgers called me and said, "Hello, Laurey."

Guillén: So what was it like working with Fred Zinnemann, who I understand had never directed a musical?

Jones: I loved him. I adored him. He was incredible. To have him as my first movie director was phenomenal. He really gave me a whole sense of what the movie industry was about. He was so helpful. Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the set the whole time. It was their baby. They were producing it. They had only done one other movie, State Fair (1945), because they were not really movie people. They didn't like Hollywood; but, they weren't about to let anyone else do Oklahoma! The casting was interesting. They had Rod Steiger as Jud. Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie.

Guillén: How did you get along with Gloria Grahame?

Jones: Not too well. She was kind of reserved and I didn't have a lot of conversations with her. She didn't want to talk to me much. I remember Oscar Hammerstein coming to me one day and telling me Grahame had said to him, "You better watch this girl. She's going to put on a bunch of pounds and you won't have a Laurey." So from then on I had to watch everything I ate. But then there was a scene in the water where I became faint and very weak and they had to carry me out of the water. Then Charlotte Greenwood, who played Aunt Eller, said, "You can eat a little more." She became my grandmother on set. I had Charlotte every morning for breakfast telling me what I could eat and what I couldn't eat.

Guillén: So your career had a robust launch with the movie musicals of Oklahoma! and Carousel, but then the industry changed?

Jones: Yes. As a singer in musicals, my career was over when they stopped making musicals because—if you were a singer—they didn't think of you as an actress. Had I not been able to go into acting via television and then, of course, Elmer Gantry—which really gave me the longevity I've had with my career—I would not have been able to do all of it. I've been very fortunate. So to answer your earlier question, I can't say that there has been a way that I've constructed my career so that I could do so many different forms of entertainment; it just happened that way for me.

Guillén: Before the late '60s-early '70s when nostalgia for classic films really kicked in, did you ever imagine or anticipate that your films would have such longevity, by way of VHS, DVD, and revival screenings?

Jones: No, I didn't. I wasn't aware that these formats would develop. I knew, though, that Rodgers and Hammerstein would always have an incredible following. They were musical geniuses. I felt their music would be here long after we were all gone.

Guillén: I understand you were one of their few contract players?

Jones: I was. The first and only person put under personal contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. I was never under contract to a studio or anything like that.

Ben Mankiewicz: I don't disagree with you about the advent of nostalgia, and how there has been a recent mass marketing of nostalgia as a business; but, even in the late '60s-early '70s there was certainly already a nostalgic look at films from the '30s, '40s and '50s. When Shirley made Elmer Gantry, it's not like there wasn't already an appreciation for the greatness of Casablanca and—I was going to say the brilliance of Buster Keaton; but, that actually wasn't there until the 1980s—but, that appreciation for Hollywood history already existed. There were film fans in the '60s-'70s who knew how great Gone With the Wind was.

Jones: I think he's mainly talking about musicals? And that's how I got into singing, because I loved Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Dan Dailey, all those people. I wanted to be a musical performer.

Guillén: And yet you won your Oscar® for your dramatic performance. Can you recreate for me that night at the Oscars®? You had tough competition. Janet Leigh had been stabbed to death in the shower, for starters. Can you recall what the buzz was like at the time?

Jones: Janet was the favorite. I wasn't expecting to win at all. She had won all the other prior awards, the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild, they went to Janet. So I was thrilled just for the nomination.

Mankiewicz: You know what's crazy? Janet was nominated—"Janet", like I know her; I always do that—and Hitchcock was nominated for best director. Obviously he didn't win—he never won an Oscar®—but Psycho, the film itself, wasn't nominated for Best Picture! It's crazy! Janet Leigh was nominated, Hitchcock was nominated, and it's just strange that the film wasn't nominated.

Jones: I know! But that happens sometimes.

Guillén: Elmer Gantry, on the other hand, did well. It won three Oscars® out of five, I believe, and you ended up on that stage with Burt Lancaster, and the film also won for adapted screenplay. Speaking of Burt, what was it like working with all that teeth and hair?

Jones: He was incredible. He was my mentor for that film.

Guillén: In what respect? How do you mean that?

Jones: Well, he fought for me to play the role because Richard Brooks did not want me. Richard wanted Piper Laurie for the part and didn't think that I was right for it. But I had done a Playhouse 90 television show called "The Big Slide" with Red Skelton where I played an alcoholic sunshine girl during the Max Sennett era. At that time it was a step down to do television if you were a Hollywood actor; but, Burt saw that show and decided he wanted me to play this part. He argued I was right for it.

As I mentioned earlier, I was in San Francisco doing my nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy when Burt called me. He said, "Hello, is this Shirley Jones?" I said, "Yes." He said, "This is Burt Lancaster" and I said, "Sure it is" and I hung up. Fortunately, he called back and he said, "Shirley, this is Burt Lancaster. We're doing the film Elmer Gantry. Go get the Sinclair Lewis novel and read it. I want you for the role of Lulu Bains. I would like you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard Brooks. I'm co-producing with him and I'm playing Elmer Gantry." He said, "I think you'd be wonderful in the part." Well, I ran out and got the novel and read it that day. I couldn't believe he was thinking of me for this role. I was thrilled to pieces, you know? Because, as I said, being a singer, I was never thought of as an actress and my career was virtually over at that point.

Guillén: And the character of Lulu Bains required a different style of acting? You had always been cast in ingénue roles up until then? I was actually kind of shocked when I first saw your performance in Elmer Gantry.

Jones: I know!

Guillén: Can you talk a bit about Richard Brooks? Once he warmed up to you, what was he like to work with?

Jones: It took him quite a while to warm up to me. Fortunately for me, Burt had me come to the set every single day to watch the shoot, watch the other actors, watch the direction that Richard gave, and that prepared me. My first day of shooting was the biggest scene in the movie; the scene where I'm in the house of prostitution telling the girls how I met Elmer Gantry. It's a famous scene with that famous line ("He rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!").

Richard gave me no direction. He just sat there with his legs crossed smoking his pipe and I thought, "It's over." As I was still quite young, I was accustomed to fine directors. I worked with Fred Zinnemann on Oklahoma! who was wonderful for my first time out. He was so great with actors. I loved that. I loved working with directors, but Richard didn't give me anything. I went home in tears that night, thinking, "It's over. He's going to fire me." I didn't have to shoot the next day, but I got this phone call on the evening of the next day and Richard said, "Shirley, this is Richard Brooks. I owe you an apology. Not only are you going to be great in this film, but I predict you're going to win the Academy Award®."

Guillén: There you go.

Jones: I went on to do another film with him, The Happy Ending.

Guillén: If I remember correctly, there wasn't a rating system at this time?

Mankiewicz: In 1960? No.

Guillén: Yet, I understand there was a parental warning that there were scenes in Elmer Gantry questionable for children?

Jones: Oh yes. Big time. The churches were up in arms, particularly the Baptists. Some cities banned the film in their theaters.

Mankiewicz: Banned in Boston.

Jones: Exactly. That's right. I received terrible letters saying my career was going to be over and how dare I do this role after having done such lovely musicals, this that and the other, and now you're playing a whore. But I loved the writing, loved the direction, and knew that—if it was going to be one of the best movies ever made—it would open up a new career for me, which it was and which it did. If it hadn't have been for Elmer Gantry, my career would have been over. I went on to do 28 movies.

Guillén: As I was reviewing that night at the Oscars® and that beautiful photograph of you with Burt, and Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Ustinov, it brought to mind the sad news of her recent death. Did you know Elizabeth Taylor at all?

Jones: I met her for the first time that night. Then I got to know her when she was involved with raising awareness about AIDS and organizing all the benefits. She asked me to come and sing a couple of songs. I went to her house for dinner one night with my husband Jack Cassidy. She was married to Richard Burton at the time. My name is Jones and I'm Welsh. My grandfather came over from Wales. Richard—who was quite drunk that night—came up to me, grabbed me, and said, "I'm going to teach you how to sing in Gaelic." I said, "But I can't speak Gaelic!" "No, no," he said, "you'll learn." He took me in the other room—it was a big party of people—and started to sing in Gaelic and he wanted me to follow him in Gaelic. I said, "I can't do it, Richard." Finally, Elizabeth opened the door and said, "Will you let this poor woman out of here and leave her alone?!" I knew her to that extent. I liked her very much.

Guillén: At the time, with regard to the reception for Elmer Gantry, what were your obligations to promote the film? Did you meet the public? Did you attend gala openings?

Jones: There were openings, but I don't remember them doing a giant press campaign like I had to do, for example, with Oklahoma! Yes, we had interviews and so forth; but, I don't remember a press campaign. The movie did its own thing. It just held up so well. The fact that it had Burt, and Arthur Kennedy, and Jean Simmons, and André Previn's score....

Guillén: And John Alton's incredible cinematography.

Jones: That's right.

Guillén: Some might consider it a major slight that he wasn't nominated for his cinematography. What was Alton like?

Jones: He was lovely, just wonderful, very serious, very concerned about his work, you know?

Guillén: He made some interesting visual choices in Elmer Gantry: his subdued color palette, his framing....

Jones: The film was beautifully shot.

Guillén: You'd been in these huge movies, these massively mounted musicals, so I'm curious how an actress interacts with such a noted cinematographer. Did you bring him candy?

Jones: [Laughs.] No. I didn't think in those terms then. I trusted him implicitly. I was at an age in a time when I was simply thrilled to be in the movie. I wasn't that experienced with great cinematographers really; but, I saw what he was doing and thought it was brilliant.

Mankiewicz: Did you have a sense of the difference between shooting in the Todd-AO process and CinemaScope where you had to shoot it different ways for Oklahoma! Then with Elmer Gantry, you were back to shooting in a more regular way. Were you aware of that? Were you conscious of that difference?

Jones: Oh yes, I loved it. I loved that we didn't have to do it. You know, we lost Frank Sinatra for Carousel because of that. He walked off the set the first day of shooting because there were the two cameras. He said, "I signed to do one movie, not two." He got back in his car and we lost our leading man. The writer-producer Henry Ephron came over to me with tears literally running down his face and he said, "Shirley, where's Gordon MacRae?" I said, "I think he's in Lake Tahoe doing a night club act with his wife Sheila." He said, "Can you get him on the phone?" It was a pay phone on the dock in Ann Arbor. I said, "Well, can you give me some quarters?" He gave me some quarters and, believe it or not, I got Gordon MacRae on the telephone right there and I said, "Gordon, how would you like to play Billy Bigelow in Carousel?" He said, "Give me three days; I have to lose ten pounds."

But my first movie was Oklahoma!, which was shot in Todd-AO and regular, but we didn't have to do scenes twice, mainly only the close-ups. Anyways, I couldn't believe that was the reason Frank Sinatra left the set because everybody knew we were going to be shooting in two processes. I would run into Frank at parties and he never wanted to talk about it. Just recently, believe it or not, six or eight months ago, I was at a press conference with several old people who had been press agents for a long time and we got on the subject of Frank and this one man said to me, "Don't you know why he left Carousel?" I said, "Do you?" He said, "Oh sure, everybody knows." I said, "Well, why don't I know?" He said, "Ava Gardner was shooting a film in Africa and she said, "Unless you get down here right away, I'm going to have an affair with Clark Gable." That apparently was the real reason.

Guillén: Fascinating. I'm intrigued by how an actor's performance on film matches up to their expectations of their own performance. What was it like for you to see the film and see yourself in this role? Did it match what you felt you were presenting?

Jones: Fortunately, for me it did. At least with Elmer Gantry. There were other films I did where I didn't feel quite that way; but, with Elmer Gantry I was thrilled every moment, thrilled with the scenes that I had, thrilled that I had beautiful close-ups. I couldn't have been happier. Watching the film was a great moment for me.

Guillén: And then you ended up with that little statuette. Do you keep it polished up?

Jones: I sure do! It sits in my living room.

Guillén: Do you still sing?

Jones: All over the place.

Guillén: Will you be in Hollywood for the TCM Classic Film Festival screening of Elmer Gantry?

Jones: I'm not here for that, unfortunately. I wanted to be; but, I'm on a singing junket.

Guillén: Well, I'm delighted at least that you've been able to participate in this Road to Hollywood promotion.

Jones: Me too!

Guillén: I went last year but I won't get to go this year as I've just sold my home here in San Francisco and am relocating.

Jones: Did you?

Mankiewicz: Where are you going?

Guillén: I'm moving to Idaho.

Jones: Really?! What part?

Guillén: Boise.

Mankiewicz: Are you joining a militia?

Guillén: No, no, my family's from Idaho.

Mankiewicz: My father's from there. My grandfather lived in Boise.

Guillén: Oh?  Regarding your other roles, Shirley, can you highlight some that you're especially proud of?

Jones: I was telling Ben that before my concert I have an opportunity to show eight minutes of film clips from all the movies I've starred in and all the co-stars I've worked with. I did a movie called The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) with Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. I played a madam in that. That was a wonderful film. Gene Kelly directed it.

Guillén: A madam? So, first a fallen deacon's daughter in Elmer Gantry, and then subsequent turns in brothels; were these roles in reaction to the wholesome characters in your earlier work?

Jones: Yes.

Guillén: You were trying to break the ingénue image to prove you had range?

Jones: I had to. I had to prove that I was more than little Shirley Mae Jones from Smithton, Pennsylvania, population 800. And as I said before, I was a singer and had to prove myself as an actress.

Guillén: As someone who participated in what are now considered the classic musicals, do you ever watch contemporary musicals?

Jones: Oh yes. Every time a musical opens at the Pantages Theater, I go to the opening every time.

Guillén: I ask because I don't think that conflict between singing and acting still applies.

Jones: It's funny that you say that because I was just reading The New York Times today and the Times had a review of a new musical show that had just opened cast basically with actors. They're all good actors, good performers, but the title of the review was "Whatever happened to the musical voices of Broadway?"

Guillén: Now they want them.

Jones: Now they want them, yes. And this is a famous reviewer and the cast is made up of all good people; but, he's right basically. There are just a few true singers that are still doing Broadway now.

Guillén: Since you're here in San Francisco under the aegis of TCM's Road to Hollywood series preparing for their film festival in Hollywood, any thoughts regarding TCM?

Jones: I'm a fan! Are you kidding? I said to Ben, I'm such a giant fan of him and the channel. It's my favorite station. There are no commercials. It's so wonderful. TCM is my relaxation at the end of the day. I get my martini, I get in bed, I pull the covers up and I watch TCM all night. I love it.

Guillén: Thank you so much for your time today, Shirley.

Jones: Thank you.

Guillén: And good luck with the festival in Hollywood, Ben. Any particular screening you're looking forward to?

Mankiewicz: Peter O'Toole. They gave me that one. A 20-minute conversation before the screening of Becket. I mean, what's the big deal? He hasn't even won an Oscar®. Loser!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

FANTASIA 2013—Daniel Bird On The Polish Poster School and Barbara "Basia" Baranowska

Barbara "Basia" Baranowska—best known in North America for her poster for Andrzej Żuławski's Possession (1981)—is the unsung hero of Polish poster art. Whereas the likes of Jan Lenica developed a distinct, often instantly recognizable style, Barbara Baranowska was a chameleon (as reflected in her alternating use of "Basia", "Basha" and "Bacha" as her professional name). She donned a variety of graphic personae—from the sometimes brutal cut-outs of her early Polish book jackets to the voluptuous, almost psychedelic surrealism of her French film posters. While she may not be the most prolific artist of her generation, the works she produced in Poland during the 1960s and France in the 1970s are unforgettable.

During the late 1950s, there was a revolution in Polish poster art. Free from the shackles of socrealizm (the Polish adaptation of socialist realism), a wave of artists brought a strikingly modern artistic sensibility to the poster. Lacking the resources to produce slick Hollywood-like posters, these artists turned to various modernist trends for inspiration. Often armed with little more than a brush, crayon or simply just a pair of scissors, these Polish artists developed a raw, sometimes savage but always intelligent approach to the film poster. Artists such as Henryk Tomaszewski, Jan Lenica and Roman Cieślewicz developed a unique and often witty approach to rendering the very essence of a film in a single, eye catching image. Less well known, however, are the women of Polish poster art, including Teresa Byszewska and, in particular, Barbara Baranowska.

Baranowska was born into a noble family in Katowice in 1934. She studied painting at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1959. During the 1960s Baranowska designed film posters, book jackets and illustrated children's books. Less prolific than her more famous contemporaries, she nevertheless employed a similarly pared down visual approach to her assignments.

Baranowska designed the covers and sometimes illustrating numerous books by the Polish-Jewish author Adolf Rudnicki (1909–1990), including Krowa (Cows), Narzeczony Beaty (The Blessed Bride), Niekochana (The Unloved), Zolnierze (Soldiers) and Lato (Side). In addition, she also illustrated children's books, the first of which was Mira Jaworczakowa's Najmniejszy podroznik (The Smallest Explorer) in 1962.

Strikingly beautiful, Baranowska made cameos in a handful of films, including Janusz Morgernstern's Do widzenjie do jutra… (See You Tomorrow, 1960) and Witold Giersz's Oczekiwanie (Awaiting, 1962). However, arguably the most widely seen of her artwork is the cow she designed for a brand of butter which even today can still be found in Polish shops.

At the end of the 1960s, Baranowska moved to Paris. She designed some of the most visual striking film posters of the 1970s, including Milos Forman's Taking Off (1971), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Luis Garcia Berlanga's Life Size (1974) and Andrzej Żuławski's Possession (1981). During the late 1970s, Baranowska moved to Hollywood, where she completed a series of portrait paintings, including Alfred Hitchcock, studio head Barry Diller and the Viennese magnate Charlie Bluhdorn. She lives in Paris.

To kick off an exhibition of Baranowska's posters in Montreal's J.A. de Sève Cinema, leading scholar of Eastern European cult cinema Daniel Bird gave a talk on the history, styles and influence of the Polish Poster School, including rare clips and stills. The Exhibit and Artist Talk were co-presented by Spectacular Optical and The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. My thanks to Kier-La Janisse for her biographical information on Baranowska. What follows is a slightly paraphrased transcription of Daniel Bird's presentation.

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What I'm going to be talking about is what makes the Polish poster so fantastic? And, secondly, try to give you an idea of how it came into being. And, thirdly, look at the question of how Polish posters actually influenced films. So not just a question of posters advertising films, but how the language that they embodied came to affect cinema itself. In addition to that, we can get to who I consider to be the key figures in the Polish Poster School and, towards the end, focus on Barbara Baranowska.

I'm going to start with a poster for Black Swan from two-three years ago, which appeared in The Guardian in conjunction with an article where the designers talked about their inspirations. This is what they said: "Scot Bendall was the art director and one of three illustrators working on the project at LaBoca. The underlying concept behind the designs, he said, 'was to create artwork that conveyed the feeling of the movie in much the same way that Polish and Czech film posters did so well in the 60s and 70s'." There's one phrase that's particularly revealing about this point and that is the feeling of the movie. What is it about Polish posters that were so great? Their ability to capture the essence of a movie in one single image; an image which doesn't move.

By way of example, let's take Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962). As you know, the story is about a couple whose relationship is interrupted by a mysterious student. It's a love triangle, effectively. The question is: how to actually embody that story—which takes place mostly on a boat on a lake in the Northeast of Poland—in a single image? Polanski employed a designer from Poland, Jan Lenica, and he came up with this image for the poster in Poland. As you can see, this poster depicts the three elements of the film, one a different color, and some suggestion that it takes place on water. Also, have a look at the apparent crudity of the image. There's no photographic element; this is just paintbrush, simple colors. Polanski, of course, based upon the success of Knife in the Water, was able to actually move to England initially and start working on films essentially for an exploitation company, most notably Repulsion (1965) and Cul De Sac (1966). Nevertheless, he called upon Lenica's skills to design the English posters and these exploitation producers agreed to let Lenica advertise that product.

This is what they came up with for Repulsion, which is about a frigid schizophrenic with hallucinatory visions of molestation and rape. A similar thing: white background, simple typography, and a pair of ominous hands over the female form.

They did a similar thing for Cul De Sac, about a recluse who lives on an island in the northeast of England alone with his beautiful young wife whose fantasy gets interrupted by two gangsters who have escaped from a heist gone wrong.

So the question is: why Poland? Why does this Poster School emerge in Poland during the late 1950s? Let me try to focus this a little bit. The area I'm particularly interested in is immediately after the war and leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of Communism. One sentiment—which has come up from discussions with Andrzej Żuławski, Barbara Baranowska, and many other people—is that the strength of Polish posters lies in the fact that they were produced in poverty; the fact that the means in which artists had to express themselves were so limited that they were forced to come up with ingenious solutions. It was this condition that has resulted in the interest of many of these posters.

Secondly, this aspect of Polish culture wasn't just limited for posters, it was an aspect of film. The use of real locations in, let's say for example, Andrzej Wajda's War Trilogy from the late 1950s. From theater, Jerzy Grotowski's so-called "poor theater", in which he renounced light, make-up, and all the conventions of normal theater. Also, documentary film, the so-called Czarna Seria, the Black Series, which took an uncompromising look at Polish reality. The one aspect that bound all of these art movements through the late 1950s and early 1960s was the poverty. This poverty had both an aesthetic quality—it was visually interesting—and was highly intelligent. It's these two qualities that mark out the Polish Poster School.

Just to recap: we're talking about the time when the Soviet Union still existed. Poland, of course, was part of the Eastern Bloc, which were countries that were not technically in the Soviet Union but under their influence. I'm looking specifically at Poland; but, that's not to say that the quality of posters was better than that taking place in Czechoslovakia, for example. There were many rich schools all around Eastern Europe for much the same reasons, but we're going to be looking only at Poland for this presentation.

The other thing is that there's something really interesting about the fact of posters as a form of advertisement—this was the time when everything was owned by the state—so their function was something slightly different. Let's look first at the historical context by which these posters came into existence. The first actuary of the Polish Communist Party during the 1950s was Bolesław Bierut. During his rule, the period between 1949 and 1955, the aesthetic norm in Poland was socialist realism. This wasn't a trend. This was the way the government insisted things should be represented in cinema, the visual arts, and in theater. It lasted roughly for this six-year period.

This is an example by an artist who would later become a key figure in the Polish Poster School, Wojciech Fangor, who is still alive and well and appearing in galleries in Warsaw. He was talking about Rothko's paintings a few weeks ago and, as you can see, this painting is about as far away from Rothko as you can possibly get. It's easy to laugh at these pictures as being kitsch and funny but the point is that their goal is not to be pretty; their goal is to be educative; their goal is to shape consciousness. This image has an obviously clear visual message. You don't have to be a professor to work out that the lady on the left is a woman of the West, a woman with material goods, and the lady on the right—with her incredibly muscular thick arms through years and years of manual labor—is a woman from the East.

This all started to change in 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin's crimes, along with his cult of personality, during his so-called "Secret Speech". One of the consequences of that was that Bierut died under mysterious circumstances—maybe suicide, maybe he was murdered—and Władysław Gomułka was enacted First Secretary of the Communist Party without the approval initially of Khrushchev. Nevertheless, Gomułka assured Khrushchev that Poland would be supportive of the Soviet Union and wouldn't be of trouble to them in the way that, say for example, Hungary had been in 1956. Gomułka became a figure known in the west and there was this relative period of liberalization in Poland, particularly in the visual arts. Socialist realism disappeared, Włodzimierz Sokorski—the Minister of Culture who implemented this aesthetic strategy—was dismissed, along with the Party's ideological leader Jakub Berman, and the consequences of that was a kind of mini-October, a cultural renaissance, which saw the emergence of the Polish school of filmmakers—Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Wojciech Jerzy Has (all of these classic films winning all sorts of prizes at Venice and Cannes in the late 1950s)—the Black Series of documentaries, and the Poster School.

It's important to remember that the function of the poster was essentially communication. It was a communication of cultural events as well as political ideas. It was, essentially, street art. Remember how grey the cultural landscape was at this point. Poland, and its capitol Warsaw, were ravaged by the Second World War. Warsaw was, in effect, a construction site and these posters were flashes of color. In addition to fulfilling their role of communication, these posters were a bit of color to brighten up a rather grey life.

In 1957, Konstanty Gordona directed Sztuka ulicy (Street Art, 1958), a documentary about Polish poster art. Interestingly, Street Art was written by a poster artist turned filmmaker named Walerian Borowczyk. He wrote it with who was then an aesthetic advisor within the Central Committee, a person who is still alive, Szymon Bojko. This was an educational film explaining what a poster is and what it does. There are elements of it that are quite funny, which date it, but still it's quite intelligent and—if you know Borowczyk's work—there's also another level of irony on top of that.

There were some film clips in the documentary from two films by Sergei EisensteinBattleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928)—and it's important to remember that at this point Eisenstein was still considered persona non grata, particularly in the Soviet Union. The second part of Ivan the Terrible (1946), which Stalin had problems with, had only just been released. It's interesting that they could use these examples in a Polish context if not maybe a Russian one. So there's an element of bravery about this documentary. Further, the documentary provides quite a showcase of the Polish Poster School, with examples from Lenica, Cieślewicz, among others, and I want to talk a little bit about them and what makes them special. After a period of five or six years in which Polish artists had to make graphic images that were in a Socialist realist straitjacket, it's important to remember that many of these artists were nonetheless familiar with western artists, not to mention Russian Constructivism. Both were aesthetics that were a problem at this point in time. It was like uncorking a bottle. Suddenly, all these influences by Picasso, Chagal, and Ernst manifested themselves in these Polish posters. Many of them were influenced by both Expressionism and Surrealism, and many of the techniques used in these posters, techniques that were fêted by the Surrealists and Dadaists—photomontage, collage—where utilized by who I consider to be the main representatives of the Polish Poster School: Henryk Tomaszewski, Roman Cieślewicz, Wojciech Fangor, Julian Palka, etc., etc.

Max Ernst was a strong influence, particularly on Borowczyk and Lenica. It's important to remember that both Borowczyk and Lenica were from Poznań in the west of Poland, which is obviously next to Germany, so there were a lot of German art books that they had access to. On top of that, Szymon Bojko, who co-wrote the documentary on poster art, told me of how he made Borowczyk and Lenica aware of the Dadaist John Heartfield; but, the big key influence—and to fans of Terry Gilliam and Monty Python this will ring a bell—is the surrealist experiment of creating new images from Victorian lithographs and prints. Max Ernst's collage book creating a story out of these things was a key influence on these posters and later animations. Ernst's work involved putting seemingly disparate elements together to create something fantastical and surrealistic. The Polish Poster School took this cue and found a visual way to express ideas.

One of the key people is Henryk Tomaszewski, who was of a slightly older generation than Borowczyk and Lenica, born in 1914. This poster is a perfect example of what the Polish Poster School was about. It's one of my favorites. In order to make sense of it, you need to know a little bit about the author. There are two elements to this poster: an ironing board and some fabric. On the fabric it says Witkacy, which was the nickname of the Polish writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, who was a dramatist, a writer, a philosopher, and a painter. The Teatr Studio was directed by a guy called Józef Szajna. Szajna had emerged from the plastic arts and moved into theater. He had taken texts of Witkiewicz and used them as the basis for a theater production. In Poland at this time the director's personality was so dominant that you couldn't really recognize the text from which this performance came from, and—in this poster by Tomaszewski—he pokes fun at this. It's a really good critique of the director as tyrant in theater at this point, particularly in the case of Szajna. The idea behind this poster is that you have Szajna's personality ironing out the essence of the text. So not only did the poster advertise the production, not only did it draw attention to Szajna's artistic personality or ego, but it was also a rather healthy critique with a strong element of humor. Also, of course, it's executed in a seemingly crude manner with pencils, crayons, paint.

Look at what Wojciech Fangor—whose painting we saw earlier of the Western woman on the left and the Socialist woman on the right—was doing when socialist realism was no longer a necessity; it's completely different with elements of photomontage and simple elements of color. It's one of my favorite posters and certainly one of the famous posters of the Polish Poster School for Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament, 1958). First and foremost, the colors—white and red—are the colors of the Polish flag. On top of that, the way the color is applied looks like it's been scrawled in blood. So there's an association of the Polish flag with blood. On top of that, you'll notice that there's no image, which recalls Kazimir Malevich and Russian Constructivism. This is one of the masterpieces of the Polish poster. It could have been made by a child, but in fact it was made by somebody who was highly intelligent, brilliant, poetic, full of meaning and purposely simple.

Borowczyk makes better animations and films than he does posters. His posters aren't all that great, with one or two exceptions, and this is one of them. This is his poster for The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957) by Ingmar Bergman. He uses a technique that was favored by such surrealists as Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer called decalcomania, which for those of you who don't know is where you put paint on glass, apply the glass to some paper, and either twist it or break it, or peel it off, to leave a random imprint. That's what Borowczyk has gone for here. It's quite interesting how the Polish Poster School used techniques and ideas that were the bedrock for the Modernist Art movement and manifested themselves in film posters, which is quite unique and which you don't see much of today.

One of the heroes of the Polish Poster School—certainly one of my heroes—is Roman Cieślewicz. I want to show you a clip from a BBC report of a big exhibition organized by the Royal College of Art in London three years ago on Cieślewicz's graphics, which not only puts Cieślewicz's work into context but also his influence today. One of the individuals interviewed in this BBC report is Andrzej Klimowski who is of Polish heritage, born in London, who has been working in England most of his life, although he did travel back to Poland in the 1970s to study in the studio of Henryk Tomaszewski. Klimowski has the best of both worlds: a background in England but, at the same time, an education in Poland. He told me a story once about how this special quality he had in his posters, this roughness, had really to do with the paper that he could only get in Communist Poland at the time. His greatest difficulty in making posters and graphics in the early 1980s was not having access to this crude paper in England so one of the main reasons he was going back and forth to Poland at the time was to get this shitty paper to bring back to London to make his wonderful collages.

If you're a Dario Argento fan, and you have Maitland McDonagh's book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (1991), you'll be familiar with Andrzej Klimowski's cover for that book, which is made up of red curtains, a big knife and a naked woman who is—in fact—Andrzej's wife. Klimowski has made some of the very best posters of the 1970s and—although my main interest is in the late '50s and early '60s—there were a number of poster artists who were continuing incredible work during the 1970s; Klimowski being one of them. Here is his montage poster for The Omen (1976), so simple yet so effective. This is montage in its purest sense: the juxtaposition of two elements for meanings. A demonic image drawn from a catalog of occult art along with the photo, which is not even a color photo, and is actually high contrast, crude, in simple black and white in both image and typography. It's a rather wonderful poster.

Jan Lenica is another fantastic artist. He collaborated on Borowczyk's early animations who later, like Cieślewicz, worked in the West, first in Paris, then in Germany. Now and again you open the Internet and you see hipsters compiling mountains of cool graphic art and most of the time it's not Cieślewicz; it's Lenica. He's a very contemporary artist exerting a strong influence on people. This is one of my favorite posters by Lenica created for Andrzej Wajda's Kanal (1957). The film is about the Warsaw Uprising and it involves members of the Polish resistance surviving by escaping through the sewers of Warsaw. Without spoiling the ending of Kanal, it's a pessimistic film; but, all the elements are there in Lenica's poster. Again, as with the Fangor poster, there's the red and the white. On top of that there's a depiction of a human form with a gun but with the lighting from above, suggesting underground. It's so simple and brilliant. The typography actually takes the form of a barrier. It could be barb wire and, if you watch the film, you'll realize it depicts the climax of the film. So effective.

One of the brilliant things that Borowczyk and Lenica did when they teamed up in 1957 was to follow up on Borowczyk's suggestion to Lenica that they take the essence of the Polish poster—this ability to express ideas in visual form without resorting to words—and push this in a cinematic direction. Borowczyk posed: Could they make films using this graphic language? In fact, that's what they both did in the late 1950s in Poland and then in the early 1960s in France (in the case of Borowczyk) and in Germany (in the case of Lenica). Here's a short animated film, just under 10 minutes, by Jan Lenica inspired by Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros , in which he doesn't resort in any way to the text. Basically, Lenica offers a visual summary of the play's whole contents. He's used this language which he has learned and mastered and applied it to telling a story. This is one of the major contributions of the Polish Poster School and why it is so important. It's a stepping stone towards a visual language, which is what I like to see as a cinema goer and which I'd like to see more of in cinema today. When you look at a short film like this one of Lenica's, it's concentrated pure cinema. It's also very funny.

I'd like to look now at two of the women involved in the Polish Poster School. The first is actually Jan Lenica's first wife from this period, Teresa Byszewska, and secondly Barbara Baranowska. The one thing Baranowska and Byszewska have in common is that they weren't really that prolific, which has probably contributed—moreso than sexism, let's say—to the fact that they aren't as well known as they should be. The language of Byszewska's posters is just as minimal, just as bold, and just as aggressive as many of her male counterparts.

 But I'd really like to focus on Baranowska's posters. This is one of the posters for See You Tomorrow (Do widzenia, do jutra, 1960) by Janusz Morgenstern, which is particularly interesting because Baranowska has a small cameo in this film. You can see many common elements with the other posters: a minimalism, a use of color, and the addition of simple elements to actually change or give meaning to—in this case—a simple photographic still.

Some of my favorite work of Baranowska's are her book jacket designs where you can see many common elements with Lenica's animations, primarily a seeming crudity. Klimowski once told me that the skill of a Polish poster artist was when—not having a pair of scissors to make a collage—didn't stop you; you simply tore the paper with your hands and used the rough edge of the tear as a strength. You didn't apologize for it. You made it an asset. You put it into the foreground.  Many of Baranowska's book jacket designs were for a Polish-Jewish writer Adolf Rudnicki, which she illustrated and there are elements in her illustrations that appear in many of her posters.

In addition to Lenica and Cieślewicz, Baranowska moved to the West in the late 1960s. She settled mostly in France where she often worked creating posters for Paramount films in France at the time, such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). It's interesting that Baranowski did many childrens books in Poland during the 1960s and she imports this language to her posters in France during this period.

Of course, Baranowska is most known for her poster for Andrzej Żuławski's Possession.

So just as a means of summary, in many ways the strength of the Polish poster was the fact that there was no sophisticated photographic means of printing as in Hollywood and England. The fact that posters were produced out of poverty, the fact that there were limited means, forced a degree of intelligence and the desire to find a visual language, a means to expressing a key image and adding elements to express the essence of what a film was about. What makes this period of graphic art so interesting—not only in Poland but in Czechoslovakia and Lithuania too—is the fact that you have a concentration; a visual means of expressing language and feelings. There's a danger that this quality of interest has been lost today as a consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the marketplace. We're seeing this visual language lost, not only as an aspect of globalization, corporate branding, and a consistency in marketing strategies in Poland, England, France and America to minimize costs and not intrude upon corporate identity. On top of that, there's no need to be this crude, what with the sophistication and slickness of contemporary advertising culture. This crudity is a quality nowadays often looked down upon but I don't think it should be looked down upon. It should be celebrated and a good place to start is posters by artists like Barbara Baranowska.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Annually each August Turner Classic Movies (TCM) literally provides stellar programming through its Summer Under the Stars daily focus on an individual "star", thereby accessing classic films in the way that most cinephiles arguably approach films: through their favorite personalities and celebrities.

This Friday, August 16, 2013, TCM places the spotlight on actress Ann Blyth. As John Charles has written for the TCM website: "Alternating between dramas and musicals, pretty Ann Blyth was already acting in elementary school and emoting on Broadway before she had even reached her teens. Discovered by Universal, she made some unremarkable films with that company before being borrowed by Warner Brothers and cast in their Joan Crawford vehicle Mildred Pierce (1945). As Crawford's brazenly ungrateful and downright evil daughter, Blyth made quite an impression and earned an Academy Award nomination. Although a serious back injury sidelined her for over a year, Blyth bounced back and excelled at MGM, which showcased her considerable singing skills in such glossy productions as Rose Marie (1954), The Student Prince (1954), and Kismet (1955). As the 1960s rolled around, she opted to mostly stay out of the limelight, devoting the majority of her time to a growing family, but did return briefly to stage and television work. Blyth made a lasting impression in Mildred Pierce, but with her beauty, lovely singing voice and solid dramatic ability, she gave several performances that rightfully earned her a place among the most talented leading ladies of the 1940s and '50s.

"Ann Marie Blyth was born in Mount Kisco, NY on Aug. 16, 1928 and from early childhood, she was interested in performing in one capacity or another. Her singing talent earned Blyth spots in San Carlo Opera Company productions of Carmen and La Boheme and she gained acting experience via radio work. She attended the Professional Children's School and by the ripe old age of 12, Blyth was polished enough to be awarded a role on Broadway in the long running drama Watch on the Rhine (1941-42). It would be Blyth's only Great White Way credit, but she also went on tour with the show and thanks to the qualities displayed in a Los Angeles presentation of Rhine, the teenager soon embarked on a whole new chapter in life.

"After her stage work had come to the company's attention, Blyth was put under contract by Universal Pictures and her film career was launched with roles in small budget musicals with titles like Chip Off the Old Block (1944) and The Merry Monahans (1944). However, her prospects brightened considerably when the studio loaned her out to Warner Brothers to appear in the sudsy melodrama Mildred Pierce (1945), where Blyth gave a bravura performance as a scheming, thoroughly amoral young woman who competes with her own mother (Joan Crawford) for the same man. For their brave performances, Crawford won her only Oscar and newcomer Blyth received a nomination for her strong, thoroughly convincing acting, assuring a quick ascent to stardom.

"Alas, during the production of Danger Signal (1945), Blyth broke her back in a tobogganing accident while on a break from filming. While she ultimately defied a professional prediction that she would never walk again, Blyth remained unable to act for over a year. By the time she returned to the screen in Brute Force (1947), some momentum had been lost, but the young actress continued to do laudable work in quality productions like the murder mystery A Woman's Vengeance (1948) and the comic fantasy Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), where she was a charming siren of the sea accidentally reeled in by William Powell. Blyth's contract with Universal concluded in 1952, but she soon found opportunities at MGM, where her vocal abilities were put to use in Rose Marie (1954), The Student Prince (1954), and Kismet (1955). By that point in the decade, MGM's brand of musical was falling out of favor with the public, but they still made good use of Blyth in other genres, like the adventure The King's Thief (1955) and the film noir Slander (1957).

"However, she turned out to be the wrong choice for the titular role in The Helen Morgan Story (1957). The largely fictionalized look at the celebrated songstress was considered to be something of a disappointment and critics felt that Blyth failed to impart Morgan's larger-than-life qualities. The actress was also not helped by the studio's decision to replace her vocals during the various songs with new performances by Gogi Grant. Blyth received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, but by that point, she had opted to leave her movie career behind. Aside from a handful of TV guest appearances, including a memorable 1964 outing on The Twilight Zone, and a return to the stage in revivals of perennials like Wait Until Dark and The King and I, she spent most of the ensuing years out of the limelight with her husband and five children. Blyth briefly resumed acting in the mid-1970s and, like a number of Golden Age stars, gave her final bow in an episode of Murder, She Wrote (CBS, 1984-96)."

Along with many of the films touched upon in John Charles' profile, TCM will be screening Mildred Pierce at 8:00PM (ET); 6:00PM (MT); 5:00PM (PT). As Stephanie Thames has detailed for the TCM website, "Joan Crawford's Oscar® winning performance as Mildred Pierce (1945), determined mother of the ever-ungrateful Veda (Ann Blyth), marked Crawford's debut at Warner Brothers after a long career at MGM. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce is a dark tale of thwarted desires and the American dream gone wrong. Art Director Anton Grot's sets exploited this theme and presented a visual interpretation of how the up-and-coming American middle class should live.

"Ironically, the film was made around the time Jack Warner asked the studio's cinematographers and art directors to 'devise new means of cutting corners without losing any of the quality.' Apparently there was concern that too much detail was being used in sets, which in turn, took more time to light and thus slowed up production. Despite this proclamation, Mildred Pierce suffered no loss of set detail. Beneath its noir lighting lay strikingly complex settings like the Beragon beach house. So essential to the plot that it opens the film, Beragon's home is a twisting maze of rooms and staircases that perfectly represent Grot's desire to build 'menace into the sets.' Ann Blyth, in the role of Veda Pierce, had previously played a few juvenile roles in innocuous fare like Babes on Swing Street (1944) before she got to sink her teeth into the plum role in Mildred Pierce. She is so convincingly evil, mean-spirited, and obnoxious in the role that her peers nominated her for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. There was nothing typical about Crawford's performance in Mildred Pierce. Not only was Oscar kind to her, but it revived her slowed career and led to Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), and later, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). In fact, Director Michael Curtiz had not even wanted Crawford for the role of Mildred, making her consent to a screen test. It seems he didn't like her trademark shoulder pads. After the success of Mildred Pierce, Curtiz and Crawford patched up their working relationship, and Joan gave her director a peace offering—a pair of custom made shoulder pads."

To honor the TCM Summer Under the Stars tribute to Ann Blyth and their screening of Mildred Pierce, I dipped back into The Evening Class vaults to recover my transcript of Blyth's June 2007 on-stage appearance at San Francisco's Castro Theatre where Blyth accompanied Mildred Pierce and engaged in an on-stage conversation with "czar of noir" and TCM guest host Eddie Muller.

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In his introduction to the evening's festivities, impresario Marc Huestis noted that—though the evening was an homage to Saint Joan—it was likewise an homage to Saint Ann. Appropriately enough, Blyth starred in a film entitled Sally and Saint Anne (1952). Prefacing his montage of film clips from Blyth's career, Huestis described the process of watching Blyth's movies as "lifting the petals of a very delicate flower." He praised Blyth's "beautiful versatility" and commended her "amazing amount of class", as well as singling out that Blyth's role as Veda Pierce Forrester was something of an anomaly for her. Blyth "mostly played the good girl", which Huestis qualified was harder to do than playing a bad girl.

In his own introduction to the movie, Eddie Muller commented that if James M. Cain were alive, he would not believe what was happening at the Castro Theatre that night. Muller characterized Cain as the architect of Noir City; the man responsible for what we consider to be film noir today. He started it by writing the books. He was a newspaper man from Maryland who moved to New York and decided to come West to California with great literary aspirations. Whether it was going to be writing screenplays or novels—he wasn't quite sure—but he knew that his destiny lay out in Southern California. He came up a crocker; nothing really transpired when he got to Hollywood. He wasn't very successful as a screenwriter and no great novels emerged from him. In near desperation Cain sent his publisher a nasty little novella called The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The Postman Always Rings Twice pretty much set the blueprint for what we now know as film noir. Cain followed that up with Double Indemnity. But thinking somehow that these terse, nasty, gritty little potboilers were somehow beneath the man of his extreme literary aspiration, in 1941 he wrote a novel called Mildred Pierce that he considered his great epic, his satire of capitalism and life in California. He had a great knack for writing fabulous women and Mildred Pierce was immediately snatched up by Warner Brothers to adapt into a movie. Joan Crawford was nowhere to be seen at this point and the project languished at Warner Brothers for a couple of years until Jerry Wald decided it was his time to make a mark as a producer. He had done a couple of things with Humphrey Bogart; Across the Pacific; Background to Danger with George Raft; but, Mildred Pierce was going to his big breakout movie.

Initially, they wanted Bette Davis to play the part of Mildred Pierce. Rosalind Russell was likewise considered, as were Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan. When Cain's Mildred Pierce came out, Joan Crawford was at MGM—her time had come and gone—or so it seemed. She ended up at Warner Brothers where she languished for two years waiting for a great part and—lightning in a bottle!—Jerry Wald finally decided, 'You know what? I'll go with Joan Crawford.' And there you have it. History was made. Muller gave Wald full credit for taking what was really not a noir novel and really not a crime story at all and pulping it up for the big screen. "That's what we love about Hollywood, right?" he quipped.

There was no murder committed in the novel Mildred Pierce. One of the first things Jerry Wald told Ranald MacDougall, the screenwriter, was: 'Let's do this kind of like Double Indemnity', which Muller assured would be easy to see. The flashbacks are all over the place and there's a great opening scene that is so totally noir that it almost defines what noir is. "A lot of you," Muller stated, "will still say, 'But it isn't really truly noir because there's no femme fatale.' To which I say, 'You must be crazy!' This movie has the most vicious, evil, mean-spirited femme fatale in the history of movies and it's so sick because her victim is her own mother. So without further ado, I give you what I think is the greatest melodrama ever made in Hollywood. Ladies and gentlemen, Mildred Pierce!"

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After the screening of Mildred Pierce, Ann Blyth joined Eddie Muller on stage. Her smile was radiant as she received adoring applause. Once it subsided, she started right in on Veda Pierce Forrester: "Who was that character?!!" Since transcribing their onstage conversation for The Evening Class (parts one and two), Marc Huestis posted his video recording of the event on his YouTube channel, which captures the excitement of her Castro appearance.

Shortly after the Castro Theatre event, TCM created an interstitial with Ann Blyth wherein she commented on Joan Crawford.