4 Living Legends Part 5

Here is another entry in our ongoing series of Classic Hollywood Stars who are still with us. This is an effort to acknowledge living legends who are well-deserving of our appreciation.

Marsha Hunt (1917-)

Marsha Hunt is one of Classic Hollywood’s amazing centenarians. Before having her career sabotaged by the Hollywood Blacklist in the age of McCarthyism she showed surprising utility in a range of pictures including Pride and Prejudice (1940), Kid Glove Killer (1942), Cry Havoc (1943),  and most memorably in Raw Deal (1948).

Eva Marie Saint (1924-)

Aside from starring in such perennial classics as On The Waterfront (1954) and North by Northwest (1959), she was also married to her husband Jeffrey Hayden for over 60 years, until his passing in 2016.

Angela Lansbury (1925-)

With her starring lead as amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, it’s sometimes easy to forget how early Angela Lansbury started her career in Hollywood. Some of her wide-ranging performances included Gaslight (1944), Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1970), and, of course, Beauty and The Beast (1991).

Sidney Poitier (1927-)

There is so much to be said about Sidney Poitier’s impact on American cinema and representation of African-American masculinity. His catalog is still staggering to this day going beyond high profile successes from ’67 like In The Heat of The Night, To Sir With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. No Way Out (1950), Defiant Ones (1958), Paris Blues (1961), Lillies of The Field, and A Patch of Blue (1965) are all worth searching out, among many others.

Paris Blues (1961)

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I’m the first to admit I’m no jazz connoisseur but I dig it. In this age that we now live in of shuffling and song roulette — where the single has surged passed a cohesive album in terms of singular importance — there has been some small amount of education going on for me.

Awareness of some of the classics is starting to set in. There’s recognition of a few of the heavy hitters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and of course Duke Ellington. When we hear even the briefest interludes of “Take The A Train” we will grab a hold of it. Ellington provided the score for Paris Blues including some of his beloved classics and they couldn’t be more fitting.

Because Martin Ritt’s film is hot when it comes to jazz — you can feel it wafting through the air and giving an added layer of sensuality to the already romantic milieu of the Parisian streets. This is a propitious factor married with the fact the picture also takes its shoot right to the streets of Paris, even filling out the cast with a few native supporting players.

Less than a decade before, we had Roman Holiday (1953) and now we have something that might just do the same for France, except with an extra flavoring of brass and a rhythm section. The cast couldn’t be better with two of Ritt’s former students from their Actor’s Studio days, power couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Equally compelling is another legendary leading man in Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll as beautiful and sophisticated as ever. I admire them all.

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However, in translating the source material to the silver screen, you could easily say the story lost most of its clout. Harold Flender’s original novel was about two interracial romances between two vacationing Americans and two expatriate jazz musicians working in Paris. However, this was Hollywood in 1961. Although the script teases the original storyline when Ram Bowen (Newman) comes onto Connie Lampson (Carroll) on an inbound train, it was not meant to be — quickly brushed off for more conventional demarcations.

Believing the public was still not ready for such portrayals, the studio got cold feet and smoothed things out by making sure everyone ended up with their “kind.” It’s Lillian Corning (Woodward) who gets starstruck with the trombone player and her friend eventually softens to the handsome saxophonist Eddie Cook (Poitier).

Acknowledging this grievance, the only thing that makes me mildly okay with the change is that the husband and wife duo of Newman and Woodward get paired opposite each other so we see real-life romance partially channeled into the movie. While the four leads look great together and there’s indubitable chemistry, somehow it still feels like something is missing.

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Louis Armstrong leading a parade of brass into the jazz club is a shining moment full of uninhibited synergy that fills up the underground space in the most joyous of fashions. As he always does, Wild Man Moore brings down the house. But the real issue is the lack of pizzazz outside these performances.

The story meanders without creating enough interludes ripe with meaning. They’re either cutesy momentary snapshots of lovebirds in Paris or understated pieces of human drama. Not by any means bad but what the picture might have used were some sustained sequences of action in places where it floundered. Most vividly I can recall the Vespa ride through the streets or even the party which is raided by the local police which helped make Roman Holiday a landmark.

There is nothing so memorable here. Instead, some characters leave on the train they arrived on and others stay behind. Musical aspirations and romance are continuously being weighed. Whether we care that deeply about any of it is up for debate.

Worst of all, these issues are only exasperated by the fact that the story no longer has one of Martin Ritt’s finest attributes, a theme of social importance. Because in a Pre-Civil Rights age, Paris Blues could have been a much more moving statement; instead, it’s a middling love story.

Poitier gets one conversation with Carroll where he candidly vocalizes that in Paris he’s a man or he’s a musician. To borrow someone else’s words, “he’s judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character” and even more so by his artistry. It spawns a minor spat but the opportunity to make a statement — a statement without the utterance of words even — was lost before it even began. Perhaps the wasted potential hurts more than anything. Like the musicians at its core, Paris Blues is ultimately a lightweight.

3/5 Stars

No Way Out (1950)

220px-No_Way_Out_(1950_film)_posterI had a preconceived notion that No Way Out might be the kind of social drama that was groundbreaking for its day and by today’s standards looks mundane and quaint. 65 years have passed and this film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz still packs a wallop, believe it or not. We are blessed with the first major role for screen icon Sidney Poitier as young doctor Luther Brooks. His main antagonist is Richard Widmark playing a racist scumbag like he does best, and Linda Darnell also gives a key performance, although her career would soon be on the decline.

The film opens with the young interning doctor — Poitier was only 22 at the time –getting ready for a night shift. His first customers just happen to be Johnny and Ray Biddle, who both got it in the leg after a botched robbery attempt. At first glance, their wounds look superficial, but Luther notices Johnny is disoriented. His diagnosis is a brain tumor so he tries to administer a spinal tap which ends up unsuccessful, partially due to Ray’s constant berating. But Ray has no sympathy; all he knows is that this black doctor has killed his brother. A white doctor could have saved him and all his prejudiced beliefs of blacks are confirmed. At least that’s what he tells himself in his narrow little mind.  Luther even goes to his superior Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), and although he cannot be absolutely certain, he maintains confidence in Luther’s competence.

nowayout1Again that bears little importance to Ray and he will not grant them the opportunity to do an autopsy. After all, his mind is already made up. So the next best thing is to track down Johnny’s former wife Edie (Darnell), who has pulled herself out of the gutter which is Beaver Canal and made a modest living for herself. They want her help, and unbeknownst to them, she does go see Ray. You can see it in how they interact with each other. She was Johnny’s wife once, but there was something between them and Ray won’t let her forget it. That’s undoubtedly why she wanted to get away, but Ray brings out the worst in her. Even as they speak, her racist sentiments come bubbling to the surface. It’s in her veins after all. It doesn’t help that unrest is building in the city. A riot is at hand and the slow build-up leading to the imminent rumble is boiling with tension. Mankiewicz does something important here. He shows both perspectives. I cannot help but think some things have not changed a whole lot over the years. Black vs. white. The same racism. The same belligerence. The same lack of understanding.

nowayout2Of course, after that is all done, that still does not wrap things up with Ray. He still has to settle a score with Luther and he uses Edie against her will. They set a trap at the home of Dr. Wharton for the unsuspecting Luther, and this scene has vital importance to the film, not simply because Biddle and Brooks come face to face once more. This is the scene where Edie must make a choice. Really it’s the universal choice. Stand passively by as injustice is being done or take a stand against it.

So you can make your own diagnosis, but this was not a superficial message movie. It hits fairly hard. I was even surprised by how often Ray Biddle lets the N-word fly. It completely fit Widmark’s characterization, but the production codes allowed it. Supposedly the actor apologized profusely after many of his scenes with Poitier, but his performance is nevertheless potent. It’s certainly convicting and we cannot be too quick to find fault with any of these characters because, truth be told, we all have some apathy and narrow-mindedness stuck inside our skulls. No Way Out is a striking reminder of that.

4/5 Stars

To Sir, With Love (1967)

To-sir-with-loveStarring Sidney Poitier and set in London, the plot follows a former architect from British Guiana who becomes a teacher at a high school in a tough area. Early on Mark Thackeray faces a rebellious group of teenagers who dislike education and challenge authority whenever possible. He resolves to keep his temper and yet one day their actions are too vulgar for him and he loses it.

After that he develops a new strategy to treat them as adults and he teaches them practical skills they will need in the real world. He changes how they act and takes them on field trips so that even the most combative one Denham is won over. However, after an incident during gym class which he must diffuse, Thackeray loses the respect of much of the class. His mood changes slightly after receiving another job offer.

Later on in the gym class he is supervising he boxes with Denham. In the ensuing moments he wins Denham and then everyone else over once more. With the year finally over, Thackeray is invited to the year end dance where he is given a gift and serenaded with song (To Sir, With Love by Lulu)! Too choked up to speak he retreats to his office. After a chance encounter he resolves to continue teaching and rips up the other offer.

Besides a good theme in “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney Potier gives a great performance that makes this film both powerful and touching. If you want a small look into Swinging London this is one to watch. Although I am tempted to find fault in this film I find myself focusing on the positives and I will leave it at that.

4/5 Stars

Lilies in the Field (1963)

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Lilies_of_the_FieldStarring Sidney Poitier, the film opens with a black construction worker who has an overheated car in the middle of a desert. He spots at the residence of some European nuns to get water. Homer is intent on making a quick pit stop but the mother superior has other ideas. She sees him as a gift form God so that their Chapel might be built. He reluctantly decides to stick around for a little while to help them out and teach them some English. The stubborn Mother Superior wants everything her way and Homer ends up leaving them. Although he realizes he will not get paid, Homer’s ambition to be an architect leads him to eventually start the Chapel for the nuns. He takes on a part time job and starts the undertaking while the nuns request materials. Soon the locals want to help but Homer is adamant that he do everything. Eventually they do join in and more materials come. Progress picks up and Homer becomes the foreman. The building is finally put up and yet the proud Mother will not thank Homer. That night she is finally tricked into thanking him and Homer leads them in a spiritual one last time before driving off into the night. This film is a battle of sorts between two strong-willed people. In the end it brings a great deal of good.

4/5 Stars

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

d69d4-raisin_in_the_sun_1961_poster_horizontal_bStarring Sidney Poitier and adapted from a stage play, the film chronicles the lives of an African American family residing in Chicago. The whole family including the matriarch, her unsatisfied son, his wife, his son, and his sister wait excitedly for an insurance check for $10,000. The mother receives the money and resolves to use it in order to buy a nice home for her family in a white community. She then gives the rest to her son who has big plans for it. However, he loses it all leaving the family bitter and worried. In the end Walter does show his integrity and despite the bad situation, the family remains close. A great deal of this film is about the conflict of ideas and interests of the different individuals. It is also memorable since the cast is almost all African American. Poitier is good but it seems the mother steals the show.
 
4/5 Stars
 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

ff836-guess_who27s_coming_to_dinner_posterThis film directed by Stanley Kramer, has a relatively simple story line revolving around a major issue. Joanna Drayton has fallen in love with a doctor she met only 10 days before and wishes to get married. Obviously, her parents played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, are startled by this whirlwind event. They are even more dismayed when they discover he is a black man. Hepburn’s character lightens to the idea while her husband is adamantly against it. Soon everything becomes even more complicated when the man’s parents are invited to dinner, only to be equally startled. Eventually giving it more thought, Tracy does condone the marriage realizing how much his daughter is in love. This would be Tracy’s final film and he would die only a couple weeks after shooting ended. He and Hepburn do a wonderful job with Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hougton as well. This movie is good and also monumental for the racial issue it covered.

4/5 Stars

Happy Birthday Sidney Poitier!

Happy 86th Birthday to Sidney Poitier! Mr. Poitier was one of the first prominent African-American leading actors and he was the first black man to win a best actor Oscar which he achieved in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. His filmography includes such classics as The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, A Patch of Blue, To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He often played strong and intelligent characters that broke the accepted stereotypes of the time. He truly was a pioneer in acting and one of the great screen legends.

12 Angry Men (1957)

34a39-12_angry_men12 Angry Men is a very intriguing film, that begins with a jury that is 11 to 1 in favor of giving the death penalty to a young boy. In this ensemble cast headed by Henry Fonda (the one unsure man), tempers flare as the heat rises. By the end this lone juror finally wins over the opinions of the others through discussion. The cast is a wonderful mixture of veteran and young actors, with everything in between. The cast includes Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, John Fiedler, and Jack Klugman. However there are no women or black jurors because this film was made back in 1957. Aside from that, it has a great story which takes place almost entirely in one room. In this way it is much like another classic and favorite of mine, Rear Window. Get ready to fight it out with every word and piece of evidence in 12 Angry Men.

5/5 Stars

 

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

19363-in_the_heat_of_the_night_filmWith an interesting conflict between two policemen, one white and one black, In the Heat of the Night is a thrilling crime film. Rod Steiger delivers a wonderful performance as the common place and prejudiced officer who heads a southern police force. Things do no start off well when a policeman from Philadelphia, Mr. Tibbs (Poitier) is accused of murder simply because of his race. Only afterwards do they learn he is a highly respected detective. Because they need help, they reluctantly ask for his assistance. Tibbs must learn how to deal with the prejudice while Gillespie (Steiger) must curb his own racism. Over the course of the film, the two men face opposition but they stick with it to see the case through. When the crime is finally solved, Tibbs is about to leave and Gillespie with a new-found respect tells him to come back sometime. In an age where racism was still a tremendous problem, this film combated the issue and created something very special in the process.

5/5 Stars