Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stars of the Stands: Classic Hollywood at the Kentucky Derby Museum

We jaunted off to Louisville, Kentucky, last week for a few days' respite from the holiday blues, hoping to recapture our enchantment with the city from a previous visit years before. While this year's trip had its hits and misses, one unexpected treat was an exhibit about classic Hollywood and the Kentucky Derby at the Kentucky Derby Museum. The exhibit, called "Stars of the Stands," included photographs and movie clips that demonstrated the long standing fascination of Tinseltown types with the glamorous gambling at Churchill Downs.

The exhibit introduced its topic by talking about the simultaneous growth of the Derby and Hollywood in the 1930s, when actors and studio heads began to flock to the Kentucky Derby in greater numbers. The allure was partly the spectacle and the chance to be seen by reporters and the public, but the interest of the stars and the moguls also led to movies being made about the Derby and horse racing in general. At the same time, the adoration of celebrities for jockeys helped to make the jockeys themselves into celebrities.

Stars featured in the exhibit included Joe E. Brown, Ann Sheridan, Bob Hope, and Jayne Mansfield, all of whom attended the Derby. According to Jim Bolus, author of the book, Derby Fever, Brown was a regular Derby attendee who liked to joke that the Kentucky Derby was his "favorite charity." Photos depicted stars watching the race, celebrating or lamenting their gambling luck, and hobnobbing with favorite jockeys, trainers, and owners.

In a small theater area, a string of newsreel clips revealed dozens of other stars at the Derby, from Claudette Colbert to Ronald Reagan (although by the time he was shown attending Reagan had already moved on to politics). Movie clips showed bits of pictures with a local racing angle like In Old Kentucky (1935), starring Will Rogers, and Kentucky (1938), starring Loretta Young, Richard Greene, and Walter Brennan, Other movies about horse racing in general also got some play, including Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937), starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. There were also shorts on display, with Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen turning up for At the Races (1934). Among the featured cartoons were Gallopin' Gals (1940) and the Goofy short, They're Off (1948).

While the exhibit constituted only a small part of the Kentucky Derby Museum, it was really fascinating to see how the history of the race had influenced and been impacted by Golden Age Hollywood. It's always fun to discover a tribute to classic movies and their stars where you don't expect it, and the Stars of the Stands exhibit elevated my experience at the museum and made it even more memorable. If you happen to visit Louisville anytime soon, do drop by the Kentucky Derby Museum and enjoy the Stars of the Stands as well as the many other excellent exhibits.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Scenes from a LEGO Western

If you have been reading this blog much over the years, you know that I love classic Westerns. I grew up watching them with my father and grandfather, and I've always had a nostalgic love for the Old West. You also know that I love LEGO and am an active member of a large LEGO hobby club for adults. For our show this weekend at a local science museum I decided to combine those passions and create a Wild West LEGO display. Here are a few photos of the results!

Plenty of classic Westerns focus on the cattle drive, so I've got one going on in my display. Two cowboys and their dog are driving the herd across the desert frontier, but it looks like they've found a good watering hole. In the background you can spot the Lone Ranger and Tonto off to save the day and Stinky Pete the Prospector mining for gold.

Western towns are rough and tumble places, but the Sheriff's office looks popular. Of course, if the sheriff gets thirsty, he's right next to the saloon. I wonder if it's John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, or Gary Cooper wearing the badge in there? Maybe one day I'll recreate Destry Rides Again or My Darling Clementine.

The gunfighter is more spaghetti Western than Hollywood. He's definitely a tough character, but I think the sheriff can take him. I also have robot cowboys to stage a Westworld shootout later on!

If you like the LEGO movie stuff, you might also have a look at my LEGO Dracula post. There are a couple of tributes to classic film noir, too.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU (1948)

The buoyant charm of Esther Williams drives all of her musical comedies, but some work better than others, and On an Island with You (1948) mostly sinks rather than swims. Its plot, in which an obsessed fan demonstrates his passion for a movie star by kidnapping her, disturbs and confounds, especially since it's played off as romantic fun, with Peter Lawford as the relentless admirer who bribes his way into getting close to the object of his obsession. A vague, stagy Pacific Island setting does little to enhance the picture, although it showcases the figures of Williams and Cyd Charisse in skimpy sarongs. With all its flaws, On an Island with You is definitely not the first Esther Williams picture anyone should see, but it offers some modest compensations in the presence of suave Ricardo Montalban and a funny, sentimental performance by vaudeville veteran Jimmy Durante.

Williams plays Hollywood star Rosalind Reynolds, who is shooting a picture on location in the Pacific Islands with her costar and fiance, Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban). When a young Navy lieutenant, Larry Kingslee (Peter Lawford), is brought on set as a consultant, he pursues Rosalind in spite of her refusal of him and her engagement to another man. Eventually, Larry makes off with Rosalind and carries her to a remote island, where the natives prevent their departure by stealing parts from their plane. The kidnapping throws the movie production into chaos, with assistant director Buckley (Jimmy Durante) torn between his desire to rescue Rosalind and his friendship with Larry. Meanwhile, Rosalind's costar, Yvonne (Cyd Charisse), pines for the attention of Ricardo, both onscreen and off.

Lawford's performance is not particularly compelling in a role that would be difficult to pull off for any actor, but the more serious problem with the movie is its reliance on a frankly sexist and creepy plot. The message here is that "no" might actually mean "yes" if the man just doesn't give up, even when his attentions cross the border from merely annoying to criminal. In a thriller or a horror movie this kind of plot can be very effective, but as a driver for romance it's wildly inappropriate. Williams' heroine collapses into a rapid case of Stockholm Syndrome, even lying to protect Larry from the consequences of his own inexcusable actions. In spite of some paternalistic posturing toward the end of the movie, Ricardo Montalban's character still seems preferable to Lawford's wooden stalker fan, and Montalban at least has some chemistry with Williams and a hefty dose of sex appeal.

The scenes with Montalban and Williams provide some relief from the awkward thrust of the narrative, and the swimming duets are particularly interesting, with the pair performing an aquatic courtship of synchronized strokes. Cyd Charisse has several energetic dance numbers that break up the action, and Xavier Cugat and his orchestra are also on hand to distract us from the dreadful plot with lively musical interludes. Cugat also has a running gag involving a tiny Chihuahua and Jimmy Durante, which is cute even though it has nothing to do with either the central story or the movie within the movie. Durante turns out to be the best thing about the picture; his character, Buckley, is both funny and sympathetic, a sadder and a wiser clown whose glory days are far behind him. His musical numbers hark back to vaudeville days, but he also gives the story its only sincere moments. He might not be as young and handsome as either of the leading men, but he's far more likable, even if he also lets Lawford's character get away with outrageously bad behavior.

Be sure to note young Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Disney's Alice and Wendy, as the very British Penelope Peabody. For better outings with Esther Williams, see Bathing Beauty (1944), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and Dangerous When Wet (1953). Richard Thorpe, who directed On an Island with You, is best remembered for Ivanhoe (1952) and Jailhouse Rock (1957), but he also made silent Westerns in the 1920s and Tarzan serials in the 1930s and 40s. Peter Lawford is more fun to watch in Easter Parade (1948), while Ricardo Montalban flexes his noir muscles in Border Incident (1949). See more of Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953) and Brigadoon (1954), and catch Jimmy Durante spoofing Harpo Marx in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).