Archive for the ‘TV and Film History’ Category

For the Love of Film (Noir): Ready for Her Closeup

Monday, February 14th, 2011

This post is my contribution to an internet event hosted by two wonderful blogs, Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren. Last year the two collaborated on their first film-preservation blogathon, For the Love of Film. This year, they are focusing in on Film Noir. This dark (in more ways than one) film genre features paranoid heroes, shady ladies, and fateful drama.
Funds donated by clicking on this link (you KNOW you need to do it!) will go to the Film Noir Foundation. Donors are eligible for prizes, but the real prize is getting to help restore the 1950 film The Sound of Fury—and to read all the great posts the blogathon is attracting.
When Ferdy and the Siren announced that they were devoting this year’s blogathon to Film Noir, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to come up with a film to write about. To be frank, I’m not a noir girl. As a sometime intellectual I appreciate films noirs aesthetically, but as an eternal movie fan I like to identify with characters in films, particularly female characters.
Most noir female protagonists, while interesting, are hard to identify with. They’re too busy being femmes fatales, often literally. 

And then I remembered Norma Desmond, who taught me a lot about the way we relate to films—and about the aging process.

Norma Desmond is the iconic heroine (I see her as a heroine, anyway) of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. Played with studied camp and seemingly effortless glamour by Gloria Swanson, Norma is a relic of a recent (in 1950) but almost forgotten (also in 1950) facet of Hollywood’s history, the silent-film industry.
When sound film came along, many performers’ careers were finished. And so it was that the premise of the film–that a woman of 50 who had been an enormous star 20 years earlier was now almost forgotten–could be believable.
Wilder took advantage of that believability by casting several silent-film greats as Norma Desmond’s bridge-playing cohorts; the film’s younger, irreverent narrator, Joe Gillis (William Holden), refers to them as her “Wax Works.” Swanson herself hadn’t been in a successful film in many years, although she had kept busy on the stage.
Norma Desmond deals with her exile from stardom by denying it, by trying to live as much as possible in the past. She fastens on to Joe, an out-of-work screenwriter, as a possible vehicle for her comeback (she actually prefers the word “return”).  

She hires Joe to revamp the script she hopes will re-launch her career and soon turns him into a kept man ensconced in her fading old mansion.

Joe grows more and more resentful, and Norma grows more and more delusional. Norma’s final murder of Joe is no surprise since it is previewed in the film’s opening shots. Nevertheless, Wilder managed to make the film’s ending sad, haunting, and more than a little scary.
When I first saw Sunset Boulevard I was about 20. I already had a major crush on William Holden and tended to see the film through his character’s eyes. To the young me Norma Desmond was a frightening old witch, and I rooted for Joe Gillis to end up with the more age-appropriate Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson).
A reader at a studio, Betty criticizes Joe’s newest screenplay early in the film. Viewers later learn that she is harsh because she believes he has potential. The two end up collaborating on a screenplay late at night when Norma is asleep. Betty says she wants to work on the screenplay because she is ambitious, but she doesn’t want to work on it without Joe, with whom she is obviously smitten. 

She is presented as the anti-Norma, young and interested in promoting Joe (a traditional feminine attitude) rather than herself. She allows herself to be kissed by Joe rather than reaching out to grab him as Norma does.

Norma says she is in love with Joe, but she wants him to bolster her ego and her career; his career is of secondary interest to her (if it is of interest at all).
When the young me watched Sunset Boulevard, she asked all the “what if” questions about Joe that the film encourages: what if Joe had gotten away from Norma; what if he had become a good, honest screenwriter; and so forth.
I saw Sunset Boulevard again in a film class when I was in my early 30s, as part of a discussion of classical Hollywood narrative. I found myself crying at the picture’s end.
I wasn’t crying for poor dead Joe, however. I was crying for poor live Norma. And I cry for her now each time I see the film.
I admit that the character has major flaws. She is vain, selfish, prone to emotional blackmail, and ultimately insane. Nevertheless, as another memorable Billy Wilder character later said, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Betty’s major appeal is that she is 22 years old. Anybody can be 22—or at least, just about everybody is 22 at some time or other.
Norma is hardworking, talented (she is luminescent in the scenes from her silent-film work projected in her living room, real footage of Swanson in the unfinished film Queen Kelly), and barely middle aged.
The scene in which she sails in to the Paramount Pictures lot to confer with her former director, Cecil B. DeMille, is touching. She meets several of the “little people” with whom she used to work—a security guard, an electrician, a hairdresser—and one gets a sense of what the young Norma Desmond might have been like. 

DeMille’s character describes her as “a plucky little girl of seventeen, with more courage and wit and heart than ever came together in one youngster.”

The older Norma may have lost some of her wit(s). She still has a lot of courage, if not quite enough to face what has become of her stardom and her audience. And she exhibits all too much heart.
It’s a tribute to the power of film—to the power of a good film, anyway—that I can relate to different characters and different storylines at different ages. 

Perhaps when I’m 65 or so I’ll identify with Max von Mayerling, Norma’s butler, who is also her ex-husband and former film impresario. In a sense Max is the most selfless person in the film, since he lives only to give Norma Desmond what she wants.

Or maybe I won’t identify with him. I’ve never been completely selfless.
Moreover, it’s hard not to remember that Max is played by Eric von Stroheim, whose reputation went a little overboard in the NON-selfless direction.
According to Billy Wilder, this egotistical, autocratic former film director threatened to sue the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for nominating him as best supporting actor in Sunset Boulevard because he COULD NEVER BE a supporting player. (Wilder may have made the story up, but it’s plausible.)
We’ll see how the film strikes me when I hit 65.
In any case, I urge readers to watch the film again (or for the first time) and tell me whom they identify with.
On to a recipe……
I thought long and hard about recipe choice for this post. I might have selected something organic and vegetarian; Gloria Swanson was a noted health-food enthusiast and an early proponent of local, organic foods. 

I almost made the biscuits in this 1933 recipe (if you can call it that;it’s just cheese added to biscuits), which a Bisquick recipe booklet claimed was a Swanson favorite.

In the end I decided to honor Film Noir as a whole with a Valentine’s Day adaptation of the classic Icebox Cake. One if the visual signatures of many films noirs is a series of bars across the screen (often across actors’ faces) that symbolize the shadows that hover over the doomed characters, and the prisons that many film-noir protagonists create for themselves. 

When sliced at an angle, icebox cakes create lovely black-and-white lines that evoke the bars.

You can follow the growing tally of participants in this blogathon by checking out the lists at Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren. And PLEASE don’t forget to donate to the Film Noir Foundation!

Film Noir Torte
Adapted from Nabisco
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
several tablespoons framboise or Chambord (raspberry liqueur)
1/2 pint raspberries (more if you like and can afford them!)
1 package (9 ounces) Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers (these flat, round chocolate cookies are difficult but not impossible to find; just ask around at area grocery stores)
Whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Fold in the vanilla and liqueur.
Gently crush 2/3 of the raspberries and fold them carefully into 1/2 of the flavored whipped cream. Reserve the remaining whipped cream.
Spread about 1-1/2 tablespoons of the raspberry/cream mixture onto a wafer. Top it with another wafer. Stack them standing up until you have 9 or 10 wafers; then gently lay the stack on its side on a serving plate. Repeat, adding to the horizontal stack, until you have used up the remaining wafers.
Cover the log of stacks with the remaining whipped cream.
Refrigerate, gently covered, for at least 4 hours.
Remove from the fridge just before serving and garnish the torte with the remaining raspberries. Slice diagonally so that black-and-white bars appear. 

Nabisco’s original recipe says its cake serves 14; in my family, it served 8 to 10.

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How to Milk a Carnation: The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

TV premiere week has come and gone. Veni, video, vici, as they used to say at MTV.
I am not unhappy with this season’s televised offerings. Nevertheless, I would trade any (perhaps all) of the shows currently on the air for a few episodes of Burns and Allen.
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show celebrates its diamond anniversary today. It debuted on CBS on October 12, 1950.
George Burns and Gracie Allen were hardly strangers to entertainment when their television program went on the air.
The two had worked together for almost 30 years in vaudeville, in films, and on the radio—and each went through years of show-business experience separately before their meeting in 1922 (or 1923; accounts vary).
In some ways, the basics of their act had barely changed over the years. As always, Gracie played a “dumb Dora” character whose reworking of facts and words amused audiences. As her straight man George cued audiences on how to interpret her zaniness.
Nevertheless, the pair incorporated a few changes into their television show, which was written by George Burns himself along with an experienced stable of writers.
First, George’s character steps out of the action of the show to address the audience and comment on the plot. He is part stage manager, part actor, part Greek chorus, part narrator, and part master of ceremonies.
Second, the pair played “themselves,” celebrity performers George Burns and Gracie Allen, living in Beverly Hills, California, not just characters named George and Gracie.
Eventually, their son Ronnie joined the cast as himself. Their announcer (first Bill Goodwin and later Harry Von Zell) played their announcer, who extols the virtues of the sponsors’ products, most notably Carnation Evaporated Milk. 

Gracie is always fascinated by the idea of getting milk from carnations.

Early on in the series, George’s narrator observes that the show has “more plot than a variety show and not as much as a wrestling match.” In fact, the plot is generally set off by one of Gracie’s misunderstandings—or, as I like to call them, reinterpretations–of a situation.
The plot is resolved when it is time to end the episode, often in a rather cursory manner. For example, George once settles a court battle by informing the judge that he will never work on The Burns and Allen Show again if he doesn’t wind up the case in a hurry.
A fairly typical plot comes in an episode titled “We’re Not Married” in which Gracie and her loyal friend Blanche Morton (played by Bea Benaderet) have just seen the Ginger Rogers film of that title. It revolves around the discovery by a number of couples that the judge who married them several years earlier forgot to renew his license.
Gracie observes that the judge in the movie (played by Victor Moore) looks like the judge who married her to George—and promptly jumps to the conclusion that she and George have never really been married.
When George informs her that Victor Moore didn’t marry them, she only responds, “Why didn’t you tell me then? I could have spent our honeymoon looking for a husband.”
George tries a number of tricks to get Gracie to believe that they are legitimately married, eventually importing his best man, Jack Benny, to argue his case.
A bare plot synopsis doesn’t capture the magic of Burns and Allen. I could give you many reasons for watching it and, I hope, loving it. Here are three.
First, despite—or perhaps because of—the decades Burns and Allen spent working with similar material, the couple’s performances are amazingly fresh. George Burns is obviously having the time of his life. And Gracie Allen is such a strong actress that her character’s “illogical logic” comes across as authentic and rather sweet.
Second, the program presents a delightfully egalitarian view of marriage. George’s character never talks down to Gracie—or if he does, he regrets it. Their marriage, like their ongoing vaudeville routine, is one long conversation between people who may not always understand each other but clearly always love, respect, and enjoy each other.
Finally, I love the way Burns and Allen explores the push-pull between narration and language, between linear thinking and intuition.
George’s straight man/narrator should be in control of the plot; he has many more lines than Gracie and knows far more about what is going on in each episode than she does. He works hard to entertain viewers.
Nevertheless, Gracie’s character derails every single plot (and delights every viewer) with absolutely no visible work, simply by being herself and challenging the meaning of a few words. George’s reassertion of the logic of narrative at the end of each episode never has the power of Gracie’s disruptions of the plot and their life. And linearity never quite rules. 

Gracie Allen’s health and a desire to live a quiet life after years of nonstop work led her to retire in 1958. Her heart gave out in 1964. It took George Burns years to regain a foothold in the entertainment world without her. He finally made it as a solo artist in 1975, when he won an Academy Award for playing an elderly vaudeville veteran in The Sunshine Boys.

Anecdotes about his late wife and the daffy character she played continued to pepper his stand-up work and the books he wrote until he died in 1996, having just fulfilled his ambition to turn 100.
It’s hard to determine the accuracy of any of those anecdotes. In the foreword to George Burns’s book I Love Her, That’s Why, his pal Jack Benny wrote:
Some of the episodes [related by George] I’m sure are true. Some of them will have a basis of truth and then will develop into the damndest lies you have ever read…. Sometimes at a party when [George] is telling a long story about me, he is so convincing that I have to take him into the other room and say, “Did that really happen to me?” He says, “Of course not. It was Harpo Marx, but Harpo isn’t here and you are. 

In the case of George Burns and Gracie Allen, the only truth one can discern with certainty is that the pair loved each other, on and off the television screen. And that’s probably the only truth that matters.

Inspired by Gracie Allen Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese
Although Gracie Allen’s TV character doesn’t spend a lot of time cooking, she does enter the kitchen from time to time, with predictably confusing results.
My friend Jack recently reminded me that one of Gracie’s signature dishes is roast beef. She preheats the oven and puts in one large roast and one small roast. When the little one burns, the big one is done.
Naturally, the character spends a lot of time cooking with evaporated milk, even if she never does figure out how to milk a carnation. Announcer Bill Goodwin is fond of pumpkin pie made with evaporated milk. (For a variation on this recipe, see last year’s “Pumpkin Pie Plus” recipe.)
I decided to make my own evaporated-milk dish. I was inspired by my friend Kelly Morrissey, who told me she had made roasted butternut squash into a lovely pasta sauce with the addition of spices and a little cream.
If you want to use cream instead of evaporated milk in this recipe, please do; I love cream! The evaporated milk was actually quite tasty, however.
The squash gives the dish a lovely color, a delicate flavor, and a remarkably smooth consistency.
1 small to medium butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cloves garlic, minced
several sprigs of sage, cut into small pieces
olive oil, salt, and pepper as needed
3/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup evaporated milk, plus up to 3/4 cup more as needed (if you’re making the dish with cream, use plain milk for the additional moisture)
a generous dash of cayenne pepper
1 pound pasta, cooked according to package directions (I used wagon wheels because I find them entertaining and not too big to handle)
3 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (or to taste)
several sprinkles of paprika
In a Dutch oven at moderate temperature (350 degrees), roast the squash pieces uncovered, garlic, and sage in the olive oil, adding salt and pepper generously.
When the squash begins to soften, pour the water into the dish and stir. Cover and continue to cook until the squash softens completely. The cooking time should take somewhere between 30 minutes and 1 hour, depending on the age and density of your squash.
Remove the pot from the oven and allow it to cool for a few minutes. (Leave the oven on.) Carefully ladle the solids and liquids into a food processor or electric mixer, and mix until smooth. Mix in the nutmeg, 3/4 cup evaporated milk, and cayenne.
Grease a 2- to 3-quart casserole dish, and combine the cooked pasta and most of the cheese in it. Stir in the squash mixture. Your dish should be moist but not swimming in liquid. If it is not moist enough, add more milk. Top with the remaining cheese and the paprika.

Bake for half an hour. Serves 8 to 12.

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Cookie Catastrophe

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

This is the photo that appeared with Margaret Sullavan's alleged recipe. Jake Jacobs estimates that it was published around 1938.

I recently purchased a CD called Hollywood Cooks! from Kathleen O’Quinn Jacobs and her husband Jake. Collectors and vendors of movie memorabilia, the two have scanned recipes and food-related stories from myriad old movie magazines.
Naturally, I felt the need to try one of the recipes—and since it was almost the end of the month and I hadn’t yet posted a “Twelve Cookies of Christmas” recipe I decided to share with you the recipe for Margaret Sullavan’s peanut-butter hermit cookies.
Or not.
Here’s what happened: I made the hermits yesterday. They were absolutely the easiest cookies I’ve ever made, featuring very few ingredients: condensed milk, peanut butter, and graham-cracker crumbs (plus a little salt). They shaped up very nicely on the baking pan.
Unfortunately, they didn’t pass muster in terms of taste.
Even my mother, who at 91 eats cookies at a rate that belies her slenderness, passed by the cookie jar (which I placed out in the open hoping she would eat some of the darn things) without even stopping.
She may not be able to articulate where she is or who I am all the time, but her brain retains information about pets and cookies very well. She never forgets our dog Truffle’s name. And she remembered that she didn’t like this recipe.
The problem has got something to do with the condensed milk, I think. It renders the texture a bit rubbery. And frankly the cookies just don’t offer enough peanut-butter flavor. Or flavor of any kind.

This probably makes sense. Actress Margaret Sullivan (1909-1960) is delightful in such films as The Shop Around the Corner (1940) with Jimmy Stewart. And she’s touching in No Sad Songs for Me (1950), in which her character gets ready for death in a romanticized preview of Sullavan’s own early demise. 

Sullavan with James Stewart

Nevertheless, nowhere in her daughter Brooke Hayward’s family memoir Haywire or in Lawrence Quirk’s biography Margaret Sullavan: Child of Fate did I find any reference to this mercurial actress’s skill in the kitchen. She probably never actually baked a hermit in her life.
In order to salvage my cookie post and not abandon Sullavan entirely, I am sharing a recipe that relies on her three main ingredients (plus a couple of additional ones!). I got the idea from Borden’s Eagle-brand web site, which features a number of recipes that involve condensed milk.
I don’t know whether Margaret Sullavan would have approved—but I’m sure that Brooke Hayward would have enjoyed my non-hermits as a child! A relative of the ever popular Hello Dolly Bars, also known as Magic Bars, they’re VERY sweet and chewy.
My mother LOVES them.
Please keep your fingers crossed for me as I move on to my next movie-star dish…….. 

Before I get to my recipe, here is Miss Sullavan’s version:

Margaret Sullavan’s Peanut Butter Hermits
1 cup sweetened condensed milk (a little less than a 14-ounce can)
6 tablespoons peanut butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
Thoroughly blend together the milk and peanut butter. Add salt and graham cracker crumbs. Mix well. Drop by spoonfuls (I used a 2-tablespoon scoop) onto a buttered baking sheet (I used two). Bake 15 minutes, or until brown, in a moderately hot oven (375 degrees). Makes eighteen hermits.
NOT Margaret Sullavan’s Peanut Butter Hermits
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter
1-1/2 cups graham-cracker crumbs
2-1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup salted peanuts (optional but good for crunch and peanut flavor)
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1-1/4 cups peanut-butter chips
2/3 cup peanut butter (I used chunky)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-by-9-inch pan with aluminum foil, and butter the foil generously.
In a saucepan melt the butter. Blend in the graham-cracker crumbs, and press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan and up the sides an inch or so.
Place the coconut on top of the graham-cracker crust. Throw on the peanuts if you are using them. Pour the condensed milk over all.
Bake this mixture for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it browns lightly.
While you are baking, use a double boiler to melt the chips and peanut butter together. Gently stir this mixture over the baked mixture.
Cool the bars on a wire rack for 15 minutes; then cover them with foil and refrigerate until the chocolate is set. (In my kitchen on a hot day this took more than 2 hours.)

Cut the baked stuff into bars. Makes between 16 and 60 little squares, depending on how big you want to cut them.

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Grapes Romanoff “24”

Monday, May 24th, 2010

20th Century Fox

The idea for this post came from Kathleen O’Quinn Jacobs of Macon, Georgia. Kathleen is one of my internet pen pals. I “met” her when she sold me a CD full of recipes and images from old movie magazines on eBay. (You’ll see some of them soon!)
Kathleen and her husband Jake love the television series 24. Knowing that I enjoy linking recipes to TV programs, she told me of their practice of nibbling on something special each year during the season finale of 24.
Since no one eats during the series (Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Jack Bauer, and his colleagues are too busy running around saving and shooting each other) the two have had to provide their own recipes.
Several years ago they came up with the idea of making something from a country featured in the previous season’s plot line for each finale.
Over the eight seasons of the series Kathleen and Jake have sampled Hungarian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican dishes, to name a few. This year Russians have resurfaced on the show so Kathleen is making Grapes Romanoff.
I haven’t been as faithful a viewer as Kathleen and Jake, but I have to admit to a certain fascination with 24.
I know that the “real time” gimmick is ridiculous. I haven’t spent much time in Los Angeles, but I do know that it can take hours to traverse Washington and New York, the settings of the last two years’ alleged 24-hour scenarios. Nevertheless, I’m willing to spend disbelief.
Here’s why: The producers have been astute over the years in courting a variety of audiences, not just lovers of action.
I am NOT an action fan. I find hero Jack Bauer really, really tedious. At least half (often more) of each episode is devoted to shots of Jack as he shoots people, blows up buildings, tortures bad guys, and so forth.
And the man has absolutely no sense of humor—probably because he never sleeps, eats, or goes to the bathroom.

20th Century Fox

So I push the fast-forward button on my DVR and skip straight to the good stuff.
That good stuff, as far as I’m concerned, comes when the storyline gets to the wonderful character actors who seem to find their way into each season’s narrative.
Over the years such luminaries as Dennis Hopper, Powers Boothe, James Cromwell, and Jon Voight—to name a few–have popped in (usually as bad guys) to sweeten the storyline.
And then the women come onscreen……..
Jack finds romantic interest only with skinny, rather tense babes. He has to deal professionally, however, with substantial women who are a force to be reckoned with.
The restrained yet authoritative Jayne Atkinson played Karen Hayes, who went from serving as the head of the fictional counter-terrorism unit to working as the president’s national-security adviser, in Seasons 6 and 7.

Jack’s ongoing friend and coworker Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is blunt, smart, quirky, and ethical—if a bit too loyal to Jack for my taste. 

Cherry Jones (20th Century Fox)

One of my favorite stage actresses, Cherry Jones, has brought gravity to the series over the past two seasons as President Allison Taylor. 
I’m disappointed with what has happened to her character lately (my fellow viewers will know that the once ultra-honest President Taylor was easily led into abusing her powers by the Rasputin-like former President Logan), but I can’t help enjoying her performance anyway.
Most gloriously of all, the radiant Jean Smart completely stole Season 5 as troubled first lady Martha Logan. Martha was in turn paranoid (with good reason, it turned out), furious, pathetic, and strong. She was gorgeous throughout.
So despite the tedium of Jack’s shoot-‘em-up moments, despite the ridiculousness of many of the plot lines, I’ll miss 24 after this evening’s series finale.
I may just cry into my grapes a little tonight.
I forgot to ask Kathleen for guidance in preparing these grapes. I have a feeling I added a bit more sauce to the grapes than was required! It’s hard to make just a little sauce, however.
Even now I have leftover sour cream. Can Strawberries Romanoff be far behind?
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
24 whole red seedless grapes
Lightly combine the sour cream and brown sugar. Stir them gently into the grapes. Let stand a minute or two; then serve.
Serves 2. (Jack Bauer could probably eat the grapes all by himself at the end of a busy day.) 

In keeping with the grape theme, Kathleen sent me this vintage image of actress Betty Compson sipping grape soda. Jack Bauer would be a happier character if he could share her drink.

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A Program Note

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Iris Barry, c. 1940. Photograph by George Platt Lynes (Courtesy of MoMA)

Those of you who enjoyed my post in February about film critic and curator Iris Barry may be interested in attending a Barry-themed film series taking place right now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Iris Barry: Re-View features films Barry chose for a program at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum in 1933 that would gauge public interest in film as an art form. The program paved the way for MoMA’s film library, which Barry went on to curate.
The series also includes the Mae West classic She Done Him Wrong (showing tonight!).
If I had time, I’d make you a Mae West recipe. I promise to figure out a way to include one on these pages soon. In the meantime, I hope New York-area readers will try to make it to some of the films this weekend.

Here’s the link to the Museum’s information on this series……….