Blogathon

Suggested by Tennessee Williams’ This Property is Condemned

 

This post is part of the Stage to Screen Blogathon hosted by Rachel’s Theatre Reviews and The Rosebud Cinema.

 

war-poster-Final_large - copia - copia (3) - copia - copiaThere are about a dozen films I saw growing up that I call my sentimental favorites. Some are good films and some aren’t, but all are special to me. The same can be said of a few actors.

I say all this as full disclosure. One of those films was This Property is Condemned and one of those actors is Natalie Wood. So I may not be entirely objective about this 1966 screen adaption of a Tennessee Williams play and despite all its flaws, I will likely love it until I land in the bone orchard like its heroine.

The play provides only the loosest framework for the film – opening credits say “suggested by a one act play by Tennessee Williams.” That disclaimer of sorts may have been added because it’s true or to appease Williams, who reportedly tried to disown the film, or both.

Williams’ short play features two characters: Willie, a young girl, and Tom, a boy. The play opens as Willie, dressed in ragged, cast-off clothes and dime-store jewelry, walks along a railroad track, balancing on it like a tightrope, carrying a beat-up old doll and half a bad banana. Tom happens upon her and she tells him about her beautiful sister Alva who died of “lung affection” like Camille, once shown at the local movie theater. (If you’ve seen or read about the Greta Garbo film, you’ll see the plot similarities.)

this-property-is-condemned-191095l-imagineThe only details we learn from the play is Alva was the “main attraction” in their mother’s house. The house, sounding a lot like a brothel, was full of music and frequented by all kinds of railroad men, who made up Alva’s many beaux. “Mama ran off with a brakeman … My old man got to drinking.” And disappeared. Alva’s men abandon her when she gets sick – “like rats from a sinking ship!” exclaims Willie. Now, Alva lies dead in the “bone orchard.”

From that most spindly skeleton, Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Coe and Edith R. Sommer, the credited screenwriters, hung a melodrama about Alva Starr (Natalie Wood), her manipulative mother Hazel (Kate Reid) and younger sister and narrator Willie (Mary Badham), who in the Depression run a rooming house frequented by a variety of railroad men, including Mama’s boyfriend, a taciturn and threatening J.J. (Charles Bronson), who is far more interested in Alva than he is in Hazel, and Sidney (Robert Blake), an avid and awkward admirer of Alva.

Into that walks Owen Legate (Robert Redford), a character made of whole cloth, not even hinted at in the play. Legate is a mysterious stranger, a bit smug and standoffish, who rents a room for just a week. Turns out Legate is there representing the railroad. His job is to go from town to town, laying off workers. But to Alva, Owen is everything all the other men are not and someday he’ll leave and go places she’d like to go. He’s her escape and before she finds out he is just a hatchet man for the railroad, Alva is already in love.

Alva is written in the same vein as some of Williams’ other heroines. She’s a bit fey and tormented and crudely handled by boorish men. She daydreams, telling tales of visiting the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, mostly to create an alternative life to make bearable the one she lives in.  But she’s not insane, not close to it, like many of Williams’ female leads. And she’s capable of cunning, as when she marries J.J. in a fit of anger at her mother for exploiting her and destroying her relationship with Owen.

rainThat bit of revenge leads to inevitable tragedy. Alva escapes to New Orleans to find Owen, they reunite and share about 10 minutes of domestic bliss until Mama arrives for her own bit of payback. Mama tells Owen Alva is already married, Owen is crushed and a desperate Alva runs out into a storm. That’s the last we see of her. The movie ends as it begins, with Willie walking along the train tracks, narrating the story as she does in the play.

I don’t know why Williams allegedly hated the movie and wanted his name off it, but I can guess. Owen Legate is not a Williams’ character. The film makes him out to be better than the men he’s there to lay off. Redford plays it smug at first, but shows affection towards Willie and defends her from local bullies, and while he doesn’t treat Alva with respect, really, he also does not treat her like a piece of meat like all the other men do. He tries to bring her back to earth, telling her that her daydreams are just fantasies and his travels are no more romantic than her dead-end small town life.

But where Stanley Kowalski, who does the same to a fragile Blanche DuBois in Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, is coarse and cruel, Legate is made out to be Alva’s knight in shining armor, in a way the antithesis of a Williams’ character.

The love affair between Owen and Alva is the stuff of soap operas, too. Alva flirts, Owen insults, Alva gets angry, they fight, they embrace, they screw, they break up over a misunderstanding (an obvious plot device that makes little sense), they reunite, they even run towards each other on a crowded New Orleans street and into each other’s arms. A secret tears them apart. The End.

bronsonThe filming was reportedly rife with problems. If you want to read a rundown of it that also puts the movie in a historical perspective – stuck awkwardly between the end of one Hollywood era and the beginning of the next — read a great 2010 post by Susan Doll at the TCM blog, Moviemorlocks. In it, Doll says the film was originally to be made by John Huston with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. When the director dropped out so did the stars. Wood got on board, then Redford, who suggested Sydney Pollack, less known at the time than he is now. Doll also writes that Pollack was handed 11 versions of the script and had to cobble together a screenplay from the best parts of each. It was Coppola’s fifth credit as a writer. Coe was from Mississippi so presumably was on board to add some verisimilitude. And Sommer was a writer with the soap opera The Guiding Light, probably accounting for some if not most of the film’s romantic tropes. David Rayfiel is listed as an uncredited writer at the IMDb. He worked with Pollack and Redford on several other films, including Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were and Three Days of the Condor. (The great James Wong Howe did the cinematography.)

The IMDb also says Wood tried to commit suicide during the filming, in late November, 1965. I found a similar claim at Biography.com, the web site of the same-named TV channel. And maybe the most well-known fact (or myth) from the film is that Wood had trouble playing drunk in the scene that leads to her marrying J.J. so the actress got drunk instead of pretending.

this property is condemnedFor all its faults, though, This Property is Condemned has some wonderful performances. Mary Badham, best known as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, gives the most real, least caricatured performance as Willie. And she’s in it much more than I remembered. Kate Reid has only a few scenes but she’s incredible as Hazel, a woman desperate to keep her beautiful daughter around to attract the men that pay the bills. In a better written script, a more Williams-like script, Hazel might have been less a villain and more a victim, a woman past her prime trying to survive when the world only values Alvas. Wood is affecting, too. The part isn’t easy. All the conflict revolves around and is directed at her so she can’t falter. She has a lot of melodrama to play and yet I always feel for her. To be honest, I think there are better actresses than Wood, but none seem more vulnerable on screen. Redford has a thankless role so I won’t fault his affectless performance. He’s there more to set the plot in motion than to illicit feeling.

Until this blogathon, I didn’t realize This Property is Condemned was based on a play, much less a Tennessee Williams play. I can see why Williams rejected the film. And through an older eye, I can even see why critics and moviegoers might not love it, but it will always be one of a handful of films that hold a special place for me.

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Mack Sennett and Tillie’s Punctured Romance

The year was 1914.

isennem001p1Mack Sennett had been making movies for six years, first for the Biograph Co. where he worked with D.W. Griffith and then for a movie production company he helped create which would make him famous, the Keystone Film Co.

Sennett hailed from Canada, born Michael Sinnott on Jan. 17, 1880 in Richmond, Quebec. As a teenager, he and his family moved to Berlin, Conn., then to North Hampton, Mass., where their lawyer, Calvin Coolidge, introduced Mack to actress and fellow Canadian Marie Dressler, who in turn introduced him to famed theater producer David Belasco. (Or so the legend goes.) Sennett started in burlesque, moved on to Broadway, even did some work as a model. In 1908, he joined Biograph, where he acted under the direction of Griffith in such films as The Curtain Pole, a 13-minute slapstick-like comedy, and directed films, many starring Mabel Normand, with whom he had a long, tumultuous off-screen affair.

Then in 1912, Sennett left Biograph and formed Keystone as a unit of New York Motion Pictures Co., a production company established by former racetrack bookies Adam Kessel and Charles O. Baumann. The pair were already producing westerns, dramas and Civil War films distributed through Mutual Film Corp., but wanted comedy shorts to please the theater operators.  Sennett signed a deal to produce a single one-reel, 10-12 minute film per week but was soon cranking out many more to meet demand.

The early Keystone films, which famously combined farce with gags, stunts and chases, were all shorts, as were all comedies of the day. Feature-length dramas were being made all over the world and Sennett wanted to be the first to do the same for comedies.

So in 1914, Sennett spent much of the year making Tillie’s Punctured Romance, a six-reeler that runs about 82 minutes, considered the first feature-length comedy film ever made.

foto1It stars Dressler, making her film debut at age 46 as Tillie Banks, and is loosely based on Tillie’s Nightmare, the actress’ hugely successful stage play. Playing primary roles, too, are Charlie Chaplin, whom Sennett had seen during a U.S. tour of Fred Karno’s English music hall troupe and then signed for Keystone, and Keystone regular Normand. The movie also features Mack Swain, Chester Conklin, Charles Bennett, Minta Durfee (a.k.a. Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle), and the legendary Keystone Cops, including Nick Cogley, Billy Gilbert, William Hauber, Grover Ligon, Hank Mann and Al St. John.

The story involves Chaplin’s nameless character trying to scam awkward, clumsy Tillie into marrying him because her father, played by Mack Swain, has money. Tillie and Chaplin run off together after stealing the father’s loot and run into Normand, Chaplin’s accomplice. Chaplin takes Tillie out for her first drink, which she spits in his face, and while Tillie gets drunk and dances, Chaplin and Normand abscond with her money.

Tillie ends up in jail when she can’t pay the restaurant bill and we find out she has a millionaire uncle who lives in lavishly-decorated mansion attended to by ridiculously-attired servants. The police – a few Keystone Cops, of course – deliver her to the mansion but the uncle throws her out. She wanders the streets and eventually finds a job as a waitress while her uncle leaves to hike the mountains.

Meanwhile, in a fun few minutes, Chaplin and Normand go to the movies — a Keystone movie, according to the poster outside and the screen credits inside. The film tells the tale of a thief who gets caught, which unnerves Normand, who annoys everyone around her by narrating the story to Chaplin.

The hiking uncle falls off the mountain, is left for dead and we discover Tillie is his sole heir. Chaplin finds out, ditches Normand on a park bench and races to the restaurant to beg for the heiress’ hand in marriage. They wed, take over the mansion and throw a huge bash.  By then, Normand has learned the score and talks her way into a job at the party. When Tillie finds Chaplin and Normand kissing in an alcove, all hell breaks loose.

Marie Dressler - Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) CopsIt’s only then, in the final 10 to 15 minutes of the film, when Tillie’s Punctured Romance becomes a typical slapstick, Keystone comedy replete with food throwing, gun shooting, mass prat falls and a police chase that ends with Tillie and the cop car in the ocean, Chaplin rejected and Tillie and Normand in an inexplicable embrace.

Before that there’s plenty of butt kicking, bumping and wiggling, but the gags are surprisingly few, giving some air for a real narrative. I found only a few moments laugh-out-loud funny – when Dressler spits her drink in Chaplin’s face, when Normand gets increasingly rattled watching the Keystone movie, when Chaplin tussles with one of many tiger rugs at the mansion. Dressler wears ghoulish eye makeup and her humor is basic — she has a flirty face and worried face, the difference indicated only by the direction of her mouth. To be honest, she reminded me of Roscoe Arbuckle, which is not entirely an insult. The running gag that sustains much of the movie’s humor is her size: she’s taller and broader than Chaplin and when Tillie is drunk or unruly, four or five waiters or cops or mansion servants are needed to subdue her. But audiences obviously loved her. She had a thriving stage career and made two Tillie film sequels.

Chaplin looks sort of tramp-like. He wears baggy pants, a cane, and walks with extreme turnout, but his character is nothing like the tender-hearted tramp. He has such sublime physicality, though, that I find him the most naturally funny. He and Normand’s expressive face. Like Buster Keaton said, a comedian does funny things, a good comedian does things funny.

In the end, Tillie’s Punctured Romance became a headache for Sennett. Theaters were reluctant initially to book the film due to its length and Dressler later sued Keystone over her share in the profits. The movie did make money, though, encouraging Sennett to make more feature length films. But Keystone’s shorts remained the company’s bread and butter.

headerTillie’s Punctured Romance wasn’t the peak of Sennett’s career, which continued well into the 1930s. He made many more movies, 1,000 overall by some estimates. He worked for other companies, including Paramount, Pathé and Educational, where in 1935, towards the end of his career, he finally worked with Keaton. He discovered, mentored or worked with a roster of legends including Griffith, Normand, Chaplin, Keaton, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Frank Capra, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields. And he had his highs and lows: in 1933, he filed for bankruptcy and in 1938 he received an honorary Oscar. Eventually he became a U.S. citizen.

But Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a first in film comedy history and a highlight in the career of Canadian Mack Sennett, one of Hollywood’s most influential artists.

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy.

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