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ANY WAY I CAN: 50 YEARS IN SHOW BUSINESS by John Gay with Jennifer Gay Summers

SCARLET THE FILM MAGAZINE BOOK REVIEW

ANY WAY I CAN: 50 YEARS IN SHOW BUSINESS by John Gay with Jennifer Gay Summers

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$19.95 BEAR MANOR MEDIA 240 pages

Available via

http://www.jennifergaysummers.com/book.php

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Available at BEAR MANOR MEDIA

 http://www.bearmanormedia.com/any-way-i-can-50-years-in-show-business-by-john-gay-with-jennifer-gay-summers

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Many people know the actors who star in their favorite shows and movies, and others know the directors. The person who is most forgotten is the writer, the person who basically creates the world in which the stories take place.

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One of these artists is screen, teleplay, and stage play writer John Gay. Now Mr. Gay, with the assist of one of his children, daughter Jennifer Gay Summers, has put out his autobiography.jennifer-gay-summers1

 

And what a fascinating life it is. The California born Mr. Gay talks about the lure of acting and how it drew him across country (after serving our country in WWII ) to become an actor. Working in summer stock, he soon gained a great deal of experience as well as meeting his partner and wife Barbara “Bobbie” Meyer.

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Venturing to New York, their attempts at gaining acting work led them to entering the new media of television ,broadcasting live several nights a week from the top of the New Amsterdam Theatre (the former home of the Ziegfeld Follies and now the House of Mouse where the hit musical ALADDIN currently resides).o

 

The show, APARTMENT 3C had only two actors (the husband and wife team) and due to the low budgets, Gay had to also write the shows himself! The program became the second show broadcast from fledgling station WOR in 1949. A modest hit, it gave John Gay not only an extra avenue for revenue but a career for which he would greatly excel.brewster_fig35

Their second show ,MR & MRS MYSTERY had a larger budget (they were allowed to hire other actors ) and Mr. Gay was able to parlay those into other writing assignments for the Golden Age of Television (KRAFT TELEVISON THEATRE ,PLAYHOUSE 90 )and crossing paths with such greats as Rod Sterling and Sidney Lumet.wor_tv_xmtr_room_color

 

His first screenwriting assignment was for the Burt Lancaster /Clark Gable submarine drama RUN SILENT RUN DEEP (1958/UA). His second screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination (along with co-writer Terrence Rattigan) for SEPARATE TABLES (1958/UA).h

 

From there he was now a full-fledged screenwriter, working with the likes of Vincente Minnelli (twice, neither of which were happy experiences) as well as actors like Rod Steiger (twice, in two gems well worth seeking out (NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY (1968 Paramount) and HENNESSY (AIP 1976)) and Paul Newman (SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION 1971/Universal).gd

 

He nearly worked with science fiction great Ray Bradbury on the troubled production of WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART, which remained unmade until Clint Eastwood and different writers turned it in a feature.

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In the 1970s, when television really began turning out movies of the week and adaptations of classics, Mr. Gay seemed to have been involved with almost every great production. Many of my well-remembered favorites had a title mentioning John Gay as the Adaptor or Teleplay By credit. KILL ME IF YOU CAN (NBC,1977) had Alan Alda embody killer Caryl Chessman ; Anthony Hopkins as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (CBS HALLMARK ,1982) ; LES MISERABLES (CBS HALLMARK 1978) and so many others. Plus he did superior TV remakes of mystery classics DIAL M FOR MURDER (ABC, 1981) WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (CBS HALLMARK 1982), and SHADOW OF A DOUBT (NBC HALLMARK 1991). The list goes on and on .f

 

 

He took his skill as a story teller to the stage, having VINCENT PRICE remind people what a brilliant and versatile actor he truly was in DIVERSIONS & DELIGHTS, a play about Oscar Wilde. Price took the play all over the world, doing well everywhere but NYC (when the New York Times critics could still kill a show).

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Mr. Gay is a wonderful writer, telling his life story with wit, good grace and honesty. Indeed, it is one of the few books that I have read lately that I wish had been longer (Mr. Gay dismisses his work on the troubled George Pal science fiction film THE POWER (MGM, 1968) with just a line or two).b

Having turned 92 this past April,2016 , we are pleased that he and his daughter have shared his wonderful story with us. I have been careful not to give too much away so that you can discover the wonderful life of John Gay within the pages of ANY WAY I CAN.a

 

RECOMMENDED.

Kevin G Shinnick

Full Disclosure: I have been in contact with the author and his charming daughter for several years now as I attempted and finally successfully directed the first NYC Equity Production of DIVERSIONS & DELIGHTS in 35 years. The chapters 40 and 43 deal with this wonderful gem of a play.

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originally published March 30,2015  SCARLET THE FILM MAGAZINE Facebook page

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THE SPIDER (1931)

the-spiderTHE SPIDER (Fox Film Corporation, released September 27,1931) b&w. 59 minutes.  $15.00  DVD-R from 16mm print offered by John Carpenter. Contact him via email at pixthatmove@gmail.com .

THE SPIDER is a film that deserves to be better known. Released after DRACULA (Universal, February 12,1931) but before FRANKENSTEIN (Universal, November 21,1931), this film, while in the end a murder mystery, has several strong supernatural elements.thespidertc

The film was co-directed by Kenneth MacKenna and William Cameron Menzies. MacKenna was an actor who also directed several mostly forgettable films between 1931-1934. mackennaMacKenna, born Leo Mielziner, Jr, is today mostly remembered for sponsoring and helping his brother Jo Mielziner (Tony and Academy Award winning set designer). He also was an early “angel” (theatrical financial backer) who introduced his friend Richard Rodgers to the James A. Michener’s book “Tales of The South Pacific” (MacMillian, NY,1947), feeling it might make a good musical. He was right. It became the 1949 musical SOUTH PACIFIC (Majestic Theatre, April 7,1949).tales_of_the_south_pacific_michener

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The real visual director of THE SPIDER would be Menzies. Menzies entered films in 1919, after his service in WWI. Training in effects and 004_thiefstaircasefilm design, within a few short years he was the art director and production designer of classics like THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (United Artists, March 18,1924). Pictured above his sketch and the fully realized design in the film. He is perhaps best known for his design of GONE WITH THE WIND (MGM, December 15,1939). Not only did he design the look of the film, he even designed some of the famous shots like the massive pullback shot at the train station.

He also later directed the 3D horror film THE MAZE (Allied Artists, July 26,1953) and the classic science fiction film INVADERS OF MARS (20th Century Fox, April 22,1953). He was a visual stylist who made the most of his budgets, big or small.

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(Menzies ,as photographed by Karl Strauss)

 

The screenplay was written by Barry Conners. Conners was a former stage actor who was blacklisted when he tried to unionize actors against corrupt producers.barry-conners He turned to playwriting and had a few Broadway successes, including HELL’S BELLS (Wallack’s Theatre, Jan 26, 1925 – May 1925)which was the Broadway debut of both Humphrey Bogart and Shirley Booth.

He used his success to become a screenwriter for MGM and then Fox Films (later to merge and become 20TH Century Fox). Among his screenplays were an adaptation of his play THE PATSY (MGM,April 22,1928 ). At Fox, he exhibited a strong ability with mysteries, writing the screen adaptation of several of the early Charlie Chan films (including two “lost “Chan films (…Carries On, (Fox, April 12,1931), …. Chance (Fox, Jan 24,1932), as well as THE BLACK CAMEL (June 21,1931).

 

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Later, he would be one of a team of writers who adapted the radio series into CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (Fox, August 4,1932), another mystical adventure directed by Menzies and best known for starring Bela Lugosi as the villain Roxor. Starring as Chandu was Edmund Lowe. Lowe had already gotten his magical bona fides, starring in THE SPIDER as the film’s star, magician Chatrand. Lowe had begun in vaudeville before getting into silent films. When sound began, his good looks and voice established him as a reliable leading man in the thirties and forties, right up to THE STRANGE MR. GREGORY (Monogram, Jan 12,1946), wherein he starred as—a magician!!!!mv5bytu5yzhkogitngewns00yjy4ltk0nzgtmdqxyzc4zjg2mju0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzi2mdewna-_v1_

THE SPIDER was adapted from a stage play by Lowell Brentano and Fulton Oursler that played Broadway at Chanin’s 46th St Theatre (3/22/1927- 5/28/1927) before moving to the Music Box Theatre (5/30/1927-12/17/1927) for a successful run of 319 performances. THE SPIDER: A Play of The Varieties, to give it its full title, was a three act Mystery Melodrama. The setting was the fictional Tivoli Vaudeville Theatre, where the action takes place. The play starred Broadway actor john-halliday(John Halliday )

John Halliday as Chatrand, and featured a lot of vaudeville performers Mack & La Rue, billed as The Skating Marvels of The Century, and Lytell & Fant, listed, intriguingly as The Chocolate Cake -Eaters.0002334_spider_the_300

Oddly, the play had several lawsuits brought against it for plagiarism, one of which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1933 before it was dismissed.

Writer Brentano worked on Broadway writing thrillers as well as musicals, including the intriguing thriller ZEPPELIN (National Theatre, Jan14,1929-March ,1929), set aboard the cabins of the air vessel. He also worked in Hollywood on films like THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER (RKO December 9,1932).

 

 

 

Fulton Oursler was a magician who wrote for several pulp magazines. He joined Harry Houdini in discrediting fake mediums in the 1920s, going so far as to write an expose Spirit Mediums Exposed (New Metropolitan Fiction) under the pseudonym Samri Frikell. fulton_oursler_magicianoursler-a-spirit-mediums-exposed

After converting to Catholicism in the 1940s, he wrote THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (Doubleday,1949). It was later adapted into the 1965 movie by the same name.

The film of THE SPIDER obviously cut the play down to its barest storyline, as a three-act play would have run at least 90 minutes. With many of the within the show vaudeville routines cut, time was filled by adding the comedy of Elmer Goodfellow Brendel, better known as El Brendel. Born to an Irish mother & German father who entered vaudeville as a German dialect comic but when anti-German sentiments grew during WWI, he became a simple Swede, often named Ollie, Oley, or Ole.

He began working in films, appearing in the classic silent WINGS (Famous Players/Paramount, August 12,1927). After a brief return to vaudeville, he signed a contract with Fox Studios, taking advantage of the innovation of sound movies. His biggest starring role was in the musical/science fiction film JUST IMAGINE (Fox, November 23,1930). He was billed as the most popular comedian at the time but he soon was reduced to supporting roles and starring in B-comedies. To be honest, to modern audiences, a little El Brendel goes a long way. However, it was probably thought getting El Brendel for THE SPIDER was a good idea at the time.39

The film takes place in the Tivoli Vaudeville House, where the Great Chatrand (Edmund Lowe) is packing them in. Chartrand’s show is being broadcast, and he announces that assistant whom he calls Alexander (Howard Phillips, making his film debut. He only made 11 more films up to 1938, none of which was as good as THE SPIDER. ) is an amnesiac whom he found two years earlier. However, he seems to have lost his memory but developed psychic mind reading powers which they use in the act.vlcsnap-763909

Beverly Lane (Lois Moran, who is said to have been the inspiration for the character “Rosemary “in  F.Scott Fitzgerald’s TENDER IS THE NIGHT (Charles Scribner’s Sons, April 1934 ) has been looking for her brother Paul who disappeared about the same time ,but her uncle John Carrington (Earle Foxe ,who began in silent films back in 1912.He had starred in an odd silent fantasy feature LAST MAN ON EARTH (Fox, November 2,1924) as well as the lost early talkie THE GHOST TALKS (Fox, February 24,1929 ) says it is only a publicity stunt and that it cannot possibly be Paul. However, she insists that they go to see the next performance and Carrington begrudgingly agrees.mv5bngq4nwi4ngitngyyos00mdnllwfly2mtmznindm3n2mymzfmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtq2mjqyndc-_v1_

During all this, we have comedy where Ole (El Brendel) and his young charge (Kendall McComas, who started in the silent Mickey McGuire comedy shorts and in 1932 appeared in some of the Our Gang comedy shorts) are considering what type of tickets to purchase. The ticket taker, by the way, is a cameo by co director MacKenna. When they finally do, and go to their seats, it ends with El Brendel putting a hole through the top of his bowler.48

Chatrand peers through the curtains and recognizes Beverly from a photo that Alexander has. The act begins, and Alexander is blindfolded as Chatrand walks though the audience and holds up various objects. When Chatrand holds up Beverly’s locket, which is like the one Alexander has, Carrington begins to try and take it away from Chatrand. The lights go out, and a someone shoots Carrington. The staging of this scene is quite well done, with rapid cutting between all the parties, and Alexander acting as if possessed, finally ending with the shooting, and Alexander collapsing.vlcsnap-763749

The police arrive and find a gun by the unconscious Alexander. Beverly recognizes Alexander as her lost brother. Now revived and out of his trance, Alexander/Paul blurts out: ‘He tried to kill me! I had to do it.” That’s all the police need to hear, and arrest Alexander. Chatrand escapes via a magic trick, and the police seal off the theatre. No one can leave. Can Chatrand, with his magic skills, find out who the killer is?72

The film moves along at a good pace, and it is a fun movie worthy of rediscovery. The highlight of the film is towards the end during a superbly staged séance sequence.32

The movie is a rarity, and as far as I know, it has not aired on any television stations for decades (indeed, there is hardly anything about it on the Turner Classic Movies site), and it is a shame.img259

It is a short, fast paced little thriller with supernatural elements that deserves to be better known.

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(announced but unmade version)

John Carpenter (no not the director, but this one is known as “The Movie Man” due to his extensive movie collection) is offering a special deal to SCARLET THE FILM MAGAZINE readers .The sound and picture quality is good, especially when you consider how truly are this film is . John will make a DVD-R of this rare film from his own 16mm print. Cost $15.00 within the continental U.S.A. Contact John directly at pixthatmove@gmail.com . Let him know that SCARLET sent ya!img258

Recommended.
-Kevin G Shinnick

 

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SCIENCE FICTION MADE ME A LIBERAL

 SCIENCE FICTION MADE ME A LIBERAL

sci-fi-made-me-a-liberal

With the current election cycle finally winding down, I look forward to the end of all the toxic attitudes and comments from all sides of the political spectrum.

 
What has for me personally been a surprise has been the vitriol aimed at those of the Liberal attitude from many within the horror and science fiction community. I am not so foolish as to think everyone who shares a mutual interest in a subject to lock step politically, though it is interesting that while we share a mutual joy in these subjects, that we take away different conclusions from them.

 
Being a small kid in the Bronx with a stutter and a strong Bronx accent, I always felt like an “outsider”. Then when I was very young, visiting relatives in Ireland, my older brother took me to the movies. The first movies that I ever saw on the big screen were FRANKENSTEIN (1931, Universal) and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Hammer,1957).

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Mind you, this was in the early 1960s, but cinemas  would sometimes pair older films and show them . Now I was terrified by both films (and indeed my brother & I were tossed out of the theatre because I was screaming so hard when Christopher Lee tore off his facial bandages), but I felt a certain sadness for the creatures too, and I was unknowingly hooked. Peter Cushing popped up in several other films and I was impressed by him as a performer and I began to get the idea that I would like to be an actor.

 

 

 

I found myself drawn to works by horror,science fiction and fantasy writers. In the era before the internet or home computers, one had to go to the library and research when one didn’t understand certain things. Due to the references of certain eras ,countries, etc,I would go to the library and read books on history ,politics ,and various topics . Rather than being bored I found that it enriched my appreciation of the stories that I read, and the world in general. While others in school were struggling with THE CAT IN THE HAT, I was reading histories of the Middle Ages so I would have a better understanding of the world of “The Pit & The Pendulum” .the-pit-and-the-pendulumthe-spanish-inquisition6

 

 

 

 

Now hooked to fantasy /horror films, I recall that on television they had an ad on the old WOR-TV (Channel 9) in NYC. “Ghosts, murder, Regicide” intoned the unseen announcer as black and white images flew by the screen. I didn’t know what regicide was, but ghosts and murder were what I wanted to see.

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At the appointed hour, I tuned on the t.v., and turned the knob to the channel. The film was Laurence Olivier’s HAMLET (RANK,1948). It looked like a horror film with its fog and moody photography (and heck at the end there was Peter Cushing as  Osiric) but there was something more to the film. I didn’t understand all that was said, but I knew I wanted to speak like that. At the end, I was in tears, and knew that:
1-I wanted to be an actor
2-I wanted to speak like the people in the film and learn more about this “Shakespeare” guy who wrote it.

 

hamlet-peter-cushing-1948

quote-who-wants-to-see-me-as-hamlet-very-few-but-millions-want-to-see-me-as-frankenstein-so-peter-cushing-87-41-29So, I would listen to recordings by Olivier, Gielgud, and others reading the works of the Bard (thank you Caedmon records) and it helped me develop my speaking voice and my confidence. It also got me beaten up a bit (no one likes a pseudo British accent, especially under ten-year-old bullies), but I found too the writings of this man from 350 years earlier spoke to me of the human condition. “Hath not a Jew Eyes? “A speech that showed that people may pray differently, but in essence we were all of humans.

 
An amazing speech too in that there were very few Jews in the country at the time, and in a play, that in the end, the Merchant is forced to renounce his faith, in effect destroying what defined him. A complex ending to be sure. That earlier speech lifted Shylock from being the Hebrew of anti-Semitic tracts into a human being with flaws. Othello was a great general, had even saved the city and yet suffered prejudice due to the color of his skin. Again, there were few blacks in England in Shakespeare’s time, and xenophobia was quite strong, so that Shakespeare created a rounded human being (who even had flaws, suffering from epileptic fits, etc) from someone who was different speaks volumes.

 
Plus, when women were little more than property, he wrote such wonderful parts about them and for them, though it was illegal for women to PLAY them. The first English woman to legally do so was Margaret Hughes, December 8,1660 as Desdemona, ironically in “The Moor of Venice” (a reworking of Othello).

 
Through Shakespeare I discovered the idea of trying to understand others. Shakespeare and horror films also developed my love of storytelling as well as the joy of reading and discovery of ideas.
Science fiction writers like George Orwell challenged acceptance of society without question, and that sometimes things were not always what they seemed. ‘1984” Orwellian double speak now lives on in Fox News as well as politicians who constantly deny facts if it stands in the way of their political agenda. Sadly, many seem ready to accept their outrageous claims as “double plus good”. Back in the 1960s, though, we were engrossed in a foreign war that was not what we told it was for, and indeed the ideals were dropped as the conflict continued. Plus, at the time, social injustices and women’s liberation were also issues that threatened the fabric of the country. Science fiction, for a young teenager was a way of trying to understand these complex issues.

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The idea of controlling the media and what we can and cannot read was a reality in many dictatorships, but also within our own country narrow minded people wanted to ban the likes of ROMEO & JULIET, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and many other works. Why? Because they made us question the status quo. Controlling thought in “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s ‘FAHRENHEIT 451 “reflected a society where that happens, and again Orwell predicted flooding the media with info that they wanted, and acting as if previous facts didn’t exist.

fahrenheit-451-original-cover

Television and movies also had a strong effect on shaping my opinions and beliefs.

 

The earliest influence that I can think of is Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE. Serling tried through his various brilliant television dramas to illuminate the human condition Unfortunately, he ran up against censorship from both the networks as well as the advertisers. In one of his political dramas he was forbidden to have his politicians comment on current events to avoid the appearance of siding with one side or the other.

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Wanting to discuss social injustice, racism, and other injustices, he felt that only way to do that was to disguise his tales as fantasies, using the allegories to discuss otherwise taboo issues. Maintaining creative control, he was one of the first to explore the idea of people seeing only the superficial rather the person within (EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, NUMBER 7 LOOKS JUST LIKE YOU), bigotry and hate (I AM THE NIGHT-COLOR ME BLACK) and other social issues.

 

 

Probably the biggest influence on me was STAR TREK. The show showed a multinational multicultural crew working together to deal with new life forms and issues that reflected items within our own society. Yes, they had women in miniskirts, but that was more the demands of the era than the ideals of the series.

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Looking back now 50 years on, it is easy to point out the flaws of the show, but one must remember that every step forward starts with a small victory, and that it doesn’t happen overnight.

 

The show also dealt with the issue of overpopulation (MARK OF GIDEON), racism (LET THIS BE YOUR LAST BATTLEFIELD), mutual assured destruction (A TASTE OF ARMAGEDDON) and many other issues of the time.

 

The thing that most appealed to me about STAR TREK is that it offered a possibility of a future for mankind. That somehow we would survive the constant threats that promised the destruction of our society and possibility the entire planet.

 

It reflected the possibilities offered by Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were murdered by narrow minds but they left with us the baton to fulfill the dream that they proposed as well as the ideals that Gene Roddenberry’s series gave us in his “Wagon Train to The Stars”.

 

Little did I know, but these shows and books influenced my world overview. I like to think of the possibility that we as a planet and humans can accomplish, to help other people and not be xenophobic, to respect difference and learn from them, to protect the planet over profit.

 

There are those who live in fear and they become more conservative as they do not understand change, while there are those who look in wonder of the possibilities of our future.

 

Yes, SCIENCE FICTION made me into a LIBERAL, and I am very grateful.

Kevin G Shinnick

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Boris “Frankenstein” Karloff lives on in KARLOFF The Play!

1-KARLOFF The Play(click image to visit the KARLOFF The Play website)

By Randy Bowser – author of KARLOFF The Authorized Play

As a young “tween” I wasn’t allowed to go to scary movies, watch scary TV shows, or buy any but “funny animal” comic books. Curious and inventive kid that I was, I discovered that late at night, without rousing my slumbering parents, I could verrrrrry quietly sneak down to the living room, keep all the lights off, turn on the TV with the sound down to an almost inaudible level, and watch the well-worn, scratched and crackling 16mm prints of ancient and forbidden horror movies our local station played before signing off. The hypnotically humming cathode-ray tube of our bulky TV console would bathe me in magical, blue, spasmodically flickering light as I sat inches from the screen and drank in the awe and mystery of intense, scenery chewing actors such as Lugosi, Lorre, Chaney Jr. and – KARLOFF!

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FLASH FORWARD FIVE DECADES:

My lifelong admiration for Boris Karloff which began during my youthful adventures in surreptitious late-night TV viewing, inspired the most rewarding project of my life – the production of a “one-person-play” endorsed by the star’s only child, Sara Karloff, and simply titled, “KARLOFF.”

3-Poster for KARLOFF
(poster for the premiere of KARLOFF)

STEPPING BACK A BIT:

By the time I’d hit on the idea of writing a biographical play about Karloff, I had long been involved in theatre as an actor, director, musician and designer. Years earlier, my introverted teenage self had discovered a strong affinity for the stage, and for many years my involvement in play productions had provided most of my life’s highlights.

Like everyone who has ever acted, I’ve had acting heroes providing powerful inspiration – Olivier, Barrymore, Anthony Perkins– but Boris has always had a special niche in that pantheon of greats. I had always felt there was something deep and maybe even tragic in the persona of Karloff that always glimmered through the heavy layers of makeup. Karloff is an acting hero because he is one of those rare performers who consistently transcend their roles and reach audiences with an honest display of humanity that remains hidden in lesser performers. That’s the man I wanted to re-discover and explore in a stage play.

4-Boris by Yousuf Karsh
(One of the best portraits of Boris – by Yousuf Karsh)

Ideas are cheap. Following through on them is the tricky bit. But I was determined to make the idea of a Karloff play come to life, rather like Karloff himself who brought a certain monster to life back in Hollywood’s Golden Age. I was determined to learn more about him, and also hoped to get the blessing of Sara Karloff who runs Karloff Enterprises. I knew Sara controls the likeness rights to her father, but didn’t know if she also controls her father’s life story rights. If she did, there was a possibility I wouldn’t be able to afford to go ahead with the project.

Sara Karloff

Sara Karloff

Sara Karloff turned out to be extremely welcoming of my idea, placed no obstacles in my way, and even provided me with a starting point. There were two books she requested I make my primary sources: “Dear Boris” by longtime Karloff family friend Cynthia Lindsay, and the most recent and complete (encyclopedic!) biography, “Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster” by Stephen Jacobs.
6-More Than a Monster
(click image for the book’s website)

I devoured many books and articles during the research period of the project, but Sara had certainly steered me in the best direction of what bios to focus on. Lindsay’s book is a Valentine to her dear friend, Boris, and her central theme of what a kind, personable and well loved man Karloff was became the guiding light for the whole project. For sheer mass of detail and documentation, Jacobs’ book will forever remain the definitive reference book for Karloff’s remarkable life. The majority of the play’s scenes and anecdotes spring from the pages of “More Than a Monster.”

Something else extremely helpful: Sara put me in touch with author Stephen Jacobs, and his immediate response to the idea was as enthusiastic as hers. He became so critical to the development of KARLOFF that I consider him the script’s dramaturg. He lived through many drafts with me, giving me consistently helpful feedback.

Since the time the script was completed, Stephen Jacobs and Sara Karloff both have remained its most enthusiastic fans and supporters.

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(Boris in a “Lights Out” radio drama in KARLOFF – photos by Steve Anchell)

FIRST DRAFT: Months of research left me buried in hundreds of pages of notes. When I caught my breath, I worked my way through a first draft, using as many accumulated anecdotes and quotes as possible. After a couple months of non-stop work, I was excited to write “Finis” on the last page of the draft. When the buzz of accomplishment wore off, I sat down to take a critical look at the script and was instantly slammed with reality: The thing would have taken four hours to perform on stage! Worse – it was too literal, dry, and came across as more of a lecture about Karloff rather than any kind of viable theatre piece.

Gloom. I had become more of a Karloff Fan Boy than ever, but had only the barest suggestion of a stage play to show for my months of work.

TWENTY DRAFTS LATER: After a period of recuperation, I managed to take off my Karloff fan hat and pick up my playwright hat. I started whacking away at the material, determined to shape it into an Entertainment. The goal of writing a script is to entertain, to transport – and if the possibility of enlightening an audience also emerges, all the better. Draft after draft, my Editor’s hat kept me ruthlessly re-shaping the material. Stephen Jacobs started reading drafts once I felt I was getting closer to something actually stage-worthy. Utilizing Stephen’s feedback, and listening to recordings of myself reading the script, a more dynamic structure started revealing itself. New winds of inspiration carried me along until I finally had something I could go into rehearsals with.

8-The Skylight

(Karloff relives the scene from “Frankenstein” when The Creature sees light for the first time – photo by Steve Anchell )

What had emerged was a story about self realization. A story about the indomitable human spirit. Karloff’s life had emerged in a non-linearly presented series of vignettes. The story is of a very determined man who overcame physical and cultural handicaps to become an unlikely success in his chosen field of acting, by making the most out of an equally unlikely opportunity when he was cast in the role of a monster.

The central metaphor of the play: The Frankenstein Monster trying to grasp light when he first sees it, representing Boris, and all of us bumbling creatures, trying to reach and understand more than we’re capable of comprehending.

The script for a stage play is only theoretical. A show doesn’t truly exist until it’s up on a stage in front of an audience. But it’s a big handicap when a new play is debuted outside of the major entertainment centers of New York or Los Angeles. I live in Salem, Oregon, where there’s been only one local theatre group over the last 60+ years, and that group sticks to doing and re-doing the same sure-fire Broadway hits that most community theatres rely on. But this is where I live, and Salem was the only option open to me as a venue for KARLOFF‘s premiere. I was determined to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation and get a debut production of the show up in front of an audience here in sleepy and not-so-big Salem.

I cast a well-known local actor who had the maturity and gravitas for playing Boris, and rehearsed with him over the course of four months. While we worked, the other elements were coming together. I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise most of the production money. I secured a theatre to rent, a tech crew, performance dates were set – it was all coming together.

DISASTER STRUCK: After those four months of hard work, my actor had to drop out due to health reasons. The poor guy’s back was in horrible shape, and he couldn’t do much of the staging the show called for. I reluctantly let him bow out, but it was too late to cancel or postpone the show. Somehow, the show, as the saying goes, had to go on!

And the show did go on. I stepped into the role. I threw caution to the wind, relying on my many years of acting experience to get me through the ominous task ahead, starting with memorizing the 2 hour monologue which KARLOFF is.

I may have written the script, but that’s not the same as memorizing it, and developing a performance!

9-Randy Bowser as Boris Karloff

(Boris tells the audience a story in KARLOFF – photo by Steve Anchell)

It had been tempting to cast myself in the first place, but tough director that I am, I felt I wasn’t especially ideal casting for the role. I’m a tenor, while one of Karloff’s most distinctive traits is his rich baritone voice. Boris was never beefy, but he was always strong, and his physical prowess was always apparent throughout most of his career. I, on the other hand, am slightly built, and my face looks nothing like Boris either. I knew that if the show was being done professionally and I tried out for it, I wouldn’t make the first call back.

All of those reservations had to be cast aside. I had to throw myself into the role and do my utmost, letting the chips fall where they may.

Who’s kidding who though? It was a thrill to portray this one-of-a-kind actor I’ve admired all my life.

10-Wheelchair-bound Boris

  (Boris begrudgingly adapts to a wheelchair in KARLOFF– photo by Allied Video)
 
I am happy to report that those who attended the show’s premiere run or have seen the show’s video say they really enjoyed my performance, and tell me I captured the essence of the man. I apparently did justice to my material. BUT I do look forward to new productions with actors more closely suited for playing The King of Horror.

11-Boris serenades the KARLOFF audience
(KARLOFF’s singing curtain call)
 
Sara Karloff was so supportive of the project, she flew up from California to see both performances on opening weekend. For obvious reasons, the wonderful praises she heaped on the show are the most treasured pieces of feedback I’ve gotten about KARLOFF. One of her immediate responses was to say “It’s superb!” At the Q&A session with the audience after the show, she choked me up when she said, “You nailed my father.”

12-Sara Karloff and Randy Bowser

  (Sara Karloff and playwright Randy Bowser in a post-performance Q&A -photos by Steve Anchell) 
 
The day after opening night, Sara and I were interviewed on camera and the 6 part video is up at YouTube. Sara talks about the show and also shares great anecdotes about her father. Here’s the link to Part One, and from there it’s easy to use the menu and see the rest of the segments: 

SARA KARLOFF interviewed about KARLOFF The Play

Derek M. Koch won the coveted Rondo Hatton Award in 2015 for his great horror-oriented blog, “Monster Kid Radio.”

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(Derek M. Koch)

A few months before the play opened, Koch interviewed me about KARLOFF, and became so intrigued with the play’s concept, he came to see it twice, he loved it so much. One of his “Monster Kid Radio” entries is his rave review, coupled with the interview he conducted with Sara Karloff during her stay for the premiere.

Koch interviews Randy Bowser

Koch interviews Sara Karloff and reviews KARLOFF The Play

For a taste of what Sara, Derek and the premiere audiences saw, here’s the “Official Trailer.”

KARLOFF The Play on YouTube  

Now in the wake of that debut production, I know KARLOFF works. My time-hopping, multimedia dreamscape of a play has been embraced by audience members of all ages, some of whom were already Karloff fans, many who weren’t, but are now. The show is a goldmine waiting to be discovered by a professional producer who can bring it to larger audiences hither and yon.

That’s where I am now. I’m trying to bring the script to the attention of someone, or several someones who can take KARLOFF to the next level. It will happen, I would just prefer it to happen sooner or later!

14-Boris in KARLOFF The Play

          (A tense scene in KARLOFF )

The majority of contemporary “one-man-shows” are about the creators. Actors write autobiographical pieces and perform the scripts themselves. KARLOFF is in the mold of the more traditional shows about historical figures which are often written by playwrights, and then performed by others. Examples are “The Belle of Amherst” by William Luce, made famous by Julie Harris, and “Paul Robeson” by Philip Hayes Dean which James Earl Jones performed many times.

It continues to be a point of some confusion that KARLOFF wasn’t written as a vehicle for myself. I get inquiries from people asking when I’ll be bringing the show to their area. The answer is that I have no plans for doing that. It’s my script which I’m promoting. That text is a separate entity from the debut production. I needed to get the show up on the boards and out there into reality, and so produced the initial production with me in it, but now it’s time for a name actor (or two – or three!) to assay the role of Boris in professional productions. That is what I’m now working toward. Show business is a tough nut to crack though. It’s almost impossible to land the script on the desks of producers – But I’ll keep trying!

As of this writing, there is one new production of KARLOFF coming up for Halloween, 2016. Pandaemonium Shadow Shows will present one of Arizona’s finest actors, Charles Prokopp, in a production at the Cabaret Stage in Tucson, AZ’s premiere performance space, The Temple of Music and Art.

15-Charles Prokopp will be KARLOFF
  (Charles Prokopp will be KARLOFF – Halloween, 2016, Tucson, AZ )
 
One way to help me promote the script is to “Like” the show’s Facebook page:

KARLOFF The Play on Facebook  

“…I’m a Karloff fan who attended one of the opening shows in Salem. Both the play and Randy’s performance were excellent. I found “Karloff” to be entertaining, humorous, and also incredibly moving…” audience member Laura Waters

“…KARLOFF is the perfect mixture of history, humor and imagination. Karloff comes alive as the play moves through a life time of memories…” audience member Cynthia Sloane

16-Mord enjoying KARLOFF The Play

This image from “Karloff The Play” on Facebook proves that even Boris enjoyed reading the play!

The show’s website has more photos, interviews, reviews, videos, and info about licensing productions:

     KARLOFF The Play          

17-Boris and The Blitz

(In KARLOFF, Boris contemplates the fate of his beloved London at the height of the WWII blitz )

I want to thank Kevin G Shinnick for giving me this opportunity to let the readers of Scarlet The Film Magazine know about the show.

I welcome hearing from any and all who have an interest in Boris Karloff and this one-of-a-kind show, KARLOFF. Inquiries and other correspondence about KARLOFF may be directed to:

karlofftheplay@gmail.com

http://www.karlofftheplay.com/

Long live Karloff the King!

Randy Bowser – author of “KARLOFF”
3/4/2016

Below: Boris in two of his stage triumphs, “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Peter Pan.”

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Classic Hollywood, Hammer Films, Hitchcock, Joan Fontaine, LION IN WINTER, Theatre, tv film radio books theatremusic storytelling horror mystery fantasy science fiction thrillers drama

JOAN FONTAINE THE LION(ess) IN WINTER

Joan Fontaine                     (photo provided by author Rod Labbe given to him by Joan Fontaine )

THE LION IN WINTER:
                       JOAN FONTAINE’S LOST ACTING TRIUMPH!

  By Rod Labbe
                                                   With Joan Fontaine

INTRODUCTION: A dark and chilly night, January, 2012.

I’d just gotten home from our local supermarket and was lugging multiple sacks, boxes, and slippery soda bottles into the kitchen. That’s when my cell rang. Displaying finely-tuned athletic dexterity–and, might I add, lightning-fast reflexes–I bounced from foot to foot, grabbed for the phone and breathlessly gasped, “Hello?”

“Yes, hello. Is Rod in, please?” A woman…and her mellifluous voice sounded vaguely familiar.

“Speaking.” Two dozen “cage-free” eggs were slowly slipping out of their bag. “Excuse me if I seem distracted. Things are a bit crazy here. I’m balancing several grocery items and trying very hard not to drop them. ”
“Oh? I’ll call back later, if now isn’t convenient.”

‘No, no. Potential disaster averted! How can I help you?”

“This is Joan Fontaine…”

“Who?”

“Joan Fontaine.”

“Um…hi.” The eggs fell, and I suddenly found myself incapable of stringing two coherent syllables together.

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Ok, ok, a bit theatrical, but it’s not like I converse with legendary movie stars every day. Who among us wouldn’t be discombobulated? True, I’d written an article about Miss Fontaine (entitled “A Study in Tenacity,” Classic Images, October 2008) and mailed her a complimentary copy. My contact information, ahem, just happened to be enclosed. But did I honestly expect a response? Nooo.

Apparently, Joan Fontaine preferred a pro-active approach. She thanked me for the CI piece (“Delightful!”), discussed salient points and segued smoothly into the big request.

“I have an interesting proposition, Rod,” she said. “Are you accustomed to being propositioned, long-distance?”

“Can’t say that I am,” I chuckled.

“Well, I’m primarily a film actress, but my best role–the one I feel defines me–was Eleanor of Aquitaine in a Viennese stage production of William Goldman’s, The Lion in Winter (1979). That career highpoint has received very little fanfare. You’re a good writer. Why don’t we collaborate on an article and address History’s oversight? Posterity needs us!”

“Certainly! I’m honored to be asked, Ms. Fontaine.”

“Wonderful. And please, it’s Joan. Let me send you what I have, and we’ll chat again.”

Within days, I’d received Joan’s archival material (consisting of newspaper reviews) but needed more. A treasure hunt ensued. I scoured the Internet, checked and rechecked facts at libraries and archives and scratched my head, utterly confused. Joan and I spoke a few more times, and random bits coalesced.

Then, I had a brainstorm: why not contact Vienna’s English Theatre directly?

I did and hit the jackpot! Information poured like honey. Paragraphs were tweaked here and there, and an article chronicling a lost moment in Joan Fontaine’s professional life emerged.

Lost, no longer.

 

 

PART ONE: From Film to Theater

Success as a performing artist can mean many things: world fame, better seating at restaurants, an increased bank account, and the very real possibility that failure and obscurity are waiting around the proverbial corner.

How much energy did Michael Jackson expend trying to deliver another Thriller (1982)? Despite cinematic high-points, like Meet me in St. Louis (1944), A Star is Born (1954), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), is it any great surprise Judy Garland’s ruby slippers remain firmly planted on the yellow brick road?

Creative pinnacles reached in milieus not usually associated with an artist’s publically-accepted persona present new, decidedly unique scenarios. Pundits scratch their heads; scholars ponder ways of dissecting the phenomenon, while (oddly enough) fans/aficionados and followers are oftentimes blissfully unaware.

Take Joan Fontaine, world famous as an Academy Award winning actress from Hollywood’s “golden era,” for example.

Millions have seen Rebecca (Selznick-1940); Suspicion (RKO-1941); This Above All (Fox-1942); Jane Eyre (Fox-1944), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (UI-1948), motion pictures rightly deemed classics and all starring Joan Fontaine as leading lady.

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Rebecca, especially, proved a seminal work. Based upon Daphne DuMaurier’s popular novel and directed by Alfred Hitchcock–his first American assignment (courtesy of independent producer, David O. Selznick)–it scored an impressive eleven Oscar nominations and won Selznick his second Best Picture statuette, following Gone With the Wind (MGM-1939).

rebecca

Ginger Rogers’ dramatic tour de force as Kitty Foyle (RKO) dazzled Academy voters that year, but Joan’s Best Actress nomination generated the most industry buzz. “Olivia de Havilland’s baby sister, you know,” Hollywood gushed, agog. “So gifted, so refreshing, so pretty and unaffected! Where has she been all our lives?”
Gone forever were programmers like Music for Madame (RKO-1937) and The Duke of West Point (UA-1938). At age 23, Joan Fontaine stepped out from the immense shadow of an older, established movie star sibling and blossomed into a bona-fide “A-Lister.”

Her second cinematic foray with Hitch, Suspicion–ostensibly, a dramatic vehicle for light comedian, Cary Grant–pushed Joan to even greater cinematic heights. Once again, there was talk of Oscar.

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Said Bosley Crowther (New York Times, November 21, 1941), “This young lady has unquestionably become one of the finest actresses on the screen, and one of the most beautiful, too; and her development in this picture of a fear-tortured character is fluid and compelling all the way.”

Academy voters concurred. February 26, 1942, against powerhouse competition (Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Barbara Stanwyck and, in one of Hollywood’s greatest upsets, Olivia), they named Joan Fontaine 1941’s “Best Actress,” the sole performer to win an Oscar for a Hitchcock film, supporting or leading.

SUSPICION

Suspicion established the Fontaine template: shy heroines with backbones of steel. Later, she defied conformity by adding do-gooders, troubled women, schemers, a Victorian-era murderess, arch, globe-trotting sophisticates, and a nuclear submarine saboteur to her resume, demonstrating truly remarkable diversity.

Amazingly, Joan never saw any of her films after Frenchman’s Creek (Paramount-1944)! “That was a deliberate decision,” she said. “I went to the opening of Frenchman’s Creek in NYC (Radio City), against my better judgment, and the audience started laughing uproariously at a scene where Basil Rathbone attacked me. Right then and there, I vowed never to watch another film of mine, and I haven’t.”

Frenchman's

Three Oscar nominations (Rebecca, Suspicion, and The Constant Nymph, 1943), an Academy Award, and forty-six movies notwithstanding, Joan’s performance in a theatrical endeavor was her favorite. And done only twice.

To understand how and why this occurred, let’s go back to 1954. That’s the year she replaced Deborah Kerr on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy. Columnists and theatergoers alike were smitten by Joan’s multi-layered interpretation of “older woman,” Laura Reynolds. Elia Kazan directed, and Anthony Perkins (subbing for John Kerr) co-starred.
Wrote Joan, in her best-selling autobiography, No Bed of Roses (William Morrow, 1978):

“During rehearsals, I was feeling my way from just ‘being-and-feeling’ in front of the camera to the projection of voice and personality across the footlights, beyond the proscenium arch. My debut at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre was a most terrifying experience. Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times, reviewed me very favorably, though I hadn’t been on the stage since 1941. Tony Perkins got excellent reviews as well, starting him on a long and successful career.”

paperdolls

“Through training, an actor learns to move and feel from his toes up. His ear must be quick to detect intonation, emphasis, cadence, stress. It must also be able to twitch! The director guides, bring out, enlarges, controls. But the actor must come to the stage equipped with the technique, the talent, the ambition, the imagination, the patience. The theatre audience is the ultimate teacher, instructing the actor on the degree to which he has executed both the author’s and the director’s intent.”

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Joan elaborated later, in one of our marathon phone sessions: “Theatre’s immediacy cannot be discounted. There’s a full-bloodedness to each living word and action. You’re nervous, you’re edgy, and that energy is extremely potent and can actually help an actor.”

“But does the same energy drive a film performance?” I inquired.

“Film is notoriously more difficult because you’re not cohesive. You may start at the end or the middle and be that person, wherever you start, and carry the role in you, hidden, as it were. The cutter puts it all together, hopefully to your advantage,” she laughed.

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Tea and Sympathy opened new career doors. From then on, Joan regularly trod the boards between film assignments with Forty Carats (Broadway, 1968-70), Private Lives; Dial M for Murder; Relatively Speaking, and Cactus Flower–well-received and profitable, but none tapped into her core, the center of what defined Joan Fontaine as an actress.

That would come much later, with The Lion in Winter, presented at Vienna’s English Theatre in October of 1979.

vienna foyer vienna(Foyer- Vienna’s English Theatre)

Ironically, this opportunity originated from a film connection: The Devil’s Own (Fox, 1967–aka The Witches), directed by Cyril Frankel, under the aegis of England’s Hammer Studios.

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PART TWO: Lightning in a Bottle
A welcomed return to form, The Devil’s Own showcased Joan’s still formidable talents as teacher Gwen Mayfield–fearless heroine battling voodoo, witchcraft, intrigue and treachery in an idyllic English village. Again, the actress proved pro-active; she’d optioned Norah Lofts’ (pseudonym, “Peter Curtis”) best-selling thriller and wooed Michael Carreras, Hammer’s head honcho. He liked the package of book and star and produced with 7-Arts, a happy, mutually satisfying project for everyone concerned.

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The New York Times (March 16, 1967) lauded their combined effort: “Say this for Joan Fontaine, who has finally trailed other middle-years movie queens like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and her own sister, Olivia de Havilland, into the shocker school. Miss Fontaine picked herself the best property, in this beautifully woven yarn of a new teacher in a village school who is suddenly aware that the cheerful place and its people are not all they seem….and Cyril Frankel, the director, does a smashing job of depicting the seemingly placid routine of the rural background, the kind of thing mastered by Agatha Christie. But the light brush strokes and edge of terror are entirely original here.”

The Witches

“She brings a good deal of intelligent preparation to a highly emotional role,” Frankel told The Daily Cinema (April 29, 1966). “Her sense of dramatic imagination is very strong indeed.”

 

WITCHES_Joan_Of_The_Jungle

 

 

Likewise, Joan spoke highly of her director: “From the very first day we met, Cyril and I had simpatico. We’ve kept in touch all these years, and he wired me about The Lion in Winter. Of course, I agreed to do it. Our rehearsals lasted four weeks in London. It was a thorough production, from start to finish.”

thelioninwinter

The Lion in Winter is an historical drama that takes place throughout the Christmas holidays, 1183, in Windsor, England. King Henry V has gathered together his three surviving adult sons: Richard, Geoffrey and John, and his banished (and imprisoned for ten years) wife, Queen Eleanor. Their eldest child–Henry’s namesake–died the previous summer, so England’s future crown is up for grabs. Which royal head will wear it?

Eleanor, an expert conniver, favors Richard and bestows upon him her inherited land, the Aquitaine. Henry prefers youngest son, John, a questionable choice–John’s fidgety, immature, and hardly able to assume any significant leadership responsibility. No one takes notice of Geoffrey, the most qualified. Possessing wit, intelligence, and an inherent ability to scheme, he’s ignored in the never-ending tug of war between his parents.
Henry has kept himself a mistress, Alais, sister of France’s King Philip II. When Philip arrives to reinforce a treaty signed between King Louis I (Alais’ and Philip’s father) and Henry, promising Alais to Henry’s rightful heir, drama escalates.

 

windsor tower(Windsor Castle Tower,rebuilt by Henry II in stone replacing the old wooden tower )

If England’s proper successor cannot be chosen, there’s sure to be civil war. At stake are sundry lands and possessions, not to mention the throne itself. A series of promises broken turns brother against brother, husband against wife, sons against parents, with an ambitious mistress fueling the fires of discontent.
Keenly aware that Eleanor suffers in captivity, Henry extends an olive branch: he’ll grant her freedom for the Aquitaine, thus diffusing Richard’s bargaining position. She agrees but has one caveat: Alais and Richard must marry immediately.

Richard discovers the betrayal and rejects Alais. Unbeknownst to either Eleanor or Henry, he’s carrying on a romantic liaison with Philip, further complicating matters.
Raging, Henry disowns his entire family and imprisons them, declaring that intended bride-to-be Alais will beget him another suitable heir.

 

Church_of_Fontevraud_Abbey_Eleanor_of_Aquitaine_and_Henry_II_effigies

(Church of Fontevraud Abbey Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II effigies )

Eleanor is beaten for the moment and has no choice but acquiescence. Alais, in the meantime, convinces Henry that his adult sons pose dire threats. She wants them incarcerated for life; otherwise, neither she nor her progeny are safe.

Machinations escalate. Eleanor smuggles daggers to Richard, John and Geoffrey and encourages their escape. They refuse, intent on killing Henry–a prospect more attractive in the planning. Held back by love and skewered sentiment, they cannot do the deed. Likewise, he cannot kill them.

The Christmas holidays near a dissatisfying end. No son has England’s throne, Eleanor retreats into exile, and Henry and Alais are still unmarried. Nothing’s changed.

At its core, The Lion in Winter revolves around two cosmically-entwined individuals torn apart by human frailties. The drama is underscored by tragedy and deceit and painful disappointment.

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Goldman’s play had its Broadway debut March 3, 1966 and ran a total of 92 performances. Robert Preston gave star power to Henry, and Rosemary Harris was an elegant Eleanor (’66 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play).

Nonetheless, Goldman’s use of anachronistic language, historical inaccuracies and attempts at humor were thumped as more Marx Brothers than Shakespearean.

Missteps aside, the play’s message rings clear: nothing is worse than a dysfunctional family at Christmas!

The Lion in Winter roared back as a very successful and sumptuously-mounted film, released by Joseph E. Levine’s Avco-Embassy Pictures, in 1968.

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Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn led an expert cast, and TLIW garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Anthony Harvey), Best Actor (O’Toole), and Hepburn for Best Actress (she took home the Oscar, her third, sharing honors with first-timer, Barbra Streisand).

Goldman also won for his screenplay, and he and director Harvey admirably expanded the play’s scope. Dramatic intimacies, however, are what make The Lion in Winter crackle, and effective use of close-ups caught every nuance.

A second version ran on Showtime, the cable television network, in 2003, starring Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart and utilizing Goldman’s original screenplay. Stewart received kudos for bringing new sensitivity to the dialogue, but Close was crushed by Hepburn’s towering Eleanor.

thelion in winter stewart

The play had a second Broadway go-round in March 1999, with Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing as Henry and Eleanor. Like Rosemary Harris, Channing scored a Tony nomination, losing to Judi Dench (Amy’s View).

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“Goldman controlled his property,” Joan revealed, “and didn’t want to do it in England. They’d criticized the script, and he absolutely refused to do it there. As for me, Goldman didn’t know who the hell I was! I saw that as an advantage; anonymity meant breathing room and no predetermined estimation of my capabilities.”

Watching Joan Fontaine work live is a distinct pleasure, but Eleanor was so different from anything in her repertoire, it threw theatre-goers for a proverbial loop.

Miss Fontaine’s re-emergence is quite starting,” raved the International Herald Tribune, on Tuesday, October 16, 1979. “She bursts on the scene with a ripe, fiery radiance. Her remembered screen image is one of a demure, soft-spoken damsel. She has matured into an actress of sweeping command…her voice, once the organ of muttered sweet nothings, now has resonance and volume. She had majestic stride and presence, robust humor and a sense of the dramatic, which overcome the play’s obvious shortcomings.”

Reflected Joan, “I saw The Lion in Winter on Broadway and thought it was simply fascinating. Eleanor is an actor’s dream–what possibilities! The characters exude extraordinary vitality, but Eleanor’s the eye of this storm. Calm, unpredictable…and oh-so dangerous.”

fontaine3 (Photo Provided by Vienna’s English Theatre )

Wiener Zeiting, Austria’s 300 year-old newspaper, wrote, “Joan Fontaine is, like the character she plays, a very imposing apparition, with great personality and with many attributes at her disposal. The grand dame, the mother, the politician, the ruler, the strategist, the abandoned, the one full of feeling, the calculating and sharp-tongued–all this she brings together under one common denominator, with her dark, intriguingly deep voice–a woman of the great world.”

In particular, Cyril Frankel’s direction had scribes swooning.

“A sample of his innovation: when for a moment the rude, noisy traffic slows for a spell, and Miss Fontaine’s Eleanor utters a desperate, lonely cry, he blacks out the stage and spotlights her face,” rhapsodized The International Herald Tribune (October 16, 1979). “As she renders her inner lament in an unexpected rush of pathos, the earth-bound lines she speaks deceptively yield the illusion of grandeur.”

fontaine2                         (Photo provided by Vienna’s English Theatre )

I asked Joan if she was surprised by the enthusiastic reviews. Here’s what she had to say:
“Oh, completely. Critics are a testy bunch. Our first show was an artistic triumph. Afterwards, a reporter interviewed me in my dressing room. The stage manager was impatient because we were late for an opening night party. I wanted to cool down, but off we went, directly into the cold Vienna air–and I ended up hospitalized with a nasty case of pneumonia.”

“Alas, we did only two shows in Vienna,” she divulged. “The others were cancelled due to my illness. I really should have taken out an ad in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to thank all our critics, but illness prevented me. I stayed in a hotel room for two weeks until I could get my strength to come back to the US.”

Strange, isn’t it? Joan Fontaine has contributed to Film, the stage and television, written her life story and brought home an Academy Award. Weighed individually, those accomplishments are remarkable enough, but the one milestone she’s proudest of flared quickly and brightly, like fireworks bursting in a nighttime sky.

“I was pleased with everything, from the production elements, to Cyril’s empathetic direction, Simon Merrick’s Henry, and the unflagging support of those involved. Later, I toured with the play stateside, but nothing compared to Vienna,” sighed Joan, nostalgically. “It was the pinnacle of my acting career–lightning in a bottle. I’ve never been so personally satisfied. Or tested.”

“Looking back, I emulated Eleanor without realizing it. Those situations don’t happen often for an actor, if at all. An enchanting serendipity.”

Note:

Joan Fontaine passed away December 15th, 2013, at age 96. I’m fortunate to have met and worked with such a remarkable human being.

She is now immortal.

Joan Fontaine

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