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December 20, 2013


The Closest We Have to a Broadway Channel

“It was one of the best times I’ve had in my life,” said my girlfriend.

She’d just got off the annual Turner Classic Movies Classic Cruise. Linda loved traveling on the good ship Disney Magic, had fun when the boat stopped in the Bahamas (where she won $147 at video poker), rubbed elbows with Margaret O’Brien and Jane Powell, availed herself early and often of the soft-ice cream dispenser and, during screenings of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES, cried more buckets than Velma Kelly had planned to do when she took the stand.

“But what was also great,” she said, “was getting to chat with Robert Osborne. He’s so nice and approachable.”

I’m glad to hear it, for I’ve been a fan of Osborne, the longtime TCM network host, for a different reason. Yes, movies are his greatest passion, but he nevertheless gives Broadway its due. Whenever he introduces or sums up a film that has been adapted from a Broadway property, he always -- and I mean always -- credits the stage for initiating it.

He’s informed us of film adaptations that changed their names: INDISCREET was originally KIND SIR; THE FAMILY WAY was ALL IN GOOD TIME both in London and on Broadway. Osborne has even let us know that some movies we’d never think have been based on plays actually were. Who knew that THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR was originally a comedy called CONNIE COMES HOME? (Osborne, that’s who.) And after Osborne showed a Mary Boland movie, he mentioned that she was in a 1907 Broadway flop called THE RANGER. Who else would bother or care to do that?

Without TCM, we wouldn’t have seen adaptations of the Broadway obscurities A SEVERED HEAD, HOSTILE WITNESS or THREE-CORNERED MOON. For years I yearned to see ME AND THE COLONEL, the film of JACOBOWSKY AND THE COLONEL, which later became the Joel Grey vehicle and Jerry Herman musical THE GRAND TOUR. TCM made it happen and allowed me to see Danny Kaye in an atypical role of a sensitive and caring man (which had to be a great stretch for this egomaniac).

TCM hasn’t just allowed us to see the famous 1944 GASLIGHT that won an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman and a nomination for newcomer Angela Lansbury. It’s also offered us the British adaptation that had been made four years earlier. As a result, Osborne taught us that Patrick Hamilton’s play was originally called GAS LIGHT (note the space) in its London premiere, and only in New York was called ANGEL STREET, where it became Broadway’s fifth-longest-running play when it closed in 1944.

Similarly, after Greta Garbo filmed ANNA CHRISTIE, she immediately filmed another version in Swedish on the same set with the same costumes, albeit, of course, with different actors. Osborne showed both pictures to prove it.

When Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 Pulitzer-winner IDIOT’S DELIGHT went in front of the cameras, two different endings were filmed. I daresay that whenever any other network or local station has aired the film, they’ve given their viewers one ending. Osborne has routinely provided both each time he’s run the picture.

KISS ME, STUPID – a marvelous movie in which four very different people wind up getting exactly what each wants – was based on an Italian farce called L’ORA DELLA FANTASIA. Most networks wouldn’t show it either because it’s racy or because it’s in black-and-white. Not only does TCM air it, but it reinserts the scenes that were dropped because they were deemed too hot for 1965.

Seeing uncut films allows us chances to see the little details. Forty or so minutes into PAT AND MIKE, the 1952 Hepburn-Tracy comedy, there’s a shot of Broadway between 51st and 52nd Streets. More to the point, you can spy a bit of the marquee of the fondly remembered Mark Hellinger Theatre where Styne, Comden and Green’s TWO ON THE AISLE was then playing. You can even see some (but, alas, not all) of Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray’s names.

Wait a minute, you’re saying, the Hellinger marquee was ON 51st between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Yes -- one of them was. But until the mid ‘50s, the Hellinger had another entrance on Broadway -- and another marquee, too. While PAT AND MIKE is a terrific movie (and you can see ALLEGRO’S William Ching in it, too), this moment alone makes it worth catching.

What a nice time machine that Osborne and TCM provide. Without them, many of us would solely think of Ruth Gordon as the crone in ROSEMARY’S BABY. But they’ve let us see her in her comparative youth (well, 44) in ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS.

TCM allows us to compare and contrast, too. You can see the 1947 film of AN IDEAL HUSBAND and see how it stacks up with the 1999 one. (Not bad, actually.) Will you prefer the original adaptation of 1932 hit THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD or its 1955 remake entitled SINCERELY YOURS? I’ll bet the former; the latter isn’t very convincing. Would you believe a movie in which not one but TWO women want to marry Liberace?

Along the way, Osborne dispenses more little known facts than Lucy teaches Linus in YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. The difference is that Osborne doesn’t make mistakes. You can believe him when he says that when I REMEMBER MAMA played Broadway, the young son was portrayed by – yes! – Marlon Brando. How interesting to learn that the 1952 remake of Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings’ play WHAT PRICE GLORY was supposed to have six songs by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, but John Ford (who had very little music in him) thought that two would be plenty.

And without Robert Osborne to invite Stephen Sondheim to be a guest programmer, we might not know how much the esteemed composer-lyricist admires THE MIND READER, THE CLOCK, OUT OF THE FOG, NIGHT MUST FALL and TORCHY BLANE IN CHINATOWN. Of course, we didn’t need to rely on Osborne to learn that Sondheim has affection for his other pick: SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT; A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC proved that beyond a, to quote another film that TCM routinely offers, SHADOW OF A DOUBT. (No, that Hitchcock film isn’t adapted from a Broadway property, but it was written by one of our blue-chippers: Thornton Wilder.)

We’ve all seen a good number of Oscar-winning movies, but we’ve had far fewer opportunities to see Oscar-winning short subjects. But Osborne and TCM pick up the slack there, too. I was thrilled to get the chance to see the 1938 live-action victor, DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. How much would it verify or contradict Peter Stone’s magnificent book for 1776? Quite a bit, in fact, for it literally solves the argument about slavery in seconds and makes Caesar Rodney of Delaware the Declaration’s greatest hero.

Osborne is the one who let me know that DEAR RUTH, the 1944 Broadway hit comedy, was responsible for naming one of literature’s most famous characters. All right, it was the film version that starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield that was really responsible. But without that show succeeding for 680 performances on Broadway, te film wouldn’t have happened.

Here’s the story: a young writer was passing by a movie theater where DEAR RUTH was playing. The theater had one of those semi-circular marquees which the writer was approaching from the extreme corner; thus, all he saw were William and Joan’s surnames atop each other in those red letters that were clamped over the white field. And that’s how J.D. Salinger settled on the name Holden Caulfield for his novel THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.

Wish I had thought to have my girlfriend ask Osborne a question that came to mind when I saw that TCM was running ANNIE GET YOUR GUN on Jan. 16. Was that date chosen because it’s also Ethel Merman’s birthday? No, she doesn’t appear in the picture (more’s the pity), but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this scheduling had been carefully planned.

After all, Osborne always seems to be on the lookout for themes, devoting evenings to “Fantasy Worlds” (BILLY LIAR is part of that one) to “Spellbinders” (including the aforementioned GASLIGHT). I’m amused that Jan. 24’s theme -- “Science in the Movies” – includes BYE BYE BIRDIE. If you’ve ever seen that wildly rewritten film version (and I’ll bet you have), then you know how a Broadway show that satirized the music business and teen mores could be placed in this category.

So how far-reaching is Osborne and TCM’s influence? A few months ago, I went to Source, a Washington DC theatrical mecca, to see ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO as adapted by my buddy Bari Biern. She’s provided a new translation for many an opera, so when Source commissioned her to write a new version of the Mozart masterpiece, she was fully prepared to do a straightforward adaptation.

“But then,” she said, “I happened to see THE WESTERNER, that 1940 movie in which Judge Roy Bean becomes so besotted by a picture of British actress Lily Langtry that he winds up naming a town in her honor. I noticed so many parallels with Gottlob Stephanie’s story, and set the opera in the Wild West.”

Biern’s adaptation turned out to be rip-roarin’, double-barelled fun.
And need I tell you that it wouldn’t have happened had she not been watching a certain network that had been showing THE WESTERNER?

         — Peter Filichia

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