Tag Archives: Julie Harris

Robert Wagner: Rico Suave

Ahoy, there! Robert Wagner in 1956.

Ahoy, there! Robert Wagner in 1956.

A few days ago, I came across the following exchange on YouTube — it’s from a video that features a Q&A session with Robert Wagner, during a TCM cruise. The clip begins with the off-screen voice of an elderly woman, identified as Aunt Helen, who is evidently in mid-sentence.

Aunt Helen: . . . well, number one . . .
Robert Wagner: Number One? I’m Number Two . . .
AH: Robert . . .
RW: Yes, dear.
AH: I fell in love with you when I was thirteen years old . . .
RW: What stateroom are you in?

Classic Robert Wagner — affable, polite, amused, likeable and slightly naughty.

Nobody can accuse Robert Wagner of having appeared in too many great pictures, but he has been in plenty of good ones; he’s unfailingly an agreeable presence, and he always, always holds his own against all comers. He’s often better than the material he appears in, and is never worse. Like many stars from the era that immediately preceded his own, his voice is immediately recognizable — it’s melodious and as easy on the ear as the rest of him is easy on the eye. Anyhow, I’ve always liked the guy: when he turns up in a picture, I’m always delighted to see him. He’s a first-rate light comedian — he’s one of the best and most graceful comic actors in the business — and he handles drama with considerable skill. But he’s best in sophisticated comedy. What’s not to like? He’s a dreamboat with a sunny disposition and a heart of gold.

In his early pictures at Twentieth Century-Fox, where he was first under contract, he was either getting killed in battle (e.g., “What Price Glory?”), or, at the very least, taking an awful beating, as in these two examples:

With a Song in My Heart

Original Poster.

Original poster.

In “With a Song in My Heart,” from 1952, Wagner appears briefly as a sweet-faced soldier whom we meet only twice. First, we see him as a fresh recruit at a performance of the recently crippled pop singer, Jane Froman (Susan Hayward). In his memoir, “Pieces of My Heart,” Wagner points out that he hadn’t yet learnt to act, and that his reactions are genuine. Naturalness has always been the hallmark of Wagner’s style. His entire performance is contained in the next three clips; it’s the performance that started his whole career.

Embraceable You

It’s just possible that Susan Hayward is the biggest ham in pictures. Everything about her is phony. Here she is, painted like the Whore of Babylon, and lip-syncing to Jane Froman’s recording of “Embraceable You.” She sings/mouths much of it directly to the fantastically handsome Robert Wagner — and, ham that she is, instead of just having a good time, she “indicates” it — acts it out — like in a game of charades. Aw, fer Chrissakes, honey, stop acting! And yet, I can’t get mad at her: without her, there’d be no Charles Busch. Her brand of terrible doesn’t make me mad: it makes me laugh.

Those two gentlemen at the end of the clip are Rory Calhoun and David Wayne. Calhoun’s career was derailed by a scandal in the mid-fifties. Robert Wagner writes about it in his memoir, and in “You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age.” (Both books were co-authored by Scott Eyman; both are great fun to read.) According to Wagner, when “Confidential” (a fifties scandal magazine) was about to print a tell-all exposé of Rock Hudson’s private life, Hudson’s agent, Harry Willson, bought their silence by selling out one of his less popular clients: Rory Calhoun. Willson let them know that Calhoun had been busted on a robbery beef when he was a teenager. As Wagner puts it, “It was a simple calculation on Willson’s part — 10 percent of Rock’s salary meant a lot more than 10 percent of Calhoun’s.” The scandal ruined Calhoun’s career. Wagner also mentions that Willson died broke.

Tea for Two

Awww, he’s bashful . . . ! Look at this handsome bastard go into his innocent act. Great stuff.

“Joe . . . May we have a soft, soulful light, please?” God, look at that phony broad act . . . ! It’s remarkable how many different ways Susan Hayward finds to be artificial. Oh, I beg your pardon, this is supposed to be about Robert Wagner.

Every major studio during the fifties had a dozen or more handsome young contract players competing for the same small number of small parts, but Robert Wagner is the only real looker from that era who is still going strong. His contemporary, Tony Curtis, achieved major stardom more quickly and, at his peak, was a much bigger star than Wagner ever was, but Wagner’s career never took the nose-dives that Curtis’ did, nor did Wagner ever have to make a fool of himself in any sword and sandals epics. (“Prince Valiant” was a serious embarrassment early on, but the wig took most of blame for that one.) And Wagner is still alive and hard at it (except that he never allows it to look hard).

I’ll Walk Alone

Wagner shows up a little later in the picture, after the War has done terrible things to him. Just look at the Kabuki makeup they used to make him look ill and shell-shocked, and you know the poor boy is doomed. In those days, the more pancake makeup that was visible on an actor’s face, the closer his character was to death. In this clip, Wagner is clearly at the very gateway of the Great Divide, a victim of Hollywood’s favorite disease, pancake poisoning.

In “Pieces of My Heart,” Wagner writes:

I’m embarrassed to say that I read the script and didn’t see it. “This isn’t very much,” I told Darryl [Zanuck, head of the studio]. And with great patience, he told me, “This will be the biggest break you will have had in your career. You will be on the screen for three minutes. When people come out of the theater, they will want to know who you are.”

That was the last time I questioned Darryl Zanuck’s judgment about the movies. I was too young to realize that Darryl was placing me, sculpting moments for me that would compel the audience’s attention. He was taking very good care of me.

After “With a Song in My Heart” was released, Wagner began to receive thousands of fan letters a week and his career was on its way.

For the record, Wagner also has nothing but praise for Susan Hayward: he gives her most of the credit for his effectiveness in the scene. His loyalty to the actress does him credit, but still I beg to differ. His performance still looks real today; hers is one hundred percent baloney. (She was nominated for an Oscar, of course, but lost to Shirley Booth in “Come Back, Little Sheba.”)

Stars and Stripes Forever

Original poster.

Original Poster.

Prim, swishy, desiccated Clifton Webb was an early mentor to Wagner; characteristically, Wagner has only good things to say about him. They made two pictures together (“Titanic” was the other), but I find it especially funny to see Webb in his John Philip Sousa whiskers and suffering agonies of desire for Wagner in “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952). Musical biopics are almost without exception spectacularly terrible, but “Stars and Stripes Forever” is among the worst of the lot; “bottom of the barrel” doesn’t begin to describe it: it’s the slime underneath the barrel. It is remarkably, hilariously, memorably bad. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Clifton Webb is less dreadful than usual (bad material agrees with him better than good stuff), but it’s Robert Wagner who really holds my interest. He is so outrageously handsome that every time he’s onscreen I begin to laugh: how can anyone look that good? Debra Paget is the sex-kitten, but Wagner’s a whole lot prettier than she is. The role he’s playing is impossible, but he’s funny and charming in it.

This clip should give you a fair idea of what the whole picture is like:

Well, you can see for yourself that the material is atrocious, but Wagner’s self-possession is pretty remarkable, considering his inexperience. And I enjoy watching poor old Clifton eating him with his eyes (this is more apparent in other scenes than in the clip above). Later on in the picture, Wagner’s character loses a leg — a rum go for a fellow whose chief desire is to be in a marching band. I’ve uploaded a longish clip of the last scene on YouTube (it’s called “Wagner lo Zoppo”), but I’ve decided not to offer it here. It really is too crummy, even for here, where lousiness has often been celebrated. But there are limits.

The Pink Panther

Re-release poster.

Re-release Poster. The artwork is by Mad Magazine cartoonist, Jack Rickard.

“The Pink Panther” (Mirisch Company, 1963) is the first Robert Wagner picture I ever saw. I was just a little kid at the time, but he made an indelible impression on me: I thought he was the swellest guy I’d ever seen. He doesn’t have to do much in this next clip except be debonair, get the lighter to work on the first try, and keep a straight face — he does each to perfection.

Meglio Stasera

He has even less to do in this clip. He only has to sit next to David Niven and listen to gorgeous Fran Jeffries sing “Meglio Stasera,” but I like how well he does it. He gives her his full attention and never takes his eyes off her. Peter Sellers never stops trying to steal scenes; he often succeeds, but not always — anyhow, as far as Sellers is concerned, every scene he’s in is about him. Wagner is content to put the focus where it belongs. Sellers is funny, all right, but I constantly find myself wishing he’d do less. I prefer Capucine and Wagner.

Shwing Time

I love this brief clip of Wagner and Capucine. She needs to find a way to make him keep his trap shut, so she uses the age-old, time-honored, sure-fire method of securing silence and cooperation: she gives him a boner.

In the Clink with Niven

Here he is near the end of the picture, completely holding his own in the presence of David Niven and Peter Sellers.


Original poster.

Original poster.

“Harper” (Warner Bros, 1966) has what is generally regarded as Wagner’s best performance. He rarely has had the opportunity to play so many different emotions as he does in this one.

Here’s how we first meet him. That’s Pamela Tiffin on the diving board. On William Goldman’s amusing, often cantankerous commentary track, the first sight of Miss Tiffin all but knocks the wind out of him: “Isn’t she gorgeous?!” he says almost incredulously. Yes she is.

How many actors are able to say “Top o’ the morning” and sound hip? Not even Paul Newman sounds right saying it. But Wagner . . . well, as Brando once said of John Gielgud, “That cat is down!”

Here he is in what is probably the most dramatic scene of his movie career. He’s perhaps a little bit of a lightweight for this sort of thing, but then again, Alan Taggart is supposed to be something of a lightweight. I don’t think anyone else could play it better than he does.

By the way, the girlfriend/singer in question, whom Newman calls “that Fraley broad,” is played by Julie Harris. Her singing must be heard to be believed: when Newman says she’s a no-talent, he’s not kidding. Lauren Bacall is also on hand in an amusing role — she’s the rich bitch who hires Newman to find her missing husband. We’re supposed to believe she’s paralyzed after a fall from a horse, but in one scene, we can see her easily move her fabulous legs. This would seem to be a clue to the mystery, but it turns out to be merely an error. But it’s never a mistake to have a good look at Bette Bacall’s sensational gams.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Poster for Italian release.

Poster for Italian release.

This essay began with a reference to Wagner’s comic turn as Dr Evil’s henchman, Number Two, and that is where I’ll end. Number Two is a role Wagner was born to play. Here is his first entrance.

You get the idea. In “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (New Line, 1997) it’s a running gag to have the jokes go on far too long.

And here we see Number Two cheating at cards. You will note that the Soup Nazi (Larry Thomas) is the dealer — and he’s still in a bad mood.

‘East of Eden’: Follow Van Fleet

Original poster.

Original poster.

If you’re a sensitive white American teenage boy or girl, it’s entirely likely that you’ll consider “East of Eden” (Warner Bros., 1955) to be the greatest picture of all time, especially if you’ve got a little yen for James Dean. Then, when you get a little older, if you have any sense, you’ll begin to think different. Happily, for those of us with a little sense, there’s still plenty to like and admire about the picture, but you’ve got to be willing to choke down many things that somehow manage, paradoxically, to be steamed up, boiling over and half-baked — all at the same time. The screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s elephantine novel has got an almost awesome amount of emotional pull to it. The Central California locations are gorgeous, and look great in CinemaScope (Ted McCord did the cinematography); Leonard Rosenman’s imposing romantic score keeps working your emotions into a lather; the young actors are attractive and achingly sensitive; the old-timers are pros who can bend the baloney any way they like. The only trouble is that it makes no sense at all. But what a swell, emotional ride it is when you’re a teenager! I remember how terrifically it used to get my nuts in a bunch when I was in high school. It’s the motion picture equivalent of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” which is fantastically engrossing when you’re young, but ludicrous once you’ve got a plenitude of rings on your tree.

I continue to like “East of Eden” a lot. In fact, I love it. But I love it for reasons that I seriously doubt were what director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Paul Osborn had in mind. For instance, I love to watch Jo Van Fleet act that jittery kid right off the screen. He’s up to all his usual tics, but Van Fleet shrugs at him, then backs up her truck and proceeds to steal the picture out from under him. When she narrows her eyes and lets the smoke come chuffing through her dragon nostrils, she seems to be saying, “G’ahead and ham it up, kid: won’t do ya no good, though: they ain’t even lookin’ at ya — not s’long as I’m in the frame.” He’s in the foreground, going through his catechism of spasms; she’s sitting still and scowling, smoking her stubby behind her big manly desk with her plum-colored gloves on . . . you can’t take your eyes off her, and you can’t wait to hear what she’ll say next, or how she’s gonna say it. To hear her say “Makes me mad just to think about a rrraannch” gives me a thrill of pleasure that lasts for the next fifteen minutes. (I have a brother who once told me, “She’s not sexy: she’s obscene.” Bingo.)

Jo Van Fleet won the Academy Award for her performance, and boy did she deserve it. (She’s even better in her one short, unforgettable scene as Arletta, Cool Hand Luke’s mother, in 1967, but she wasn’t nominated for that one.) Frank Langella gave her the back of his hand in his mean-spirited book. She may well have been the bitch he claims she was, but all I care about is the quality of her work. You’ll have to go a long way to find her equal.

Jo Van Fleet: 'Now, whaddaya want with five thousand dollars?'

Jo Van Fleet: ‘Now, what do you want with five thousand dollars?

I heard a story from a friend who, when he was a little kid, knew Marlon Brando: Brando was one of his father’s best friends. Apparently, James Dean once attended a party that Brando was at, and spent the whole evening trying, but failing, to impress him. Before Brando left, he purred: “Young man, I would recommend for you . . . psychoanalysis.” I think of that story just about every second that James Dean’s onscreen. I can’t help thinking that it’s not neurosis that I’m seeing, but hamming. He’s definitely got something, though. I just hope it’s not catching.

The story is essentially a highly steamed up Papa-Drama, loosely based on the Cain and Abel story: well-beloved “good” son Aron (Richard Davalos) versus much-reviled “bad” son Caleb (called “Cal,” James Dean), vying for the love of their stern father, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey, who loathed James Dean), and it all leads up to an extremely emotional happy ending, which happens after the comely, neurotic “bad” son’s Bible-thumping dad suffers a massive stroke, and Julie Harris slips into the old man’s room to deliver an exquisitely modulated Grand Remonstrance, the gist of which is: “Oh, Mr Trask, let Cal do for you, or he’ll never be a man!” It’s astonishing how fine she is in this scene. Julie Harris was hugely admired throughout her long career, and I saw her many times on stage and in pictures, but I never saw her come close again. At any rate, her speech takes its effect, whereupon the old man yields just enough to give the picture a happy ending. And what a sacrifice he makes: now that he’s a helpless, all-but-speechless invalid, he’ll permit his beautiful, no-count son to do for him. He’ll allow the boy to spoon pablum into his pie-hole, and change his diapers, and wait on him hand and foot until that fell arrest without all bail shall carry him away. What tears of joy this used to make me shed!