Monday, February 27, 2012

The fabric of old Hollywood: the Rat Pack, Martin and Lewis, and Roddy McDowall’s home movies

Show-business documentaries are often intended to serve as introductions for the uninitiated. They also drive diehard fans a little crazy, because, if made well, they introduce them to a wealth of footage that they would like to watch at full length, without a narrator or talking heads “situating” the action — or in the case of most horrific current-day talking-heads series, simply describing the very thing we’re seeing.

One pair of documentary filmmakers, a mother and son, have “laid bare” their archives to a fascinating extent on (where else?) YouTube. Carole Langer and Luke Sacher have made a number of independent documentary features, but what concerns us here is the series of show-business profiles they created for A&E’s Biography. In putting these shows together, they utilized a number of rarely seen clips (not the public-domain specialties that appear in just about every straight-to-DVD docu), as well as one-of-a-kind reels of film that came from the stars themselves.

Thus, we can now see “above ground” some extremely rare footage that we never would’ve laid eyes on before, as well as having access online to clips that I have indeed seen before, but only on “mail-order” cassettes and discs (I’m all for using polite terms for that nastiest of phrases, "bootleg").

The uploads that are the singular possessions of Langer and Sacher are her interviews with a host of aged celebrities for the show-biz docus. Their YouTube account features her talks with Juanita Moore, Lizabeth Scott (right), Jackie Cooper, Jane Wyman, and Ann Miller.

For information and anecdotes about acts that played Las Vegas in its heyday, they turned to Shecky Greene. This interview is particularly fascinating, as it finds Ms. Langer telling Mr. Greene nearly as many stories as he tells her (she also never seems to laugh at the many, many jokes and silly voices that Greene includes in his answers). It’s an informal and informative chat, but I was kinda taken aback by her mini-lectures to Shecky:

One of the seminal figures that Langer and Sacher interviewed for their documentaries was Roddy McDowall, who, as I discussed in my interview with Carol Lynley, seemed to know everyone who mattered in Hollywood from the Fifties to the Seventies and was obviously in possession of the secrets they carried around.

More on him below, but I will note that I was extremely impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood movies and players in this interview (and rather surprised by the instance in which Ms. Langer tells him “let me finish” when she’s giving him a mini-lecture). One only wishes he had written a memoir — but the keepers of secrets never do:

The most impressive “get” for the duo interview-wise was clearly Robert Mitchum who, even though he looked seriously ill when Ms. Langer talked to him, still had an incredibly macho deep voice and the same mixture of bravado and apathy that distinguished his best performances:

The Soapbox Productions YT account provides hours and hours of viewing material, including the indie docus that Langer and Sacher made, but most show-biz fans will be drawn in by the plethora of material about Las Vegas, like the promotional short “Las Vegas, Playground USA” from 1964; silent newsreel-style footage of the Ritz Brothers when they played Vegas, also Joe E. Lewis and Noel Coward at the Desert Inn (being visited backstage by various couples, including David Niven and Judy Garland, and Sinatra and Bacall).

In this same vein are Janet Leigh’s silent home movies, which were used for an A&E Biography ep that Sacher and Langer did on Leigh. Of course, Leigh was an uncommonly lovely actress, whose best-known relationship was with husband Tony Curtis. They were a “star couple” without question, and two of their best show-biz friends were a certain Dino Crocetti and Joseph Levitch, aka Martin and Lewis.

Langer and Sacher made a very good portrait of Jerry for Biography, called “The Last American Clown.” It is filled with tantalizingly rare footage they uncovered, and other items that surely came from Lewis’s own deep stash of home movies documenting his every move. The whole show, running 90 minutes, is up on YT:

If you’re curious about what was really special (and insane) about Martin and Lewis’s act, check out this footage of them guesting on the U.S. Olympic team telethon in 1952. They call hosts Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “old timers,” generally run amok, and wind up doing a bit of gay humor (Jerry’s stage character often slid from Yiddishisms to crazed-kid behavior and gay jokes):

The pair are a bit more serious in this interview with Edward R. Murrow for “Person to Person.” They’re sitting in a room that Jerry had constructed as a screening room and an archive for the duo — they’re on friendly terms on camera, but the most interesting note is when Jerry notes that Dean ditched an appearance in Jerry’s home-movie at the very last minute:

The Soapbox YT account has a load of Martin and Lewis rarities, including:
a promotional short for The Stooge in which they wind up pretend-pummeling their producer Hal Wallis;
a greeting to movie viewers in Detroit from the set of one of their pictures; and
newsreel footage of the opening of Jerry’s camera store in L.A.(Dean did show up for that).

The lengthiest M&L rarity that they’ve uploaded is the best record of what the team looked like in a nightclub, the film of them playing the Copacabana in Feb 1954. The act is fast and loose and kinda dopey, but they certainly go at it with a fervor, and had some great moments:

The best M&L rarities show them ad-libbing their lines, and often tripping over them. As in this TV promo for The Colgate Comedy Hour, and this clip where they accept an award from Redbook magazine, along with Leslie Caron and some chick named Marilyn:

The solo Jerry rarities are just as eye-opening:

a promo for his 1960 TV special;
a behind-the-scenes short about The Nutty Professor (oh, Stella, Stella…); and
character-based TV ads Jerry shot for The Big Mouth

Jerry clearly enjoyed having making-of theatrical shorts created to promote his films. Here’s one for his sex farce Three on a Couch:

This 1968 short film about the making of Hook, Line and Sinker, is called “The Total Filmmaker,” and it indicates that even though Jerry wasn’t directing the picture he did everything on it, to the extent of editing the sound during his lunch break. It’s an amazing short and will be appreciated by both those who love and those who hate Jer (since it supplies them both with more fodder):

The rarest thing Langer has put up is a film of Jerry teaching his filmmaking class at USC in 1967. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it is pretty mindblowing to see him in front of a classroom:


Langer and Sacher’s four-part Biography documentary about the Rat Pack, which aired for four nights, is here:

The raw footage used to create that docu provide some fascinating slices of show-biz history. Here Frank, Dean, and Sammy crash Danny Thomas’s gig at the Sands (silent newsreel footage):

And the night that the Rat Pack consisted of Frank, Danny, and Jerry — this is only one of two times I know that Jerry got to be in a modified version of the Pack:

More than two decades after his death, Sammy Davis is still the biggest ass-kicker in show-biz — here he’s touring Vietnam in a short film created for the Army called “Peace, Togetherness & Sammy”:

As with the M&L Copacabana footage, there have been “mail-order” copies of the only footage that exists of the legendary “Summit at the Sands” gig with the full Rat Pack onstage goofing around at the same time; now the footage is on YT thanks to the Soapbox folks.

The secret of these gigs is that they were loose and not the group’s best — the best moments for Frank, Dean, and Sammy as a team were when they went out as a trio. But they still had a helluva a lot of fun, and the footage is truly historic and a must-see for fans. Here’s an EXTRMELY politically incorrect bit where Frank impersonates an Asian (Frank was far from the funniest guy in the Pack; he trailed Dean, Sammy, and even Joey):

The core trio do their thing. Sammy’s dancing is only at half-strength here, and he’s still pure dynamite:


The most extraordinary thing that Langer and Sacher share with us on their YT channel is a trove of home movies shot by Roddy McDowall from approximately May to September 1965 at his beachfront home in Malibu. Offering further proof that Roddy really was a personal friend of an incredible amount of stars, these silent home movies show the stars interacting at the beach, chatting, drinking, being bored, playing with the their kids — in other words, just hanging around and being normal folk (who look incredibly gorgeous and in several cases happen to be immaculately talented).

Among Roddy’s guests are those he worked with on the just-perfect Lord Love a Duck (Tuesday Weld, Ruth Gordon, George Axelord) and Inside Daisy Clover (Natalie Wood, Robert Redford, Christopher Plummer). Each time you think you recognize someone (from Jason Robards to Dennis Hopper to Judy Garland), it is who you think it is.

Among those glimpsed at Roddy’s beach parties are:

a dancing, eyepatch-wearing Sal Mineo, Tuesday, Natalie Wood, Juliet Mills, and Jack Warden ;
Lauren Bacall, James Fox, Merle Oberon, David McCallum;
the sex-kittenish Jane Fonda and prim mum Julie Andrews ;
Fonda and Andrew again, Natalie Wood, Mike Nichols, James Fox, Hope Lange, and Jennifer Jones
Simone Signoret
Ed Wynn, shoehorned amidst views of L.A. streets and Whisky a Go-go

At some times Roddy brought his camera to other people’s houses, including Jack Lemmon and Rock Hudson:

One beach gathering finds old-guard stars Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall hanging out with Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, and a dinged-up Newman (had he been racing?):

An August ’65 gathering had Paul Newman and Natalie Wood on the guest list:

Roddy’s camera did wander over to the young and attractive ladies, as here with Tuesday Weld, Hayley and Juliet Mills, Lee Remick, and Suzanne Pleshette. The one and only Ricardo Montalban supplies the beefcake:

Those who watch the Funhouse TV show know I dearly love Tuesday Weld. Here is a sort of “solo study” of her at a time when she was the only guest:

And finally one of the busier star-studded beach bashes. It took place on May 31, 1965, and the guest list included Tuesday, her future Pretty Poison costar Tony Perkins, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Suzanne Pleshette, Judy Garland, Dominick Dunne, and Lord Love a Duck auteur George Axelrod:

These snippets from Hollywood’s (and Las Vegas’s) glamorous past are kinda mind-warping. It’s one thing to see images from them embedded in a documentary, it’s quite another to see the entire source element. And for that I thank the Soapbox productions duo.

1 comment:

Carole Langer said...

Hello Ed!

just wanted to mention that:
Our 1996 biography of Janet Leigh was for Lifetime, not A&E- Janet was like an auntie to me... many of the interviews that we have uploaded to YouTube were shot in her and husband Bob Brandt's home on Summitridge Drive in Beverly Hills, just above Pickfair.

Also- I'm the grandson of actor/director Abner Biberman and grand nephew of Herbert J. Biberman (one of the Hollywood 10). Abner was Tony Curtis' drama coach at Universal- and Hated him! LOL! He mentioned Abner in his autobiography and called his classes "The Abner Biberman School of Bullshit." Is that great or what?

Lastly- the reason that Carole wasn't laughing at Shecky's jokes was so as not to step on the audio track- and the reason that she's sometimes a bit "lecturing" during the interviews is that she and I had to get the statements that we needed in a very limited amount of time.

Did you know that Carole and I produced a number of programs for PBS FRONTLINE? Carole won a DuPont Columbia Silver Baton- the Pulitzer of Broadcast Journalism in 1992.

Last thing- the Rat Pack Biography was nominated for three Prime Time Emmys- one to me for Picture Editing- and it won the Emmy for Sound Mixing. The Jerry Lewis Biography was nominated for the last Cable Ace Award for Best Documentary in 1996- cable networks were admitted to the Emmys the following year.

Warmest Regards,

Luke Sacher