Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Opposite Sex (MGM, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Opposite Sex, a Joe Pasternak-produced 1956 MGM remake of The Women, a classic 1939 film based on Clare Boothe Luce’s hit 1936 play. The plot is about a group of gossipy women who’ve all landed (or are seeking to land) rich men, and who meet at exclusive restaurants, department stores and (especially) beauty salons to chatter away about who’s sleeping with whom that they’re not married to, or who wants to, or who’s getting divorced or remarried or pregnant. The 1939 version was a major production, co-starring Norma Shearer as the innocent wife Mary Haines and Joan Crawford as Crystal Allen, the department-store shopgirl who sets her sights on Mary’s husband Stephen, wins him, then loses him again after Our Mary (as I’ve pointed out here before, thanks to the Jesuits running the Production Code Administration many studios picked the name “Mary” for their most innocent, morally pure heroines) realizes that in order to get back her man she has to play just as dirty as her friends. The Women became legendary because, though virtually all its female characters’ gossip is about men, no men appear as onstage dramatis personae — and George Cukor, the closeted Gay man who directed the 1939 version, took the gynocentrism of the piece to such extremes that he insisted all the animals in the movie (of which there are quite a few, mostly dogs, cats and horses) be female and all the books in the characters’ on-screen libraries be by women authors. Alas, the writers of this version, married couple Michael and Fay Kanin, decided to blow the original concept and put the men on screen. According to TCM’s host Robert Osborne, the original plan was to keep the piece a non-musical and star Grace Kelly as the wronged wife — which might have been interesting even though I find Kelly deathly dull in virtually all her films except her three with Alfred Hitchcock directing — but she walked out on her film career to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Producer Pasternak’s next brainstorm was to turn it into a musical and star Esther Williams, but she turned it down, so eventually it got filmed with June Allyson as the wife — renamed Kay Ashley Hilliard — and Joan Collins as Crystal. Joan Collins as Joan Crawford actually works surprisingly well — she’s not as good at making the character, if not likeable, at least understandable the way Crawford did, but she does evil bitchery just as well as her near-namesake — and though not as formidable as the supporting cast from 1939 (who included Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell and Mary Boland), the secondary gossips this time around include Dolores Gray (who sings the title song under the credits but is not shown singing in the film), Ann Miller (who likewise doesn’t dance even though she was one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest dancers) and Agnes Moorehead (more Endora than Mrs. Kane or Fanny this time). The Kanins also changed the occupation of Stephen Hilliard, née Haines (Leslie Nielsen) from attorney to Broadway producer, and included a flashback sequence showing how the two men: he was a servicemember in World War II and she was a USO entertainer who performed at the camp where he was stationed, doing “Young Man with a Horn” with Harry James (playing one of his most spectacular solos on film) in what I originally suspect was a clip from the 1944 movie Two Girls and a Sailor, Allyson’s star-making film —until I looked up Two Girls and a Sailor on and found it was in black-and-white whereas The Opposite Sex was in color (and that accursed “colorization” technology hadn’t been invented yet). The song is introduced via a flashback sparked by a man from Kay’s former record company bringing over a reissue album of her old recordings — and, anachronistically, bringing over a literal album, a collection of 78 rpm discs bound together like pages in a photo album, when by 1956 such a reissue would have been on a vinyl LP.

Though not as stylish as the 1939 version, and cursed with a set of singularly uninteresting songs (except for “Now, Baby, Now,” which June Allyson performs after she and hubby have divorced and she’s had to go back to work as a singer), The Opposite Sex still has an abundance of neat wisecracks — some of them Clare Boothe Luce’s and some of them the Kanins’ — and director David Miller gets it on and off screen efficiently and manages to bring it some comic flair even stuck with the lousy CinemaScope wide-screen format (which just about everyone in Hollywood hated; Alfred Hitchcock said it was only good for snakes or funerals, and Don Siegel said, “If you go to a museum and look at the world’s great paintings, you will find they are not in the shape of Band-Aids”). Even some of the film’s misfires manage to be entertainingly campy, notably the genuinely hot Jeff Richards as Buck Winston, cowboy and all-around assistant to Reno divorce-ranch owner Lucy (Charlotte Greenwood in her last film, still tall, rail-thin and looking like she could have outrun and outlasted some of the other women in the movie), whose moth-eaten “Southern” seduction technique seems like it wouldn’t have fooled anybody (and every time he puts the move on one of the about-to-be divorcées the soundtrack gives out with the then-current hit “The Yellow Rose of Texas” — referencing Stan Freberg’s parody, I asked at one point, “Where’s that snare drummer when we need him?”) but who nonetheless attracts the attentions of Sylvia Fowler, who sponsors his New York nightclub debut as a singer — doing a song called “Rock and Roll Tumbleweeds” that’s so infectiously lame, and so totally detached from the real rock ’n’ roll of the period, it works as pure camp. Another plus for the film is June Allyson; though I only dimly recollect Norma Shearer’s performance in the original, Allyson brings a refreshing edginess to her performance, a sense that she’s devastated that someone as slimy as Crystal has seduced her husband away from her but also resilient enough to keep going and eventually win him back as well as resuming her career (and I found myself wishing at the end that she’ll keep her comeback going instead of just sinking back into 1950’s urban domesticity). There’s also the rather depressing spectacle of Stephen’s and Kay’s daughter Debbie (Sandy Descher) sounding like an apprentice bitch in training as she breaks the news to her mom that Crystal is having an affair with Buck behind both Stephen’s and Sylvia’s backs.

One irony about this story is how many people in it had actually lived the lives it depicts: Clare Boothe Luce famously seduced her husband, Time and Life publisher Henry Luce, from his first wife; June Allyson seduced Dick Powell away from his previous wife, Joan Blondell (who’s actually in the movie — the two Mrs. Powells famously hated each other but Ellen Powell, daughter of Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, apparently pleaded with her stepmom to let her mom be in the film because Blondell was broke and desperately needed the work) — and when Joan Collins, largely forgotten, made her big comeback in the 1980’s TV series Dynasty older critics with long memories said she was basically playing the same sorts of roles she’d had in this and her other big 1950’s movies like Land of the Pharoahs and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing: the seductress with a heart of stone. Of course, given how Leslie Nielsen made his 1980’s comeback — from the Airplane! Movies, the comedy TV series Police Squad, and the Naked Gun movies that spun off from it — it’s a bit hard, to say the least, to take him seriously! Indeed, this film is full of all sorts of people who were famous for doing other things; among the four listed “guest stars” were Harry James, Art Mooney (the accordionist and bandleader who leads that silly so-called “rock” number with Jeff Richards), Jim Backus and Dick Shawn. The latter two participate in an attempt at a comic musical number, with novelty lyrics set to the tune of the title song, in which Backus plays a psychiatrist (Mr. Magoo, M.D.!) examining Shawn and trying to figure out why he’s so relentlessly attracted to so many different girls. Given how queenily Shawn plays in this number — a sort of cross between Jerry Lewis and Truman Capote — it would have been easier to believe he was attracted to so many people of his own sex than the opposite one, but because of the Production Code movies still couldn’t go there in 1956. “Frankly,” I said to Charles as this dreary number ran its course, “I liked him better as Hitler.” And it’s also worth noting that the manicurist who, in one of the play’s and the earlier film’s most famous scenes, lets slip to the cuckolded wife that her husband is having an affair (she’s gossiping about Stephen Hilliard without realizing that her customer, whom she’s never seen before, is Mrs. Hilliard), is Alice Pearce, who later turned up as a regular on the TV series Bewitched, in which her Opposite Sex cast-mate Agnes Moorehead played the mother-in-law literally from hell!