Tuesday, August 27

The Directors: George Seaton

How George Seaton first came to my attention, way back in the mid-50s, was when he made films with William Holden, an actor I was already pretty nuts about, and whose career I think was benefited by his working relationship with Seaton and perhaps vice versa as well. Seaton is the director who guided Grace Kelly to her Oscar, another reason I would take notice of his work.

He is actually the consummate movie man in that he not only directed but produced and wrote as well. He has two Oscars for writing. Despite wanting to focus on his directorial chores, it is difficult to separate some of that from writing and producing because in some films, he was a triple threat. From 1945 to 1973, Seaton would receive credit for directing just 20 films. He would write, in some form, 35 films and produce 11 films. He would even act in two movies. This is a man, perhaps unknown to you, who knew a lot about making movies and is responsible for involving himself in some good ones.

He was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1911 but moved to Detroit after college to take a job as a radio actor on station WXYZ. He became the second actor/voice to play The Lone Ranger and said that he created the expression Hi-Yo, Silver because he couldn't whistle for the horse as required in the script. His time there was brief for later in the same year, 1933, he was hired as a writer at the mighty MGM.

He knew he had hit the big time. Without conceit or embellishment, he also knew he was talented in many areas and thought that Hollywood would recognize his gifts. He received no screen credit for a few films, including the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera but the next year received his first writing credit for the brothers' A Day at the Races, one of their best. Seaton would also receive no screen credit for his contribution to the writing on The Wizard of Oz.

During the entire 1940s, he was housed at my favorite movie studio, 20th Century Fox. In the first five years he wrote a number of screenplays (including Moon Over Miami, Charley's Aunt and The Song of Bernadette) and in 1945 he began his directing career, something he was itching to do, with the popular Betty Grable-Dick Haymes musical Diamond Horseshoe. He also wrote the screenplay for the film and from now on, he would mainly be a double threat on his films and often a triple threat when he also began producing, which he often did with William Perlberg.

I still can see the Perlberg-Seaton label on their films and they would work together for many years, most successfully. In many ways that success came out of their autonomy. Perlberg's money and clout allowed Seaton to write just about anything his heart desired and then direct it as well. They usually put out a damned good product.

Seaton's second directorial assignment, released the same year as Diamond Horseshoe, was the smart (and smart-aleck) comedy Junior Miss. In the title role is Peggy Ann Garner as sheer perfection as an exasperating young teenager who plays Cupid in everyone's lives with decidedly mixed results. This is quite a treasure of a little film, occasionally on TCM and this is a recommendation coming your way.

In 1947 Seaton would direct one of his two most popular films and certainly the one for which he is most remembered, the sentimental, Christmas favorite Miracle on 34th Street. You can have your It's a Wonderful Life. For my money the best Christmas-themed film is Miracle (and ok, White Christmas jingles my bells, too) with its message of faith and hope and believing in the impossible. It contained remarkable performances from beautiful Maureen O'Hara, handsome John Payne, adorable Edmund Gwenn (as Kris Kringle) and even more adorable, 9-year old Natalie Wood. It would win Seaton his first of two writing Oscars and Gwenn would be the first of three actors to win an Oscar under Seaton's tutelage.

Every movie can't be a roaring success, apparently no matter how talented the boss is, and Seaton made some undistinguished films for awhile after Miracle. With the help of Bing Crosby, that all changed in 1953. Seaton, now away from Fox and pulling down some duty at Paramount, saw some talent in Crosby that either others didn't see or they ignored. Seaton noted Crosby's well-documented darker side and felt sure he could use it to everyone's advantage and employ the crooner in dramatic roles.

There would two films in a row. The first was the largely unknown Little Boy Lost in which the Crosby plays a war correspondent who returns to France after the war to try and reclaim the son who went missing after a bombing raid. Never a huge Crosby fan (oh, ok, there is White Christmas... we already know that), let me step up and say he really delivered the goods in this lovely, tender-hearted film.

Next up was a true gem. While it's not on my 50 Favorite Films list, it would certainly be in the next 50... and that is The Country Girl. Crosby was an alcoholic and a not very employable Broadway actor whom director William Holden wants for a role that would change the actor's fortunes should he be able to pull it off. Either standing in the way of that or being the link to success was the actor's wife, played winningly by Grace Kelly. She would be Seaton's second actor to garner an Oscar.

Originally the choice to play the title role was Jennifer Jones, who dropped out due to pregnancy. Kelly had coveted the role from the start, knowing what it could do for her career. She was heartbroken when she didn't get it and then thrilled when she did. In real life, Kelly was embroiled in an affair with Holden and between this film and her next venture with Crosby, High Society, she would have an interlude with him as well. Knowing all this while taking in the highly emotional dialogue of The Country Girl makes this film very special, at least to me.

Kelly's Oscar win has always been controversial, although Seaton was certainly happy about the outcome. Judy Garland was also up for her tour-de-force in A Star is Born.  Everyone on the planet thought Garland would win and while I would be the first to admit how glorious she was in the role, I was in Grace's corner and thought then and now that she gave the greatest performance of her career in The Country Girl.. So there's George and Grace and me on the other side. I can live with it.

The Country Girl was the first time I had seen Holden's work with the director but they had previously made one of those silly films together, An Apartment for Peggy, which I later caught on the tube. But right after Girl came one of my favorite films for both Seaton and Holden and also the female lead, Deborah Kerr. It is called The Proud and Profane.

Holden looked as different as he was ever likely to with black hair and a mustache playing a mean-tempered colonel in the South Pacfic during WWII. Kerr has never had a role in which she was so bitter as a Red Cross nurse who is trying to find out what happened to her soldier husband. The film also contains one of the best dramatic Thelma Ritter performances she ever gave... and that's saying a mouthful.

It's a nearly forgotten film and the fact that it's basically a downer is likely why, coupled with the fact that two of the most popular actors of the time were playing so strongly against type. But I found the story appealing, the acting riveting and old George really pulled off another one. His talent with actors is so apparent and most seemed willing to go the distance to give him what he wanted.

His last production of the 50s was Teacher's Pet, a pretty good romantic-comedy with Clark Gable and Doris Day where a professional reporter takes a beginner's writing course from a woman who doesn't know what he's up to. One of Day's better entries of this genre, it was also an unusual but good choice for Gable.

By the early 60s, Seaton had taken a liking to German actress, Lilli Palmer, and cast her in two completely different films, bringing to the forefront her divergent talent. First up was a yummy and sophisticated comedy, The Pleasure of His Company. The plot surrounded how daughter Debbie Reynolds' wedding to Tab Hunter was going to be pulled off successfully when her long-lost father, Fred Astaire (himself in a change of pace role) returns and stays with ex-wife Palmer and her current husband Gary Merrill.

If two films could be more different, up next was the hard-hitting The Counterfeit Traitor, Seaton's final film with William Holden. War films are not among my favorites, but when one is good, dammit, they're just plain good, and this is one of them. Holden is a Swedish oilman who is blackmailed into assisting the British into spying on the Nazis. Palmer was his cohort and lover. Both actors were simply terrific as was the tense and well-written story. Thanks, George.

Seaton would continue with two more war films. The first, The Hook, concerned the Korean War this time and the problems incurred by three soldiers (Kirk Douglas, Robert Walker and Nick Adams) who anguish over orders to kill an enemy captive. It's more a psychological film than an action one and while not one of Seaton's most honored, the three actors (and Enrique Magalona as the captive) pulled it off.

Better was 36 Hours, also psychological in nature, a bit of a thriller, with James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor. Garner is a kidnapped American major during WWII who is drugged while in a hospital by the Germans who attempt to convince him the war is over so he will reveal some secrets. It was a unique war story, a good one, that should have been more popular than it was.

And talk about popular. The esteemed director's penultimate film was without question his most popular and certainly his most financially rewarding. Perhaps its take for Seaton allowed him his retirement in a fancier fashion. You have heard of it, I promise. It was called Airport.

I like disaster movies. Maybe I should hang my head in shame but I just don't believe in doing that. I have long been a fan of a large cast of well-known actors portraying people in peril. Add some buttered popcorn and I am so there. And in one film the likes of Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, Helen Hayes (Seaton's third Oscar winner), Maureen Stapleton and in his last screen performance, the wonderful Van Heflin, and bunches more... well, what can I say? Seaton and people like him hire such people in such numbers because they know I and people like me are out there. I loved Airport. It really is hopelessly silly but I was entertained to the max and honestly, that is the first and foremost job of the movies... keep me entertained. Oh, and you, too.

George Seaton was also known as an often witty and frequent go-to guy for quotes. I have collected or been given books of quotes for years and have long noticed how many quotes from Seaton are in there. Many of them come from Miracle on 34th Street, such as faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to and in the same vein I believe... I believe... it's silly but I believe. There was also guys who dress up like Santa Claus, see, and give presents away do it because when they was young they must have did something bad and they feel guilty about it. So now they do something they think is good to make up for it,see? Seaton also liked to say there's a lot of bad isms floating around this world but one of the worst is commercialism. (This was no doubt long before he raked in the coins for Airport.)

I suspect there is not another director who made so few films that I liked so much. George Seaton died of cancer in Beverly Hills in 1979 at age 68.

Coming in September

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