Tuesday, December 10

Taylor-Made in the 50s

Elizabeth Taylor made 52 theatrical films.  Some are among Hollywood's greatest booty while others are at the bottom of the cinema food chain.  I don't think any actress of her stature ever made so many bad movies (we can argue about that later).  Luckily, only a few of them were in the 50s.  She was then under contract to MGM and though she often rebelled at the studio's dictates, she was at her most disciplined and seemed to care more about her work than in any other decade.  It was in the 50s that she truly came into her own as an actress, certainly an adult one.  She was not a trained actress but more of an instinctive one and she could really turn it on under the watch of a great director.  She had a few of those in the 1950s. 

The 18-year old began the 50s with the clunky Big Hangover, the first of two ill-conceived pairings with Van Johnson.  She was trying to be so grownup and he was usually agonizingly immature.  It's been said it's a comedy about a man who is allergic to booze and she's out to cure him.  Of the booze?  Or the allergy?  Of himself?   I have a toast!  Let's move along.

What certainly was a smart comedy was Father of the Bride (1950) and what a coup it was to score Spencer Tracy for the father role, a rare comedic outing for him.  Taylor-lookalike Joan Bennett was wisely cast as the mother.  We all know the guffaws derived from Tracy's character losing his marbles over the expense and management of his daughter's impending marriage.  It didn't hurt the picture that in real life its beautiful young star was also being married for the first time to dashing hotel heir Nicky Hilton.  The same gang gathered next for a sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1951), which was as wildly successful as its predecessor.  Both movies were directed by the darling of MGM directors, Vincente Minnelli.

Next would be one of the most important pictures La Liz would ever make, George Stevens production of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, now called A Place in the Sun (1951).  Loaned to Paramount, it was her graduation film into adulthood and she fought tooth and lavender nail to get it.  She played the rich girlfriend of a poor boy.  He was desperate to make something of himself, eager for wealth, but who has made a serious error in judgment regarding a coworker he's been involved with.  The film introduced her to Montgomery Clift who became a lifelong friend and with whom she would make two more films in this decade.  Come to Mama, she ardently purrs to him, pulling him near and we, the audience, fight off the sparks from the sexual flames from two of the screen's great beauties.

Love Is Better Than Ever was a step backwards, but to be fair, it was actually filmed a few years earlier and released in 1952, no doubt, basking in that Sunshine.  She was a dance instructor who falls for a guy who would rather be single.  He was Larry Parks who around this same time had been blacklisted because of a prior communist affiliation.  It was not a good time; it was not a good film.

She was reunited with another Taylor, Robert, with whom she had worked in the late 40s in the Sir Walter Scott tale, Ivanhoe.  It was highly successful but I seriously doubt that Liz would have remembered the film except that it took her to England and into the arms of her second husband, Michael Wilding.  Hell, she even lost the knight to Joan Fontaine.

Her next five films, all very popular as her star rose higher and higher, were ones she did to fulfill a contract.  She didn't like being told what to do... ever.  But she could see the end of her time at the studio and she got through it as best she could.  In 1953s The Girl Who Had Everything (oh, what a title for a Taylor film), she mugged with Argentinean heartthrob, Fernando Lamas.  In Rhapsody she did the same with Italian heartthrob Vittorio Gassman, who was a famous pianist and she his suffering girlfriend. 

In 1954 she did something she never did again... inherit a role that was begun by another actress.  Second choice!  She was again loaned out to Paramount to replace Vivien Leigh (suffering from a mental breakdown) in Elephant Walk.  It supposedly took place in Ceylon but I'm betting she never left Culver City.  She did look ravishing amongst the stampeding pachyderms.

A blonde Liz with her "Beau"

That same year she made the oh-so-silly Beau Brummell with Stewart Granger while his wife Jean Simmons was making The Egyptian with Taylor's husband, Michael Wilding.  Of the four, Taylor just never really fit into costume dramas.  She was a modern girl with modern sensibilities and a bit adrift without a great director.

She got one in Richard Brooks who knew how to handle her special qualities.  The Last Time I Saw Paris was certainly not a great movie but it was one I liked and so did much of the public.  Van Johnson was back, again battling the bottle as her husband, Donna Reed was her sister and Walter Pidgeon their father.  It was about a dark romance which ends when Johnson neglects wife Taylor and she dies as a result of being locked out of their home in a rainstorm.  Reed then refuses to let him have their daughter.  The soap suds rose and so did the strains of the title song which I didn't think they'd ever stop playing.

Then lovely Liz hit the big time when George Stevens again asked for her services to play Leslie Benedict in Edna Ferber's Giant.  The role was a giant step forward for the actress as the anticipation for this film and its luminous cast was surpassed by box office receipts and critical acclaim.  It was the best thing she had done since A Place in the Sun.  I won't go into this film here since I outlined it in my 50 Favorite Films.

Raintree County (1957), directed by the great Edward Dmytryk, has been roundly trounced from the beginning of its release and in some circles still is.  People have said it was too long, too ambitious, too odious and an obvious attempt to copy Gone With the Wind.  I think it stands proudly on its own merit.  Taylor was reunited with her pal, Clift (who would suffer a horrific car accident during the making of this film) for this Civil War drama.  He was a poet/teacher who loses his longtime girlfriend to the wiles of and a marriage to a mentally-damaged Taylor.  With an outstanding cast that includes Eva Marie Saint, Rod Taylor, Lee Marvin and Agnes Moorehead, it delivers a credible rendering of a time and its people.  Taylor would cop the first of four consecutive best actress Oscar nominations.

I just slobbered all over myself a few postings back about her glorious turn in 1958's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, again directed by Richard Brooks, which should stand comfortably in the top three films the actress ever made.  So I'm guessing there's no need to do a repeat here.  We might add there was another Oscar nomination.

Her final film of the decade was Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), her last pairing with Clift and her only collaboration with the mighty Katharine Hepburn.  I was not so interested in this film at the time but Taylor had already won me over as a fan, as had Clift, as had Hepburn.  There was no way I could miss seeing it.  As I've grown older (and older), I have developed a great liking for this Tennessee Williams work which deals with homosexuality, incest, cannibalism and mental illness.  One wonders how it ever got made in the golly-gee whiz 50s.  There would be another Oscar nomination.  The director was the acclaimed Joseph Mankiewicz who would shortly steer her in one of the most famous films Taylor would ever make.

We'll be back with you soon with another posting and a whole other take on the legendary actress.

Picture Quiz III

1 comment:

  1. You got it right on Raintree County.
    One reviewer noted, "Our hero married Scarlett O'Hara and got Blanche Dubois".
    Doesn't get any better than that.