Friday, May 9

The Directors: George Sidney

He was what was called a studio contract director.  He was not independent, not a free-lancer.  He was contracted by MGM to do what he was told to do.  In my piece on director Richard Brooks, under contract to the same studio, I mentioned how he bristled at being an indentured servant.  People like Brooks strove for autonomy.  Directors like George Sidney didn't mind at all being told what to direct and when to do it.  Lucky for us he did his job so well. 

His time was primarily the 1940s, MGM's glory days, and his métier was the musical.  MGM was well-known and respected for its musicals and Sidney is certainly one of the reasons why that is so.  He occasionally departed from big-budget musicals and jumped into costume dramas with equal flourish.

Born in New York in 1916 to a show biz family, his father was a Broadway producer and his mother performed on the stage.  Sidney also did a turn in vaudeville but his first job came at 5 years old in a Tom Mix silent, The Littlest Cowboy

By age 18 he had moved to California and was hired at MGM as a messenger boy.  One could say he started at the bottom and worked his way up.  He soon learned the ropes of being a sound technician and later still an editor.  He assumed director duties in the studio's Our Gang comedies and at only 20 the studio had such faith in him that he directed all screen tests.  He also directed short films. 

In 1943 he was given the assignment of directing Thousands Cheer, one of those all-star extravaganzas, immensely popular during the decade with most of the thousands cheering were the military men for whom the film was intended.  Gene Kelly starred as a private who falls in love with the colonel's daughter, Kathryn Grayson.  His next assignment was 1944's Bathing Beauty, Esther Williams's entry into movie the pool, a lavish spectacle which features a water ballet finale that was certainly the highlight of a rather corny film.  It seems incredible that Bathing Beauty became, at the time, MGM's third highest grosser behind the 1925 version of Ben Hur and 1939's Gone with the Wind.

Sidney really hit pay dirt with his next two features.  Frank Sinatra joined Grayson and Kelly for Anchors Aweigh (1945), about two Navy buddies pursuing the same girl.  The film featured what was at the time state of the art special effects when Kelly danced with Jerry the mouse.  It was enormously popular as was The Harvey Girls (1946), a Judy Garland songfest about waitresses out to tame the wild west.

By the way, that Jerry the mouse sequence was created by two wizards known as Hanna and Barbera.  They so impressed Sidney that when they later formed their own company, they did so with Sidney, who helped finance it and was its president for 10 years.

Taking a short break from musicals, he tried Cass Timberlane (1947), an older man-younger woman romance drama.  Despite Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner in the leads, it fared not so well.  Much better was his first costume drama, a year later, The Three Musketeers, still my favorite version of the many out there.  Turner was regal at the menacing Lady de Winter and Gene Kelly was oh so athletic as D'Artagnan.  With a cast that included June Allyson, Van Heflin, Gig Young, Vincent Price and Angela Lansbury, it showed how comfortable Sidney was with large, glittery casts.

The stars of "The Three Muskleteers"

While the studio loved Sidney and the dollars he brought to them, it couldn't have hurt that he was married to Lillian Burns, MGM's longtime and long-respected drama coach.  The Sidneys helped bring about that family feeling L.B. Mayer tried so hard to create.

After a couple of duds, Sidney jumped into five consecutive successes... and I mean successes.  Some directors have had more than five greats in a row but most have not had that many.  Up first was 1950's Annie Get Your Gun, a rollicking, corny musical salute to sharp-shooter Annie Oakley, who in real life probably didn't have as many troubles as this film did.  Chief among them was the firing of Judy Garland in the title role and the hiring of non-MGM star Betty Hutton.  Personally I think Hutton was terrific in the title role but she was never welcomed to the studio or the film.  She always maintained her costars treated her badly and that it was an unhappy experience.

Show Boat hadn't been filmed since 1936 and Sidney's 1951 version still finds a soft spot in the hearts of movie musical lovers.  Based on Edna Ferber's popular novel, it had a good story to go with some glorious music... Ol' Man River and Make Believe among them.  It starred two of Hollywood's top beauties, Grayson and her real-life pal, Ava Gardner.  It was a tremendous success.

Grayson and Gardner, stars of "Show Boat"

I mentioned Scaramouche (1952) in my piece on Eleanor Parker,  but it bears repeating that it is one of the finest costume dramas ever made.  Stewart Granger starred in it as he did the following year's Young Bess, costarring his then-wife Jean Simmons and former playmate Deborah Kerr and the imposing Charles Laughton, again playing Henry VIII.  Great cast... fun film.  The same year came Kiss Me Kate, again with Grayson, about a divorced couple signed by Cole Porter to play in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew.  The best thing about it was Porter's wonderful score.

It seems odd that after such a smashing success of films, if not entire career at MGM, Sidney would leave the studio.  I am not sure why (and of course I want to know) but the guess is that the big run of musicals was coming to an end and with it Sidney's time at MGM.  It still is curious why he couldn't have remained and done other things.

He would sign another contract at Columbia where he was most noted for steering three films starring Kim Novak.  Two were quite successful and the one that wasn't arguably contains the actress' best work.  Up first was 1956's The Eddy Duchin Story, a stylish and engaging, if overly-sentimental, bio of the famous 1920's New York society bandleader.  The following year came the dramatic Jeanne Eagels, a silent-era Broadway and film actress who hit bottom via drink and drugs.  Next up was Pal Joey, a musical-drama about a heel and the women he uses.  Novak, Sinatra and Rita Hayworth all turned in fine performances under Sidney's capable direction.

The trio from "Pal Joey"

I didn't particularly care for the remainder of his seven films, although some of you may give more credit to Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas and Half a Sixpence than I do.  See?  I don't like every musical ever made.  It just seems that way. 

He would live for 35 years after he made his last film.  After his marriage to Burns collapsed, he would marry Jane Robinson, the widow of Edward G.  She, in turn, left Sidney a widower and his third wife then survived Sidney.  He passed away from lymphoma at age 85 in 2002 in Las Vegas.

Next posting: Sapphic Traffic

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