Category Archives: Movies

Marriage in the Movies: Mrs. Doubtfire

 

Mrs. Doubtfire

“Once the father of your children is out of the picture, the only solution is total and lifelong celibacy. And if you violate that, heaven forgive you. Good luck!” — Mrs. Doubtfire

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After watching this film for the first time in my little Robin Williams marathon of a couple months ago, I knew it was an important one to address if I ever did a series like this. So today, we’ll continue our series on Marriage in the Movies with Mrs. Doubtfire.

The movie tells the story of an eccentric actor named Daniel Hillard, who goes to extreme lengths to stay in touch with his children when his wife files for divorce. “Extreme,” in this case, means applying for and getting a job as their nanny…in disguise. His new persona is a gentle, twinkle-eyed Scottish grandma, whom he hastily christens “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Turns out, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is Mrs. Hillard’s dream nanny—firm, kind, wonderful with the children, and constantly doling out little nuggets of life wisdom on a variety of topics, including marriage. But when another man enters the picture, things get very awkward very fast, and the question becomes not “whether” Daniel will lose his cover, but “when.”

The film, which became one of Williams’s most popular roles, is billed as a comedy. But it winds up feeling more like a tragedy, as the shattering effects of divorce are very convincingly presented. However, I wouldn’t mind so much if it stopped there. It may be depressing, but at least it’s truthful. What’s really pernicious about the thing is that by the end, it’s trying to sell audiences on the lie that maybe divorce isn’t so bad after all. That’s where it goes Importantly Wrong.

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Marriage In the Movies: Fireproof

Welcome to the first installment of Marriage in the Movies: a new series wherein I survey what the art form of film can offer on this all-important topic. The movies I will feature stand out because marriage, as opposed to mere romantic affection, is absolutely central to the story. Without it, none of them would have a plot. Some may state their message clearly, others may let the story do the talking, but all of them have something to say about marriage.

That’s where I come in: First, I briefly explain the premise of each film, for those who may be unfamiliar with it. Then, I look at it from the perspective of a Christian who also loves movies, and I judge whether what they have to say is Importantly Right or Importantly Wrong—or perhaps, in interesting cases, some of each.

My first installment is an unapologetically Christian film that many of you have probably seen: Fireproof. (Most of my selections will be more mainstream, although many will still get a lot of things Importantly Right.) In this film, a fireman struggles with the pressures of work while waking up to the reality that his wife is ready to divorce him. While at first he is not a believer, his believing father and friend both challenge him to fight for his marriage. In the process, he discovers a faith of his own that sustains him even when it appears that his efforts aren’t bearing fruit.

I remember vividly when this film first came out. Actually, I remember vividly the year before it came out, when I was eagerly following every scrap of B-roll and production blog update as the finished product slowly came together. This was partly motivated by my enthusiasm for Sherwood Pictures’ faith-based film-making, partly by my rapidly growing and very spiritual interest in Kirk Cameron. Continue reading

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Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part III of III)

A great while ago the world began
With a hey ho, the wind and the rain
But that’s all one, and our play is done
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

 Twelfth Night, Act 5, Scene 1

***

Part I here

Part II here

In 1975, the BBC asked Donald O’Connor if the musical was dead. His succinct answer: “No. It is dead the way we used to make ‘em.” He spoke without resentment. It was just a fact.

Donald O’Connor was the last of the song and dance men. Known as “the youngest old-timer in show business,” it was his misfortune to reach the height of his powers precisely when the song-and-dance musical was dying. Rising to take its place were the spontaneous musicals, the Sounds of Music and Oklahomas and West Side Stories. Characters were ordinary people expressing their feelings, not entertainers putting on a show. There was no longer a place for O’Connor’s particular skill set on the big screen. So it was back to his first love: the stage.

Shifting base of operations to Las Vegas gave the restless performer a steady audience and the ability to nurture fresh talent. One young lad joined him for a special performance to commemorate his 30th anniversary in the business, which nearly doubled as a 31st birthday party. (Candid footage of the reception shows O’Connor surreptitiously piling an extra slice of cake on the boy’s plate.) With a happy second marriage and a growing new family, it seemed that he had landed on his feet. His son Fred later recalled, “I was very blessed to have my dad as my dad… We were never without anything, and the things we really wanted, he told us ‘These are things that you have to work for.’ And I’m glad he did.” Daughter Alicia fondly remembered how he would delight the children with quicksilver impressions, saying that “You never knew who was coming to dinner.” But as O’Connor danced closer to the line between “drinker” and “alcoholic,” he fought a rising fear that like his father and brother, he would not live to the age of 50.

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Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part II of III)

“I was born and raised to entertain other people. I’ve heard laughter and applause and known a lot of sorrow. Everything about me is based on show business. I think it will bring me happiness. I hope so.” — Donald O’Connor, Parade, 1954

 

***

Read Part I here.

Gene Kelly knew what he was doing when he hand-picked Donald O’Connor as his right-hand man in Singin’ In the Rain. His own ballet training was perfectly complemented by O’Connor’s raw hoofing talent. O’Connor later credited Kelly with teaching him to be a “total dancer,” from the waist up. Each borrowed motifs from the other to create their iconic synchronized routine “Moses Supposes.”  But working with Kelly had its tense moments. In this rare interview clip (edited by yours truly), O’Connor shares a priceless anecdote about the legend’s famously short temper on the set of their number “Fit as a Fiddle”:

The memories of Debbie Reynolds also offer some insight into O’Connor’s gentle, professional personality. When Gene became frustrated with Debbie, he would take it out on Donald. But Donald bore it with perpetual good humor. In one instance, as all three practiced a step in “Good Morning,” Kelly himself was unknowingly repeating an error while blaming O’Connor for it. Reynolds expected O’Connor to retaliate at any minute, but all he said was “I’m sorry.” Finally, Kelly stopped and announced, “I’m doing it wrong! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yet for all his abrasiveness, Gene recognized a professional when he saw one: “Nobody else in the business could have taken the beating I gave Donald O’Connor in Singin’ In the Rain… Donald comes from vaudeville. He’s disciplined. I’ve seen him rehearse a step a thousand times.” Looking back on it all, O’Connor could only laugh and say “Working with him? Yeah, he was miserable. No, we had a great time together… I was never offended by Gene, I love the guy too much.”

Of course, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the number that everyone remembers from O’Connor’s work in the picture. When MGM released its compilation That’s Entertainment, this was the one that could still make listless audiences break into spontaneous applause in the theaters. Mark Steyn has described it as “the essence of entertainment,” adding “Its only purpose is to delight. Which is a lot harder than it sounds.”

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Dancing in the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part I of III)

Actor Donald O'ConnorQuickly: Who’s the most talented entertainer you can name? For many, it would be the man who just took his own life last month. An older generation might name Dick Van Dyke. Yet another generation might reach still further into the past, to silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. What do legends like these all share in common? Answer: They all had an extraordinary gift for making anyone happy, except themselves.

To that remarkable list, I would add another name. I would add the name of the man who immortalized laughter in three short minutes of pure genius on film. I would add the name of Donald O’Connor.

Perhaps Paramount exec A. C. Lyles said it best: “Donald O’Connor’s name, spelled backwards, would be talent.” Gene Kelly simply dubbed him “The O’Connor.” But his story sounds too painfully familiar: a lightning-fast comic wit, a master of improv, full of explosive energy and beloved by fans, yet privately haunted by divorce, addiction and depression. Except that his story does not end like so many other sad, sad stories. No, my friends. This is a story that ends with hope. Continue reading

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Lost Soul: My Video Reflection on Robin Williams

Last week, I had some thoughts on the suicide of Robin Williams. While they deviated a bit harshly from the norm, I stand by what I said, because some balance was desperately needed amid the obsessive adoration. However, I can’t deny that once my attention was drawn to this character and the characters he created, it was difficult for me not to be drawn further in. It’s a rare talent that can leave you limp with laughter in one moment and move you to tears in the next. This sad, strange little man filled me with curious fascination, yet simultaneously, with pity. That was his way.

By sheer coincidence, I was recently  listening to some Bruce Hornsby music and came across a little-known song called “Lost Soul.” The lyric brought me up short, because it was so startlingly poignant and apt. With surprising speed, something came together in my mind and my movie making software. I began to create and edit.

The finished product surprised even myself. Continue reading

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A Book a Week: America’s Favorite Movies, Behind the Scenes

Here is the first of my used bookstore finds: America’s Favorite Movies: Behind the Scenes, by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Published in 1982, this now out-of-print work is a treasure trove of primary source material for some of the most enduring classics of Hollywood’s golden age. It covers some that I either don’t know or don’t care for, but it also includes many personal favorites such as The Adventures of Robin HoodStagecoachCasablancaThe African QueenSingin’ in the Rain, and High Noon. These are movies whose staying power derives largely from the fact that you don’t have to be a stuffy film critic to appreciate them. No directorial narcissism or abstract mucking about, just good stories well told, made by people committed to getting it right, sometimes at enormous personal cost. The book also sets their production in rich historical context, explaining how they were affected by the Depression, WWII and the Cold War. Herewith, a few quotes and notes that I found to be of particular interest (with trailer links in the titles).

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On the Death of Robin Williams and the Gift of Life

[Editor's Note: This post tackles a dark subject, so young readers proceed with caution.]

[Update: I've added one more story to this piece related to Robin's work with the military, because I found it interesting and moving. Also, to watch my own video tribute to Williams with additional thoughts, click here.]

Last week, mercurial comic genius and beloved actor Robin Williams took his own life by hanging. As he made his mark a little before my time, I’m really just now beginning to approach his body of work. So upon his suicide, I observed the national mourning from a place of relative detachment. Now that I’ve given myself a little crash course on his life and career, I think I’m in a better position to offer my own few cents on Robin Williams’s legacy, his death, and America’s reaction to it.

Robin Williams gave the phrase “insanely talented” a whole new meaning. He had a bizarrely brilliant, inimitable comic gift, and yet he was a fine dramatic actor whose best work ranks with the best of actors like Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman.

He was also a notoriously foul-mouthed entertainer and a deeply disturbed man whose suicide came as no surprise to many, after years of addiction, depression, and broken marriages. Yet despite his ugly personal demons, he was known as a warm personality who treated the lowliest extra with respect, was given to spontaneous acts of kindness, and quietly donated time and money to wounded veterans and local food banks. And though his publicly flippant treatment of God and the Bible bodes ill for his eternal destiny, privately he loved to read The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to his kids, slipped into the back row of Tim Keller’s church more than once, and even briefly confessed Christ in rehab towards the end of his life. The duration of this commitment is unclear, but it is clear that he badly needed answers and began stumbling toward them before finally turning away to enter that dark gate of abandoned hope.

What to do with such a complex personality, and such a mixed legacy? However we respond, we can and must do better than cloying sentimentalism. Continue reading

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A Book a Week: Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

As promised, here is my review of the biography of child singing star Gloria Jean, written by Scott and Jan MacGillivray. The sub-title is A Little Bit of Heaven. Presumably this was chosen because That Awkward Moment When I Caught a Skin Rash From Bing Crosby, Mel Torme Proposed, and Donald O’Connor Hugged Me So Hard He Broke My Ribs would’ve run a tad long.

Although this isn’t an autobiography, Gloria is generously quoted from interviews conducted by the authors, so her own voice still comes through clearly. And what a treat it is! Gloria Jean is one of those people you’re not likely to have heard of. She never attained the legendary status of a Shirley Temple, and most of her work is out of print. But once you get to know her, you’re very glad you did.

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New Series Announcement: A Book a Week

For the last stretch of the summer, I’ve decided to spend the time that might otherwise have been wasted sleeping in, arguing with atheists on the Internet, surfing the Internet, etc., on reading and reviewing one good new book per week. Happily, I just popped in on a lovely little used bookstore the other week and picked up several good ‘uns. So I thought I might let you, my readers, take a peek at what I’m reading for the next few weeks. But since it seems half the country is on vacation right now, I decided to wait until next Friday to publish the first installment. All the books in my queue so far are non-fiction, mostly revolving around entertainment history, or in one case, military history. The two sections were right next to each other at the bookstore. It’s a wonder I dragged myself out of that place at all!

My first entry in this new little series will actually not be a used book purchase, but something I recently purchased new. It’s the biography of a forgotten child singing star from the same era as Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin. Her name is Gloria Jean. This young lady was the original Jackie Evancho—a true prodigy. She was trained as a coloratura soprano from childhood on up and achieved worldwide fame through her facility with both classical and pop standards. Along the way, she rubbed shoulders with so many legendary show biz names it would make your head spin. And not just names only show biz buffs would recognize either. The book draws heavily from her own words and contains stories you won’t find anywhere else—funny stories, strange stories, and downright beautiful stories. It’s also a sober look at the less pleasant side of child stardom and show business in general, as the small-town girl rose to fame only to fall off the map again.

She has her own Youtube channel now and still interacts with fans via a website. Here she is introducing some vintage clips of her singing and acting, to whet your appetite and get you counting stars. Come back next Friday for the full review!

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