Saturday, August 23, 2008

Monroe Clone # 2a

Thanks to Thad for sending me a copy of one of the few Frank Tashlin films I hadn't seen (at least not all the way through), The Lieutenant Wore Skirts starring Tom Ewell and Sheree North. It's a pan-and-scan copy, and it's not anywhere near as good as The Girl Can't Help It or Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, but it's an interesting movie, not so much for Tashlin or cartoon buffs -- it's one of his less cartoony movies, all told -- but for being representative of the kind of stuff Fox was doing in the mid-'50s and its search for a new Marilyn Monroe.

Sheree North was a good-looking, talented dancer who'd made a big splash doing a jazzy dance in the Broadway musical Hazel Flagg and the movie version (where the title character was re-cast as Jerry Lewis) Living It Up. When Marilyn Monroe turned down the movie How To Be Very, Very Popular, Fox signed North to be in the film, with a view to making North into their "backup" Monroe -- a buxom blonde who could do the films that the unreliable Monroe couldn't or wouldn't do. North considered herself a dancer, not an actress -- Popular was her first big non-dancing part, and she thought she was terrible in it -- and she said later that it was against her better judgment that her agent persuaded her to do another film for Fox. This was The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. North, of course, did not work out as the next Monroe; she had no star quality and always looked rather short on film, even though she was only an inch shorter than Monroe. But she was talented, and by the time her Fox contract had expired, she had become a very good, solid character actress, and would remain so until her death in 2005. (You remember her as Kramer's mother on Seinfeld among others.)

Anyway, The Lieutenant Wore Skirts was produced by Buddy Adler, who was just about to be promoted to take over from Darryl Zanuck as head of production at Fox. Adler was most famous as the producer of From Here To Eternity, and when he moved to Fox, he embarked on a strange mix of projects: half the movies he produced were big soapy stories like Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Anastasia and South Pacific, and the other half were odd ducks like Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo, the bizarre Jane Russell flop The Revolt of Mamie Stover, and Monroe's highly successful serio-comedy Bus Stop. But most of the movies he produced were very successful at the box office, which is presumably why he got the job to take over from Zanuck; he was not popular in that job, but I actually think he did some interesting things, making Fox's CinemaScope productions a little sexier, funnier and harder-edged than they'd been under Zanuck. And one of the things he did to facilitate that was sign Frank Tashlin for Fox.

Adler knew Tashlin from when they'd been working at Columbia in the late '40s and early '50s; he signed Tashlin, produced Skirts and set up Tashlin's next two projects for the studio, The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Sheree North was originally going to be in The Girl Can't Help It, but Adler and Tashlin jointly decided, rightly, that Jayne Mansfield would make a far better Monroe clone, and Adler bought the rights to the Rock Hunter play just to get Mansfield under contract.) Tashlin told Peter Bogdanovich that Adler gave him complete freedom on Rock Hunter. If you're wondering why the quality of Tashlin's live-action movies went downhill so quickly in the '60s, part of the reason may be traced to Adler's sudden death in early 1960; without his biggest supporter at Fox, Tashlin was left with only one producer who liked to work with him, and that was of course Jerry Lewis. His post-Adler career was a long succession of projects that stalled in development, plus the occasional Lewis project.

Skirts stars Ewell as a TV writer (cue many of Tashlin's usual bitter jokes about the evils of TV) and WWII hero whose air force reserve unit calls him up. His wife, North, also used to be in the Service during the Korean war, so she decides to re-enlist to be near her husband. Except he flunks his physical due to a psychosomatic knee problem, meaning that he has to stay behind while she is sent for a two-year stretch in Hawaii. Fearing that North will be tempted into infidelity in a military base where there are "forty men for every woman," Ewell goes to Hawaii after her, and winds up tricking her into letting him stay in her quarters; as the only civilian husband on the base, the army wives ask him to be a fourth for their bridge game, and so on; then he tries to get her discharged by Gaslighting her into thinking she's crazy. It's pretty much halfway between Tashlin's early romantic comedies and the cynical style of his Mansfield comedies, which is the problem with it: because the sex role-reversal story is told with such a cynical edge, it becomes more mean-spirited than funny. That's an accusation that can be leveled at a lot of Tashlin's live-action comedies; I don't agree with it a lot of the time (Susan Slept Here and Artists and Models have some heart mixed in with the laughs, and even The Girl Can't Help It makes you genuinely like the characters), but it's definitely true here.

Still, you can watch it and tick off the Tashlin trademarks: you've got the boob jokes -- North tries to put on a uniform and finds she can't quite get it around her chest -- and you've got the scene where the wife dumps food on her husband, which is a direct self-plagiarism from The First Time. You've got the double entendres that the censors, even the more lax censors of the mid-'50s, really must have been asleep at the wheel to let through, especially this line when Ewell sees North in a sexy negligee:

"Why, Lieutenant. This is the first time I've felt like saluting you."

Then there's the opening sequence, which in just one minute features slightly arch narration (by North), Hollywood insider jokes, nasty jokes about television, and, of course, an entirely gratuitous leg shot -- which, even panned-and-scanned, gives an idea of what Tish Tash thought CinemaScope was good for. (Update: found a letterboxed version)

But the main point of the movie is to try and test out North as a possible Monroe substitute, and the weird thing about it is that neither she nor the director seem to be trying at all. Although the film is Ewell's follow-up to The Seven Year Itch, the only Monroe substitute in the picture is not North, who basically just plays the sweet-but-sexy young wife, but, of all people, Rita Moreno, whose scenes are a direct, directly acknowledged parody of Seven Year Itch. ("I didn't see that movie," Ewell remarks.) Moreno's scene is the weirdest and best in the movie because it's completely absurd: she's talking like Monroe, acting like Monroe, but she isn't changing her appearance at all, except for wearing the most obvious padded bra ever seen. The sight of a totally un-Monroe-ish woman trying to be Monroe makes for the best joke in the film, and one that would be carried over into Girl Can't Help It and Rock Hunter: in the '50s, every woman is under pressure to act like Marilyn Monroe, who is herself doing an act. The movie comes to life in this scene, which it doesn't in any of North's scenes, because while she's very attractive and clearly has a lot of potential as an actress (though not as a star), neither she nor Tashlin nor Buddy Adler seem to have any real interest in trying to make her the next Monroe. It was a non-starter.

I'll try to upload the Moreno scene later, but this page has screen captures

One more item in what is a very long post on a very flawed movie (but between my ongoing attempt to study Tashlin's work, my fascination with the Adler era at Fox, and the whole Monroe-clone issue, there's a lot to talk about): Sylvia Lewis, who plays the sexy burlesque dancer in the film -- and had been one of Jane Russell's backup dancers in Son of Paleface -- has this to say on her official site:

Frank Tashlin was a joy to work for. He was good natured, patient, very positive and encouraging to be around. He made it easy to try things and he laughed out loud when he thought something funny. He used to embarrass me a little by asking me to walk away from him. He'd say, "look at that... there goes the greatest walk any woman ever had..." Some men saying that would have been insulting, but coming from Frank, it was cute. He was a big jovial teddy bear.


Tice said...

Oh, yeah- Sheree North. She played Lou Grant's girlfriend for a little while, and at one point late in the series they wanted to have the character come back once more, only they couldn't get Sheree North, so they cast the actress who played Archie Bunker's almost-mistress instead. I thought it was bad recast; the second actress didn't come close to pulling off Sheree North's breezy sexiness.

Griff said...

Sheree North is excellent as the stripper/dancer that Gene Hackman takes up with for a while in THE GYPSY MOTHS, and her brief role in CHARLEY VARRICK as a sexy, small town photographer/forger is really memorable.

VP81955 said...

Oh, yeah- Sheree North. She played Lou Grant's girlfriend for a little while, and at one point late in the series they wanted to have the character come back once more, only they couldn't get Sheree North, so they cast the actress who played Archie Bunker's almost-mistress instead. I thought it was bad recast; the second actress didn't come close to pulling off Sheree North's breezy sexiness.

That second actress would have been Janis Paige.

Incidentally, Sheree North is the answer to a fascinating trivia question: She's the only actor to guest on both "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Seinfeld."

She evolved as a character actress after surviving the 1950s sex symbol era, when actresses such as North were judged by their "superstructure" and measurements.

Jenny said...

Never see it either, but now I want to-even lesser Tashlin is interesting and offers something.