Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Dear Hunter

In an earlier entry, I mentioned my affection for those glossy women’s pictures such as Imitation of Life, Back Street and Madame X. Apart from all being remakes of earlier black & white versions and all being adapted from once-popular novels, they also have something else in common. Each of them was produced by Ross Hunter.

Ross Hunter was a pretty unimportant supporting actor in the 1940s who made the very wise decision to turn to producing instead. Born with the decidedly unglamorous name of Martin Fuss, he was given his new moniker by a casting director and that new name lent itself beautifully to his secondary career. (Actually, a former Army intelligence officer during WWII, the role of film producer would be his third significant career.)

Made chiefly for Universal Studios, Hunter films are marked by gloss and beauty. He said himself, “The way life looks in my pictures is the way I want life to be. I don't want to hold a mirror up to life as it is. I just want to show the part which is attractive.” It’s an attitude that I welcome wholeheartedly and one that fell by the wayside in the more gritty 1970s. In Hunter films, leading ladies’ gowns often coordinated with the drapes, which didn’t clash with the pillows. Mother-daughter chats occurred while mom was dripping with Cartier diamonds and disagreeing women had it out swathed in “Furs by Alixandre.”

One of the chief benefactors of his old school approach was Rock Hudson (the actor was in seven different Hunter-produced films between 1954 and 1959.) Just as Robert Taylor had shot to stardom in 1935 with the original Magnificent Obsession, Hudson, who had appeared in small or unimportant roles to that time, made a major splash with the 1954 remake. The story concerned a careless playboy who blinds a young widow and then does everything he can to restore her vision. Hudson and leading lady Jane Wyman teamed again the next year in All That Heaven Allows, a wonderful movie about a middle-aged widow who shocks her restrictive community by falling for her hunky gardener. (This concept was later reinterpreted in the 2002 “homage” Far From Heaven, which I considered far from perfect…)

These two movies, along with other Hunter-produced films such as All I Desire, Battle Hymn and Imitation of Life, were directed by the (now) lauded Douglas Sirk. Sirk reveled in injecting symbolism, creative imagery and style into the sometimes mundane or substandard material he was given to work on. The combination of his slick and sure-handed direction and Hunter’s lavish production values resulted in distinctive and very beautiful cinematic products.

Another performer who was aided greatly by Hunter was Lana Turner, who met him on the way down rather than on the way up. Following the harrowing manslaughter of her lover at the hands of her own daughter, Turner was able to make a stunning comeback thanks to Imitation of Life. She followed that up with other successes such as Portrait in Black and Madame X, the latter being not only a performance that many consider to be her best, but also a film that many believe was her last good one.

Hunter is also the one who paired Rock Hudson with Doris Day in Pillow Talk, creating a legendary team. Many people are surprised that Doris and Rock only made three films together, but the ones they did were very popular. Realizing that Day was stuck in a rut of musicals and vehicles that failed to showcase her full range of comedic abilities, not to mention physical attributes, he famously commented, “No one guessed that under all those dimples lurked one of the wildest asses in Hollywood.” He had her dressed by Jean Louis, unveiling a sleek and sexy figure that few filmgoers had realized was there!

Day acted in the Hunter-produced Midnight Lace, taking on the rare dramatic role of a woman tormented by a filth-talking stalker, but she could never bear to go to the places that such parts demanded, even if the finished product comes off now as a hooty, campy laugh riot. It was the last time she’d ever attempt such a type of movie.

Hunter wasn’t limited to producing glamorous soaps and frothy comedies. He also handled dramatic theatre fare like The Chalk Garden and musicals such as Flower Drum Song and Thoroughly Modern Millie. His 1959 film Imitation of Life was a resounding success that stood as Universal’s top-grossing film for many years. Later, in 1970, his production of Airport went through the ceiling and kept the studio going for years.

A frequent cast member of his, usually in a small, but amusing or affecting role, was his longtime friend Virginia Grey. Grey had a lengthy career in the business and worked with practically everyone at one time or another (she lived to be 87 and can sometimes be seen in interview snippets on TCM.) In Airport, she was the mother of the snot-nosed know-it-all geek who confronts Dean Martin about the direction of the plane. Hunter considered her his “good luck charm.”

When Hunter left Universal for Columbia Pictures, he left Grey and any other possible good luck behind, giving the world one of the all-time flops, the musical remake of Lost Horizon. Top people were recruited in all departments (though the actors chosen were, in most cases, not known for their singing talent, some of them having none at all and requiring ghost vocals) and the production was an expensive one. However, preview audiences guffawed at some of the choreography and sniggered at most of the songs. The previously stellar team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David provided the much-maligned music, which was delivered with panicked expression and/or incompetence by most of the cast. Though the film has a coterie of fans (I adore it, but for all the wrong reasons), critics had a field day tearing it apart. Hunter never produced another feature film (and this one has yet to see the light of day on any sort of home video in the U.S. apart from a now out-of-print laserdisc.) Notice how at the time of Magnificent Obsession, his name was relatively small in the advertising, but by the time of Lost Horizon it was a chief selling point!

Hunter turned to TV next, putting together movies and miniseries that featured his pals from the glory days of Hollywood. Just look at the cast he assembled for Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, even getting the fairly reclusive Jean Peters to take a role along with others not mentioned in the advertising.

These and other projects of Hunters were worked on with his partner of 40 years Jacques Mapes. Their domestic union was one of the few in Hollywood that stood the test of time. Hunter died in 1996 with Mapes passing on in 2002. Wherever they are, I hope their robes coordinate with the sofas and the wallpaper. They deserve it!


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