Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Opposite" Attracts!

Hardly anyone would argue that 1939’s The Women isn’t a sterling, star-filled, classic dream of a comedy. Opinions differ greatly, though, when it comes to the 1956 semi-musical remake The Opposite Sex. Chief differences between the two films include the presence of men (the original had a completely female cast), vivid color photography and several musical numbers (done as performances, not in musical theatre form.) It almost goes without saying, too, that the caliber of stars is reduced a bit in the remake, though the ladies featured were (and in most cases, are) notable names in the cinema.
Closely following the basic plot outline of Claire Booth Luce’s Broadway play (though augmented to include the male characters and the showbiz background), the story concerns June Allyson, a happily married woman with a young daughter, who was once a big band singer, but who now is happy to be the wife of her producer husband Leslie Nielsen. She has a clatch of friends, most of who delight in exchanging every nibble of gossip they can get their hands on. Ann Sheridan, in a voiceover, kicks things off before introducing us to herself and her catty environment.

Alice Pearce plays a manicurist at one of the chic New York salons these ladies frequent and is a heavy distributor of the latest dirt. One of her juiciest items is that Allyson’s husband Nielsen is carrying on with saucy showgirl Joan Collins. She repeats this tale to anyone who’ll listen while painting the listener’s nails with the hottest new color, Jungle Red! When Allyson’s pals Dolores Gray and ever-pregnant Joan Blondell hear the rumors, they head to the theatre to catch a glimpse of Collins, who is part of a deliriously garish show with a production number set in the islands and all about bananas.
The ladies get an eyeful of Collins while she's on a quick break at a nearby coffee shop to call Nielsen. Then she and Gray exchange a few barbs. They don’t tell Allyson of any of this, however, nor does her other steadfast friend Sheridan, one of the more pragmatic members of the clique. Once Allyson discovers the affair, the day of their tenth anniversary, she starts to come a bit unglued and decides to take a quick trip to Bermuda.

Unfortunately, this only allows mantrap Collins to slither in and make things worse. Once Allyson is back and putting on a huge charity show, she discovers who Collins is and that she’s also been in contact with her daughter. Collins baits Allyson with her “sexy” moves, leading to a confrontation. As in the original film, there’s a showdown between the injured wife and the mistress in a changing room (here, a backstage dressing room.) In The Women, it was, of course, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford exchanging words. Here, June Allyson and Joan Collins have it out, though, this time, there’s a climactic slap across the face. (Due to a misunderstanding – possibly deliberate on the part of the director or stunt coordinator – Allyson wound up walloping Collins so hard that her earring flew off and her face was left with a red handprint!)
Allyson flees to a ranch in Reno, Nevada to get a divorce and meets up with the owner, limber-limbed Charlotte Greenwood and fellow future divorcees including Agnes Moorehead and Ann Miller. Much-married Moorehead and already-engaged Miller lift her spirits somewhat and they become good friends. Before long, Gray shows up, loaded for bear, and the ladies find themselves duking and clawing it out in a rip-snorting, hat-ripping, sleeve-pulling catfight!
Also on hand to take their minds off their troubles is ranch hand with a guitar Jeff Richards, who has a reputation for getting the ladies off their feet and into a hand built canoe! He tries to put the make on Allyson, but she, still pining for Nielsen and too ladylike to indulge anyway, tries to ward him off. Others aren’t so fortunate and before long, he is back in the city, married to one of the fresh divorcees!

Also back in the city is Nielsen, now married to tarty, gold-digging Collins, who has a private phone line installed in her bathroom so that she can converse with gentlemen in secret while soaking in her bubble bath. The glitzy bathroom with prominent tub and plenty of breathing room is a far cry from the dingy, cramped one she had in her apartment prior to landing Nielsen. The new bathroom, by the way, is the scene of a mini tête-à-tête between Collins and her new stepdaughter Sandy Descher, who knows that her father already regrets losing the saintly Allyson to the more flamboyantly sexy Collins.

Anyway, the whole thing climaxes as Allyson decides to win back her wayward (ex)husband and arranges to do a little manipulating of her own. She stages a comeuppance at a big, fancy event where all the ladies are present in their best Helen Rose finery. In the original, Crawford had a memorable exit line that implied that all of the other ladies present were bitches, though Collins is denied that nugget in this rendition.

The busy, sometimes forced, but lively, film didn’t wind up doing the same favors to its stars that the original did. (Rosalind Russell got to show off a previously obscured slapstick side that served her well ever after and Joan Crawford got to play a true villainess with new edge.) It was not the box office bonanza, nor the memorable classic, that its predecessor was, but in the wake of the disastrous 2008 remake with Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Eva Mendes, among others, this version may begin to look better to some viewers! It’s probably best to look at it as some sort of alternate universe version of the Claire Booth Luce yarn. If anyone is a fan of one of the stars, it is well worth seeing.

Allyson, always an acquired taste anyway, is typically gooey and earnest, though it’s sort of fun to see her finally wise up and get her own back on Collins. She has a flashback number showing her character singing Young Man with a Horn that is one of the better songs in the piece, the rousing style suiting her particular talents. (The jump in time of more than a decade reveals her looking precisely the same, hair and all.) Now, Baby, Now is somewhat less successful, but does have a bit arresting choreography (and what a coy outfit…a blue, chaste, full coverage jumpsuit with her trademark Peter Pan collar.) Her slow song, A Perfect Love, was preposterously dubbed by a ghost vocalist (Jo Ann Greer) and very badly lip-synched by Allyson.

Possessing a voice that sounds like someone swabbed out her throat with a Brillo pad and dumped ¾ of a cup of ground glass into it, it somehow seems worse than ever in this film. Her extraordinarily dowdy, unflattering hairdo is also a debit and most of the clothes given her are atrocious, including some awful hats. (Practically every major MGM contracted actress was considered for or offered this part before it trickled down to her. Doris Day was said to be interested in it, but wasn’t available. It’s a terrible part anyway and its allure always eludes me. The villainesses and the funny roles are so much better.) Her final gown is a pretty one, at least.

Allyson had some concerns on the set, not from scripted archenemy Collins (apart from that misunderstanding over the slap), but from Blondell, who had once been Mrs. Dick Powell, the title Allyson then possessed. They had been at loggerheads in the early days of Allyson and Powell’s relationship and marriage, but things remained polite, if cool, when they were on the set. They only shared three scenes, two of which were brief and involved little or no interaction. The one larger scene together was mostly shot in separate close-ups to avoid them being in the same frame for too long. (The shot of them here in Allyson’s dressing room is from the first part of a scene that was trimmed and shown from a later point.)

Collins, a non-singer (though she has occasionally made attempts such as at the Oscars one year and on an episode of Dynasty) was given no songs. She sort of danced a little in one song and merely sat in a wagon in the tropical flavored number. Harry Belafonte had made a splash a couple of years before this with his Calypso album (one hit being The Banana Boat Song) and this number capitalizes on that. Though the lead male dancer claims that Belafonte was sought for this part initially, the truth is that he was far too established and hot a star by then to settle for a brief cameo in a number aping his popularity. He’d already won several film parts and was given a featured role the next year in Island in the Sun as a potential love interest for Joan Fontaine, causing all sorts of controversy despite there being little to it. Joan Collins was in that film as well.

She had been named after Joan Crawford and once informed the legendary star of the fact only to be given a withering glance and a barely concealed invitation to beat it. Comparisons between the two really aren’t fair as Crawford was thirty-five and a movie veteran when she did The Women while Collins was merely twenty-two when she received this part.
Collins suffered a terrible reaction to the bubbles used in her lengthy bathtub scene and had to sit in the uncomfortable stuff for days during the shoot. Eventually, she was rigged up to where only her top was in bubbles and the rest of her was under a board, covered in Vaseline and bandages from the blisters she received! Director David Miller, however, considered her “the perfect actress” due to her commitment level and professionalism in all respects.

Her Dynasty fans often find it amusing that her character’s name here is Crystal, considering how her nemesis on that show for about eight seasons was Krystle. How odd it must be for her to watch this film now, knowing that every solitary cast member (except for young Descher and the Calypso singer) is dead besides her!

Gray had been a significant star on Broadway and still holds the record for winning a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical in a show that ran the shortest amount of time (six days!) before closing. It was 1953’s Carnival in Flanders opposite John Raitt and within one week, all forty-five(!) cast members were unemployed. She made a couple of little appearances in the movies before hitting the “three-fer” Kismet, The Opposite Sex and the nonmusical Designing Woman, but she was finished right after that. While she was indeed “big” and extremely “on,” I have always enjoyed her and think she was an underrated screen personality. Certainly she looks phenomenal in this film in a wide variety of jaw-dropping gowns and get-ups. Her figure is amazing in The Opposite Sex and I like her performance a lot.

She projected an image in her private life of vivacious and exciting times, though she only married once and stayed married until his death. She was also known for her notable professionalism and punctuality. However, during a 1959 run of Destry Rides Again on Broadway, she had a dispute with exacting director/choreographer Michael Kidd and when he called her a slut in front of everyone, she slugged him in the face and stormed away. Considering how long she had been out of the cinematic limelight, it was a treat to see her once on TCM in a Word of Mouth interview snippet, looking older, but still attractive. (In truth, she sometimes resembles a drag queen in this, but so what?! I also have to admit, despite my worship of Eleanor Parker, that Gray might have made a decent, if a bit obvious, Baroness Schrader in The Sound of Music had the opportunity been presented to her.)

Sheridan looks positively smashing in virtually every outfit she is given to wear in the film. Her rail thin figure meant that she could carry off most any look and she is easily the most elegant and chic looking actress on hand here. Her character is mostly used to spout advice and smooth things out (it’s a combination of the authoress and the mother character of the original.) But for the last minute appearance of a male date at the final shindig, she could easily be read as a lesbian! Sadly, she would be felled by cancer a little over a decade later.

Tap-a-holic Miller looks very pretty here, though she isn’t called up on to dance one iota. Like most of the other actresses, she gets to show off some eye-popping clothes. Moorehead has fun with her glitzy part and has at least one really fun hat. Greenwood, probably best known now for her role as Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, made this her last film, though she lived another twenty years. Blondell eventually segued into TV, earning two Emmy nominations for the series Here Come the Brides, though she also worked in films up until her death in 1979. Pearce, of course, played the hysterical role of nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched (and winning an Emmy) before succumbing to cancer at only age forty-eight. Barbara Jo Allen appears in the film several times as a take-off on Hedda Hopper. Known during much of her career by the name of a very popular character she herself created, Vera Vague, she eventually left the business when the characterization seemed to limit her from doing anything else. About fifty years before Paris Hilton thought she was creating a trend, Allen carried a teacup Chihuahua named Pancho in a plastic purse, allowing him to breathe through an open clasp at the top!
Other performers in the film include Carolyn Jones as Collins’ showgirl pal and confidante. She makes the most out of a small role. There’s also dancer Barrie Chase, who seemed to get featured billing in every fourth movie in the 50s and 60s for her terpsichorean talents. Here she even gets to say a line. Her number is a reprise of the title song, this time sung by Dick Shawn (with Jim Backus on hand for part of it) as she, Collins, Jones and a fourth lady slink around and pose languidly. The song The Opposite Sex is actually rather catchy. The version sung over the credits was done expertly by Gray, who had no numbers in the body of the film, and Shawn’s rendition is wacky but sort of fun. The lyrics would make most feminists or other politically correct people wince these days, but you have to consider the era.

We recently lost Nielsen, of course, and he is often accused of being a non-entity in this film. Collins claimed he appeared to be bored with her. It’s a thankless part, one that was initially only referred to and never shown, with compassing-swinging changes in direction, but I think he does as good a job as anyone could, considering what he had to work with. As I’m finding out with many films, things meant for a cinema do not register the same way on small TV screens and often a bigger viewing area displays expressions and nuances that are missed on small ones.

Richards was formerly a minor league baseball player before winning some small roles in films. A torn ligament had ended his sports career and his rock solid face (he wouldn’t have made a bad Dick Tracy!) fit in well with 1950s expectations of attractiveness. (He isn’t shirtless in the film as shown in this picture, but I never miss the chance to show off handsome men whenever I can!) His biggest splash probably came when he played Benjamin in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. His song here, Rock and Roll Tumbleweed, is rather excruciating though it isn’t his fault. He displayed some degree of comic timing here that, sadly, was never exploited to its full potential. His career was over by 1966, though he lived until 1989.

Little Descher was, for a time, a very busy child actress, having been discovered while on a vacation with her family and later dispatched to Hollywood for a new life as the onscreen child of many stars including Van Johnson, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck and Loretta Young. While she was in some ways the pert, sickly sweet type of child that proliferated in the 50s, she actually acquitted herself well in this film as it was dealing with divorce, infidelity and so on, subjects not every eleven year old was informed about back then. In any case, she was popular enough to receive kidnapping threats from deranged fans! After a brief stab at acting as an older teen, she left show business behind.

As is often the case at The Underworld, most of the still photos and lobby cards shown here do not do the actual film full justice. It’s a wildly colorful movie (for example, this black & white shot of Allyson with the four basses – is that what they are? – doesn’t show that her getup was periwinkle blue, the background was sea foam green and the basses were a vibrant fuchsia!
Most of the U.S. posters leaned towards the dull with an unflattering and uninviting shot of what appeared to be five wrestlers’ bare backs in a row with the stars’ faces pasted on! Foreign release posters tended to play up the color, sex appeal and glamour a little bit more. (Even if this shot to the left puts Joan's dress (in the wrong color!) on Dolores' body! Also, considering the gossipy nature of the story, telephones and/or whispers were incorporated into the artwork, giving a more realistic (and possibly more inviting) idea of what to expect.
It may not be a perfect movie, but it’s still a lot of fun and is always filled with eye-catching people, clothing and settings. What’s really a shame is that a “real” DVD with a Joan Collins commentary couldn’t be produced instead of it merely being made as a barebones, pressed-to-order item through the Warner Brothers Archive (despite being an MGM film) due to an apparent lack of interest in it? Interest in it still runs high in The Underworld!


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