Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cracked "Ice" (or Over-Baked Alaska!)

Prolific novelist and playwright Edna Ferber was the source of quite a few movie adaptations. So Big, Dinner at Eight, Come and Get It, Show Boat, Stage Door, Saratoga Trunk, Cimarron and Giant are only some of the best known movies to stem from her literary and theatrical works. The 1931 rendition of Cimarron stood for many years as the sole western to have won a Best Picture Oscar (a record that held all the way until 1992 when Unforgiven won.) 1956's Giant was a sensational hit, so when her subsequent 1958 novel Ice Palace was in progress, Warner Brothers (who'd made Giant) snatched up the film rights before it was even published. (Not to be outdone, MGM proceeded with a sprawling, color update of Cimarron as well.)

The resultant film, Ice Palace, was released in 1960 with all the fanfare the studio could muster. Comparisons to Giant were pointed out in the posters, but, in the end, the only ways in which Ice Palace could compare were in the multi-generational, three-sided romance, the collection of name-brand actors, the color cinematography and the musical score. When it came to awards (Giant had been nominated for ten Oscars, winning one for director George Stevens) and, more importantly, box office, Ice Palace came up short. (It wasn't nominated for anything and was not a hit with movie-goers.)

The novel Ice Palace centered on a young lady whose parents had died before she was one year of age, leaving two cantankerous, warring grandfathers to raise her alternately, all amidst the raw splendor and danger of Alaska, prior to it becoming the 49th state of The United States of America.

The film version of the book put the focus on the grandfathers, basically telling their intersecting life stories with the granddaughter popping up close to the end of the 2 hour and 23 minute movie. A quartet of stars was put into the leading roles of the grandfathers and their respective love interests.

Richard Burton plays a WWI veteran returning home to Seattle, Washington with army buddy Jim Backus. Having lost all of his military earnings in a crap game, he is counting on his old job at a fish cannery to make ends meet, but is dejected when he finds that it is no longer available. Eventually, he opts to join a gaggle of Chinese workers en route to Alaska who are working for cheap at a cannery up there. Here, he meets fellow worker George Takei (yes, that George Takei of Star Trek!) who he defends from an abusive overseer.

Burton loses his job in a physical dispute and nearly drowns in the ocean until he is fished out by boat skipper Robert Ryan, a simultaneously hard and gentle guy who agrees to house and feed Burton on his fishing boat in return for work collecting salmon. Soon, the two determine that they could join together and build their own cannery on site rather than sending the catch down the shore. Thing is, Ryan won't commit until his girlfriend, hotel proprietress Carolyn Jones, agrees to do so as well.

Jones, who operates the boarding establishment with her father Karl Swenson, is a tough sell. The reason, however, is not because she doesn't believe in the cannery, but because she has been instantly struck by Cupid after glimpsing Burton. Handsome, dynamic Burton is an exhilarating change from the kind, but rather course and heavy-drinking Ryan. She does everything under the sun to avoid further contact with Burton, but finally can't deny her feelings any longer. While Ryan is passed out after a particularly rowdy party, she and Burton give in to their repressed passion.

Burton heads back to Seattle to raise funds for the cannery while Jones anxiously anticipates having to break it to Ryan that she and Burton are in love. In Seattle, Burton is turned down for money at every avenue. He learns from his war buddy Backus that his old boss is blackballing him in order to keep his daughter, who has always pined for Burton, out of his life and away from him. Burton's answer to this is to marry the daughter (Martha Hyer) and get the money that way! He brings her to Alaska, giving Jones a heartbreaking surprise.

Also while he was in Seattle, while dining at a Chinese restaurant, Burton has reconnected with Takei who was employed there as a waiter in the off-season. He takes him along to Alaska as well as a permanent houseboy, rescuing him from a life of fish-canning and bussing tables only to sentence him to a life of pouring coffee and making meals for Burton.
Once Ryan finds out about Jones and Burton's tryst, all bets are off. He leaves in a huff on a dog sled and Burton decides to proceed on his own with the new venture. Ryan (and you thought only Captain Cold wore glasses like these!), distraught and driven to go and go and go, finally collapses in the slush and is rescued by an Eskimo man. The man has a tried and true method for bringing Ryan back to life and warmth. He places him naked under a bed of furs with his wife and daughter!
(This being 1960, the trio is shown with about a body width in between each of them when we all know that spooning is actually the appropriate form of treatment. We do know this, don't we? If not, I've been warming people up the wrong way for decades! Ha!) Ryan becomes smitten with the daughter (Dorcas Brower) thanks to his having avoided all the traditional courting rituals and gone to bed with her before they've even met! She has also nursed him back to health with spoonfuls of broth.

Burton's wife Hyer is with child and is exceedingly annoyed that a) she's alone all the time while Burton toils at his work and b) that it's quite obvious he and Jones were Eskimo-kissing before he brought her up there. She wants to have her baby back in Seattle, but ultimately decides on having it in Alaska just to spite Burton. The day she goes into labor, Burton sends Takei frantically careening through town – ala Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind – to find the doctor, but he is nowhere to be found. This means that Hyer's baby has to be delivered by none other than her husband's old flame Jones!

Jones is so distraught over having delivered and held Burton's child that she decides to leave Alaska. Just as she's departing, Ryan returns with a big surprise of his own. He has his own child, a baby boy, and is widowed after his Eskimo wife has died in childbirth! With no clear idea how to raise an infant, Jones stays on and helps him out.

Cut to several years (and a few strands of grey) later, Ryan and Burton are sworn enemies. Ryan and his fellow fisherman are appalled by Burton's use of traps to garner fish. Naturally, within this Romeo and Juliet-like environment, Burton's daughter (who longs to escape her unhappy home life marked by quarrelling parents) and Ryan's son have developed a caring friendship. When the years progress even further, the daughter (now played by Miss Shirley Knight) and the son (a handsome Steve Harris) have fallen in love and run off together to elope!

They go to Harris' grandfather's hut, where Ryan met his mother, and of course it is no time at all before Knight is pregnant. (Fertility is rarely an issue in these stories.) Neither Ryan nor Burton is in favor of the union. Hyer is so disturbed by it all that she drops of a heart attack while grasping for her medication!
When it is discovered that Harris and Knight are en route to the city to have her baby (because, you know, nothing says “baby's wellbeing comes first” like a treacherous trek on a dog sled through the arctic tundra!) and they haven't been heard from in days, it is up to the parents to save them.

Burton and Jones take to the air in Burton's private plane while Ryan sets off in his ever-trusty dog sled. Together, they attempt to descend on the hapless teens and bring them back home. The problem is (and this is where the movie hits its hooty zenith), Knight simply cannot go on any further and, in an effort to keep her warm, Harris has shot and gutted a nearby caribou for them to crawl into. (Do we think George Lucas saw this flick prior to penning The Empire Strikes Back??) The fresh blood draws the attention of a vicious bear who proceeds to attack the already pitiful couple.

The bear is a bear for one or two shots, but for the rest of the sequence, the bear is a man in a bear suit, hysterically flailing his paws at Harris before being shot dead. Poor Knight, whose (basically) second film this was, must have wondered to herself, lying there next to a hollowed-out caribou carcass while being coated with fake snow, as a man in a bear suit tackled her half-Eskimo husband (actually just another cute, Warner Brothers stud in brown makeup!), “Is that all there is?”

By the end of all this, we're left with their little baby, a granddaughter, who has no one to raise her except for the two warring grandfathers Burton and Ryan and the erstwhile Jones who has done nothing but run a hotel and rear other peoples' offspring as punishment for her one night of love nearly two decades earlier. She takes in the baby for sixteen years (!) whereupon Ryan and Burton share her for six months apiece thereafter. She swiftly grows into pert, perky, platinum blonde (despite being 1/4th Eskimo!) Diane McBain.

McBain wants peace between the men, but tensions are even higher than before now that Burton is a hugely wealthy business czar and Ryan is an outspoken political figure (who “outspeaks” the most in opposition to Burton!) When Ryan seems destined to win statehood for Alaska, which would shut down much of Burton's financial empire, he and his longtime associate Backus concoct a scheme. The scheme is to marry McBain off to Backus's son (the darkly handsome Ray Danton who, despite being fully Caucasian looks more Eskimo than most of the alleged Eskimos in the movie!) They feel that having Ryan's granddaughter married to Burton's associate's son will diffuse his ability to discredit Burton.

By now, Burton is buried under grey hair and aging makeup. Takei, still pouring coffee, is white haired. Jones is also heavily grey and wearing old age cosmetics. Ryan, too. Yet somehow Backus, who was a dozen years older than Burton, is allowed to merely rinse out some of his hair color and not become besieged by age-adding appliances! Like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, his costars pass him up in the aging process.

Danton proceeds to woo and propose to McBain, who is swept off her feet by the coolly suave hunk. All along, she'd been fond of a local Eskimo boy, but he is left in the lurch as she and Danton plan their wedding. Unfortunately for Danton, there's a fly in the ointment in the form of a red-haired babe he'd been canoodling with just before the big plan went into action. She descends on the engagement party and hilariously starts doling out catty remarks and veiled insinuations.

This sparks Jones' curiosity and before long she has figured out what Burton, Backus and Danton are up to. A showdown ensues and McBain sees the light. Now the stage is set for McBain to wind up with her old Eskimo pal and pilot (Sheridan Comerate), but before anything can happen, he and her grandfather Ryan are caught in a snowstorm and crash the plane in the middle of a glacier! Ryan's rescue comes from a surprising source (if you've never before seen a drama about a years-long, multi-generational conflict.)

Everybody is back together and seemingly happy in time for Alaska to be inducted into the Untied States of America, with Ryan proclaiming its virtues to the nation via a radio address.

Edna Ferber was still alive when Ice Palace was released. In fact, she published a final novel in 1963 called A Kind of Magic. She died in 1968 at the age of eighty-two. A lifelong spinster, she was suspected of being either a repressed lesbian or asexual, though she wrote many stories that concerned deep love, passion and family ties. Then again, there was often a thread of unrequited or impossible love. She also made it a point very often to examine the plight of minorities and their oppression, be it Blacks and mulattos in Show Boat, American Indians in Giant or the Chinese as in this book.

Director Vincent Sherman had a lengthy career as a director, but never managed to glean any award nominations. Despite a sturdy reputation at Warner Brothers for many years (and affairs with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth!), he was unceremoniously given the boot during the 1950s because he dared to defend those people who were being targeted as Communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Though he did manage to come back and direct further films there later, his chief focus was on television after that, where he worked on such diverse programs as Medical Center, The Waltons, Baretta and Trapper John, M.D. He died in 2006 about a month shy of his one-hundredth birthday!

Prolific, highly-accomplished composer Max Steiner (who had scored 1931's Cimarron and the 1953 version of So Big) was approaching the end of his long career at this stage, though he would continue working until 1965. Rarely a subtle composer, he often played up the drama of the on-screen moments. (Bette Davis once fought – and lost – a battle over whether or not her character in Dark Victory would go upstairs to die without music.) His work here is splendid and surprisingly unsung. Especially captivating is a haunting love theme he uses throughout. He died in 1971 of heart failure at the age of eighty-three.

Burton was a major star by now, having headlined 1953's The Robe, 1956's Alexander the Great and 1958's Look Back in Anger, but within just a few years he would become one of the world's most talked about men when he engaged in an affair with Elizabeth Taylor during 1963's Cleopatra. From there, a whirlwind roller coaster of drama ensued (including two marriages to and two divorces from Taylor) before his death in 1984 of a brain hemorrhage. He was fifty-eight, but looked much older thanks to a lifetime of smoking, drinking, brawling and balling.

His work here is rather one-note, really. Angrily stoic for much of the time, with surprisingly little dimension, a situation not helped as the character gets older. Nominated seven times for an Oscar, but never winning, he is one of the Academy's most notable bridesmaids. (For once, I'm not going to go down the entire list of noms and winners!)

Ryan was one of those rock-solid leading men who tended to attract little media attention (perhaps due to his thirty-three year marriage with three children) and even now is unsung outside the world of classic movie buffs. Entering films in 1940, he had a sole Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for 1947's Crossfire (losing to Edmund Gwenn in Miracle of 34th Street.) In it, he'd played an anti-Semite murderer. A pacifist and supporter of underdogs in real life, he frequently played vicious, hateful characters on screen. Ice Palace gave him the rare chance to espouse his own views about prejudice. He worked almost right up to his death in 1973 of lung cancer at the age of only sixty-three.

This was one of Jones' most significant films roles. In spite of having enjoyed a busy career in the '50s, she was most often utilized in supporting parts. Her brief role in 1957's The Bachelor Party (a role she claimed she had no concept of whatsoever!) landed her an Oscar nomination, but the statuette went to Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara. She did take home a Golden Globe that season, though, as Most Promising Newcomer (shared with Sandra Dee and Diane Varsi), though she'd been in movies for five years by then! Four years after Ice Palace, she entered cult immortality by accepting the role of Morticia Addams on The Addams Family, her slinky, velvety take on the role earning her legions of fans.

Aaron Spelling's wife for a dozen years, prior to Candy, she met with a horrible end when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She died in 1983 at only age fifty-three. Many a critic has wondered how Robert Ryan and Richard Burton could squabble over Carolyn Jones for forty years in Ice Palace, believing her to be too plain. (True, she was perhaps not a conventional beauty, but she had remarkable eyes.)

However, they underestimate how much a person's warmth and personality plays into attraction as well. Jones really rose to the occasion, acting-wise, in Ice Palace, and got to portray a wide variety of emotions. She also got to toss off one of the film's fun, hooty lines when the married Burton tries to reignite their relationship years after it was snuffed out. Beginning to wear down, she tells him, “I'm not made of stone...” then, suddenly realizing what it would make her, adds, “...and I'm not made of DIRT!”

Longtime readers here know of my obsession with chiffon, but my second most favorite fashion detail on a woman is a clingy pencil skirt. I think it probably began with me while watching the Naked Eyes music video for “Always Something There to Remind Me,” but I love to watch a woman trying to run in a long, snug skirt. Jones has many instances in which she runs down the sidewalk or trots upstairs in the lengthy, tight skirts that Howard Shoup gave her to suggest the late 1910s.

This is a role that, fifteen or twenty years earlier would have been perfect for Bette Davis, who played many long-suffering types in the early days. Many times during the film, Jones brings to mind the type of acting that Davis demonstrated during her glory years at Warner Brothers and occasionally she even looks like her! One last thing about Jones. For whatever reason, she wears the same piece of jewelry in virtually every scene of the movie (which takes place from about 1918 to 1960!), a pin featuring a sprig of red rubies. Perhaps its significance was explained in a scene that was cut for time.

Hyer, a frosty, pretty blonde, was just about at her career peak at this time. She'd been acting in pictures since 1947, but had finally secured a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the 1958 film Some Came Running. The award went to Wendy Hiller for Separate Tables. Strangely, her career began a downturn (her role in 1959's The Best of Everything was all but cut out) and the already pristine actress began to develop a tinge of artificiality and an overly distinct manner of speaking.

In the coming years, weight gain and a vaguely outdated quality forced her into several substandard movies. Still, I tend to enjoy watching her in movies, perhaps due to her general elegance. A marriage to producer Hal Wallis allowed her to retire from acting while still remaining attached to the business. Still later, she got religion and wrote a tell-nothing autobiography. She is still with us today at eighty-seven, having retired from acting in 1974.

Backus had been a useful supporting actor for most of the '50s (and was most memorable as James Dean's father in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause.) Like Jones, he would enter the world of television legend in 1964 when he took the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island. Rare is the person who doesn't know who Mr. Howell is. He also famously supplied the voice of Mr. Magoo in many cartoons featuring that nearsighted figure. After developing Parkinson's disease, he died of pneumonia in 1989 at the age of seventy-six.

Danton has his own profile here (shared with his one-time wife Julie Adams.) The smooth, handsome, perma-tanned actor eventually turned to directing when his acting career petered out. Sadly, he died in 1992 at only age sixty-one from kidney failure.

McBain also has a tribute on this site, one of the earliest ones I did. (Sometimes I wish I could go back and give some of those folks a little more love since, in the inaugural days of The Underworld, I tended to just hit only the high points of the subject's life and career.) Though she could be very adept at playing schemers, she is also right at home here as a good, earnest girl. This was her very first film, having done only a couple of episodes of Maverick previously.

She went on to roles in the glossy drama Parrish and a starring role in Claudelle Inglish. Reportedly, she and Richard Burton were having an affair during the filming of Ice Palace (hopefully after his age makeup was removed!) and it was allegedly the same with Chad Everett during Inglish. She married in 1972 and had a son, but the union was over within two years. A traumatic sexual assault by two strangers on Christmas Day of 1982 led her to become a counselor and victim's advocate for much of her free time. Still with us today at seventy-one, she hasn't been seen on-screen since 2001.

Yet another performer in this movie who's been profiled elsewhere here is Miss Knight. Like McBain, she'd been tried out on television (primarily on a now-forgotten western called Buckskin) before graduating to movies. Like nearly all other Warner Brothers contractees, she was frequently placed on TV even while her film career was hot. She earned Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actress for 1960's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and 1962's Sweet Bird of Youth (losing to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, respectively.)

Balancing a stage career with her screen work, she forged a very solid reputation for herself as an adult actress (and sported a beautiful mane of shimmering blonde hair.) In recent years, she has stayed very busy, racking up Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and awards and parlaying her new, heavier look into a wealth of funny, serious and occasionally unintentionally funny character parts. Now seventy-five, she continues to act.

Swenson was just over fifty when he played Jones' father in Ice Palace, yet was still slathered down with age makeup and hair whitener. He would later become a very familiar face through his work as mill owner Lars Hanson on Little House on the Prairie between 1974 and 1978. Ironically, not long after filming his character's death on the series, he died of a heart attack himself at age seventy.

Takei was one more member of this cast who would later win iconic status through television (making Ice Palace a fun one to watch for TV buffs.) Having just begun in TV and movies the year before this, it was quite a coup to be working alongside stars like Richard Burton in a top-tier production. This was offset to no small degree by the extraordinarily stereotypical and demeaning nature of his character, though it must be said that this was common for the time.

People who primarily know him as the serene, intelligent and educated Mr. Sulu from Star Trek (which came a scant six years after this) can be nothing short of floored when they see him here talking pigeon-English, mugging and bugging his eyes in a jaw-dropping display. At least the role was played by an actual Asian rather than a white actor. (Bear in mind that Breakfast at Tiffany's, with a slant-eyed, buck-toothed Mickey Rooney, was one year after this!) Now seventy-five, he is not only a sci-fi icon, but something of a gay icon as well after having come out and then marrying his male partner.

Comerante (shown on the right) enjoyed only a brief career as a Warner Brothers actor, working from 1957 to 1960, but in that time was crammed a fair amount of work. Most of his roles in movies and on TV were small, but his featured position here seemed to bode well. However, it was his last film. He died in 1973 at the age of forty-five for reasons of which I'm not aware.

The guy on Comerante's left above, Sal Ponti, just had a walk-on as another pilot in this, his film debut, but later changed his name for a while to Anthony Hall and eked out a twenty-year career on TV and in films (such as the notorious howler Atlantis, The Lost Continent!) Sadly, he died of lung cancer at fifty-three in 1988.

Harris is another one who wasn't able to reach lasting fame though at least he was able to stretch his career from the the late-'50s to the mid-'60s. Perhaps his biggest role apart from this was in the now-obscure kidnapping thriller The Yellow Canary in 1963. In it, he was one of a gaggle of ne'er do wells who may be involved in the snatching of Pat Boone and Barbara Eden's baby.

Brower, who essayed the brief role of Ryan's Eskimo wife, had no lines and never appeared in another movie or TV program, yet was heavily featured in promotional stills for the film. One showed a makeup artist applying cosmetics to her bare back, though no such scene appears in the finished cut. She was given a promotional push with headshots of her with contemporary hair and makeup but was never seen or heard from again.

Faring little better was Norma French, who played Danton's jilted, catty girlfriend. In 1959 and 1960, she worked in a few minor parts, then wasn't seen again until 1971 when she played Jack Klugman's wife in the super-obscure Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow!, a movie about a civic activist who tries to make a difference in the lives of disabled children. Incidentally, Morgan Freeman had his first credited part in the movie, too, as a fellow activist turned drug addict. After this, she was also never seen again.

There was a certain amount of derision aimed at Ice Palace for being mostly studio bound, but the cast and crew really did go to Alaska and a fair amount of location footage made it into the film. The studio filming is most egregious in the segment with Harris and Knight preparing to run away (professing their feelings for one another as paper “snow” pelts them in the face and mouth!) and during their fateful return home. Generally, though, the movie tends to have an appropriately outdoor, faraway feel.

Interestingly, when Ferber wrote the novel and saw it published, Alaska was still not a state, but became one in January of 1959 in time for the movie to note it at its finale. This fact still didn't help lead the movie to box office success. Sadly, only five years after attaining statehood, a 9.2 level earthquake hit, killing 133 people and destroying several villages and coastal communities. It was, in fact, one thousand times more powerful than the famous 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Perhaps a hit movie could have been made out of that!

This is a big, lumbering, episodic movie, but I happen to love expensive, all-star extravaganzas like it. This was very briefly available on burned-to-order DVD, but was swiftly taken out of the line-up for reasons unknown! What a shame. For most fans (like myself!), it's chiefly accessible only through an out-of-print, cropped, faded VHS version. Now, more than fifty years after its creation, it would be nice to see it as it was meant to be.

Had there been such a thing as TV miniseries at the time, it would have been perfect fodder for that genre (still could be, with a little spicing up!) Compared to what is released nowadays, I think the general quality of its acting and craftsmanship would hold up nicely. And, if not, there's always the guy in the bear suit whacking Steve Harris around!


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