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Musical Lifetimes – the golden age of musical biographies

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Screen biographies of musicians might be expected to consist of strong story lines with musical interludes. Yet generally their plots are so frail and foolish that they provide no more than excuses for songs and dances. And it is perhaps flattering these films to suggest that they run to stories’ in the plural: some-how. Whatever the differences of temperament, background and talent among the musicians concerned, when it comes to the cinematic point they all seem to have led very similar lives.

Male musicians are portrayed as having humble origins: their early struggles are compensated for by a sober, loving, home-life; they become swollen-headed by success and then entangled with a glamorous star or rich socialite. but are rescued from the brink of disaster by the love of a good, mousy wife who helps them make a fresh start.

Success always comes early for female musicians: they are unable to cope with it and turn rapidly to drink or drugs: they have a disastrous romantic involvement and are then crippled by an accident or afflicted with illness: eventually, however, they find the will to go on and come up smiling.

Studio Whitewash

The advantage of these simple plots is that the tried-and-true hit songs may easily be fitted in. These numbers would frequently be performed by an all-star cast, which could be assembled quite cheaply since each star would only be employed for a very brief period in the film. It is hard to say which studio first hit on this formula, but probably the best claim belongs to Warner Brothers with Yankee Doodle Dandy – the life of George M. Cohan – in 1942.

Since Cohan was alive at the time, the film could hardly hint that he had any personality defects whatever, except a touch of Irish temper from time to time. James Cagney, the star, aroused audience sympathy and the film made a very successful addition to the studio’s long series of rather literary biographical films of the Thirties, such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emille Zola (1937). They were thus encouraged to try again and in 1945 brought out Rhapsody in Blue, an anodyne life of George Gershwin, and in the following year Night and Day, a life of Cole Porter starring Cary Grant.

Night and Day

Cole Porter as played by Cary Grant in Night and Day

After Night and Day, Warners made only one more composer biography, I’ll See You In My Dreams (1952), in which Danny Thomas as Gus Kahn and Doris Day as his sweetly sensible wife ran through every cliché in the book. MGM made tributes to Kern (1946, Til the Clouds Roll By), Rodgers and Hart (1948, Words and Music) and Kalmar and Ruby (1950, Three Little Words) – all of them all-star revues with a bit of plot, which consisted of variations on the usual theme, to ‘hold the numbers apart’.

20th Century Fox took virtually the only remaining team – De Sylva, Brown and Henderson – as the subjeets of The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), by then studios had begun to concentrate on performers. Following The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), came The Glenn Miller Story (1953), The Benny Goodman Story (1955) and The Gene Krupa Story (1959). Lillian Roth was shown hitting the bottle in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) as was Helen Morgan in The Helen Morgan Story (1957), Ruth Etting loved a gangster in Love Me or Leave Me (1955): Jane Froman was crippled in With a Song in My Heart (1952) as was opera star Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody (1955), but somehow, they all sang on . .

Doris Day Love Me Or Leave Me

Doris Day played Ruth Etting in Love Me Or Leave Me.

The singer not the song

These famous suffering ladies. of course, provided great vehicles, mostly for leading ladies who specialized in playing suffering women – like Eleanor Parker and Susan Hayward. Ann Blyth did not help her career by playing Helen Morgan, but the role of Ruth Etting initialed a new stage in Doris Day’s career.

It was easier to make a performer the centre of a musical biography than a composer; apart from Cary Grant as Cole Porter, composers in films tended lo sit on the sidelines of the drama while their songs were performed by others; consequently, composers were usually played by stars of the second rank.

An exception was Glenn Miller, played with laconic charm by James Stewart: Miller’s rags-to-riches story was more interesting than most and he also had the advantage, from the dramatic point of view, of dying in an air crash during World War II.

If the studio felt that the subjeci of a screen biography lacked the requisite box-office pull, it drafted in star names to boost the film’s appeal.

Audiences were encouraged to see Lillian Russell (1940) because she was played by Alice Faye and Incendiary Blonde (1945). a biography of Texas Guinan, because it starred Betty Hutton. The same, applied to The Dolly Sisters (1945), reincarnated by Betty Grable and June Haver, and The I Don’t Care Girl (1952), which cast Mitzi Gaynor as Eva Tanguay. All these films were firmly modelled around the lineaments of their respective stars.

Funny Girl

Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl.

This formula worked well while stars like these commanded big followings. But after the Fifties, there were fewer and fewer names that ensured box-oflice success simply by virtue of their presence in a film. People wanted to see their favourite star in the right kind of role in the right kind of movie. Most of the (few) female superstars of recent years have tried at least one biography: Julie Andrews took the part of Gertrude Lawrence in Star! (1968), Diana Ross became Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Barbra Streisand played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in 1968 and in Funny Lady (1975), and Bette Midler was a renamed but recognisable Janis Joplin in The Rose (1979).

Of these, one was a spectacular and significant failure. Funny Girl, Lady Sings the Blues and The Rose all have strong dramatic stories which do not seriously depend on audiences’ knowing anything about the characters on which they were based. Star! had no story at all – no drama, no noticeable romance, nothing which would answer the question audiences were bound to ask as to why they should be expected to spend three and a quarter hours in the company of its somewhat chilly main attraction.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Features

Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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