Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, rock star on the eve of a comeback
Burbank, California, June 1968
Release Date: June 23, 2022
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Costume Designer: Catherine Martin
Tailor: Gloria Bava
Original Concept: Bill Belew
Fifty-five years ago tonight, the King signaled his return to glory in the music world when NBC aired Singer Presents… Elvis, now also known as the ’68 Comeback Special.
Despite his start in music, Elvis Presley’s career through much of the ’60s was anchored in movies. There were a few winners among the mix, but the singer’s famously shrewd manager Colonel Tom Parker engineered them closer to formulaic, low-budget comedies that would yield higher profits—particularly when they could be linked to a soundtrack album, an opportunity less possible or profitable with the more dramatic (and often higher-quality) roles that Elvis preferred.
By late 1967, Elvis had grown disenchanted with the programmatic films like Clambake, Double Trouble, and Stay Away, Joe that had led him far from the recording and touring that cemented his colossal popularity in the ’50s. At the same time, Colonel Tom approached NBC with a million-dollar deal to feature Elvis in what would be a holiday special, designed to conclude with the King of Rock and Roll crooning Christmas carols.
Luckily for Elvis, producer Bob Finkel convinced his cohorts and presenting sponsor Singer Corporation to green-light a different concept that focused exclusively on Elvis—intended to connect him with younger audiences and refresh the cultural mindset of Elvis as a groundbreaking rock star and not the tired star of corny comedies. Despite expected resistance from Colonel Tom, Elvis was fully on board with Finkel and director Steve Binder’s renewed vision for the special, which was rehearsed, recorded, and produced through June 1968.
It was during this tumultuous month that Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles, just two months after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. The King assassination particularly troubled Elvis, who “definitely wanted to say something more with his music than a song like ‘Hound Dog’ could express,” as Peter Guralnick wrote in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. “Binder wanted a musical statement based on [Elvis’] conversations about the assassinations and the discord gripping the country,” wrote Donald Liebenson for Vanity Fair on the 50th anniversary of the special. Binder charged songwriter Walter Earl Brown Jr. to craft “the greatest song you’ve ever written,” which Brown did—overnight.
The next day, Brown played “If I Can Dream” for the core members of the production. After Elvis asked Brown to play it at least six times, he simply stated “We’re doing it,” and the special’s finale was determined. Of course, Finkel knew that “the Colonel will blow his stack. It’s got to be a Christmas song,” and even after Colonel Tom’s initial protest that it “ain’t Elvis’ kind of song,” taste prevailed and “If I Can Dream” became the closing number of Singer Presents… Elvis. Continue reading
Billy Drago as Frank Nitti, ruthless Chicago Outfit enforcer
Chicago, Fall 1930 to Spring 1931
Film: The Untouchables
Release Date: June 3, 1987
Director: Brian De Palma
Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance
Wardrobe: Giorgio Armani
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Eighty years ago today on the morning of March 19, 1943, 57-year-old Chicago resident Frank Nitti enjoyed breakfast with Toni, his third wife whom he had married the previous May. He began drinking heavily and, after Toni left for church, Nitti walked five blocks to a local railroad yard in North Riverside, where he attempted to shoot himself in the head. The first shot merely perforated his hat and the second wounded him in the jaw, but the third shot hit its mark as the inebriated mob boss slumped to his death.
Loosely based on the end of Al Capone’s infamous reign of the Chicago underworld (and more directly based on the 1950s TV show of the same name), Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables retains a few basic details of Capone’s fall from power, including real figures on both sides of the law like self-aggrandizing Prohibition agent Eliot Ness and the vicious mobster who would ultimately succeed Capone as leader of the Chicago Outfit: Frank Nitti, chillingly portrayed by the late, great Billy Drago. Continue reading
Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum, hedonistic patriarch
New York City, Fall to winter 2001
Film: The Royal Tenenbaums
Release Date: December 14, 2001
Director: Wes Anderson
Costume Designer: Karen Patch
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Happy 93rd birthday to Gene Hackman, the versatile two-time Oscar-winning actor born January 30, 1930 in San Bernardino. Hackman’s prolific career began during the “New Hollywood” era with excellent performances in films like Bonnie & Clyde, The French Connection, and The Conversation, with many more hits in the decades to follow. Before he retired from acting in 2004, Hackman delivered one of his most memorable performances as the eponymous estranged patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums. Continue reading
Jake Lacy as Richard Semco, affable painter and Navy veteran
New York City, December 1952
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Director: Todd Haynes
Costume Designer: Sandy Powell
It takes a lot for new movies to break through the cinematic ice to enter people’s Christmas viewing rotations. For decades, there were the classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas, then a boom through the late ’80s and ’90s with newer entries like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and—yes—Die Hard. After Elf and Love Actually were released in 2003, it seemed like the proliferation of Hallmark holiday movies so saturated the market that it would be nearly impossible for a modern movie to make its yuletide impression… let alone an adaptation of a book published more than a half-century earlier about a fictional lesbian romance. Enter Carol.
Seventy years ago, suspense writer Patricia Highsmith followed up her debut novel—the smash-hit Strangers on a Train that had already been adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock—with The Price of Salt, chronicling the relationship between aspiring set designer Therese Belivet and housewife Carol Aird, whom Therese meets working at a Manhattan toy store in the days leading up to Christmas, inspired by a brief encounter that Highsmith experienced while working in Bloomingdale’s toy department during the 1948 holiday season. Due to the impact that the novel’s sapphic content may have had on her career, Highsmith was credited under the alias “Claire Morgan” when The Price of Salt was first published in 1952.
Surprisingly, there was an attempt to adapt The Price of Salt for the screen not long after it was published, but the tight restrictions of the Production Code immediately enervated the script, which was renamed Winter Journey and centered around Therese’s romance with a man named… Carl. Luckily, wiser minds evidently prevailed and allowed for the first major screen adaptation to be Todd Haynes’ thoughtful Carol in 2015 starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, respectively.
We meet Therese while she’s working at the fictional Frankenberg’s department store in Manhattan, casually dating her cordial co-worker Richard Semco (Jake Lacy). A Navy veteran with artistic aspirations, Richard has grand plans for his future with Therese, even if she doesn’t outwardly share his enthusiasm. Unfortunately for Richard, his dreams of marriage, shared holidays, and European travels with “Terry” are increasingly dashed after she meets the elegant and enigmatic Carol while working at the toy counter.
After a pair of misplaced gloves and some creamed spinach over poached eggs, Therese makes a plan to visit Carol at her home in the country, scheduling it in her calendar for Sunday, December 21, 1952, seventy years ago today, and—in the years since the movie’s release—December 21 has become an unofficial celebration for fans celebrating “Carol Day”. Continue reading
Elliott Gould as Miles Cullen, mild-mannered bank teller
Toronto, Christmas 1977
Film: The Silent Partner
Release Date: September 7, 1978
Director: Daryl Duke
Wardrobe Credit: Debi Weldon
Among all the Christmas and Christmas-adjacent cinematic classics, I feel like The Silent Partner has yet to receive its due. Written on spec by Curtis Hanson—who later directed and co-wrote L.A. Confidential, among many others—this Canadian-made thriller blends touches of comedy with genuine thrills and a unique plot. Elliott Gould stars as Miles Cullen, a bored bank teller who foils a robbery plot attempted by the psychotic Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer), whose wardrobe frequently alternates between a mall Santa costume and drag.
Through one of Harry’s abandoned hold-up notes, Miles caught wind of the robbery plan in advance and decided to let the crook’s larcenous plans benefit him as well by squirreling away a small fortune in anticipation of the heist. When Harry finally carried out the robbery, Miles was ready and handed over only a fraction of the money to the gun-toting Santa.
Miles’ coolness under pressure makes him popular among his colleagues, particularly the attractive Julie Carver (Susannah York), who shifts her attention from their married manager Charles Packard (Michael Kirby) to Miles, who accompanies her to a Christmas party at the Packard home on the following Sunday. Unfortunately, his quick thinking during the holdup has also attracted the attention of a bitter Harry Reikle, who realizes what Miles has done and begins threatening the scheming teller for the remaining money he feels he rightfully owed. Continue reading
Don Cheadle as Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, smooth but dangerous gunsel
Los Angeles, Summer 1948
Film: Devil in a Blue Dress
Release Date: September 29, 1995
Director: Carl Franklin
Costume Designer: Sharen Davis
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
As #Noirvember comes to a close, I want to celebrate one of my favorite characters from neo-noir, the trigger-happy “Mouse” Alexander in Devil in a Blue Dress, played by Don Cheadle who was born November 29, 1964 and celebrates his 58th birthday today.
Fledgling private eye Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) calls his old pal Mouse for some high-caliber help as the stakes climb but soon regrets his decision: “You ain’t been in my house five minutes and you gone and shot somebody already, Mouse!” Continue reading
Cary Grant as Romer Sheffield, smooth playboy
Ohio, Summer 1932
Film: Hot Saturday
Release Date: October 28, 1932
Director: William A. Seiter
Today being a hot Saturday in late summer reminded me of the early Cary Grant movie called, well, Hot Saturday. 1932 had been a breakout year for the Bristol-born star, as the erstwhile Archie Leach had worked his way in six months from his screen debut (This is the Night) to his first leading role, as the dapper playboy Romer Sheffield in Hot Saturday. (Curiously, this marks the second time both this month and in the decade-long history of this blog that I’m writing about a character named Romer!)
Romer provides a prototype of what would become Grant’s signature screen persona: charming, debonair, and romantic yet wickedly self-deprecating. We meet him on a warm afternoon in the fictional Ohio berg of Marysville, where he strolls into the local bank and makes a date with the young clerk, Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll), despite his already scandalous living arrangement with a woman named Camille Renault (Rita La Roy). As Ruth already has a date set that weekend with co-worker Connie Billop (Edward Woods), Romer invites both to his lakeside estate for what promises to be a hot Saturday indeed. Continue reading
Peter O’Toole as Alan Swann, self-destructive screen swashbuckler
New York City, Fall 1954
Film: My Favorite Year
Release Date: October 8, 1982
Director: Richard Benjamin
Costume Designer: May Routh
Today would have been the 90th birthday of Peter O’Toole, legend of stage and screen. Though he was ultimately presented with an Academy Honorary Award, O’Toole holds the dubious distinction of having received the most Academy Award nominations without a win. One of his eight nominations was for the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, Richard Benjamin’s directorial debut written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo, set behind the scenes at NBC’s famous studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza during the Golden Age of live television.
“1954. You don’t get years like that anymore… it was my favorite year,” begins the narration by Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), a junior comedy writer reportedly based on Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had both written for Your Show of Shows in the early ’50s. The story was inspired by Errol Flynn’s real-life guest appearance on Your Show of Shows, with Flynn reimagined as the erratic Alan Swann. Benjy describes Swann as the greatest screen idol of all time, despite his boss dismissing Swann’s performances as no more than “kissing and jumping and drinking and humping.”
Richard Benjamin explained in an interview with Donald Leibenson that “in the original script, there’s a scene which I shot that would have played after what’s in the movie. It took place in a Hollywood cemetery, and Benjy is walking past the gravestones. He says in voiceover that Alan Swann made him promise he would do something on his birthday every year. Alan has passed away, and Benjy comes to his grave, kneels down and pours a bottle of Courvoisier over the tombstone. That’s what’s on the last page. Peter asked me to read the date that was on the tombstone. It was Aug. 2. He said, ‘Aug. 2 is my birthday; did you know that?’ I asked Norman if he knew that, and Norman said no, he had made it up. And Peter says, ‘Therefore, I must do the film.'” Continue reading
On George Clooney’s 61st birthday, I’m pleased to present another guest post contributed by my friend Ken Stauffer, who had also covered the actor’s plaid suit in Out of Sight and Clooney’s fashionable co-star Brad Pitt from this same scene in Ocean’s Eleven. You can learn more from him about the style of the Ocean’s film series on his Instagram account, @oceansographer.
George Clooney as Danny Ocean, recently paroled con man and casino heister
Los Angeles, Spring 2001
Film: Ocean’s Eleven
Release Date: December 7, 2001
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Costume Designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Tailor: Dominic Gherardi
Happy birthday to George Clooney, who turns 61 today! To celebrate, we’re looking back at one of his most striking tailored looks in Ocean’s Eleven, the movie which arguably made him a household name and cemented his image as a suave leading man.
The film opens with Clooney’s Danny Ocean being released from North Jersey State Prison on a frigid winter morning. After a shave and a wardrobe change, his first stop is Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza to find Frank Caton (Bernie Mac), a fellow career criminal currently eking out a living under an alias as a blackjack dealer. Within a handful of lines, we learn that Danny is on the hunt for Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), whom he quickly learns is now “teaching movie stars how to play cards.” A day later, the parolee has flown across the country to rope in his felonious old friend at a Hollywood nightclub. Continue reading
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, smooth private detective and “a chap worth knowing”
San Francisco, Spring 1941
Film: The Maltese Falcon
Release Date: October 3, 1941
Director: John Huston
Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly (credited for gowns)
Now considered a seminal film noir, The Maltese Falcon celebrated its 80th anniversary last month. Dashiell Hammett’s excellent 1930 detective novel had already been adapted twice for the screen—once as a “lewd” pre-Code thriller and recycled as a zanier mid-’30s vehicle for Bette Davis—before Warner Bros. finally got it right.
The Maltese Falcon was the directorial debut for John Huston, who had faithfully adapted Hammett’s source material for his sharp script and demonstrated his sense of methodical efficiency, resulting in a masterpiece that benefited from the formula of director of photography Arthur Edelson’s low-key cinematography and a perfect cast led by Humphrey Bogart as the wisecracking gumshoe who “don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Continue reading