THE DVD SHELF: The Grandly Theatrical "A Double Life," Plus "A New Leaf," "E.T.," "Annie" and "The Carol Burnett Show"

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30 Sep 2012

Cover art for
Cover art for "A Double Life"

This month, we watch the Othello-based backstage film noir "A Double Life"; Elaine May's "A New Leaf"; Steven Spielberg's classic "E.T."; highlights from "The Carol Burnett Show"; and John Huston's version of the Broadway musical Annie.


The climax of Shakespeare's Othello, with the Moor strangling fair Desdemona with a kiss, presents passion unrestrained. In the hands of an excellent and strong actor — like Paul Robeson, who stunned Broadway squeezing the life out of Uta Hagen during the 1943-44 season — it is easy for the mind to momentarily confuse the performer with the character.

Imagine, though, what could happen in the hands of a mighty actor who is heading for a severe breakdown; and whose reason, offstage, is clouded by raging jealousy? The Kanins — Garson and his wife Ruth Gordon — seem to have imagined just that, perhaps instigated by Robeson's performance. In any case, they soon thereafter devised the 1947 A Double Life [Olive], a powerful mixture of Shakespeare and insanity set in the glamorous world of the theatre of yesteryear.

The Kanins — writing the screenplay and apparently coproducing the film with Gar's brother, Michael — came upon the canny idea of casting not a stage actor but old-time movie star Ronald Colman. Colman had been in Hollywood for a quarter century, making such classics as "A Tale of Two Cities," "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Lost Horizon." But it took playing Anthony John — the stage star who undertakes Othello in "A Double Life" — that finally won him his Oscar.

The result is a fascinating psychological film noir filled with Shakespeare and stage dust. Colman has the Swedish actress Signe Hasso as ex-wife and stage partner; in this case, she falls under his grip when she plays his Desdemona. Edmond O'Brien is a Broadway press agent and stand-in for Cassio; he won his own Oscar seven years later, as another press agent in "The Barefoot Contessa." Most startling of the supporting cast is Shelley Winters, as a slatternly blonde waitress who picks up Colman and pays the ultimate price. She practically sizzles in a manner that might shock those who are only familiar with the older Shelley.

"A Double Life" was directed by George Cukor, famous for his work with Katherine Hepburn and a series of major hits for M-G-M (including "Dinner at Eight," "Camille" and "The Philadelphia Story"). Cukor began his career on the stage; for a time he ran a stock company in Rochester, NY. He is said to have introduced Kanin and Gordon, back in 1939. "A Double Life" would be the first of a string of collaborations with them (including "Born Yesterday" and "Adam's Rib").

Ronald Colman in "A Double Life"
1947 Universal

The stage connection was strong. Ruth started her career in 1915 at the fabled old Empire, supporting the great Maude Adams in Peter Pan. The considerably younger Kanin began in 1935, as assistant to George Abbott on such farce hits as Three Men on a Horse and Boy Meets Girl. They combined to make "A Double Life" thoroughly informed by the Broadway theatre; this is a backstage theatre story taking place in the true Broadway world. And the center of that world is — yes — the Empire, the preeminent Broadway playhouse for more than 60 years. Located on the east side of Broadway, just below 40th Street, the house was — with much sorrow from the community — demolished in 1953.

The Kanins and Cukor not only lace their film with shots of the Empire; they took over the house during the summer of 1947 and shot much of the film in and around the theatre, at a time when such filming on location was a rarity. We have exterior shots of the Empire, both the front and (apparently) the stage door entrance. Scenes are shot in the main box office lobby; the inner entrance lobby, with portraits of Empire stars on the walls; and at the rear of the orchestra, with glass panels separating the standees from the rear row of seats. There are scenes onstage, both bare-stage rehearsals (which show the offstage corridors leading to the dressing rooms) and full performance scenes shot from the front and from the wings. What's more, we get a series of scenes of the packed house, including fascinating upstage shots of Colman's Othello battling Hasso's Desdemona with audience members in the boxes as background. There are even scenes that appear to use the second floor office which opens out onto the roof of the marquee, at the time the shabby domain of veteran press agent Richard Maney.

So there is pure theatre in the blood of "A Double Life." Other Broadway locations include a scene beneath the marquee of the long-running The Voice of the Turtle at the Morosco, and another where Colman bounds into the Lyceum and up the lobby steps to the elevator leading to what are now the Shubert Archives. The Kanins' love of Broadway lore extends even to the casting. The stage manager in the final scenes at the Empire is John Drew Colt, son of Ethel Barrymore and great-nephew of the legendary John Drew, who starred in so many early plays at the Empire.

The future is represented as well. How does a budding playwright/screenwriter from the Bronx make ends meet eight years before he wins his first of three Oscars? By picking up extra work wherever he can. Check out Paddy Chayefsky as the news photographer sitting on the top stair outside the crime scene.

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