Saturday, January 26, 2008

Noir City 6: Opening Night with Joan Leslie

Noir City 6 started with, what else, a murder, in the rare 1947 Joan Leslie vehicle Repeat Performance -- followed by an onstage interview Leslie, and then her 1943 film, The Hard Way. The festival audience greeted Leslie with a standing ovation. After the crowd quieted, a man yelled out, "You look great!"

Repeat Performance:

This one starts with a bang, a murder on New Year's Eve. Then a twist -- the woman who pulled the trigger wishes she could live the last year over. Soon she realizes she is getting her wish.

Now I didn't really think that set-up would hold up, but the writing, cat-fighting and fast pace drew me in and kept me there.

Leslie plays a recently minted young Broadway star struggling with an alcoholic womanizer writer's-block playwright husband (Louis Hayward). The clothes -- Oleg Cassini. "I never got clothes like that at Warner Brothers!" Leslie told host Eddie Muller in the interview after the showing.

Richard Basehart makes a brilliant screen debut as a dreamy poet, who is fated to become shackled to slutty rich widow Natalie Schafer(aka Mrs. Howell from Gilligan's Island). "He had that role down pat," according to Leslie. Virginia Field is a beautiful bag of ice cubes and razors as scheming playwright Paula Costello. Tom Conway is requisitely British as friend and producer John Friday.

Repeat Performance was Leslie's first picture after breaking her Warners contract. She was unable to work for a year while the contract expired. She took Warners to court and lost finding that only "jockeys, prizefighters and actresses" were not allowed to break contracts they signed when underage.

Repeat Performance was re-made as a TV movie in 1989 as "Turn Back The Clock" with Connie Seleca, and featuring a bit by ... Joan Leslie, as a party guest.

Before the film, Noir City host Eddie Muller said the first print they received was so damaged it could not be shown. Fortunately, prior to the festival, two locals contacted Muller offering their personal prints as backups, bolstering his case for San Francisco as new Capitol of Noir.

The Hard Way:

The Morgan Twins: [in unison] Mr. Wade? We're playing in Jersey City. Can you catch our act? We're the Morgan Twins.
Max Wade: When you're triplets, come back and see me.

In The Hard Way, Leslie plays Ida Lupino's teen-aged sister, just graduated from high school. Desperate to escape a coal mining town and a bad marriage, Lupino hatches a plot for both sisters to escape with a vaudeville team. Jack Carson is the nice-guy actor who agrees to marry Leslie, put her in the act, and let Lupino come along for the ride. Big mistake.

Carson's partner, Dennis Morgan, is right to be wary of the scheming Lupino. Eventually, Carson and Morgan split, and the act becomes a husband and wife duo. But Leslie catches the eye of a producer -- and Carson gets the heave-ho. Eventually Lupino's back-stabbing catches up with her, at about the same time Leslie begins to assert her independence.

The Hard Way features sharp dialogue, good leads, hokey vaudeville numbers, and a plethora of nice bits from an army of character actors, including Nestor Paiva as the creepy agent Max Wade, and Jody Gilbert as Anderson, the hangover nurse. Leslie's spectacular Broadway dance scene drew wild cheers from the Noir City audience. She suffered for that art, telling Muller she sprained a ligament in the performance, which sidelined her for six weeks of production.

While The Hard Way is a very entertaining film, Leslie stated "that's a show I'd like to have another crack at." Still a teenager, Leslie was required to do three hours of school while on the set. The film was plagued by re-writes. "When I'd come back (from the studio school) sometimes I'd be handed a new scene."

Leslie had worked with Lupino before, in High Sierra. "It was lovely working with Ida Lupino. She was a finished, wonderful performer." She revealed that producer Mark Hellinger, aware of Leslie's childhood days in vaudeville, asked her to do an impersonation of Lupino in Thank Your Luck Stars (1943). He insisted though, that she first ask Lupino's permission. Lupino thought the impression hysterical and greenlighted it.


Muller highlighted the significance of Leslie, then a teenager, playing aside stars Bogart, Lupino, Gary Cooper and James Cagney. Leslie shared that when she went to the set of Seargant York, she had never met Cooper and wasn't sure how she should address him. Cooper helped her out by approaching her and speaking to her in character, as Alvin York to Gracie Williams. A routine they followed during the whole production.

After performing in Howard Hughes' Born to be Bad (1950), she turned down a Jane Russell-type production deal from Hughes: "I had the nerve to do that!" But Leslie had long wanted to choose her own roles, which led her away from Warner Brothers, and she wasn't about to let Howard Hughes decide what pictures she worked.

She married in 1950 and raised a family, occasionally appearing in films and TV.

As her birthday is this weekend, the Noir City crowd saw her off with a loud Happy Birthday.

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