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Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979)

I’ve seen a vast number of Bette Davis films during the studio era, during the height of her stardom, from the early 1930s to the 1950s, but I haven’t seen many of her later films, though she worked her whole life. However, after reading about a TV movie called Strangers: A Story of a Mother and Daughter, in which she co-stars with Gena Rowlands, I couldn’t resist. I’m a sucker for stories about mothers and daughters anyway, but the cast made it irresistible.

The film was made for TV in 1979 and proved to be everything I was expecting. It’s the story of Abigail Mason (Gena Rowlands), who returns from Boston to live with her mother, Lucy (Davis), in a small New England fishing town. Abigail hasn’t seen her mother in over twenty years and is at first not even sure her mother will let her in the door. Lucy doesn’t say a word, only glares at her and continues doing her puzzle, while Abigail talks nervously. One can feel the tension in the room.

The story follows the two of them as they argue, accuse, talk, unbend, do puzzles, plant tomatoes and come to understand each other for the first time in their whole lives. Lucy, in particular, works on her puzzle a lot, though she isn’t very good at it. Her daughter, however, has a knack for doing puzzles. She has a knack for life, or perhaps a determination to persevere in life in general and gets her mother to do all sorts of things she hadn’t done in a long time: go out among her neighbors, eat out in a restaurant, buy a new dress. She even gets her mother to help her repair the toilet and fix a lamp.

Abigail brings a can-do attitude into Lucy’s life and even opens the blinds, exposes the dust, and then dusts. Ultimately, watching the two of them accomplish ordinary things together and grow closer and open up in the process is lovely. It’s not a film about dramatic events – the dramatic events were mostly in the past. As Lucy says, she thought she was destined to live and die alone, until her daughter came home to keep her company. Except there is something that Abigail has not told her mother.

Both performances are lovely as they play off each other. Bette Davis is her usual fierce self, but you can see the vulnerability beneath, the disappointments of her life, and her proud refusal to express her feelings. She’s a recluse at the beginning of the film, chasing away the neighborhood kids who like to ring her doorbell, when her daughter arrives and Gena Rowlands is equally excellent, fully up to starring opposite Bette Davis. Vulnerable in her own way, it manifests itself in frustration with her mother, eagerness to help, even a determination to help and not be bothered by anything her mother says or does, and a propensity to talk so that there won’t be too much awkward silence.

It’s really a bittersweet movie, as they discuss Lucy’s husband, Abigail’s father, and their conflict and misunderstandings. Bette Davis’ character literally unbuttons in the film. When we first meet her, she buttons every button on her shirt. By the middle of the film, the top button is undone, making even her casual appearance look less severe and, well….less buttoned-up.

(Spoilers) It turns out that the reason Abigail has returned home to live with her mother is because she is dying of cancer and wants to be with her mother, the only one she has left in her life, but she doesn’t tell her mother right away. Lucy has already nursed her husband during his illness and death, and she is angry and shocked when she learns that Abigail is dying, too, at first accusing Abigail of using her again, saying “How dare you come back and make me care.” Bette Davis makes her anger scalding, but also manages to convey that her anger is because of how much she does care.

“I am not going to go through that again,” Lucy tells a doctor, when he tells her that she is going to have to bring a hospital bed into the house and prepare. It reminded me of when I lost a family member to cancer, having had a hospital bed in the house and spent time nursing that family member; it seemed all the more poignant. The first time you nurse someone, you don’t really know what’s in store. How much worse when you know what is going to happen? When it is your own daughter, your last relative, who you’ve just found again?

The film doesn’t show Abigail’s death, but leaves the viewer with the renewed relationship between mother and daughter and how Abigail has found peace, but also brought her mother back to life again, so to speak. Very bittersweet, but with an emphasis on relationship rather than loss or death.

The film can be found on youtube, but the quality is admittedly poor. However, I have not found another place to view the film. It is worth viewing, however, for the excellent performances of Bette Davis and Gena Rowland.

This post was written as part of “The Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I made a mistake, however, and mistook the day the blogathon ended, so I am regrettably getting my post out a day late, but thanks so much to Crystal for her acceptance! Visit Crystal’s site for more posts celebrating Bette Davis and her films.

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Posted by on April 8, 2018 in Movies

 

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Update on “The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon”

Hi everyone! Recently, Domi and I reached out to the official Charlie Chaplin page on facebook in regards to the blogathon and they were extremely kind in their response. They posted a notice of the blogathon and offered to post all the entries, as well.

However, they did request that we post certain information in regards to copyrights and their vast resources of Chaplin images and videos. To quote Domi’s notice:

Because of copyright issues we kindly ask you to paste the following text somewhere in your blog post if you’re including any images of Chaplin: “All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export”

We would like to turn your attention towards the authorized picture database and YouTube channel of the Chaplin Office where you can access a huge amount of Chaplin-related material. If you’re in need of something you can’t find at any of these addresses, you’re always welcome to contact the Chaplin Office via Facebook or per e-mail.

We are extremely excited to celebrate his birthday and work in the coming week and look forward to seeing you all then! For more information on the blogathon or to sign up, click here for the official blogathon announcement.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2018 in Movies

 

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Doris Day’s Career as a Pop Singer

As Will Friedwald writes in his essential A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers “The world of pop music is a funny place – perhaps the only area of our culture where someone can be rich and famous and still be considered ‘underrated.'” He is referring to Doris Day. Actually, the entire reason that I purchased his book is because I had read that he was an enthusiastic fan of Doris Day as a singer, which turned out to be perfectly true. “Doris Day can be considered the best [pop singer] just because she’s as great as a pop singer can be.” “Doris Day sang like she had nothing to prove.” “Doris Day has a sound like bottled sunshine. It’s hard to think of another human voice that’s so luxuriously sensual.” “At her very best, Doris Day is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, yet though she’ll hardly die broke, she’s never gotten a fraction of their respect.”

The irony is that Doris Day became a singer by accident. In many ways, her entire career was an accident. Born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff, she once said, “I’m still Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff from Cincinnati, Ohio. All I ever wanted to do was to get married, have a nice husband, have two or three children, keep house and cook – a nice clean house – and live happily ever after – and I ended up in Hollywood.”

But even if she hadn’t ended up in Hollywood, she would have had a stellar career as a pop singer, though it was her career as a singer that ultimately led her to Hollywood. Fortunately, unlike other fine singers like Alice Faye or even Judy Garland, she was still able to record while making films.

She originally intended to be a dancer. As a child, she teamed up with another young dancer, Jerry Dougherty, and danced around Cincinnati, winning prizes until Doris Day’s mother decided they should move to Hollywood, where she was convinced her daughter would be a success. But before they could move, Doris Day was in a car accident, which left her right leg shattered. It took her a year to recover fully. To pass the time, she listened to the radio and tried to sing along with Ella Fitzgerald. She eventually took lessons and her teacher, Grace Raine, recognized that Day’s voice and singing was special.

Day sang at a local Chinese Restaurant, sang on the radio, and soon was hired by band-leader Barney Rapp, who gave her the name Doris Day, supposedly after the song she sang, “Day by Day.” Rapp’s band played at Rapp’s nightclub in Cincinnati, then went on tour. She then sang for bandleaders Bob Crosby, Fred Waring, and finally Les Brown.

Les Brown and Doris Day

After a disastrous marriage to trombonist Al Jorden, who was abusive, she was now a young divorcee with a child and returned to work with Les Brown. In 1945, she would record her first big hit, “Sentimental Journey,” which struck home with the post-WWII mood of returning soldiers and starting life afresh.

Before taking a screen test and being chosen by Michael Curtiz for her first film, Romance on the High Seas (where she had another hit with “It’s Magic”), she signed with Columbia Records. After WWII, the big bands were fading and there was more interest in vocalists, like Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, many of the songs Columbia would assign Day were cheesy novelty numbers, but there were also records and songs of the highest quality.

She would never tour again and she always preferred not to perform live. The remainder of her career as a singer would occur in the recording studio. But she only grew more popular, both as an actress and singer, into the 1960s.

Some of her greatest albums are “Duet,” where she is accompanied by Andre Previn; “Day by Day” and “Day By Night.” Will Friedwald also makes a case for her recording with Robert Goulet of “Annie Get Your Gun.” But there are many more. She spanned big band, Broadway, pop, and could even swing.

As Friedwald writes, “Dinah Shore, who had been around longer, had a bigger broadcasting career, but couldn’t touch Day in pictures; Judy Garland had a shorter but more spectacular film career, but wasn’t utilized as much on recordings or radio as she should have been. Paramount tried to make Rosemary Clooney the next Doris Day, but she never caught on in pictures. Day was the sole female singer to come from the band world and make the transition to solo stardom and pictures.”

Friedwald tends to measure the ultimate success of a singer, not only by their vocal abilities, but by the body of work that they produce, if they record worthy songs and albums that stand the test of time. In the case of Day, despite all the novelty songs, she recorded an impressive number of songs by the great composers like Gershwin, Berlin, Mercer, Rodgers, etc. Sadly, at least sadly for us, she retired from singing quite early in life, when she was in her forties.

But perhaps it’s churlish to repine. It is her life to live and she gave us so much extraordinary music. Far more than most singer/actors. I can never get tired of listening to her vast body of work.

This post was written as part of the “Second Annual Doris Day Blogathon,” hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Click here for more posts celebrating Doris Day.


Sources:

Considering Doris Day – by Tom Santopietro

A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers – by Will Friedwald

The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums – by Will Friedwald

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2018 in Music

 

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