Friday, November 23, 2012
The Tina Louise Quartet
I admit it: Tina Louise remains my all-time favorite actress. That's a dangerous thing to admit. Whenever you do, you find yourself subjected to comments from people who say "Mary Ann was always hotter" or something to that effect. (I think it has made me an effective oral advocate, though. You learn how to effectively build a case to convince people on any issue when you learn at an early age to advocate for Tina Louise as a versatile and talented actress instead of someone like, say, Vanessa Redgrave because people will lazily accept that as a given.) I have always felt that there is a lot more to Tina Louise than "Gilligan's Island," even though I readily acknowledge that it remains her most famous acting credit from a visibility standpoint. She really does have a mysterious and intriguing screen presence that goes beyond just her looks. Her roles are more interesting and nuanced than she is given credit for--she has often played sad beauties who are trapped in unhappy lives. (Whether she was attracted to these roles, or these roles sought her out, might be worth discussing in a much longer dissertation someday.) I think that the versatile range of her speaking voice remains one of her most unique qualities. The breathy and breathless Ginger Grant voice that she used on "Gilligan's Island" was merely an acting affectation. In many of her other acting roles, she speaks with a deep and resonant voice that demonstrates gravitas and maturity. She has an under-appreciated ability to manipulate her voice to sound like completely different people from project-to-project. (Which is why Kristen Dalton's performance as Tina Louise in the 2001 CBS TV movie "Surviving Gilligan's Island" never seemed credible to me. It was obvious upon first-viewing that Dalton never did her research: she performs the scenes where Tina Louise is off-stage and off-camera in the same breathy and breathless "Ginger" voice that Ms. Louise used on the series. Dalton demonstrated, to me anyway, that she was a lazy actress who ignorantly assumed that that was indeed how Ms. Louise spoke in real life.)
One of the reasons why it is challenging to build the case for Tina Louise being an underrated actress is because her films, for many years, were difficult to get ahold of on DVD and rarely played on cable. In addition, some of her best work were in TV movies and episodic guest appearances in the 1970s after "Gilligan's Island," when she made a conscious effort to try and challenge herself by taking character roles that went against her presumed image. However, in recent years, because of the ever-expanding DVD and Blu-Ray market, which has allowed lesser-known titles in studio catalogues to finally gain the exposure they deserve, many of Ms. Louise's films are now available digitally. Olive Films, which has been releasing titles from the Paramount library, recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray two of Tina Louise's earliest films: the noir-ish, modern-day western melodrama "The Trap" starring Richard Widmark, and the Michael Curtiz-directed western "The Hangman" starring Robert Taylor. Both films were released in 1959, along with Andre de Toth's western "Day of the Outlaw" starring Robert Ryan. Ms. Louise's 1959 trio of films came in the wake of her 1958 film debut in Anthony Mann's "God's Little Acre." These four films comprise the most valiant attempts by Tina Louise to establish herself as a leading lady in Hollywood movies. She lost some momentum in her movie career when she moved to Europe for several years and starred in historical potboilers and war movies, before returning to the United States to study with Lee Strasberg at New York's esteemed Actors Studio, and then taking on the role of Ginger Grant on TV's "Gilligan's Island." As such, these four films are interesting to watch in order to assess the potential Louise demonstrated at this early stage of her career.
"God's Little Acre" (1958) is generally considered by many, including Ms. Louise herself, to be the best film she ever appeared in. It was based on Erskine Caldwell's serio-comic novel about the efforts of a poor Georgia farmer (played by Robert Ryan) to locate gold buried on his land, and how his obsession threatens to destroy his family. Ms. Louise played the lonely Griselda, married to Robert Ryan's son Jack Lord, who takes a submissive role in the family by remaining house-bound, cooking and cleaning, while the men are out digging up holes in the land to find the ever-elusive gold treasure. The first time we see Griselda, she is bringing lemonade for the men to refresh themselves after digging ditches all day, wearing a simple summer dress and high heel shoes, bought for her by her previous lover Will Thompson (Aldo Ray) a frustrated cotton mill factory worker, that seems totally incongruous for wearing around the farm. Throughout the first half of the film, Ms. Louise lingers in the background in most of the family-oriented scenes, a reflection of Griselda's passive and submissive domestic role in the family. It is in the second-half of the film, when Griselda succumbs to her longing for Will Thompson, and helps him to break into the shuttered factory so that he can turn it on one more time, that she finally finds her own voice and stands up to her husband in the final family confrontation staged on the outdoor porch of the family home. Ms. Louise effective projects the shyness and sensitivity of this under-appreciated character. She positively glows in the many transcendent close-ups that director Anthony Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller (who shot "Gone with the Wind") photograph her in throughout the film. At the end of the movie, after Robert Ryan decides to go back to farming and gives up looking for gold, Griselda is seen walking around the farm barefoot, which symbolizes how she has stopped longing for Will Thompson and living in town. She has finally found purpose and contentment living on the farm. As a result, she and husband Jack Lord are finally happy in their marriage. When Robert Ryan finds a broken shovel while plowing the land with a mule, and decides to look for his grandfather's gold one more time, it is Griselda who takes the reigns of the mule and plows the land while Ryan continues to pursue his dreams. Instead of being an ominous suggestion that the family is on the road to ruin again, Griselda's actions in ensuring that the land will be plowed indicates that farming will not be neglected again, and the family will stay the steady course.
Tina Louise got good reviews from this promising debut and it looked as if her future on the big screen would be bright. She signed a contract with Paramount and next appeared in "The Trap" (1959), playing another woman living in a rural community trapped in an unhappy marriage. Ms. Louise played Linda Anderson, wife of sheriff's deputy Tippy Anderson (Earl Holliman) in the California desert community of Tula. Linda's former sweetheart, now turned successful mob lawyer, Ralph Anderson (Richard Widmark), who also happens to be Tippy's older brother, returns to Tula in an effort to try and help mobster Victor Massonetti (Lee J. Cobb) flee the country. Ralph wants his father (Carl Benton Reid), sheriff of Tula, to turn the other way when Massonetti attempts to flee the country via the nearby Tula airfield. Things, of course, don't go according to plan in this Technicolor action melodrama that blends film noir and western elements. Unlike her debut in "God's Little Acre," Ms. Louise's role in "The Trap" remains mostly thankless. She is, in filmic terms, merely "The Girl" here. But she has a few good scenes with Widmark, portraying regret and loneliness regarding the choices she has made in her life since he left town years ago; with Holliman, vulnerable as she pleads with him to understand her unhappiness; and with Cobb, effectively spewing venom as her character becomes more and more contemptuous towards this mobster whose casual attitude towards the deaths he has caused has revolted her. One wishes the screenplay would allow Ms. Louise to play a more proactive role in the proceedings, especially in the fiery finale at the airstrip Cobb attempts to escape from, where the character of Linda is conspicuously absent.
Ms. Louise's next movie under her Paramount contract rectifies this situation. "The Hangman" (1959), directed by Michael Curtiz, and with a screenplay credited to Dudley Nichols, allows her a meaty role as Selah Jennison, the widow of a soldier lost in battle with the Indians who has now been reduced to working at the Army post laundry. Selah is approached by deputy Marshall Mackenzie Bovard (Robert Taylor) to accompany him to a western town in order to identify an old friend (Jack Lord again) who is suspected of being involved with a stagecoach holdup several years before. Bovard offers Selah a $500 reward, enough money to allow her to start a new life, if she will help point out her old friend so he can be arrested and stand trial. Selah accepts the offer reluctantly, but changes her mind once she sees her old friend again. She decides she will not turn her friend in, and tries to thwart Bovard's efforts to arrest him, even going so far as to handcuff herself to the cantankerous Marshall. With steady direction from the legendary Curtiz, who focuses on the tense adversarial relationship between Selah and Marshall Bovard, "The Hangman" is probably one of the best parts of Tina Louise's career. She more than holds her own with Robert Taylor, and her mature demeanor helps make the 20 year age difference between Taylor and Ms. Louise appear much less awkward than it might have been with another actress. Ms. Louise gets to play intense and emotional scenes that demonstrate what a controlled and heartfelt actress she can be. Even though director Curtiz takes advantage of her beauty by including at least two bathing scenes, as well as shots that emphasize her legs, this never undercuts the intelligence of the character and of Ms. Louise's performance. The development of the relationship between Bovard and Selah, starting from strained and adversarial, to tentatively trusting, to one of mutual respect and understanding, forms the heart of the movie and makes "The Hangman" an overlooked western worthy of rediscovery. I never tire of watching her in it.
The last film in this early quartet, Andre de Toth's "Day of the Outlaw" (1959), has risen greatly in stature in recent years. Its availability on DVD and airings on TCM has allowed film aficionados to recognize it as a heretofore overlooked western classic. Ms. Louise plays Helen Crane, the unhappy wife of middle-aged farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshall) who finds herself caught in a love triangle and feud involving her husband's arch rival Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) who also happens to be her illicit lover. The rivalry between Crane and Starrett that has been simmering for months is interrupted by the arrival by a band of psychotic outlaws led by wounded renegade Army officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) who is slowly dying from a gunshot wound. Helen and the other women in this remote Wyoming community are eyed lasciviously by the lustful bandits. Fear spreads through the remote town that, once Bruhn dies from his wounds, his men will go on a rampage and brutally rape the women. The most memorable scene in the movie involves the tense "party" where the women helplessly dance with the men, who carelessly toss them around in their arms as if they were department store mannequins. (You can see the scene on YouTube here.) Director de Toth effectively conveys the claustrophobic nature of this party by shooting much of it on a stationary camera that turns around and around at a 360-degree angle. The net result helps convey that, no matter where the women are, they are unable to escape from the clutches of the men holding them hostage. Given the snowy nature of the movie's setting, it is appropriate that Ms. Louise gives a controlled and low-key performance. There's a certain disconnected chilliness to her in this movie that stands in stark contrast to the warmer, more accessible and passionate performances given by her in the other films in this quartet, but I think that is by-design. Her character Helen has already resigned herself to a life with a man she does not love, and resists any attempts by Robert Ryan's character to remind her of the love and passion they once felt for each other. She has to remain calm and emotionless as possible, or else face the reality and gravity of how she has settled for second-best in her marriage. Director de Toth highlights the stoicism of Ms. Louise's character by photographing her mostly in medium shots, which heightens the distance between her and the other characters (as well as the audience), and rarely employs close-ups to create a sense of intimacy or accessibility in Helen. Of this early quartet of characters in Tina Louise's movie career, Helen Crane is the one who faces an unhappy and uncertain future.
After these films, Tina Louise turned down roles in "Operation Petticoat" (1959) and "Li'l Abner (1959, where she would have reprised her role from the original Broadway musical) in an effort to stay focused on dramatic roles. While I respect the logic behind her decision, I still wish she had done them so that she could have balanced serious parts with roles in blockbuster hits that would have helped to further establish her box office appeal. (I once researched the shooting schedules for all the films she had released in 1959. I learned that she shot them all in the 1958 calendar year. She could have easily fit "Petticoat" and "Abner" into her schedule because neither of them started shooting until 1959, and were shot months apart from each other. As a fan of her work, it is frustrating to realize that, logistically speaking, Tina Louise could have had a banner 1959 with major roles in five good films.) Nevertheless, this demonstrated how Tina Louise danced to the beat of her own drum. For all that has been written and said about her through the years, it's clear that she was never anyone's victim or Trilby--this was clearly a girl who did not spend her time trying to please everyone and knew how to take care of herself. Even though her career had its ups and downs (which is the norm for any successful actor or actress who has worked for a long time), she outlasted many of her contemporaries and defied the stereotype of actresses who are considered "sex symbols" by never succumbing to the sort of tragic ending that others like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield suffered. Instead grouping her with Monroe and Mansfield, because of her New York stage and Actors Studio background, I tend to think of Tina Louise as cut more from the Lois Nettleton/Shirley Knight/Jessica Walter mold of attractive character actresses of the 1960s who played a variety of different kinds of roles in movies and television. These days, Ms. Louise is better known as a literacy advocate who volunteers in the New York Public School system, helping young children learn how to read. In so doing, by defying expectations, Tina Louise remains as independent and tenacious as ever.