Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hoagy: Who's That Cool Guy?

He seems to be just a regular guy, that Hoagy Carmichael. There he is on screen, hunched over the piano, hat tipped back, in his shirtsleeves, wearing a matching series of monikers from the down home to the outlandish, playing characters called Cricket, Celestial, Hi, Butch, Willie, Smoke or Happy. I'm not sure when I first became aware of his calm, bemused presence and air of tolerance in movies, but he always struck me as the kind of guy you'd wish were your worldly uncle; the slightly disreputable family member who understands all, with that undeniable gift for music.


Yet, unlike the troubled heroes or villains that might populate the center of the screen in the movies he appeared in, he seems to lack their tension or ambition. There's little or no romantic involvement or intrigue for him in these movies. He's invariably the good guy or gal's best buddy, even if that person doesn't always have the good sense to know that immutable fact. Hoagy on screen appears to be the most relaxed man in movies from the thirties to the fifties, despite the fact that he was never hired as an on screen performer in the mid-thirties. When he landed in Hollywood as a songwriter, the place was, as Hoagy said, "where the rainbow hit the ground." While his contemporary Oscar Levant brought an edgy wit to more musically highbrow movies, Hoagy Carmichael added a laid back sagacity and watchfulness while weaving a few bars of his own inimitable, slightly off-kilter classic standards into a movie.

You Need Whit Bissell

Such a film with as outlandish a title was never made, or even considered, of course. Not only was Whit Bissell not likely to be considered as a leading man, but just ask yourself: "Can you begin to imagine Whit Bissell as a teenager?" However, you probably can imagine yourself in '50s Hollywood.
Perhaps you're a not very well-to-do producer. Your next payment on one of those Fleetwood Cadillacs is due. You have a dog-eared script that may take a week or two, tops to shoot. It's the usual mishmash of nuclear age anxiety, with a nod to Freud and oodles of Jungian symbolism blended with some platitudes about "the hoodlum problem." It would be ideal fare for the growing youth market--especially those who frequent the passion pits masquerading as drive-in theaters that dot the countryside. The return on your low ball estimated initial investment is almost guaranteed.

You know that you can't swing a cat in LA without hitting some brylcreemed youth with a smooth-faced mug. Most of them would probably run over his grandmother for a chance to play the perennially misunderstood lad who is...well, you can fill in the blank...but let's say that said protagonist is the only person in town who sees the imminent danger after that strange meteorite hurtles to earth quite near lover's lane.
You need a likable, tousle-haired delinquent as the boy who cried wolf...then again, maybe you're onto something there...he doesn't just cry wolf. As a counterpoint to any one of hundreds of James Dean wanna-bes as your hirsute lead, you need an actor who can bring some deep dish dignity to the project. Someone with a blend of believability, erudition, a well-groomed appearance, professional self-importance, spurious authority, ersatz competence, a soupçon of self-hatred, and a scosh of sympathy. And maybe someone who even has their own lab coat, (the wardrobe budget for this flick was probably as tight as a pencil skirt on Mamie Van Doren).

You need Whit Bissell.

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