Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Carleton Carpenter Double Feature

TCM is offering a Carleton Carpenter Double Feature on July 10th in celebration of the actor's 85th birthday.

In his early years in Hollywood, Carpenter, a 6'3" string bean with experience in drama and musicals on stage, made his mark as an actor who sang "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" with Debbie Reynolds in Two Weeks With Love (1950) and for asking Spencer Tracy's frustrated mixologist in Father of the Bride (1950) for a coke. The films being shown this Sunday on TCM featured him in the lead. Only 24 years old when he arrived as a contract player at MGM,  Carleton Carpenter never quite became the second Robert Walker that the studio seemed to be grooming him as during his years there, but he had his own quirky appeal that transcended some of his lesser films. His professional skills also  enabled him to be an effective supporting cast member in dramatic films such as Vengeance Valley (1951), Take the High Ground (1953) and The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), (the latter under the direction of Robert Siodmak in one of his last American films). It was unfortunate that his arrival in Hollywood coincided with the decline of the studio system and as the greatest era of movie musicals was waning, since his talent never quite received an ideal showcase despite his evident talent. The B movies being shown tomorrow were the only two chances the rail thin talent had to take center stage, though he remained active in Hollywood for much of the decade, appearing in such memorable programs as The Shirley Temple Theatre (as "Tom, the Piper's Son"!) and The Rifleman.

Carleton Carpenter and Jan Sterling looking at a Sky Full of Moon (1952).

Sky Full of Moon (1952) July 10 @9:00AM (ET): This one's kind of cute, telling the story of an innocent cowboy who finds himself suddenly rich in Las Vegas, with Jan Sterling as a gold digger who is interested in him. Directed by Norman Foster, the story peters out near the end, though Carpenter is likable, and the setting in the less glamorous side of LV is interesting.

Usually associated with rather heavy dramas, Jan Sterling brings a note of realism to the story and she doesn't pull any punches in crafting her tough as leather character, who can't quite fathom how naive Carpenter's cowpoke appears to be.  Elaine Stewart, the late beauty and MGM contract player who made a splash as the dress extra temptress in The Bad and The Beautiful (1951), is on hand to mock and fleece the Candide-like cowboy, along with good character actors Keenan Wynn and Douglas Dumbrille. Familiar Western figure Sheb Woolley appears as a balladeer and former cowboy star and politician Rex Bell plays himself in this B movie, part of which was filmed in Vegas, when that city's face wore less glitter and the stakes were not quite as high.

It is Carpenter's quiet charm as Kansas-born Harley "Tumbleweed" William that beguiles in this movie, as his character--who is never quite as dumb as others think--comes to terms with the people he encounters, believing girls who say they are dancers, and hoping to share his good fortune with the people he encounters.

The trailer for Sky Full of Moon is below:

Fearless Fagan (1952) July 10 @10:30AM (ET) was directed by Stanley Donen out of a sense of contractual obligation more than enthusiasm when he was trying to get a foothold in the movies independently of Gene Kelly. The premise of this movie sounds like a rejected Francis the Talking Mule script, though the plot, centered on a serviceman who brings his pet lion with him into the Army, was actually based on a factual Life Magazine story.

Reportedly, neither Janet Leigh nor Donen felt enthusiastic about the movie, but it still plays as a sprightly fairy tale thanks to the cast, and the inclusion of one musical moment with a song by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (from the musical, Best Foot Forward (1943) never quite lifts the story. As Donen reflected years later, paraphrasing Stanley Kubrick (a much more selective director), "You can never get divorced from a picture."

Carpenter sharing the screen with "Fagan."

Donen's competence and cooperative attitude, Leigh's pert beauty, and the gently amusing Carpenter rise above the material, while the ubiquitous Keenan Wynn appears to be gruffly resentful of his casting in this film in each of his scenes (the man did deserve better after a decade in movies).  Behind the scenes, the atmosphere on the set appears to have been a bit tense. The real-life soldier who took his lion with him when he was drafted was hired to double Carpenter with his lion. However, during filming, "the real Floyd Humeston" refused "to work with his own lion." The young man and his lion, the real Fagan were both released from their contract. MGM replaced the lion with another, more adolescent king of beasts. "The second one was so young," Carleton Carpenter recalled, "that his mane had to be added, like a toupee. A lot of times it went askew." Post-production on Fearless Fagan was a bit more lengthy than expected since dialogue spoken by Carpenter each time he shared a scene with the lion had to be dubbed later. "As we shot," he explained, "everyone was always yelling at the lion from off-camera, waving chickens, aiming guns at him. It was terrifying. Then every time I got up and walked away, he'd sink his teeth in me." Asked if the film had left any long term impression on the actor, Carleton divulged that "I had scars on my buns for months."

Despite the problems of the movie's creators, people who have seen this seem to be genuinely fond of this comedy, based on the comments on the TCMb, which gave Carpenter his first leading role during his contract player years at MGM studios.


Can't get enough of a guy who seems to be the spiritual son of Jack Haley's Tin Man and Ray Bolger's Scarecrow?  Cinema Misfits, a compendium of all things cinematic old and new, features a two part podcast interview with Carleton Carpenter, including selected samples of of the veteran actor's singing voice. He sounds like a very nice guy, choosing desert island flicks, his memories of Flo Ziegfeld, Beulah Bondi, Louis de Rochemont, his love of character actors such as Louis Jean Heydt, singing with Judy Garland, his own interest in songwriting, among other topics he touches on.

The Vermont-born actor recalled his first film, an uncharacteristically somber story that was set in New Hampshire, the groundbreaking racial drama, Lost Boundaries (1949). The movie, which starred Mel Ferrer and Beatrice Pearson, concerned a real life doctor who overcame "the color line" by keeping his own race to himself. After seeing himself on screen for the first time, Carpenter said he loathed himself on sight, and drank a half a bottle of vodka to ease the agony of his first encounter with his own image. You can see this good film, based on fact, beginning here.

It is only touched on briefly in the podcast, but Carpenter was also a prolific novelist, writing seven mysteries, which include one called Dead Head, (set in the theater), Only Her Hairdresser Knew, Cat Got Your Tongue, and Games Murderers Play. I haven't had a chance to read them but according to one reviewer, they are fun for "the bitchy humor [more] than the convoluted plots," though Carpenter also wrote for Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen mystery magazines in the 1980s. He also wrote a musical with a friend, called "Dear Boy," based on Oliver Twist, which they hoped to have Cyril Ritchard star in as Fagin.

In recent years, Carleton Carpenter has occasionally made appearances in cabarets, and an occasional stage play but he has primarily made his home in the Hudson Valley region of New York, where he is a cherished member of the community.

UPDATE: Actor Carleton Carpenter was a recent honoree at the 2012 Cinecon Film Festival in Los Angeles, organized by film historian Robert Birchard.. According to Susan King at The Los Angeles Times, the program includes:

"Tributes to celebrity guests that include screenings, Q&As and a banquet, which this year is Sunday evening at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, are festival mainstays. Honoree Carleton Carpenter, the 86-year-old actor-singer-dancer-composer-writer, was under contract to MGM in the early 1950s but left the studio to return to Broadway.
Carleton Carpenter after receiving his 2012 Career Achievement Award at Cinecon.
 Carpenter is best known for singing the hit "Aba Daba Honeymoon" with Debbie Reynolds in 1950's "Two Weeks With Love." Cinecon will also show 1952's "Fearless Fagan," a true tale about a circus clown who takes his pet lion to boot camp. It is Carpenter's first starring role.
"Fearless Fagan" was the first film directed by Stanley Donen after "Singin' in the Rain." "I loved him," said Carpenter. And he recalled he generally had a good time working with his four-legged costar. "They put heavy cardboard under my uniform and my sleeves so he could jump up and put his teeth in me," said Carpenter. "But any time I was walking away from him, he would come up and nip me on the behind."
For more information, go to
(Photo of Mr. Carpenter courtesy of The Friends of Cinecon Classic Film Festival)


Gilvey, John Anthony, Before the Parade Passes By, Macmillan, 2005
Griffin, Mark, A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, Da Capo Press, 2010.
King, Susan, Cinecon Film Festival Unearths Some Old Treasures, The Los Angeles Times, Aug. 26, 2012.

Silverman, Stephen M., Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.


jnpickens said...

I've always enjoyed his appearances in films and I'm glad you spotlighted him :)

He still looks pretty much the same from what I've seen in his interviews on TCM. Seems like a nice affable guy with that goofy, awkward attractive charm.

Laura said...

Thanks for this wonderful, informative post. I'm looking forward to trying the podcast interview.

I taped SKY FULL OF MOON and look forward to it after reading your comments.

Best wishes and happy summer!

DorianTB said...

Moira, my husband and I happened to catch FEARLESS FAGAN on TCM the other day, and it was pretty cute -- and so was Carleton Carpenter! :-) He was certainly a likable presence, and I'm glad to hear Carpenter is still alive and well and doing positive, productive things. But is it me, or does Carpenter's voice sound a bit like that of FEARLESS FAGAN director Stanley Donen? :-)

Moira Finnie said...

Hi JN, Laura and Dorian,

Oh, you know, I kind of agree about Carleton Carpenter's voice and that of Stanley Donen! How funny, since Donen grew up in the South and Carpenter is a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee.

I like both these movies, even if they were never "major motion pictures," they were just fun--and showcased one of MGM's most likable actors of the period.

Btw, you can see Carleton Carpenter's excellent appearance in a 1959 episode of The Rifleman here here.

DorianTB said...

Thanks for providing us with the RIFLEMAN link, Moira! I look forward to checking it out. By the way, I'd love to include a link to SKEINS OF THOUGHT in the "Further Distractions" part of my blog TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED! Please let me know if you're interested. Thanks, Moira, and have a great day!


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