Friday, March 30, 2012


Ye Gods! I went to see Natalie Wood and fell in love with Robert Preston. Oh, it was an adolescent crush, to be sure, but it just won't go away!
Remember double features? In the world of the less-than-5 minute attention span and no time for anything, it was perfectly normal to go to the movies on a Saturday afternoon for almost 4 hours and see a double feature. Most times, the main feature was the one you wanted to see and the second feature was either a pleasant surprise, tolerable, or a big enough stinker that you didn't feel guilty walking out on. But every once in a while, you were treated to 2 terrific movies; one that you and your friend discussed on a slow walk home.

As soon as I was old enough to steal my big sister's movie magazines I was entranced by Natalie Wood. So, when "Gypsy" hit the theaters in 1962 (probably 1963 in my town), my BFF Jean Marie and I got permission to see it and stay for the second feature, "The Music Man," if we so desired.

I pretty much loved "Gypsy" (though it took me YEARS to get over Rosalind Russell's Mama Rose). Jean Marie and I agreed that Natalie was gorgeous and the music terrific (it remains one of my favorite scores). We agreed to give "The Music Man" a shot, although it looked rather old fashioned, knowing that we could always leave if we didn't like it. Approximately 2 hours later I had forgotten about Gypsy Rose Lee because I was madly in love with Professor Harold Hill as played by Robert Preston.

Movie crushes come and movie crushes go. Actors and characters we once loved morph - seemingly overnight - into ones we despise or at least are ashamed to admit we had a thing for (I'm still not owning up to a crush on Dean Jones). But my love for RP has never wavered.

Naturally, I needed to know everything about my new love and I discovered that he had a reasonably successful, but unspectacular, movie career before migrating to the Broadway stage and achieving true star status there as Harold Hill in Meredith Wilson's "The Music Man." It is said that Jack Warner wanted either Frank Sinatra or Cary Grant to star in the movie version, but that Wilson held out for RP - and boy, am I glad he did. 
As con man Professor Harold Hill, RP charmed the socks off of me (and apparently everyone else who saw the movie). He owns the role and now, as then, I would believe every word he said and follow him anywhere. And may I add that I would not keep him waiting at the footbridge. (Oh, I loved Shirley Jones, Ronnie Howard, Pert Kelton and Hermione Gingold, too, but this is not about them.)

Another RP movie that I love him in is "All The Way Home."
Based on James Agree's "A Death in the Family," this 1963 tells the story of the sudden and accidental death of a father and the affect if has on those who loved him, especially his widow and young son. As the loving father, RP is vibrant and charismatic, and though I love this quiet, compelling film, it all seems empty once he is gone. Just like the lives of those left behind.

After Professor Hill, my favorite RP performance is as Toddy, the gay Parisian cabaret signer who befriends Victoria (aka Victor) in Blake Edward's "Victor/Victoria".
Now, Robert Preston is 100% a manly man. Throughout his career he is nothing less than handsome and virile. And so he is here, just a bit gayer.
It is a charming, bold and hilarious performance and it is one of my major pet peeves that he did not win a best supporting actor for his work in this film.

Some of my other favorite Robert Preston films are:

Act One (before "The Music Man" success):
"Reap the Wild Wind": he and Susan Hayward share a lovely romance
"This Gun for Hire": Veronica Lake's guy, but she has a soft spot for Alan Ladd
"Tulsa": Man enough for a wildcat Susan Hayward

Act Two (after "The Music Man" success):
"The Dark at the Top of the Stairs": commanding as the head of a troubled household
"Junior Bonner": One of my favorites - he wrestles the screen from Steve McQueen's rodeo rider. They are marvelous together.
"Semi-Tough": as team owner Big Ed Bookman, RP gets to play large & loud and he's wonderful.
"S.O.B.": A funny performance in a very funny Blake Edwards film.

I was fortunate to see Robert Preston on stage in "I Do! I Do!" and he was magnificent. I am truly sorry that I did not get to see him, along with Bernadette Peters in the failed "Mack and Mabel," Jerry Herman's musical about Mack Sennett and Mable Normand. Oh, how I wish!

I don't think Robert Preston ever gave a bad performance. His personality was larger than life with an enveloping warmth. Maybe the stage was his true medium, but I am grateful for his cinematic presence and I treasure the joy he brings to the screen. He was always vibrant, vital and very much the male of the tale.


Caftan Woman said...

"Oh, Professor, we're agog. Simply agog." Hill, in the hands of Preston, could charm anyone and once you're "under the spell of his salesmanship", you're a goner.

If you haven't seen it already you must check out Preston (all of 20 years old!) opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea in "Union Pacific".

I got a great kick out of this post on a true treasure of stage and screen.

Dawn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dawn said...

The first time I saw Robert Preston perform was in film, 'Junior Bonner'. I thought Steve McQueen gave a great performance and his relationship with his troubled family, Ida Lupino and Robert Preston and character actor, Joe Don Baker. On of my husbands favorite films.

Dawn said...

Sorry Flick.. that I sound like a ding bat.. I'm dieting and feeling a little shaky... The good news, I have lost 15 lbs this month.. :)


The first time I saw Robert Preston perform, was in film.. 'Junior Bonner'. I thought Steve McQueen gave a great performance. Along with in his troubled family members: Ida Lupino and Robert Preston and character actor, Joe Don Baker. One of my husbands favorite films.

Diane said...

I have been in love with Robert for a long time.

Mythical Monkey said...

Apparently Robert Preston was charming in real life, too -- my mom and her best friend Ruth met him backstage while he was doing The Sly Fox on Broadway back in the '70s, and he took the time to give them the full Harold Hill treatment. There was a picture of the three of them in the paper, and he's wearing that huge grin while my mom and her friend had that floating on air dazzled look on their faces.

Which is nice.

Classicfilmboy said...

Robert Preston is terrific. One of my favorite performances of his in a great film is "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs." I highly recommend it.

FlickChick said...

Oh Caftan Woman - wasn't he just the most? And yes- he was so young and handsome in Union Pacific, but it's kind of hard to see past Joel McCrea (if you know what I mean.

FlickChick said...

First of all Dawn - good for you! Second - Jr. Bonner was a really fine film - well worth repeated viewings.

FlickChick said...

Oh Monkey - thanks for that tale - it is so nice to know he was as charming in real life as on the screen. Makes me wish he was still around.

FlickChick said...

Diane - I didn't know that. I would not have thought he was your kind of guy :)

FlickChick said...

Classicfilmboy - I think the Dark at the Top of the Stairs was released before The Music Man and they were testing his popularity with the audience. It is a really good film - and I felt sorry for him being surrounded by such a neurotic family.

Christian Esquevin said...

Great job FlickChick highlighting Robert Preston's unique career and his wonderful role in The Music Man. He was extremely versatile. He stars in one of my favorite Westerns (as a bad guy) in "Blood on the Moon." This an amazing RKO western with the look of film noir also starring Robert Mitchum. Thanks for covering several of RP's great roles.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

I'm just a tad young for your admiration of the double feature. And, while I never had a crush on Preston, I found him delightfully enjoyable in The Music Man. This and Gypsy made one heck of a double feature!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Christian. RP was quite a noir fixture in his phase 1 career, but always had to contend with Mitchum or Ladd or some other bigger star. Glad he got a chance for Act 2!

FlickChick said...

Yikes - Kim - you make me feel old! But double features were indeed a treat and Gypsy & the Music Man was a memorable one.

ClassicBecky said...

Chick, I'm late but I am also in love with Robert Preston, madly in love. He could con me anytime and I wouldn't mind. And what an actor. All The Way home broke my heart, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs was just marvelous. Those are my favorites, but he was wonderful in Victor/Victoria too! P.S. Can you imagine Cary Grant as Professor Harold Hill? Makes me shiver, and I love Cary Grant. Or Frank Sinatra -- the ultimate New Jersey Italian? Please!! And hey! You have a way to subscribe to comments now! Hooray!

FlickChick said...

Becky - I think that subscription just magically appeared. And, as much as I love Cary - I'm afraid he would not have been a convincing Harold Hill (but I would have met him at the footbridge, anyway).

ClassicBecky said...

The same comment thing happened on another blog, Caftan Woman's I think. Blogger is doing things behind our backs!

Anonymous said...

Robert Preston is my all-time favorite actor. I saw the Music Man when I was 11, and from then on, he was my favorite.

I've actually created a Tumblr account dedicated to his career, if you're interested.

There's no one else like him!