An Amusement Column
By Harry Haun
SNOW WHITE AT 100: “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” has worked out pretty damn well for Marge Champion, who hits her 100th birthday on Sept. 2. She and her then-husband Gower Champion, you’ll recall, sang and pranced out that little Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II ditty in 1951’s Show Boat. . . . Until 4½ years ago when she returned to her roots (Los Angeles) and her son (television director Gregg Champion), Marge lived at the 10th Avenue Manhattan Plaza. I was her neighbor, kinda. She lived directly above me. I told her “No tapping.” . . . In one of their movies, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers met because his tapping above kept her awake below. In another (1939’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle), Marge made a one-line, live-action movie debut with Ginger in a theater box. . . . When she and Gower teamed personally and professionally, their super-successful supper-club act at the Mocambo on Sunset Strip brought them into Howard Hughes’ line of vision. He proposed turning all those old Fred-and-Gingers at RKO into Gower-and-Marges, but instead the Champions chose M-G-M where they spent almost all their screen career, doing five films in four years (Show Boat, Lovely to Look At, Everything I Have Is Yours, Give a Girl a Break and Jupiter’s Darling). . . . Their cinematic swan-song (and Betty Grable’s as well) came at Columbia–a remake of Too Many Husbands called Three for the Show with Jack Lemmon. “Betty was married to both of them,” Marge remembers. “I was just sitting around like Eve Arden, waiting for her to decide. Either of them was fine with me.” . . . I said “live-action movie debut” because Marge had achieved a measure of movie immortality before becoming half of the screen’s second greatest dance team. In her early teens, from 14 to 16, for $10 a day, she was chauffeured to the Walt Disney Studios where she played Snow White for the 16mm cameras with a motley crew of animators passing for in-house dwarfs. Their finished product, the first animated feature of all time—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—was an instant legend-on-arrival Dec. 21, 1937. . . . Later, Marge got invited back to the studio to mime the hippo with balletic pretensions, Hyacinth, in Fantasia and, again, for the blue fairy in Pinocchio. By then, she’d “learned the technique of working with them and giving them all sorts of options so they could make the drawings realistic.” . . . The fluid grace that so enamored animators came naturally from her father, Ernest Belcher, the so-billed “West Coast Dance Master” who started Cyd Charisse and Gwen Verdon pirouetting and did what he could for Shirley Temple. . . . After their screen careers, the Champions went to Broadway where Gower directed and choreographed (and Marge assisted, sometimes silently). Among the march of Champions: Carnival, Bye Bye, Birdie, Hello, Dolly!, I Do! I Do!. He died at 61 on Aug. 25, 1980, the very day his 42nd Street opened. . . . Marge continued to choreograph on her own, collecting an Emmy for steering Maureen Stapleton through Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. . . . She last performed on Broadway with choreographer Donald Saddler playing the ballroom couple in 2001’s Follies. After that run, the two rented a room once a week and continued to dance, for their own health and amusement. In 2009, Douglas Blair Turnbaugh did a 21-minute documentary on them called Keep Dancing. . . . Marge has often reflected on the life lessons left her by an old friend, Al Hirschfeld, the Times caricaturist: “What I learned from Al was, if you’re lucky enough to get to these later years, you’re only going to be able to do certain things, but, if it’s your passion, keep it up. And that’s the metaphor for Keep Dancing. You have to be smart about everything. You can celebrate every decade for what it gives you, not for what it takes away.” . . . According to son Gregg, who dines with her several times a week and attests to her healthy appetite, Marge “was very independent for a couple of years when she first got out here, but now she’s in an assisted-living facility. She still walks around but tires easily and takes naps.” . . . So how is Marge marking her centenary? “We’re taking her to her new favorite restaurant—a Benihana. She’s fascinated by the way they throw the food in the air.”
OF A CERTAIN AND UNCERTAIN AGE: On Sept. 2 and again on Sept. 4-7 at Feinstein’s/54 Below, John Cullum will be musically flashbacking over 56 of his 89 years. His first ever one-man-show is a tuneful gamut running from Camelot to Urinetown. A measure of his range as a performer lies in the fact he won Tonys for Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century in roles previously inhabited by James Stewart and John Barrymore. Plus, he co-starred so much with Richard Burton he practically had to get into a 12-step program to stop sounding like him. Punctuating the songs will be palaver about Harold Prince, Robert Goulet, Julie Andrews, and, oh yes, Elizabeth Taylor. There’s also a doozy about secretly replacing Louis Jourdan out of town in On a Clear Day. All this he calls John Cullum: An Accidental Star, but don’t you believe him. . . . The Trip to Bountiful took her to the Tony podium at the age of 89, so, at the age of 94, why shouldn’t Cecily Tyson accept recurring role on Ava DuVernay’s anthology series, Cherish the Day? Besides, the part sounds delish: Miss Luma Lee Langston, a legendary star of stage and screen from decades gone by who turns matchmaker for her live-in assistant (Xosha Roquemore). The series is set for a winter 2020 premiere on OWN. . . . Marilyn Maye can act a lyric better than anybody in the business, but she can’t act her age. She keeps forgetting she’s 91 (and making you forget it, too). With a shrug, she calls her next act at Feinstein’s/54 Below (Oct. 17-26) “Blame It on My Youth!”
SONS OF THE DESERT: Two stars with a career-long shine were born, quite by accident, during the difficult desert lensing of Lawrence of Arabia. Neither Peter O’Toole in the challenging title role nor Omar Sharif in the trusted-sidekick slot of Sherif Ali were the first, second or third choices for the parts that brought them to the brink of stardom. See for yourselves Sept. 1 or Sept. 4 when Fathom Events returns this great film to selected theater screens. . . . Marlon Brando, of course, was the logical first choice for T. E. Lawrence, the enigmatic Brit who united warring Arab tribes against their common Turkish enemy–but, like his character in On the Waterfront, he settled for “the short-end money”: the breezy South Seas for the beautiful but bloated Mutiny on the Bounty instead of the blistering heat of Jordan and Morocco for Lawrence. . . . Montgomery Clift and Anthony Perkins were in the running to replace him—fleetingly–but were soon overtaken by one of O’Toole’s RADA classmates, Albert Finney, a stage actor just emerging in movies with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He put in two days of locations before he was mysteriously fired (probably because producer Sam Spiegel proved adamant about the seven-film contract that went with the role). . . . Director David Lean found O’Toole in a small feature role, billed behind Aldo Ray and Elizabeth Sellars, in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England and, on an inspired hunch, threw him the whole ball of wax. Not so incidentally, O’Toole looked terrific in Arabian robes–so much so that Noel Coward told him at the picture’s London premiere, “If you have been any prettier, the film would have been called Florence of Arabia.” . . . Late in his career, when O’Toole was told he and his Becket, the late Richard Burton, were tied as the actors with the most Oscar nominations (seven) and no wins, he cracked wryly, “You mean there’s still a chance I can be champ?” The Academy guiltily threw him an honorary Oscar right after that, but O’Toole stayed the course and ended his career with an Oscar-less eighth nomination, becoming indeed the “champ,” besting Al Pacino and Geraldine Page who finally won the Oscar on their eighth bounce. . . .Lawrence wound up with seven Oscars, but none for O’Toole, Sharif or screenwriter Robert Bolt. It was Sharif’s only nomination, but it spurred a lengthy career as an exotic romantic who invited swoons as Nicky Arnstein and Dr. Yuri Zhivago. . . . Horst Buchholz, the first choice for Sherif Ali, passed; Alain Delon’ blue eyes wouldn’t tolerate the brown contact lenses, and Maurice Ronet’s French accent so interfered with his performance that filming had to be stopped. Lean looked around the set, spotted Sharif on the set and promptly upgraded him to Sherif Ali. The actor, an established star in Egypt, was there to play Tafas, Lawrence’s short-lived desert guide who is casually killed by Sherif Ali—shot to death from a great distance for drinking from a well without permission. . . . This was not the only instance of a role having to be reshot. Edmond O’Brien, playing the Lowell Thomas-like war correspondent, suffered a heart attack during the shoot and had to be immediately replaced by Arthur Kennedy, who, 27 years later, did his last acting for the film’s restoration, redubbing his role for a scene that had no soundtrack. . . . Kirk Douglas was originally sought for the war correspondence character, but his insistence on star billing after O’Toole queered the deal. . . . Similarly, Jose Ferrer was hesitant about accepting the tiny role of the sadistic Turkish Bey—but a Porsche and $25,000 (more than O’Toole and Sharif combined) turned his head around. Ironically, he came to think of it as his best screen work. “If I was to be judged by any one film performance,” he wound up saying, “it would be my five minutes in Lawrence of Arabia.” . . . The rest of the casting was a card game for Lean and Spiegel. Miraculously, they reshuffled the talent into a winning hand: When Laurence Olivier couldn’t or wouldn’t, Alec Guinness could and did Prince Faisal. (Ironically, Guinness had played Lawrence in London in Ross.) Cary Grant likewise nixed General Allenby, so the already cast Jack Hawkins got the part, leaving Colonel Brighton for Anthony Quayle. . . . This film–like Lean’s other Oscar winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai–was staffed almost totally by male actors, but he’s the man responsible for two of the screen’s truly great romances, Brief Encounter and Summertime.