Classic Hollywood: 'Yankee Doodle Dandy,' Robert Walker and 'The Killers'


appy Fourth of July weekend! This is longtime L.A. Times film reporter Susan King, and welcome to the latest edition of my Classic Hollywood newsletter. And if you love the Golden Age of Hollywood you’ll want to check out this week’s movie milestone, DVD release, sneak peek of Sunday’s Classic Hollywood story, notable births and the death of a two-time Oscar-winning actress.

This holiday has always meant a lot to me. It was on this day when I was only 3 years old that my love affair with movies began. It was on the Fourth of July that I saw “Yankee Doodle Dandy” for the first time. I had no idea who James Cagney was,  but I still remember sitting entranced with the 1942 musical about the famed composer/singer/dancer/actor George M. Cohan. And it became a tradition to watch it every July 4. It’s hard to say something can change your life at such a young age, but thanks to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” I became addicted to movies.

More Cagney

I've seen every movie he's made and especially was blown away by his performances in “White Heat” and “Love Me or Leave Me.” But I still have the softest of spots in my heart for “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and will admit to getting a little misty when he performs “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

TCM is screening “Yankee Doodle Dandy” Saturday at 5 p.m.  So be there or be square!

James Cagney as George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." (Turner Entertainment)

Movie Milestones

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces, “Strangers on a Train,” celebrated its 64th anniversary this week. Even six decades after its 1951 release, it’s a taut, terrifically entertaining psychological thriller based on the book by Patricia Highsmith starring Farley Granger as a young tennis player who gets more than he bargains for when he meets a charming psychopath (a revelatory Robert Walker) on a train.

Leo G. Carroll, left, Ruth Roman and Robert Walker in the 1951 thriller "Strangers on a Train." (A&E)

Eight years ago I got the opportunity to interview Granger (who died in 2011), who previously had worked with Hitch on 1948’s “Rope.” I especially wanted to talk to Granger about Walker, whom I adored in several films including Vincente Minnelli’s 1945 romance “The Clock” with Judy Garland. Divorced from Jennifer Jones, Walker was battling alcohol addiction when he made “Strangers on a Train.”

Walker, who tragically died in August 1951 at age 32, had “tried to pull it together” during the filming, Granger noted. “He was a terrific guy.”

Their first night on location in Washington, Granger and Walker hit the town and got a bit drunk.

"We went back to his hotel room and it was that night he talked for the first and only time about the heartbreak over his marriage," Granger said. "He was still very much affected it.  Aside from that night, there was no appearance of that on the set. He was completely professional and a terrific person.”

Before the film was released, Granger encountered Walker at a party. “He said: ‘Farley, we have to get together. I miss you. We should not let the friendship slip away.’ I took his number and he took mine, and the next thing I knew he died.”

Around Town

It’s hard to escape the clutches of “Jaws” this Fourth of July weekend. The Steven Spielberg classic celebrating its 40th anniversary this year screens Saturday at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and Sunday at the Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. On Saturday evening “Jaws” is also screening at Santa Monica High School's Memorial Greek Amphitheatre and at Brand Library Park in Glendale.

A hungry Great White shark opens wide in a scene from the 1975 movie "Jaws." (The Bettman Archive)

DVD Vault

Arriving Tuesday from the Criterion Collection is the Blu-ray of two versions of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers”: director Robert Siodmak’s seminal film noir that introduced Burt Lancaster to film and boosted Ava Gardner’s young career, and Don Seigel’s 1964 adaptation that was made for TV but considered too violent for the small screen.

Lee Marvin, Angie DickinsonJohn Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan in his final film star in the Siegel film.

The ’46 version, which earned four Oscar nominations including for best director and Miklos Rozsa’s flawless score, is my favorite of the two. Extras on the Blu-ray include a 1949 “Screen Director’s Playhouse” radio adaptation starring Lancaster and Shelley Winters.

Sneak Peek

In this Sunday’s Classic Hollywood, I preview UCLA Film & Television Archive’s new retrospective opening July 10 on director Frank Borzage. One of the most romantic of filmmakers, Borzage earned two early best director Academy Awards and helmed such splendid films as 1933’s “Man’s Castle”  and my favorite Borzage film, 1937's magical "History Is Made at Night." More than half of the films Borzage made during his career have been lost. The festival, which continues through Sept. 20 at the Billy Wilder Theater, features 10 films preserved by the archive.

From the Hollywood Star Walk

Notable births this week include George Sanders (July 3); Eva Marie Saint (July 4); Gloria Stuart (July 4); Milburn Stone (July 5); Janet Leigh (July 6); Della Reese (July 6); George Cukor (July 7); Billy Eckstine (July 8); and Anjelica Huston (July 8).

Frankly, My Dear

Vivien Leigh, the striking British actress who earned two lead actress Academy Awards for her memorable performances as the fiery Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara in  1939’s “Gone With the Wind” and as the tragic Blanche DuBois in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” died on July 8, 1967, at 53 from tuberculosis. Married for 20 years to Laurence Olivier, she also starred in such films as the ultra-romantic “Waterloo Bridge” (1940) and “Ship of Fools” (1965), and earned a Tony for the 1963 musical “Tovarich.” Here is the L.A. Times obit as it appeared in print on July 9, 1967.

For more vintage Hollywood, go to the Classic Hollywood Los Angeles Times Facebook page and follow me on Twitter at @mymackie.