Under Plaza’s direction in “Cinema Toast”, Loretta Young FINALLY gives an Oscar-worthy performance!

The anthology series CINEMA TOAST has arrived on Showtime, and all 10 episodes are available for streaming. So far, I have seen four, and it’s a bit of a hit and miss affair with a 50% batting average. Ep-1and ep-3 (see below) succeed beyond all expectations while ep-2 (“Report of the Canine Auto-Mechanical Soviet Threat”) and ep-8 (“Attack of the Karens”) come up short. The series creator, Jeff Baena, is perhaps best known for co-writing the not-so-successful “I Heart Huckabees” with its director David O’Russell. This time, however, he has linked up with the wildly talented Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, who, from “The Puffy Chair” in 2005, to “The Skeleton Twins” (2014), to “Togetherness” (2016/2017) and “Room 104” (2017), have blurred the lines between film and television long before it became the artistic norm.

The concept of the series, which was made during the COVID lockdown, is simple and has been used many times before: use old film footage from movies that have entered the public domain in the United States to tell new stories with the voices of modern Hollywood actors being dubbed over the original dialogue. Each episode is unique with a different director who gives his or her own personal flair, or not, to the proceedings.

Episode 1: ”Familiesgiving”.

Original Footage:

Scenes from the 1939 John Cromwell-directed, David O. Selznick-produced tearjerker “Made for Each Other”. The film is in the Public Domain in the United States.

Original Actors:

Carole Lombard, James Stewart, Charles Coburn and Lucile Watson.

Voiced by:

Alison Brie, John Reynolds, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally.

Carole Lombard

Verdict: Delightful

The story now involves Stewart and Lombard (voiced by Reynolds and Brie), as a young couple who get stuck with inviting Stewart’s monstrous, Q-Anon quoting mother, the always imperious Watson (voiced to comedic perfection by Mullally), to their “Friendsgiving” after she has been disinvited by her sister. When she discovers that her ex-husband Coburn (voiced by Mullally’s real-life husband Nick Offerman), who has recently come out of the closet and is now happily remarried – to a man – will also be dining at chez Lombard/Stewart, she decides to make the Holiday as miserable as possible for everyone involved.

Every scene in the thirty minute storyline will have you rolling on the floor with laughter. Hearing Reynolds’ (“Search Party”) voice coming out of Stewart’s mouth is the first indication that we are in for some major laughs. But it’s Mullally’s Watson and Offerman’s Coburn who really have you in stitches. Watson, who played dozens of supporting roles and was Oscar nominated in Bette Davis’ “Watch on the Rhine” has, with Mullally’s voice, morphed into an altogether more impressive actress! As for Coburn, just the thought that this famously conservative old curmudgeon is playing a happily married gay man is priceless and, seems to give that brilliant final scene, again with Bette Davis, in John Huston’s “In This Our Life”, a whole new, shall we say, gay vibe!

Episode 3: ”Quiet Illness”.

Original Footage:

The Loretta Young Show

Loretta Young’s divinely glamourous, designer- dress entrance, while introducing us to a new episode of “The Loretta Young Show”, which ran on NBC from 1953 to 1961. Originally titled “Letter to Loretta”, in the first series, each drama would be the answer to a question asked in Loretta’s fan mail. This device was dropped in subsequent series.

“Cause for Alarm”

1951 suspense melodrama film directed by Tay Garnett and costarring Barry Sullivan. The film is in the Public Domain in the United States.

“Eternally Yours”,

1939 comedy also directed by Garnett with Walter Wanger as executive producer and costarring David Niven. The film is in the Public Domain in the United States.

Original Actors:

Loretta in all her magnificence and devastation. Cameos by Barry Sullivan, David Niven and, for an instant, Jane Wyman.

Voiced by:

Christina Ricci, Aubrey Plaza, Hamish Linklater.

Verdict: A Classic piece of Hollywood mythmaking.

Hollywood and Loretta Young came of age together. The original Hollywood child (it seems that she was acting professionally from the moment she could talk, circa 1916, so we are predating The Talkies by at least a decade), Loretta, like her contemporary Joan Crawford, was originally noted more for her looks than her acting. But, like Crawford, she blossomed into a real actress in the years immediately following World War 2 and, like Crawford, she won her only Oscar on her first try for “The Farmer’s Daughter “ in 1947. Unlike Crawford in “Mildred Pearce” however, she did not deserve the honor. Instead of the brilliant Viennese noir of director Michael Curtiz and the behind the camera genius of the Warner Brothers lot (and the astonishing acting of Crawford and Ann Blyth), ”The Farmer’s Daughter“ can only offer a wan Loretta sporting a bad Swedish accent. The movie is almost never shown today and for good reason (it was also an Ingrid Bergman reject). The same applies to her second Oscar nominated film ‘Come to the Stable” from 1949, where, to her delight, she played a nun. At least this one gets the occasional screening at Christmas. However, outside of the award circles, Loretta was showing that she could act, particularly in Orson Welles‘ 1946 superb noir “The Stranger” and Henry Koster’s lovely original version of “The Bishop’s Wife” (Goldwyn produced and Toland photographed). In “The Stranger”, Young’s acting resembles Crawford’s in it’s “I am wound-up and I am going to scream in front of a mirror the first chance I get“ type of dramatic delivery. Maybe because the notoriously Catholic Young (she was “affectionately” known as “Loretta the nun”) had Clark Gable’s daughter out of wedlock and managed to keep this an open secret in Hollywood for decades – in fact, the details of Young’s, de sa grossesse, merit their own screen treatment and add another dimension to “Quiet Illness” – the actress, and the characters she played, took on an air of quiet desperation. This is particularly notable in “Cause for Alarm” (1951), one of the last movies that Young made, and the one that director Aubrey Plaza uses to great effect to give us a picture of a woman trapped by both the circumstances of her life and by society’s attitude toward women in America, in the early 1950s. In the film, Young’s delusional husband, played by Barry Sullivan, confined to bed after a heart attack, sends a letter to the authorities accusing Young and his best friend of trying to kill him. The film centers on Young’s character’s frantic attempts to retrieve the letter. Plaza takes these scenes of desperation and interweaves them with scenes of a much younger and carefree Loretta in “Eternally Yours” (1939), and the divinely glamorous Loretta making her grand entrance to introduce another episode of “The Loretta Young Show”. Plaza then adds a haunting voice-over which blurs the line between character and actress. The end result is the Oscar-worthy performance that Young never quite managed to deliver in the movies.

“Cinema Toast” is available for streaming on Showtime.

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