Our Novak Valentine
For a Valentine’s Day remembrance, we salute one of the silver screen’s loveliest and underestimated actresses, the captivating Kim Novak, who turned 85 yesterday. Film historian David Thomson falls into the “underestimated” camp; in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, he muses: “Film sometimes flinches at the expertise of actresses, and the sympathetic viewer may come to realize that there was a mute honesty in Novak: she did not conceal the fact that she had been drawn into a world capable of exploiting her. She allowed very few barriers between that raw self and the audience and now seems dignified, reflective and responsive to feeling where [Marilyn] Monroe appears haphazard and oblivious. Despite a thorough attempt by Columbia to glamorize her, she never lost the desperate attentiveness of someone out of her depth but refusing to give in. Her performances improve with time so that ordinary films come to center on her.” Among those cinematic turns that time has burnished are three that Twilight Time aficionados have already savored on signature projects from her prime years of stardom, the sold-out Picnic (1955), Pal Joey (1957) and Bell, Book and Candle (1958). Another memorable movie, swirling with elegant romance and tragic heartache, is still available in glamorous 1080p CinemaScope, teaming the radiant Novak with the equally striking Tyrone Power, playing the title role and in real life a friend of Duchin, in the nostalgic musical biopic The Eddy Duchin Story (1956).
Fueled by a rich soundtrack of 30 classical and pop melodies associated with the charismatic pianist and 1930s-era bandleader whose life was marked by dazzling career highs and devastating personal lows, the film takes Hollywood-standard-issue liberties with the facts yet is woven by screenwriter Samuel Taylor and director George Sidney into an entertainment of well-intentioned sentiment and validating emotional tenderness. Novak contributes to this with her portrayal of Duchin’s first wife, Manhattan socialite Marjorie Oelrichs, who gives a helpful start to Duchin’s meteoric café society career, and in doing so, makes the journey – from initially snooty to steadfastly sincere to rapturously lovestruck – not just credible but captivating. Ultimately a poignant figure with an overripe sense of foreboding courtesy of the script, she regrettably leaves the movie 54 minutes in, at the conclusion of a sappy but effective hospital room scene; the real Marjorie Duchin died on August 3, 1937, six days after giving birth to Peter Duchin, who would follow in his dad’s musical footsteps years after the elder musician died in 1951. Novak’s Hollywood incarnation of Marjorie dies hours after bearing her son at Christmastime, with Power’s Eddy arriving just in the nick of time following a Yuletide concert to bid her farewell. Let’s just say the truth portrayed on screen is more emotional than factual; it didn’t faze young Peter Duchin, an 18-year-old as the film depicting the courtship and marriage of his parents went before the cameras, from seeking out a person of interest. TCM.com essayist Margarita Landazuri wrote in her piece on the movie: “As one of the era's reigning sex symbols, Novak was the object of the lustful fantasies of many young men, including Peter Duchin, then a Yale student. While the film was on location in New York, young Duchin and some of his Yale buddies went down to New York and met Novak. Later, he took her to meet his mother's best friend Marie Harriman, who along with her husband, New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, had raised Peter. Novak avidly quizzed Harriman about Marjorie’s mannerisms and personality. Then the young man and the movie star went out on the town. Duchin discreetly draws a veil over what transpired between them that night, noting only that ‘I got as close to Oedipal ecstasy as I'll ever know.’” Though Oedipal ecstasy doesn’t figure in it, TT’s Valentine love goes to birthday lady Novak in the hi-def Blu-ray of The Eddy Duchin Story, available for romantics and music aficionados here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26668/THE-EDDY-DUCHIN-STORY-1956/.