They don’t make ’em like that anymore

Have you seen The Artist yet? Being obsessed with old Hollywood, I was worried it couldn’t live up to my expectations, but I really enjoyed it – like the films it emulated, it combined joyful elements with a good dollop of genuine angst. I miss that combination in films today. Comedy-dramas (or ‘dramadies’) are usually neither particularly funny nor actually dramatic.

Anyway – and happy new year, by the way – after the film I kept wondering about its characters and came up with a few SPOILERY ideas about where the changing trends of 20th Century Hollywood might have taken them after the end of the film. For some reason, I really enjoying coming up with plausible, fake movie ideas; a while ago I wrote a similar short story about an elderly star of the old studio system. Think I’m working towards something on this theme but not sure what it is yet. Here’s my unofficial sequel to The Artist: please let me know if you can identify any of the little in-jokes about classic movies …

After ‘The Artist’
After their first musical together was a smash hit, Peppy and George went on to enthral audiences throughout the 1930s with nine more, each with ever more glamorous outfits, spectacular settings and glorious dance routines, which provided escapism during the Depression. Although it was acknowledged that their dancing was not quite as good as that of Astaire and Rogers, fans loved knowing that the charming relationship between them was mirrored in real life (the pair married the day after their first film was released).

The advent of war changed things, of course. Both stars were regulars at the Hollywood Canteen for servicemen, while George in particular – greatly affected by the invasion of his native France – threw himself into supporting the war effort, tirelessly touring the country to promote war bonds and making many overseas visits to entertain the troops. He left little time for acting, but did appear in a few patriotic films, most notably A Vichy Affair, in which he played a heroic French Resistance fighter who refused to betray his comrades under Gestapo torture, declaring: “I won’t talk!” George was also the original choice to play Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, but withdrew due the impending birth of his and Peppy’s first child.

After two more children, Peppy revived her acting career post-war with roles in 1940s melodramas, such as George Cukor’s The Ones Left Behind, about a war widow struggling to raise her family, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. George, meanwhile, gave a strong performance in film noir Trouble Is My Business, surprising critics who did not expect the song-and-dance man to be convincing as a hard-drinking private eye. The actor explained he’d drawn on his own dark period for inspiration.

In the 1950s, cinema faced a new challenge: television. Peppy was quick to jump on the bandwagon, appearing in several teleplays including Paddy Chayefsky’s Mary, about a middle-aged spinster. George, however, regarded TV as a fad which would soon pass and refused to be involved, leading to another dip in his career as new film stars emerged.

But eventually he reconsidered and joined his wife in a very successful sitcom, Life With The Valentins, which ran for some years. While clearly modelled on ‘I Love Lucy’, it had a twist in that it was George who often found himself in embarrassing situations, to be rescued by his more sensible spouse. The couple’s three children joined them in the show and episodes often concluded with the family united in song.

By the 1960s, tastes had changed again. Work dried up for Peppy and she devoted more of her time to charity work, especially for animal rescue organisations, as she wanted to ensure that all pets would have as long and happy lives as their own dogs (all descended from Uggie). After playing Doris Day’s mother in Love, Set And Match, Peppy recruited her to the cause and influenced her lifelong devotion to animals.

While out of fashion in the US, George had an unexpected renaissance in France, where Cahiers du Cinema had long championed him as an early auteur because of his film Tears Of Love. As a result, he appeared in several French films, including a popular spy series based on the OSS 117 novels, in which he played N, the head of the secret service. The couple’s children Michel, Jean and Berenice were now grown up and had formed a music group, which had several hit records during the Summer of Love.

Peppy and George were unexpectedly back in the limelight themselves after appearing in the disaster film Airport 1974. They played a former Hollywood golden couple, divorced years before, who are brought back together as they struggle to survive a plane crash. Audiences were charmed to see them reunited on screen for the first time in 25 years and their careers were both revived. They continued to work mostly on the small screen, with many cameo roles in popular series including The Streets Of San Francisco, Columbo, Quincy, Dallas, Falcon Crest and others.

In his last years, George was retired, although he did make a cameo appearance in Indiana Jones And The Fountain Of Youth, at the special request of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who were both great admirers of his early work. Midway through the film, Indiana is given a potion which temporarily ages him into an old man, played by George – but, thanks to special effects, he was still able to outrun, out-jump and out-fight his fiendish opponents, giving audiences one final chance to see him in daredevil mode.

Peppy was very grieved by her husband’s death in 1985, but took comfort in her children and grandchildren (who included a rising Brat Pack star). She continued to work, with her long-running TV series She Sang, Murder!, about a former chorus girl who encountered, and solved, crimes wherever she went. Shortly before her death, she was awarded a honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar and gave a touching speech, accepting it on behalf of her late husband – because, she said, “he taught me that a star has to have something that no one else has”.

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