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Cole's Tribute to Pete's Dragon! A Shelley Winters Classic!

ShelleyCast is going to prove a deeply personal journey for each of us. I know that Andy, our resident Shelley Winters expert and super-fan has had his life profoundly affected by Ms. Winters’ career. In fact who amongst your four unworthy co-hosts could claim that they have not been shaken to the very foundations of their being by one or more of Shelley’s film or television appearances? And I dare pose the question, "Who could have encountered Shelley Winters and not become a lifelong fan?" Such was her impact on all who were ever graced with the opportunity to enjoy her performances. She was the female equivalent, in the eyes of this humble reviewer, of Wilfred Brimley!


While I lack Andrew’s level of exposure to her work (to date Andy has seen all but two of her movies and more than half of her television appearances from made-for-TV movies to "The Love Boat" to interviews by such notables as David Letterman), my life has been no less influenced by what is perhaps her single greatest performance. The career-defining role as Lena Gogan in Walt Disney’s "Pete’s Dragon"!

This role allowed Ms. Winters to exercise the full measure of her abilities as actress and artist. It was a virtuoso performance that had the likes of Laurence Olivier and Elizabeth Taylor openly doubting their own abilities as thespians. Veteran movie critic Gene Shalit put it best in his 1977 review when he said, "Walt Disney Studios brought the dragon to the screen, but it was Shelley Winters who brought the magic!" I could not agree more. And while she brought her own special brand of magic to all of her roles, that of Lena Gogan was the one to which she was born!

In keeping with many Walt Disney films, Pete’s Dragon presents an unflinching social commentary on the harsh realities of childhood. Pete, the hapless orphan, is little more than a slave to the cruel and overbearing Gogan family. Their own sons are exempt from the toils of running the family farm thanks to the investment of $50 for the purchase of the young boy. But fate would smile upon the child, though after its own twisted fashion. While Pete is befriended by the kind-hearted if unimaginative Nora (Helen Reddy), he is relentlessly pursued by his foster parents/owners. And to make matters worse, he falls prey to the selfish machinations of Doc Terminus (Jim Dale) while muddling his way through the sleepy village of Passamaquoddy, his would-be haven.

Elliott, the title dragon, is Pete’s constant companion and source of strength while simultaneously acting as an inadvertent thorn in the boy’s side. His penchant for invisibility renders the task of convincing others of his physical existence a perpetual challenge for the story’s hero. If you thought it was an exercise in frustration for Big Bird to be incapable of confirming the existence of Mr. Snuffalufagus to any but children, you have not experienced the tragic state in which young Pete had to exist. Couple that with Elliott’s enormous size and clumsy nature and the boy is beset upon at every angle! He becomes a near pariah in the sleepy fishing village where he seeks refuge and is admonished to be "more realistic" in his outlook on the world. If there is an underlying message to Pete’s Dragon it is to curb your imagination and suffer with a smile (if not also a song) the indignities and inequities of life.

All of this is secondary to the real centerpiece of this film - the person of Shelley Winters! While Sean Marshall (Pete) holds his own in the company of seasoned performers like Helen Reddy, the affable Mickey Rooney, and Red Buttons, Winters is the breakaway star of this autumn of 1977 sleeper. She is at the height of her craft as she takes on a role that was actively sought by Katherine Hepburn and Betty Davis! (Reportedly the reel containing both actresses’ screen tests resides to this day deep within the bowels of the Space Mountain ride at Disney Land.) No one else could have done justice to the challenging role of Lena Gogan! Walt Disney himself had suggested Winters for the role when this film was in its early development in the summer of 1966 under the working title "A Boy and His Dragon". While Disney would not live to see this film released (over a decade after his tragic demise) the wisdom of his choice of actress for this role is reflected for all time in the performance. And Disney was not the only visionary filmmaker to recognize Shelley Winters’ capacity for playing a cruel, heartless, and indeed soulless monster. Luchino Visconti had courted Winters for his 1969 epic "The Damned" (she would instead take the starring role in Roger Corman’s "Bloody Mama", released the following March, at the insistence of her agent).

Beyond her range as an actress, Ms. Winters was able to exercise her lifelong love of singing in this her most memorable role. Trained in operatic technique by Luciano Pavarotti during a year-long tryst in Milan (beginning in the summer of 1967), she brought her considerable talents to bear belting out such memorable songs as "The Happiest Home in These Hills" and (this reviewer’s favorite song of all time) "Bill of Sale". (Yes, I have the single.) Songwriters Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn were quoted in Variety Magazine (c. 1978) as saying, "When we wrote the original songs for Pete’s Dragon we were not told who was cast in any of the roles. As unabashed fans of Shelley Winters we imagined her in the role of Lena [Gogan], a decision that gave life to both the score and the lyrics. Imagine our unbridled surprise when we learned that Shelley was going to actually sing our songs!" I can scarce fathom the honor these two must have felt was bestowed upon them! An honor akin to that experienced by Pete’s Dragon screenwriter Malcolm Marmorstein, and indeed any scribe who has had the fruit of their toils become transformed on the silver screen by no less than Shelley Winters herself.

It is with immense fondness that I recollect Pete’s Dragon and especially Shelley Winters’ role therein. While I am widely known for my love of Star Wars (the story of my first viewing in the summer of 1977 is legendary), it is time that I revealed my true cinematic passion – Shelley Winters! It was but a few short months after seeing Star Wars for the first time that I went to see Pete’s Dragon. That Ms. Winters was getting work at the time was incentive enough to vouchsafe my ticket purchase. How could I have ever imagined that cool November day that I would find myself transfixed by the role of her life! Truly Shelley Winters has the bill of sale to my heart. And I won’t contest that!

Cole Houston resides in Texas with his wife, three cats, and the largest privately held collection of Shelley Winters memorabilia in the western hemisphere. A frequent contributor to "Winters Watch" magazine, Mr. Houston is currently completing his second volume of haiku dedicated to the actress who is the subject of his lifelong infatuation. He can be reached via email at shelleywinterscole@yahoo.com.
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