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COWBOYS IN HOLLYWOOD

In film, history on February 2, 2015 at 7:42 am

Cowboys and American Indians have fared poorly on screen over the past forty years in the era of wookies and hobbits and other differently-normal humanoids. Even stalwart Clint Eastwood seemed to take the coming of Spielberg, Lucas and their acolytes to heart and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) was the last in his series of classic westerns, reviving his ruthless man-with-no-name character only for isolated triumphs Pale Rider and Unforgiven over the following decade or two. That year too marked what should have been a classic on-screen meeting between Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks, but wasn’t. Odd landmarks like Heaven’s Gate and Silverado came and went without threatening Clint’s monopoly. Only Tombstone (Kurt Russell – Val Kilmer), which put Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp in the shade, and Costner’s Dances With Wolves and Open Range made much of an impact afterwards. Cowboys met New Age, maybe sealing the lid on the genre’s coffin, in Brokeback Mountain.

"Bronco Billy" Anderson sheet music (1914)

“Bronco Billy” Anderson sheet music (1914)

It was 1903, a time when Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid were still raiding from Devil’s Hole and Los Angeles itself not much more than a hole in the wall, that the one-reel western drama The Great Train Robbery scored a huge hit with audiences stirred by a life and time rapidly passing by. This was four years before a viable movie industry began in the United States, and a stage thespian and featured player from the short film, G. M. Anderson, formed the Essanay motion picture production company in Chicago and began his career as a cowboy on screen, namely “Bronco Billy”.

Buffalo Bill & Sitting Bull, taken 1895, the year of the first commercial film showing.

Buffalo Bill & Sitting Bull, taken 1895, the year of the first commercial film showing.

For a while, travelling “wild west” shows starring William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Sitting Bull and others outdrew western movies for paying audiences. Wyatt Earp (still spry until 1929) volunteered himself as a historical-technical consultant to filmmakers, and the real west imposed itself on screen art too by incorporating real cowboys and Indians as stuntmen doubling as actors, some of whom became proto-stars. Enterprising small outfits, ever more mobile like American and Bison, set up filming units in the wilds of California before there was a Hollywood and used the raw resources at hand (including lead actor Francis Ford, brother of future director John Ford), making probably the most authentic westerns ever. Apaches grew more popular in France, then the centre of filmmaking, than they had ever been to Americans, white or red, and Star Film of Paris set up shop in Flagstaff, Arizona. Producer-director Gaston Melies, partner and brother of Georges Melies, one of the founding fathers of narrative film, was the local honcho, later joined in North America by leading continental European companies such as Pathe-Freres, Gaumont, Nordisk and independent Solax. The wilds of Fort Lee, New Jersey, close to the big film companies in New York, remained the mecca of western filmmaking until World War I.

It wasn’t until 1915 or so that the long, lean dramatic figure of the classic cowboy eclipsed the popularity of squat, energetic Bronco Billy with his pat heroics. While the stark, dressed-all-in-black William S. Hart was the new sensation in character-driven dramas promoted in the films from Paramount, the biggest studio and film distributor in the suddenly burgeoning Hollywood, at nearby Universal City rode dour Harry Carey directed by John Ford as saddle bum “Cheyenne Harry”, and Tom Mix, with experience as a wrangler and deputy sheriff, was making steady progress at Fox, perversely portraying a cowboy with spangles and shiny spurs and riding Tony the “wonder horse”.

Tom Mix in 1925: The Jazz Age's idea of a cowboy

Tom Mix in 1925: The Jazz Age’s idea of a cowboy

Hart had earned massive fees of $150,000 and $200,000 per movie in a time of virtually no income tax; and gained such high prestige he was invited by Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to be a founding partner in United Artists (1919) before being substituted by D. W. Griffiths. Through the 1920s, though, Tom Mix set the tone by appearing in six to eight B-movies a year, said to earn $17,000 per week while filming, averaging out to a steady $7,500 a week through the years. Hoot Gibson came to emulate him at Universal, ousting the realism of the Ford-Carey films; as Fred Thomson did at FBO — Film Booking Offices, whose major shareholder was a certain Joseph P. Kennedy, lover of Gloria Swanson, before it morphed into the famous RKO studio at the beginning of talkies. These two also approached Mix’s commercial appeal, reportedly rewarded with during-filming weekly pay of $14,500 (Gibson) and $15,000 (Thomson). A last gasp try at A-movie status for westerns was pushed by MGM late in the decade through hero Tim McCoy appearing in a select few relative blockbusters with good co-stars and supporting casts.

Tom Mix retired from the screen, temporarily as it turned out, in 1930 when he was still riding high at 10th place in Quigley’s annual box-office survey, albeit through bulk product in release. Tiring of proving his credentials live in “wild west” travelling shows, he returned two years later, by which time Buck Jones and Jack Holt in B’s were the only cowboys showing up in the annual top 25 stars list. Buck continued scoring on his own up to 1935, multitudes of strictly B “stars” like Ken & Kermit Maynard, Charles Starret, Tom Tyler, Smith Ballew and Bob Steele lining up at tiny “Poverty Row” studios like Monogram, Grand National, Chesterfield and Tiffany. In 1930 the athleticism of Johnny Mack Brown had made a good impression in a big, realistic production of Billy the Kid at MGM, while John Wayne in his first major lead role was doomed by the failure of Fox blockbuster The Big Trail to a decade as a B-cowboy and the best part of another as a mediocre star before taken fully in hand by ace western directors John Ford and Howard Hawks.

The founding of Republic studio in 1935 would lead in the 1940s to singing cowboys Gene Autry and then Roy Rogers climbing to top 10 star status through appeal to undiscerning audiences unconcerned with authenticity with, again, bulk output. This trail was followed too by William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy and led to the overwhelming popularity of kids’ cowboys on tv through the early 1950s: The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Kit Carson, et al. It was a species John Wayne had only torturously escaped, handed a plum role in Stagecoach (1939) by Ford.

Henry Fonda broke through to major stardom — the top 25 stars list — in 1939 and 1940 courtesy of western roles in Jesse James and Drums Along the Mohawk, a status he couldn’t sustain in ensuing sophisticated comedies and then forestalled by war service that put him behind the eight ball. To cement his comeback he chose Ford classics My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948).

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), showing solidarity

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), showing solidarity

In the meantime, Gary Cooper, who’d made his name at the first death of westerns as talkies came in as laconic hero The Virginian and The Man From Wyoming, had made tentative steps to return as The Plainsman (1937) as Wild Bill Hickok and The Westerner (1940) under top directors Cecil B. DeMille and William Wyler. It was obvious the A-western was here to stay when odd-man-out Errol Flynn at Warner Bros, the studio of urban modernism, was, Tasmanian accent intact, diverted once a year from his pirate swashbucklers to depict the classic heroic westerner in an expensive and highly popular series from 1939: Dodge City, Virginia City, Santa Fe Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio

By the end of World War II westerns were such a staple that established routine stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea restricted themselves to the genre for the rest of their careers. McCrea made it to the top 25 stars list for his sole entry at 23rd in 1950, while Scott (mostly directed by Budd Boetticher) was a fixture in the list from 1948 to 1956, in the top 10 the four middle of those years, peaking at 7th in 1951. By this time not only Gary Cooper was a regular in westerns, but James Stewart more popular than ever, suddenly joining Coop in the top 10 for the first time ever in 1951: his first entry to the top 25 for ten years. While Stewart, mostly directed by Anthony Mann for Universal, got wealthy on percentage-participation deals, other Universal contractees on salary grew into big stars in westerns: Audie Murphy, Jeff Chandler, Rock Hudson. Through the sixties and into the seventies, while John Wayne ruled tall in the saddle, other established stars extended their careers and broadened their appeal by going western: Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark; and veteran supporting actors Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef morphed into bona fide stars. B-westerns were long gone from the big screen to tv series, developing Steve McQueen (Wanted: Dead or Alive), James Garner (Maverick) and Eastwood himself (Rawhide) into superstars.

Movie Star Popularity: measuring it

In celebrity, film, history on January 31, 2015 at 7:23 am

When movie stars were new as a phenomenon a hundred years or so ago, chosen by floods of movie patrons going specially to see them, fan magazines that had just started up as a way of telling romantic stories (true or false) about the public’s favorite “players” on film began trying to assess their relative popularity. Most favored across Europe were generally versatile character actors like

Asta Nielsen

Asta Nielsen

Asta Nielsen and Valdemar Psilander, both at the Nordisk studio of Denmark, ditto Ivan Mozhukhin (Mosjoukine) of Russia; and comedians Andre Deed and Max Linder of France.
Max Linder

Max Linder

Hence, art cinema. In America, stars were generally those who played similar characters every time so that winningly sweet Mabel Normand in Keystone comedies was tops, and girl-with-the-curls Mary Pickford would soon become “America’s Sweetheart” championing her country’s entry into World War I. Heroic figure Francis X. Bushman was an early male megastar, joined by bouncy man-about-town Douglas Fairbanks.

By 1913-14 Motion Picture magazine had instituted a poll of its readers, hundreds of thousands of whom replied over a period of many months to the question: “Who is your favorite motion picture star?” These early annual polls were probably the most legitimate ever measurement of actual personal popularity of a star during a particular year. But in the late 1920s and 1930s bids for a more comprehensive polling method were made by a number of movie trade publications, most prominently Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald and its closest rival, Box Office magazine, held by some commentators to be more authoritative. (I will refer to the annual MPH poll here, since its box-office surveys were underway by 1930, the first full year of talkies, so fully covering the classic period I am most interested in. The Quigley company continued its poll in some form well into the 1990s. Its successor, the Fame poll, has recently featured a supposed top 10 box-office draws of whom four I have not heard and another three or four I wouldn’t recognise in the street.) These entailed asking twelve to fifteen thousand of the twenty thousand exhibitors in the USA: “Who were the ten stars that drew most people into your theatre(s)?”

The assessed year was from 1st September through to 31st August and a star who had three to five releases in that time (say singing cowboy Gene Autry or child star Shirley Temple) had a much better chance of rating high in this supposedly “scientific” survey than a Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich or Mae West rationed to one project a year. At a time when movies were made much more often as a “vehicle” around the star’s talents, with singers and dancers prominent, this was probably still a much better indication of personal popularity than today, when special effects, art work, theme, stunt technicians and pyrotechnics are much more likely to be the real attraction for an audience than the nominal star (such special performers as Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis and few others aside). Stars then were held to be largely responsible for the success or otherwise of a movie release and a Johnny Depp and any number of others who today can have four or five flops in a row to their name with few or no repercussions to their career would no longer be stars — long out of a contract at a big studio and on the skids from smaller to smaller production outfits.

The MPH through its Almanac each year published a numbered order of stars down to twenty-five (usually edited fast to a top ten by newspapers) and then unnumbered layers of stars and featured players down in the hundreds who might only attract fans in a certain part of the country or for a particular fetish — but got a vote from someone. It is hard to believe such cultivated tastes as withered upper-crust English gentleman George Arliss, specialising in biopics of Disraeli, Rothschild, Voltaire and the Duke of Wellington would enjoy a broad leverage with audiences today. Yet, he was a fixture in Hollywood for over twenty years, listed in that top 25 until 1934. Similarly, rural-style comics Will Rogers, Joe E. Brown and Bob Burns who rated even higher through the mid thirties. It must be noted that the box-office champion team of butt-ugly and aged Marie Dressler & Wallace Beery (later echoed by Marjorie Main & Percy Kilbride) lifted more hearts through the Great Depression than there have been faces lifted in the whole history of moviedom. This is a moral impossibility today, the age of deliberately superficial, skin-deep “beauty”.

The public has long lived with these skewed assessments of popularity. Deanna Durbin, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, who all starred as the central figures of some of the biggest box-office successes of the classic era, never climbed as high as the top 10 for any year. This, while other performers who seemed like no more than part of the ensemble cast (even part of the furniture in comparison), scored effortlessly. And in contrast to the phenomenal exceptions of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe who were able to repeatedly (but not over-frequently) penetrate the top 10 stars list while averaging just one movie a year through their heyday decades, a quick tally of some names of all-time megastars who not once made even the top 25 is impressive: Ronald Colman, Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, Carole Lombard, David Niven, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Richard Widmark, Judy Holliday, Anthony Quinn.

Gene Kelly: not as dainty but more versatile than Fred Astaire.

Gene Kelly: not as dainty but more versatile than Fred Astaire.

And this in the face of some unlikely “stars” who did: the gurgling Dionne Quintuplets, Dane Clark, Barry Fitzgerald, Larry Parks, Francis the Talking Mule, Ernest Borgnine, Sandy Dennis. And more all-time performers — all major stars for a quarter century or more — struggled to make the lower rungs of said twenty-five a select few times: Edward G. Robinson (two), Barbara Stanwyck (three), Loretta Young (two), Jean Arthur (one), Katharine Hepburn (four), Olivia De Havilland (two), Henry Fonda (three), Joseph Cotten (one), Lana Turner (three), Rita Hayworth (five), Danny Kaye (one), Ava Gardner (three), Robert Mitchum (three), Audrey Hepburn (four).

In defining a star’s career, his “popularity” can be spun to suit the writer’s intention. Commentators have forever called Gary Cooper an “instant star” at age 24 when he appeared in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), which actually starred Ronald Colman, Cooper some way down the cast. His position was said to have been bolstered the following year in the William Wellman blockbuster Wings, placing him at a creditable 17th top male in the Quigley box-office survey; further when it was released with sound effects another two years on; still, he was third male “lead” in this aviation saga. By the time of the prestigious A Farewell to Arms (1932) from Hemingway, directed by style master Frank Borzage, Cooper was nominally top banana on screen, admittedly opposite the Oscar-winning performance of Helen Hayes and with stalwart Adolphe Menjou lending panache in strong support. Through this era Cooper’s career was boosted by voluminous press publicity detailing his affairs with a string of glamorous women from spitfire actress Lupe Velez to the Countess Di Frasso. He was enthroned by Paramount in the choice roles of the day, as an adventurer opposite Marlene Dietrich, hottest female in Hollywood (Morocco); City Streets directed by ace Rouben Mamoulian and surrounded by Sylvia Sidney and Paul Lukas; The Devil and the Deep, Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, Tallulah Bankhead; If I Had a Million, Laughton, W. C. Fields, directed by Lubitsch; and super-sophisticated Today We Live from Faulkner, surrounding Joan Crawford rivalled by Robert Young and Franchot Tone, under Howard Hawks, and Design for Living from Noel Coward via Ben Hecht, under Lubitsch again. And again Cooper was one of no less than three stars. He made no progress in his power to draw customers to theatres as reported by pollsters until 1935-36 when cast as the all-American good guy with impeccable morals and manners in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Mr Deeds Goes to Town. He bobbled between 9th and 11th place (including both sexes) for three years before resting for two years near the bottom of top 20. Cooper was 40 before he started his residency near the very top of polls (1941), though never overtaking Clark Gable until the latter went off to war (1943). Through the war years he was not bothered either by competition from Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda or James Stewart, all off doing service; and was still shaded in polls by Bing Crosby and Abbott & Costello, and then by Van Johnson, Ingrid Bergman and Betty Grable as a new generation ushered in. For several years in the late forties he lay 4th in overall popularity behind a combination of those stars mentioned. Then in 1949 he was overtaken by John Wayne, only for Cooper to bounce back as runner-up in 1952 and box-office champ the next year. From there he dropped a couple of spots each year and made his last appearance in the top 20 in 1959, within two years of his death (of cancer). It was the era of almost interchangeable western roles between Wayne, Cooper, James Stewart and the returned Clark Gable, and even so limited a screen presence as Randolph Scott, emulating Cooper, was able to overtake his model template in Quigley’s list of the top 10 stars for the first two years of the 1950s.

In contrast to Cooper, both John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart have been used as prime examples of those actors said to have suffered long, torturous routes to superstardom. Yet, at age 41 and 42 respectively they were undoubted superstars in the public estimation backed up by box-office receipts. And it was a status gained without the preceding 15 years of ballyhooed build-up that Cooper received. Wayne had made quite an impressive showing as sole star in The Big Trail (1930) at age 22, but which unaccountably turned out a flop. He was instantly dropped by Fox, and was 31 before given another real chance at the big time. He was a success in Stagecoach (1939) but United Artists (unlike Cooper’s Paramount) had not the resources to make a star, and Wayne again was forced a step back under the shared aegis of Republic and RKO. Though funded sufficiently to star occasionally with good leading ladies like Marlene Dietrich (at her nadir), Claire Trevor and Martha Scott, it was one-off loanouts to Cecil B. DeMille for Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and to MGM for John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) that got him seriously noticed — and he garnered a mention at 24th (16th top male) in Quigley’s uppercrust of stars. Though this was not quite the status Cooper had reached at age 37 it was way over the odds considering the lack of external resources lent to Wayne’s career.

Like Cooper, Wayne had stayed at home for the war, making hay while a flotilla of Hollywood stars risked everything to safeguard the future of the world. Bogart, little more than a year older than Cooper and Clark Gable, was technically overage like them but might have forced his way into war service as Gable had. (Maybe not incidentally, Gable was the only one of these superstars instantly recognised by the public as such, so striking a presence on screen he featured near the top of popularity polls within a year of first appearing.) Bogart was the only one of these not to be considered for leading roles from the outset. Any number of factors might have entered this collective decision, not least his renowned uncooperativeness with bosses from the Warner brothers down, though not the obvious ones that might first come to mind: Bogart being six to eight inches shorter than Cooper and Wayne, the even more severely vertically challenged and/or pug-ugly Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and George Raft hadn’t found this a bar to lead roles and almost instant screen stardom as similar gangster/hard-boiled characters. First on screen at 30, first noticed at 36 for his menacing Duke Mantee on stage and screen in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart was restricted to supporting roles in A’s or lead roles in B’s until the new year of 1941 on release of High Sierra. Nominally second billed to long-established and luscious Ida Lupino, this Raoul Walsh classic written by John Huston rode on his shoulders alone, and it was a matter of months before his similarly dominating performance in The Maltese Falcon under Huston confirmed his superstardom, cemented by Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) the next year. All in the opportunity — those turned down by Raft.

Screen Faces: The Doppelganger Effect

In art, film on December 29, 2014 at 11:20 pm

John Wayne and Robert Mitchum on the set of 'El Dorado', 1966

John Wayne and Robert Mitchum on the set of ‘El Dorado’, 1966

Back a ways when I was a little kid I was used to seeing Dean Martin on television via his weekly variety series. And he was in big screen westerns with John Wayne; and so was Robert Mitchum. Both Martin and Mitchum had what women called “bedroom eyes” in those coy times when demands of cock measurements were unheard of. (Incidentally, resisting all temptation, both stayed married to their first wives for decades.) Film reviewers described them as “heavy lidded”, referring to their deceptively casual approach to acting and lazy look of almost dropping off to sleep — again, a reference to the importance of eyes in dramatic acting; something totally irrelevant in the current 45-year-long era of special effects/CGI. (Again incidentally, for you fellow trivia lovers, seen in the same movie — Five Card Stud, 1968 — Mitchum at 6ft-1 towered over Martin, who claimed to be the same height.)

To my immature thinking, Mitchum (his vast store of varied characterisations unknown to me) was something of a standin for Martin, whom I’d noticed first. Just as, to Bob Hope, western star Randolph Scott was “a cut-rate Gary Cooper” — a physical double, but without the same appeal. Others accused Dane Clark of coopting John Garfield’s early method approach to pushy working-class toughs, though to see them in the same film (Destination Tokyo, 1943) they aren’t really much alike at all. There was the same denigrating of Kirk Douglas “wanting to be” Burt Lancaster; they appeared in seven movies together and surely only the ill-informed (to put it politely) could get them confused. But you have to laugh out loud in sympathy at Robert Mitchum’s story of getting called out in an Irish pub for being Kirk Douglas. On the other hand, though Burt Reynolds’ dark, virile looks and lithe movement might closely resemble Marlon Brando from some angles they are never compared because not remotely in the same kind of movies, never mind the gap in eras.

More and more, other likenesses occurred to me. Again, based solely on which one I’d seen first, wasn’t Buddy Hackett a stand-in for Lou Costello? Thoughtful, sensitive Joan Hackett (probably not Buddy’s sister) for simmering soap hottie Barbara Parkins? Much later as I got deeper into films, I wondered, did star-producer Burt Lancaster select and groom young Dianne Foster into a standin for Rita Hayworth, in The Kentuckian (1955), three years before he was able to work with the original item (Separate Tables, 1958)? Their shared, red-haired lissome sensuality is superficial but striking.

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel (1971)

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel (1971)

Today it’s an absolute exception to stumble on a major movie actor who doesn’t resemble the rest. After all, over the past twenty years or so, an Arnie Schwargenegger movie is a Sylvester Stallone movie is a Chuck Norris movie is a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie is a Steven Seagal movie is a Liam Neeson movie is a Matt Damon movie is a Johnny Depp movie — and all are a subset of the original Clint eastwood action genre. And isn’t Mark Wahlberg a poor man’s remake of handsomer Matt Damon? Frightening how the screen landscape has contracted to a microsopic point compared to the broad spectrum of screen genres there used to be.Matt_Damon_Pumped

The A-list actors still active on screen, who have something to say and are capable of interpreting it with subtlety? Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, even Liam Neeson and Johnny Depp when they’re in the mood… a few others but they’re mostly dead from overdoses (uncoincidentally?) come to think of it.

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