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COWBOYS IN HOLLYWOOD

In film, history on February 2, 2015 at 7:42 am
"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; and aspiring Columbia and Universal. 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 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 from 1949 through the early 1950s: The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Kit Carson, et al. It was a species John Wayne, best known on screen as gunslinger “Singing Sandy” in the mid Thirties, had only torturously escaped, handed a plum role in Stagecoach (1939) by Ford.

Henry Fonda broke through to major stardom — that top 25 published each year by the Motion Picture Herald — in 1939 and 1940 courtesy of western roles in Jesse James, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Return of Frank James, 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 wisely 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 the main feature western at the Saturday matinee was 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 among the runners at 23rd in 1950, while Scott (best directed by Budd Boetticher) was a fixture in the list from 1948 to 1956, top 10 the middle four years. By this time not only Gary Cooper was a regular in westerns, but James Stewart more popular than ever, re-entering the upper echelon after ten years, moreover joining his friend Coop in the top 10 for the first time (1951). 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.

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. In 1965, after a decade when classic western tales ruled television, just as two admirably realistic series in Wagon Train and Rawhide folded after ‘long’ six-to-seven-years runs, new trends began innovating on the small screen: The Wild Wild West, The Big Valley, followed by Cimarron Strip, Lancer and The Outcasts. These, providing bright spots with their own flavor, were all gone by 1969 while the more traditional Bonanza and High Chaparral limped along for another couple or three seasons, and Gunsmoke out-gunned all the odds and broke the all-time record for a 20-year run into 1975.

That year saw Posse, produced by and starring Kirk Douglas, with a quirky anti-establishment take on western politics, but was isolated and muted in its impact amid ongoing efforts by John Wayne to mythologize “The West” while failing to match his Oscar-winning True Grit (1969). The jokey, indulgent taint purveyed into a staple of the big screen through the mid Sixties had descended by then to MacKenna’s Gold, Paint Your Wagon and Support Your Local Sheriff/Gunfighter. The feel-good, romantic thrust of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the same year as these last two and Wayne’s landmark performance was more in the blockbuster tradition of Hollywood than the western one. It was in stark contrast to Sergio Leone’s contemporaneous Once Upon a Time in the West. Burt Lancaster through the early Seventies made a number of thoughtful contributions in Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is Coming, exploring the underbelly of history, along with Chato’s Land (Charles Bronson) — a worthwhile echo of Paul Newman’s Hombre the decade before. These, influenced to varying degrees by the “Spaghetti westerns” of director Sergio Leone (not forgetting the atmospheric music of Ennio Morricone), failed to ignite a new tradition for long in the States, aside from Eastwood’s ongoing thematic and stylistic tributes to his Italian mentor.

Mel Brooks’Blazing Saddles ripped the shit out of every cliche contained in what, up to then, had been thought ‘classic’ westerns. And two years later even stalwart Clint 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 gritty oaters, 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.

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 for his one and only time as el supremo. 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 37-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 Harrison Ford 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? Daniel Day Lewis, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Ellen Barkin, 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.

Movie Review: “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” (1961)

In film on September 16, 2014 at 8:52 am

I have a confession to make. Until this afternoon I had never seen more than random snippets of Breakfast At Tiffany’s — but I have just watched the last hour and a half of it on the MGM Classic channel. I’m hoping the original novel by Truman Capote was better. I might be missing something with this one — which I keep thinking must be considered a classic for a reason — but I’ve never been a fan of glossy Blake Edwards movies, even the massively popular Peter Sellers ones (to my mind nowhere near as good as his earlier British-made comedies). This comes across like it’s trying to be a sophisticated comedy but falls way short of those in the Thirties-Forties, and even Pretty Woman, the closest I can draw as a modern equivalent.

There are several glaring shortcomings for viewers attuned to modern sensibilities, the most well-known one today probably being Mickey Rooney’s inexplicable portrayal of a Japanese tenant as a four-foot-something, conspicuously buck-toothed, four-eyed geek — presumably intended to be a comic turn but just highly embarrassing. Another is a scene where Holly describes herself as “fat as a pig” — when you can practically see her skeleton through her dress, every bit of 90 to 100 pounds hanging on her 5ft-8 frame. Yet another huge allowance has to be made for Belgian-born Audrey Hepburn, 32, playing a 20-year-old backwoods Southerner while coming across as a refined Englishwoman, as she did in all her films. George Peppard, quite a sought-after leading man in the Sixties and then not again till The A Team on tv, is Holly’s suitor. An impoverished “rider” (writer) who dresses in a conventional suit like a prep school debutant, he is supported financially by Patricia Neal as his cougar until he decides to “help” Holly to change from a self-defined wild child every bit as revolting as Daisy Clover (Natalie Wood) in that film and become herself. Buddy Ebsen is Holly’s much older ex-husband, showing up to embarrass Holly in that character’s only genuine moment in her New York City incarnation. Patricia (soon award-winning in Hud) and Buddy (seamlessly wedging this role inbetween Davy Crockett’s buddy George and The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jed Clampett) give the best performances, in fact the only two bright spots in the whole thing as far as I could see — at least character-focused and moving, while the two central characters fail to demonstrate clear motives or even generate sympathy.

Audrey_Hepburn_Tiffany's

It was a struggle to get through what I did see, partly because so slow moving — but mainly because I found the dominant character of Holly Golightly/Lula-Mae (Audrey Hepburn) insufferable. She was selfish, shallow and a materialistic social-climber. The last straw was when she dumps her cat in a strange area of New York City, in the rain — leaving her dumped boyfriend Paul (whom she calls Fred) to look for him. Far from the “sweet bundle of neuroses” one reviewer describes her as, I would place her at least two steps worse off into the destructive manic-depressive category, with narcissistic tendencies and violent impulses. It didn’t help my perception that the character reminds me very much of a woman I’ve known — who didn’t miraculously turn herself around on the spot as Holly does at the end of the movie, but is still basically the same person in her mid fifties, still clueless about how to behave with simple consideration for others.

Enough to say that the Moon River refrain running through the film is the highlight, not Audrey’s pedestrian, unmusical, unexpressive rendition of it. By the way, West Side Story is another all-time great from 1961 (and coincidentally similarly set in The Big Apple) I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch: yet another of those examples where the music is better than the movie, as was so often the case in the Sixties, when screen composers of evocative themes were admittedly at a towering peak of quality.

American Idol of 1959: Hottest Female Stars

In film, history, music on August 9, 2014 at 5:50 am
Connie Francis, sultry in stills, goofy in films.

Connie Francis, sultry in stills, goofy in films.

1. Marilyn Monroe — now aged 33 after a dozen years in movies, she releases her first film in two years, comedy blockbuster Some Like It Hot from Billy Wilder and co-starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. After time off in New York studying at The method, it’s enough to put her back at the top around the world, voted the Golden Globe by Hollywood’s international press corps as the most popular movie star internationally.

2. Brigitte Bardot — the prototypical French “sex kitten” since And God Created Woman three years ago, turning 25 this year, as well as tops in Europe for the past two years she has been scoring multiple hits across the US, Babette Goes to War being one of three this year.

3. Gina Lollobrigida — at 32 a superstar in Europe for almost a decade but hampered in the US by her contract with crazy Howard Hughes, she has recently broken out as co-star of top US male stars with international blockbusters Trapeze (with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis), Hunchback of Notre Dame (Anthony Quinn), Anna di Brooklyn/Fast and Sexy, Solomon and Sheba (Yul Brynner) and Never So Few (Frank Sinatra & Steve McQueen)

4. Connie Francis — at 20, easily the top female seller of discs across the US, scoring three gold awards this year in ‘My Happiness’, ‘Lipstick On Your Collar’ and ‘Frankie’, and the first to sell ten million discs in one year; and filming Where the Boys Are for MGM, which will make her into a top Sixties screen attraction in youth comedies

5. Doris Day — a veteran at 37, but no.1 woman (4th overall) in the US box-office list with frothy comedy Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson already out, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (with David Niven) and foggy London thriller Midnight Lace (Rex Harrison, John Gavin) upcoming.

6. Debbie Reynolds — second only to Doris Day among women in the US box-office list (5th overall), and at the peak of her career — at 27 — helped in her private life by losing singer Eddie Fisher to Liz Taylor.

7. Sophia Loren — now turning 25, has had several high-profile US film releases hoping to replicate her European success, but yet to find her niche unlike the sensation made over Brigitte.

8. Kim Novak — the first buxom blonde to overtake Marilyn Monroe at the US box-office, through Picnic (1956) and Vertigo (1958) though only briefly as it turns out.

9. Elizabeth Taylor — an MGM star since National Velvet (1944) at 12, fresh from Raintree County with Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint, and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman, her sole release this year is the mildly successful Suddenly Last Summer with Clift and Katharine Hepburn, poised for an Oscar and return to the box-office ten next year.

10. Sandra Dee — The blonde teen is rocketing into the official box-office top 10 movie stars in the USA as Gidget and in grown-up soap A Summer Place.

11. Lana Turner — The 39-year-old veteran — in movies 22 years — is enjoying a comeback via Peyton Place and Imitation Of Life. This sexy momma’s career is boosted out of sight by her daughter’s stabbing murder of mom’s abusive boyfriend, gangster Johnny Stompanato who has shared his charms around the upper echelons of Hollywood stars.

12. Connie Stevens — turning 21, a veteran of teen exploitation flicks Young and Dangerous and The Party Crashers and star of Warner Bros’ Hawaiian Eye on tv, still growing in drive-in appeal on the big screen.

13. Susan Hayward — just turned 40 as the year starts, winning the Oscar for I Want to Live as a woman on Death Row, she is hotness personified for the mature set too in A Woman Obsessed with younger man Stephen Boyd, helping her to make no.10 on US box-office listings.

14. Diane Varsi — starring and Oscar-nominated as Alison MacKenzie in Peyton Place (1957) at 20, she has not quite maintained her momentum with the nonetheless rivetting Compulsion this year and leaves Hollywood abruptly for reasons of survival and emotional stability.

15. Lee Remick — at 23 is on the up as a blonde sex kitten with subtlety, and slightly built, through A Face in the Crowd, The Long Hot Summer and now Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder.

16. Carroll Baker — following a sensational role as Baby Doll (1956), building with Giant and The Big Country, she is now stalling, poised for another big push in the mid Sixties with The Carpetbaggers and Harlow but too late at 35.

17. Tuesday Weld — exploited by stage parents from age three, entering a period of breakdowns and addictions in adolescence, she is now turning 16 and put into lurid sexploitation flicks (Sex Kittens Go to College, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, Return to Peyton Place) by her
minders but despite all the odds against her manages a considerable career in the end.

18. Eva Marie Saint — Emerging from New York’s method acting school since her belated debut (at 30) as Marlon Brando’s squeeze in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, she has been looking younger, breaking the mold as a very versatile blonde — focusing on character, so without the constant screen persona, image and star vehicles to make a superstar impact, just Hitchcock’s North By Northwest this year but making a lasting impression and preparing for Otto Preminger blockbuster Exodus releasing next year

19. Annette Funicello — The wholesome Disney star, 16, scores her first of four Top 20 hits in ‘Tall Paul’ (#7 Billboard, her career peak) and ‘First Name Initial’. Having graduated from tv’s Mickey Mouse Club, and now in her own Disney tv series, she is on the rise in movies too starting with The Shaggy Dog this year before moving on to Babes in Toyland (1961) with Tommy Sands and then her famous series of “beach movies” co-starring Frankie Avalon.

20. Hayley Mills — The new English child star, 13, has the central starring role in father John Mills’ suspenser Tiger Bay, released in the US in December. Already, she is in America filming the title role of Pollyanna for the Disney studio, to be released to acclaim the following May (1960) shortly after her 14th birthday. Her series of family Disney movies will make her the world’s no.1 child star (until she turns 20).

Honorable mention: Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Hope Lange, Joan Collins, Diana Dors

BEST ACTING BY NON-ACTORS

In film on January 2, 2014 at 3:23 am

By that I mean notable performances by performers primarily from another field. Here are some that come to mind, listed roughly in descending order of quality of performance with their preferred specialties in parentheses.

 

Orson Welles (film director) — Citizen Kane (1941), The Third Man (1949), Touch of Evil (1958)

Frank Sinatra (jazz singer) — The Man With the Golden Arm (1956), The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Gene Kelly (modern dancer) — The Cross of Lorraine (1943), The Black Hand (1950)

Paul Robeson (opera singer/law student) — The Emperor Jones (1933)

Judy Garland (jazz singer) — A Star is Born (1954), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Eartha Kitt (torch singer, dancer) — Anna Lucasta (1959)

Bing Crosby (crooner) — The Country Girl (1955)

Cyd Charisse (dancer) — Party Girl (1958)

Rita Hayworth (dancer) — Lady From Shanghai (1948), Separate Tables (1958)

Fred MacMurray (saxophonist) — Double Indemnity (1944), The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Desi Arnaz (big band leader) — The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

Harry Connick Jr (jazz singer) — Copycat (1995)

Max Baer (world heavyweight boxing champion) — The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)

Robert Taylor (movie star) — Devil’s Doorway (1950), Rogue Cop (1954)

Harry Belafonte (singer) — The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)

Moira Shearer (ballerina) — The Red Shoes (1948)

Howard Keel (bass-baritone) — Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)

Russ Tamblyn (dancer) — Tom Thumb (1958)

Cher (foghorn) — Tea With Mussolini (1999)

Diana Ross (singer) — Lady Sings the Blues (1973)

Victor Mature (golfer) — My Darling Clementine (1946)

Dorothy Dandridge (dancer, singer) — Carmen Jones (1954)

Jim Brown (footballer) — Tick… Tick… Tick (1970)

Doris Day (singer) — Storm Warning (1950)

Tommy Sands (teen idol) — Bonanza (1965)

Lauren Bacall (model) — To Have and Have Not (1944)

Richie Andrusco (little kid) — The Little Fugitive (1953)

Tippi Hedren (model) — The Birds (1963)

Julie Andrews (singer) — Torn Curtain (1966)

Arnold Schwarzenegger (bodybuilder) — Kindergarten Cop (1990)  

“I come to bury Brando, not to praise him.”

In film, ideology on October 13, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Brando posing as the beast, Stanley Kowalksi

Brando posing as the beast, Stanley Kowalksi

This is a line (almost) from the Julius Caesar (1953) movie, from the play by Shakespeare a few centuries before and some unsung Italian writer before him. Marlon Brando, playing Marcus Antonius, delivers the famous line in the movie, and much-esteemed English actors in the film who knew a bit about the unique demands of playing classical Shakespeare — John Gielgud as Cassius and James Mason as Brutus — said he handled the role very well indeed and brought something fresh to it. It was Brando’s fourth film, he was at his charismatic best, and he was 28. The boy from Nebraska had come a long way, as far as his homies those other superlative and celebrated actors Henry Fonda and Montgomery Clift — a strangely and marvelously fertile state in its disproportionate contribution to the advancement of film acting.

Brando, early twenties as he was on stage, pre his broken nose. Portrait by Adne Carvalho.

Brando, early twenties as he was on stage, pre his broken nose. Portrait by Adne Carvalho.

In the traditional theatre it was still the age of Olivier, Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Emlyn Williams — all of whom had become popular enough in films too. Olivier had a rough ride in Hollywood, first on contract there to RKO from 1930. Appearing as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939) and by his own admission thinking he was pretty hot stuff in the role, he was unceremoniously humbled by director William Wyler, who wasn’t having any of it and told Larry to “cut the bullshit” in his flowery acting if he wanted to be taken seriously in American films. Later generations of English Shakespearians acknowledged for their brilliance on the stage — Richard Burton, Paul Scofield, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Nicol Williamson, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson — with two exceptions had to be satisfied with passing notoriety on the screen. And their American counterparts too, the Lunts, Helen Hayes, the Cronyns, Lee J Cobb, Maurice Evans, did measurably less well in screen popularity than the earlier generation of Barrymores. The Fifties was a transitional period in dominating acting styles, during which theatrical flair, modified, finally found an outlet on the screen.

Brando had been a sensational star from age 23 when in 1947 he hit the Broadway stage playing Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which would emerge as his second movie four years later. But he was a different kind of star from all others, with the possible exception of Marilyn Monroe, in that he wanted each role to be radically different from the last. Boredom with his craft was always threatening to whisk him off elsewhere, maybe to the South Seas, where he found his two wives. The two stars resembled each other in their restless selectivity, and in that their chosen acting teacher in New York City, Lee Strasberg of The Actors Studio, and film director Elia Kazan of Streetcar, nominated them as the two most talented actors they had ever come across. (Brando’s first acting teacher had been Mrs Fonda, Henry’s mother, back in Omaha.) Incidentally, Marlon can be paired with Elvis too, as having possibly the geekiest names in show business, no little barrier to live down for male sex symbols.

Brando and Vivien Leigh playing a butterfly broken on the wheel

Brando with Vivien Leigh playing a butterfly broken on the wheel

The details of Brando’s consistently courageous choice of roles over his 13-year storming of the big screen follow. So far as I can recall: Averaging one entry a year, in his first 14 movies Brando played: an alienated paraplegic soldier, eventually rehabilitated to reunite with his wife (Teresa Wright) in The Men; a working-class brute who brutalises cultivated fantasist Vivien Leigh (Streetcar), with Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, directed by Kazan; the Mexican revolutionary in Viva Zapata; Caesar’s protege Marc Antony; a gang leader (The Wild One); Napoleon Bonaparte (Desiree, co-starring Jean Simmons in the title role); a pug longshoreman and failed boxer Terry Molloy with Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger and Lee J Cobb (On The Waterfront); a song-and-dance entrepreneur with Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine (Guys and Dolls); a Japanese servant (Teahouse of the August Moon), with Glenn Ford and Paul Ford; a racist Southern officer in occupied Japan (Sayonara) who romances Miiko Taka, and mourns over doomed couple Myoshi Umeki and Red Buttons; a German army officer (The Young Lions) with Monty Clift arguably outdoing him in invention, and Dean Martin; a drifting beat musician arousing the much older but still sexy Anna Magnani in The Fugitive Kind; a cowboy brutalised by mentor figure Karl Malden (One-Eyed Jacks); and Fletcher Christian winning the mutiny over Trevor Howard’s Bligh and introducing Richard Harris (Mutiny on the Bounty).

Brando as the "nice" gang leader, who faces down uncouth Lee Marvin for the hand of lovely Mary Murphy.

Brando as the “nice” gang leader, who faces down uncouth Lee Marvin for the hand of lovely Mary Murphy.

All his portrayals were convincing and some revelatory, demonstrating unparalleled versatility. That was the end of his big hits for ten years and the phenomena of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. By the early Sixties, far from being hailed by the public for his innovative genius — dividing actors forever into pre-Brando and post-Brando eras, as he did — he was nailed down as a mumbling Stanley/Terry stereotype by those who thought playing working class characters was demeaning to “The Thespian Art”. After that, having directed Jacks and Mutiny released 1961 and ’62, he is said to have lost interest. And why not? He’d covered it all. Like others — Robert Mitchum, to name one — who disdained the term “star”, he kept his chosen craft of acting in miniaturising perspective.

Brando and screen girlfriend Eva Marie Saint, to be accompanied by left-wing school Group Theater/Actors Studio colleagues Rod Steiger and Lee J Cobb. Steiger was a year younger than Brando but played his older brother who entraps a none-too-bright Terry in the rackets.

Brando and screen girlfriend Eva Marie Saint, to be accompanied by left-wing school Group Theater/Actors Studio colleagues Rod Steiger and Lee J Cobb. Steiger was a year younger than Brando but played his older brother who entraps a none-too-bright Terry in the rackets.

Though still held aloft unconditionally as the hero by young actors and in mid-decade producing A-list notables The Chase with Jane Fonda, A Countess From Hong Kong with Sophia Loren and Reflections in a Golden Eye with Elizabeth Taylor, Brando’s prime image of rebel was carried by toned-down Paul Newman and Steve McQueen at the box-office. Beginning 1962 there was also “The British Invasion” on screen to contend with, headed by Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Sean Connery as James Bond, Julie Christie (Darling) and Julie Andrews as sugar-and-spice-all-things-nice personified. With the solid core of Hollywood liberals — Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, the young Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier — Brando led protest marches through the Civil Rights era of the Sixties. And further, he stuck his neck out in the cause of Native Americans.

Brando bleached for his role as the sympathetic officer disillusioned with the Nazi cause as one of "The Young Lions".

Brando bleached for his role as the sympathetic officer disillusioned with the Nazi cause as one of “The Young Lions”.

MOVIE PREVIEW: EINSTEIN’S ABS

In film, Humor on August 10, 2013 at 12:49 am

In the wake of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Da Vinci’s Demons, Meathead Entertainment Corp is planning a much-needed update of that other historic nerd, Albert Einstein. Admittedly the greatest scientific genius since Sir Isaac Newton, Einstein’s image is in even more urgent need of a revamp to make him relevant to today’s generation.

Lincoln, though as ugly as sin in real life, was at least in good physical shape from a life of splitting rails and — as we now know — from the intense program of martial arts he undertook to be able to do away with vampires with one slice of his silver axe. Not only was he made handsome for the movie too, but the emphasis was taken right away from the petty affairs of the daylight world. What solemn aspect he retained was given a good reason — to rid the world of vampires, rather than be distracted by cheesey goals like saving the United States and abolishing slavery.

The original Da Vinci, reputed to be gay with a taste for younger men, was some years ago proposed for a biopic by the producers of Brokeback Mountain. His image would at least be improved to a tobacco-spitting cowboy who could carouse and shoot up a town with the best of them. Apparently the real Da Vinci could bend horseshoes with his bare hands and kept in shape through riding and other exercise, but spent an inordinate amount of time paintin’ on canvas and figgerin’ — no hobbies for a real man. He would also buy cages of pigeons just to set them free. It was thought better for the movie to make him into a heterosexual action man kissin’ on ladies and maybe biting the heads off pigeons where necessary to ward off evil-doers.

Professor Einstein, though of slight build, was undoubtedly the flabbiest and most flaccid of them all, spending years at a time hunched over his equations and other sedentary habits that have no value to the modern movie-goer. In real life he was said to be admired by Marilyn Monroe, who said she found his intellect sexy. Ah, but was she ever subjected to a view of his torso? I think not. At this stage the movie project is top secret but we can take a fair clue from the working title, Einstein’s Abs. Here for the first time I am able to announce what the rehabilitated Einstein is likely to look like on the screen:

swollen_muscles

The producers of the upcoming film noted particularly that in the case of the real Einstein his head seemed too big for the rest of his puny body — all the better to encase his gargantuan brain; moreover, that his hair was far too long and unkempt so as to fit the outdated image of the eccentric genius. Designer of the new screen character saw to it that these features were reversed in a balancing process to be more functional and appealing.

JOHN FORD DOUBLE MOVIE REVIEW: The Searchers & Liberty Valance

In film, ideology, morality, politics, review on July 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is definitely the B feature in this double. Its release year of 1962 is very late for a black and white movie. But maybe Ford was trying to make a point, like he didn’t want it to be a color, all-star blockbuster in the way of How the West Was Won the same year: a bloated, tiresome excuse for a way to spend three hours. As a kid my friends and I bragged how many times (up to double figures) we’d been to see this MGM-Cinerama spectacular: more a reflection on our childishness and how inexpensive it was to go to the movies in those days. The wide-screen vistas were great to look at, but that was all. Henry Hathaway helmed most of it — having seen his most interesting period in Forties film noir before switching to routine westerns — John Ford taking over for the Civil War sequences and George Marshall the extended train hold-up scenes. All of the stars had been used to better effect elsewhere: Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Henry Fonda, Carroll Baker, Richard Widmark… Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird), Fonda (Advise and Consent) and George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) had come straight from classics and now this marked a lowpoint in their careers. It earned $50 million worldwide for the producers: more than a $billion today in terms of butts on seats.

I believe Ford was not making a western in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but was the politically astute Irishman making a comment on American politics as he did in The Last Hurrah four years before: poking fun at the Irishness of it, the erecting of heroes on pedestals maintained by populist sentiment. Also, the manner of election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy just a year and a half before couldn’t have escaped his attention — whisked along to victory by his pappy’s connections and accentuating his war record. World War II leader Ike Eisenhower was just vacating the White House and sterling wartime feats was one of the few public image advantages Kennedy held over opponent Nixon at the 1960 general election. And ever since, phony self-proclaimed heroes like George W Bush and John McCain have tried to makes themselves into a JFK or John Kerry, if not a full-blown general like Ike.

Fifty-four-year-old James Stewart ludicrously playing young, naive lawyer Ransom Stoddard sweeps into the western town of Shinbone toting $14.80 in cash and a passel of law books. He is beaten up, his money is stolen and his law books destroyed by hold-up man Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang. I always thought the Disney animated badguy Black Pete was based on a hybrid of Ernest Borgnine and Marvin as they played town bullies in the Fifties — see Bad Day at Black Rock — and here Marvin is joined by main henchmen Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin, acting a lot like Biggy Rat & Itchy brother from the DePatie-Freleng cartoons on tv in the early Sixties.

Enraged, persnickety dishwasher Stoddard is protected by Tom Donofin (John Wayne) against Liberty Valance. Marvin stands on tiptoe to look more imposing than the 6ft-4 of the two protagonists.

Enraged, persnickety dishwasher Stoddard is protected by Tom Donofin (John Wayne) against Liberty Valance. Marvin stands on tiptoe to look more imposing than the 6ft-4 of the two protagonists.

Stoddard is a horse’s ass of an Eastern dude who doesn’t know it, preaching about the law and parliamentary procedure and casually ridiculing his wife-to-be Halley (Vera Miles) because she can’t read and write. When Duke Wayne, the only guy with the guts and ability to stand up to Valance and his lickspittles, sees that his girl Halley is gone on the embryonic politician’s pompous ways and ineffectual hypocrisy he does the decent thing by covertly killing Valance and leaving Stoddard with the credit. In the forty years of history passing offscreen, the politician is elected to “three terms as state governor, two terms as senator, Ambassador to the Court of St James, and back to senator” and has the vice-presidency in Washington for the taking — all based on two myth-making “facts” of the kind politicians thrive on: he was the first lawyer west of the Rockies and killed Liberty Valance single-handed, and with his weaker gun hand.

At the end of the film, attending old Tom Donofin’s funeral, Senator and prospective vice-president Stoddard is easily persuaded by the town newspapermen that the truth and the people’s right to know isn’t paramount after all. He keeps his shame (told him by Donofin, on Stoddard’s first step up to office) a secret from the public — though the wife now knows, and maybe suspected all along — and he and the Mrs ride off contentedly on the train back to Washington for the last time. In an empty gesture to sentiment, Stoddard resolves to settle back in Shinbone after a life of false glory. Ford’s final condemnation of the American political system: And little lawyers shall lead them.

The Searchers (1956) must rank as the greatest western made in the Fifties, along with Shane (1953), and therefore probably the greatest ever. As a solid work of art from Ford it might be only challenged by The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Each shot is painstakingly worked out using the natural setting and lie of the land to utmost effect to add to the rising and falling drama, and the acting overall is superb, especially from the two leads, John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter (later of The Last Hurrah and King of Kings).

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) interrogate "Look" for the whereabouts of "Scar", the Comanche war chief who holds Debbie (Natalie Wood) captive.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) interrogate “Look” for the whereabouts of “Scar”, the Comanche war chief who holds Debbie (Natalie Wood) captive.

Ethan Edwards arrives three years after the end of the Civil War at his brother’s (Walter Coy) Texas homestead. His brother fought on the other side, the Union, and there are strong signs that Ethan was the wife’s (Dorothy Jordan) first choice for a hubby. Instantly, we’re in the action and a Comanche raid on cattle draws the Texas Rangers under Rev/Captain Ward Bond away from the homestead. The Comanches attack and Ethan’s brother’s family are slaughtered, all but the two girls — Ethan’s sole remaining kin. And the hunt is on. It lasts six years, with Ethan and Martin constantly on the trail through desert and deep snow drifts. Ambivalent as Ethan is about his young adopted nephew’s one-eighth Cherokee blood, he reserves pure hatred for the Comanche. Martin is motivated by the constant knowledge of having to save Debbie from Ethan — who maintains she’s been ruined by turning into a Comanche — as much as from the Comanches. The ambivalent interplay between these two is the core of the film.

Special mention should be made of the exceptionally endearing performance of Lana Wood (Natalie’s sister) as nine-year-old Debbie. Also Ford’s semi-regular Hank Worden in his turn as hilarious comedy relief “Old Mose” Harper. A Bronx cheer for poor John Qualen and his dialogue as Lars the Swede, twice playing Vera Miles’ father and forced to say “By golly!” and the inevitable “By Yiminy!” repeatedly through The Searchers and again in Liberty Valance, a very irritating Ford joke.

FILM ART PEAKS: Seventy years ago today

In art, film, history, Humor, sociology on July 8, 2013 at 5:19 am

King_Kong_1933There’s a long-time popular theory that film as an art form peaked in the silent days — when the greatest artists coming to film were painters, sculptors, writers, philosophers and other creative spirits — and the possibilities of sound had been virtually fully exploited by the end of the 1930s; certainly by the end of the Forties, for the sake of including the psychological profundity and visual stylishness of Film Noir. I happen to agree.

But by 1940 the possibilities of virtually every recognised film genre seemed to have been explored and fulfilled. There can hardly have been a better horror flick than Frankenstein, The Mummy or Bride of Frankenstein; a better fantasy adventure than King Kong; a better sc-fi than Shapes of Things to Come; a better swashbuckler than Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood or Tyrone Power’s Mark of Zorro; a better family musical than the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz; a better kids adventure than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with unsung Tommy Kelly; a better social conscience film than the John Ford-Henry Fonda Grapes of Wrath; a better social/sophisticated comedy than My Man Godfrey with William Powell and Carole Lombard; a better screwball comedy than Bringing Up Baby (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn); a better crime film than William Wyler’s Dead End; a better soap than Gone With the Wind; a better western than Stagecoach or Jesse James; a better women’s picture than The Women or Bette Davis’s The Letter; a better animated film than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Fantasia; a better noir than Marcel Carne-Jean Gabin’s Le Jour Se Leve; come to that, better foreign films than those of Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir or Rene Clair; or, filmed that last year, a better definitive masterpiece than Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. After that, well, filmmakers were reduced to fiddling on a theme.

You know people have too much time to kill when they put out a movie called Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and are serious about it; it’s not a Mel Brooks comedy or Tim Burton send-up, or even those brothers who did the Airplane and Naked Gun flicks. I stumbled on this gem leafing through the TV Guide and came to be thankful I’m not rich and idle enough to afford the Sky Movies channel, just the MGM and TCM channels in a cut-rate deal, showing oldies. This film is not a cheapo, but stars James Bond superstar Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, who I once caught acting in a 1984 thriller involving the Amish and before that in a cameo in American Graffiti (1973). Since then he’s spent most of his time trying to figure out wookies and who-knows-what else.

Researching, it’s a DreamWorks adaptation of a comic book, the third in a series, believe it or not. And you know people have too much money when you find out it cost the gargantuan amount of $163 million — admittedly a fraction of what that woman won in the lottery but maybe enough to raise a few South Sea islands out of the drink to save a few hundred thousand people from global warming for the duration if others in the know put their heads to something worthwhile. That was just to film and edit it to get it in the can (no, the other one, worse luck), plus who-knows-how-much to promote it — probably Wizard_of_oz_movie_posterat least doubling the outlay. It took in a lousy $100 million at the box-office its first three months in the USA (plus the DVD crowd) and out of 120,000 responders at the IMDb site it’s scored barely six out of ten, very low for your average special effects blockbuster. So maybe there’s hope for the human race yet — apart from filmmakers.

Probably the best thing about the movie is the title — no, don’t expect me to actually watch it — almost clever the way it almost duplicates the old kids game of Cowboys & Indians. Almost, but nowhere good enough to be called witty. Leaving out the initial Star Wars cycle (1978), when the whole special effects genre was still novel enough to be interesting, the first movie I noticed like this, combining a reference to history as a veneer on top of thick, gooey fairytale fantasy, was Beethoven, which turned out to be a comedy about a dog. Of course, when a pretend-historical cycle came into fashion, they did movies on the actual Beethoven’s girlfriend and then Shakespeare’s girlfriend — betraying their anti-feminist belief that the only women worth taking notice of are women who’d succeeded with famous men, not in their own right: snob versions of Bunnies of the Playboy Mansion or Kardashians on tv. These were mixed in indiscriminantly with a lot of romantic novels from the Age of Romance: i.e. Jane Austen, ad nauseam, a.k.a. How to Misunderstand (and Catch) a Man 101.

Let’s not be too hard because this is probably what passes for creativity today, along with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, designer labels, junk sculpture, more comic book mentality and anything else that attracts heaps of bucks from gullible people with chronically fugged minds. Fans of this drek often justify themselves by saying it’s film art in the mold of The Beach Girls & the Monster or the finest works of Ed Wood — which were only ever intended as cheap knockoffs made for the lowest common denominator for a few thousand dollars each, and which only inconvenienced very few film craftsmen at a time and hardly more souls at the box-office. But we must brace ourselves. Every art form (maybe involving a handful of unrecognized films each year these days) goes through historical highs and lows. English-language poetry as a worthwhile art form (I don’t know enough about French, almost nothing about Russian) after the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras was fairly barren from the silencing of Milton around 1660, finding himself banned on Charles II’s restoration of the monarchy, and the advent of Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth c.1797; 137 years give or take. (In the intervening generations only Dryden, Swift and Pope made any mark in English-language poetry.) So, subtracting the 35 years we are in to the Star Wars age already, we can allow up to a century or so for film as an art form to get back on track.

Casablanca

MOVIE REVIEW: THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

In film, morality, review on July 8, 2013 at 3:01 am

Sam Peckinpah might have been a film director who hated humanity (not in itself a disqualifier for an artist in expressing himself), or at least held a healthy contempt for many people who populated the American West. Out of tune as I am with all the critics of the day when supposedly his best film was released, obviously I’m missing something very central to Peckinpah’s oeuvre. Either that or I’m getting soft in my old age. But I can only call ’em as I sees ’em — and stand to be corrected. His Ride the High Country (1962) was a refreshing adventure movie that somewhat recalled John Ford’s The Searchers of six years before in having a hero substantially more staunch — read ruthless — than the invariably white-hatted tv cowboys of the time. By the time of The Wild Bunch (1969) his villains were still utterly despicable but the hero was only slightly less so. I believe, with this film, Peckinpah’s thrust went way overboard in depicting violence for its own sake without including any balancing elements of positive humanity and enlightenment. Straw Dogs (1971), in a modern setting, saw a young Dustin Hoffman in the uncharacteristic role of a homicidal, vindictive newly-wed. He carries out brutal vengeance on a gang who raped his wife, including his wife’s ex-boyfriend, maybe because he suspects his wife enjoyed it. Peckinpah’s films are peopled by those definitely on the margins not only of society but any human feeling. Forget tenderness entirely.

The Wild Bunch took the ambiguous good guy in Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone movies — who in the late Sixties turned out in the end to be good at the core — way beyond to unambiguous callousness, the tack Eastwood would follow in upcoming westerns like High Plains Drifter (1973). The movie opens with a botched raid on a town bank by a gang led by the nominal hero, played by William Holden. To date, the Holden type that had won the star enormous popularity in Sunset Boulevard (1950) after 11 years in insipid lead roles had been the too-handsome, somewhat cynical and exploitive flyboy who does good in the end. Again, Peckinpah’s ‘progression’ would see him go one better in Straw Dogs by totally reversing Hoffman’s pipsqueak-milksop image (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy) to vengeful killer. But in this the townspeople, organized in ambush by the railroad bosses, kill off half of Holden’s dozen men. Literally dozens, plural, of uncomprehending townsfolk caught in the crossfire are slaughtered — from old ladies and men, to kids — and Holden’s only regret is when he finds out the railroad has planted washers in the moneybags supposed to be full of gold coins.

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The central problem of the movie morally — if you look for morality in movies — is that the only three men painted as winners are also the most ruthless and destructive: Holden, his enforcer Ernest Borgnine, betraying something of a crush on the boss, and despicable railroad exec Albert Dekker, who makes Machiavelli look like Shirley Temple. Others in the gang, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, lowlifes as they are, display at least some sense of fair play and are ridiculed for it by their colleagues. Two more lowlifes in the characters played by Strother Martin and L Q Jones, in the pursuing posse led by Robert Ryan, provide comic relief and happily do not have the power or basic competence to inflict the destruction of Holden. They too are losers, tortured and killed by Comanches.

Holden, after years of alcoholism at 50, is a grotesque caricature of the pretty boy he was on screen from age 20 to 45. His character is said to be “the best” by Robert Ryan, playing his former outlaw partner, a figure of contempt to Peckinpah (and in the person of Dekker?) by being a hired man of the all-powerful railroad company and working for a man he hates, blackmailing him, holding him over a barrel under pain of being forced back to prison. But Ryan is only in this position because Holden messed up their last job and ducked out on him to save himself. Now Holden has failed again, but is still portrayed in the movie as the figure to be admired. Taking their rest and recreation at a Mexican whorehouse, it’s all Holden can do to flip a couple of pesos at his chosen one, a teenage solo mother with babe in arms.

With nowhere to go, at the very end in the celebrated climax, the four surviving of the Wild Bunch mow down many, many Mexican Federales — in slow motion, with a Gatling gun. They are the heroes because giving up their lives though for no discernible cause. (Underneath it all, the audience is supposed to know that these none-too-bright outlaws suddenly gain the insight that they have outlived their time, like Joel McCrea’s and Randolph Scott’s characters in Ride the High Country.) And Robert Ryan, still alive, is the loser, not willing to return to uphold the law on the terms he was forced to, and forced to be an outlaw with Wild Bunch hanger-on, old coot Edmond O’Brien, and doomed to constantly ride on the run.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN

In film, generational/fashion, ideology, sociology, television on May 5, 2013 at 10:22 pm

This is one of those articles you write when you’ve got nothing better to do on a stormy Auckland morning. The subject isn’t of much significance. Or is it? It has nothing to do with the Sc-Fi classic of the same name, c.1957, but maybe everything to do with the age we live in. I’m thinking that the sheer preponderance of shrunken men placed in the limelight these days has something to do with what women want today — females being the biggest force in spending power and determining who is box-office on screen, online, in social networking, in magazines: someone to tower over in image, in achievement, moral superiority as they do already, but finally too in actual physical dominance. Why else would tall women continue queuing up to marry Tom Cruise, perhaps the ‘biggest’ movie star of the past thirty years and by reputation at least, the shortest? Not to mention rather elfin-looking Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio who have been no shirkers in earning power by the lights of woman power.

Once upon a time in the movies — let’s limit it to talkies, so from c.1930 on — a man had to be six feet tall or faking it to be taken seriously as a ‘romantic’ star. It hadn’t been so in the 1920s, when silents were perfected as an art form. The art was in what the filmmaker chose to depict, for example a towering domineering character portrayed by a short actor like Douglas Fairbanks; or a backbiting comedic foil in 5ft-11 Flora Finch. A “tall” leading woman of early talkies, playing straight, was Katharine Hepburn, 5ft seven and a half. Then a decade later came Ingrid Bergman and a generation after, Sophia Loren, both a whole half inch taller. In late silents the dominant male was the Latin lover type, more stocky and lean-muscular, of whom Rudolf Valentino, 5ft-10 or -11, was probably tallest; John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, Antonio Moreno, Ricardo Cortez, Gilbert Roland and lesser stars of the genre were average to short.

In 1931, soon to be the most popular romantic male star of all, was Clark Gable, 6ft-1, his publicity said. Those who knew him whispered that The King was “a short 6ft-1” meaning he slouched an inch or so. There were Gary Cooper, nearing 6ft-3, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott the same; Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller in rather specialised roles, namely one — the reigning Tarzan and nothing else for 15 years. In the mid Thirties arrived smoothies Ray Milland and Fred MacMurray, in the same range; with Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant all 6ft-2, James Stewart 6ft-4. John “Duke” Wayne was 6ft-4 and a half but not a major star until the mid Forties. Sterling Hayden (6ft-5) was supposed to be a major star from the start but the war and left-wing stances derailed his career somewhat; and Rod Cameron at least that tall in westerns, but not much of a star, maybe C-grade, or an actor come to that. Fess Parker was that tall too, enough to play Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone without a stretch. Of course there were big stars supposed to be six foot by publicity but fell just short: Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, William Holden.

Of shrimpish early cowboys I have noticed only G. M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson going back to The Great Train Robbery (1903), and Thirties B-star Bob Steele, not seen for just how challenged he was until up against Forrest Tucker in F Troop on Sixties tv. The big exception to the rule was the studio of the Warner Brothers, who persisted for the first few years of talkies with short (and black-faced) song-and-dance star Al Jolson, squat hero Richard Barthelmess, and overreaching thespian John Barrymore, all ridiculously popular but whose combined salaries — nearly two million simoleons a year — were enough to almost bankrupt the company. Their new stars of the Thirties and Forties specialised in contemporary urban crime movies and still ranged from short to average height — average for a normal man of the time that is, six inches shorter than your average screen hero: Edward G Robinson, John Garfield, James Cagney, Paul Muni, George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, in ascending order but all 5ft-5 to 5ft-8. It was a studio that boasted even shorter character actors to make the pint-sized heroes look heroic: Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy; and perversely consigned all but Errol Flynn of its 6ft-2/3 squad to sub-star level: Basil Rathbone (a constant villain until he became the classic Sherlock Holmes), Patric Knowles (Will Scarlett), James Stephenson, John Ridgely (the commander in Air Force), Paul Henreid (suave continental — type 1), Conrad Veidt (continental villain — type 2), utilitarian heavies Ward Bond and Barton MacLane (The Maltese Falcon), Wayne Morris (promising all-American type cut off by the war), Alan Hale (Little John), Guinn Williams (Flynn’s sidekick in westerns), Bruce Bennett (Treasure of the Sierra Madre)– adding up to an awful lot of very tall men theoretically wasted for their potential physical presence on screen at one studio in one decade.

By the Fifties the crunch was on. Far fewer movies were being made by the big Hollywood studios, suffering competition from television, and new stars magnetic, talented and versatile enough to cover varied roles — and tall too — could be counted on one hand: Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston at 6ft-3 and Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster at 6ft-1. Victor Mature and Cornel Wilde were action men in this height range and popular for 15 years postwar, but gave the impression of filling in for the very top names; at the much lower level of the Saturday matinee, the Lex Barkers and Jock Mahoneys providing bulk product. A-list stars Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark, in typically big-man roles, had to stretch considerably to fill the screen. At a time when even 5ft-10 and a half or so was considered tallish for “the man in the street” (so called to distinguish him from real men on screen), Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Tony Curtis and Steve McQueen played men in the street at an inch or so under this height. But the most popular Western heroes on tv in the late Fifties and early Sixties strove to be six and a half feet tall and look effortless doing it. James Arness of Gunsmoke was said to be 6ft-7. Gunsmoke< His real-life brother, Peter Graves in Fury, was the runt of the family at 6ft-3. Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, was 6ft-6; Chuck Connors in The Rifleman, and Gardner McKay (Adventures in Paradise) 6ft-5; Eric Fleming as trail boss Gil Favor and Clint Eastwood as ramrod Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, both 6ft-4 at peak; ditto John Russell as Lawman and Tom Tryon (Texas John Slaughter). And James Garner, that little old man in the sitcoms, used to be 6ft-3 when he played Maverick. It was 55 years ago after all. And I too can testify to some shrinkage with age.

Strangely, of all tv stars, only Eastwood, Garner and Steve McQueen, arguably Tryon in a very brief stint, and later Burt Reynolds, went on to be movie stars — all coming from western series. Guy Williams (Zorro), 6ft-2, had to go to Italy to be fully appreciated in swashbucklers on the big screen, where the even taller Steve Reeves (Hercules) and Gordon Scott (Tarzan) were already superstar beefcake. The biggest star on the big screen through the late Fifties and early Sixties, Rock Hudson, was 6ft-5. But 5ft-9ers began to predominate: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen; and by late in the decade young up-and-comers (Michael Anderson, James Stacy, Mark Slade) were compact to the point where two 6ft-4 supporting actors were brought in as father figures to tower over everyone else in High Chaparral (Leif Ericson) and Lancer (Andrew Duggan).

In an atmosphere like this no wonder Alan Ladd, a western hero (Shane, 1953) but 5ft-6 and a half, felt such a misfit, so isolated and insecure as to be suicidal — pilloried in the States in contrast to Brit heroes John Mills and Richard Todd were visibly shorter but held aloft rising above their female co-stars on stilts. Ladd complained of Boy on a Dolphin (1957) that playing love scenes with Sophia was like being pummelled with melons. (Poor him!) And poor Richard Widmark, erect and lean — but 5ft-9 will only go so far — was acutely embarrassed and tried to withdraw from John Wayne’s production of The Alamo (1960) when he found out he was playing pioneersman and cutlery craftsman Jim Bowie — built like a brick teahouse and standing 6ft-6 in actuality. Wayne, producing and directing at the same time, was committed to playing the somewhat smaller role of Davy Crockett a lot taller: a sawed-off Crockett, of all icons, was not an option.

In an age of feminism thriving in the early Seventies, Dustin Hoffman (5ft-5) and Al Pacino (5ft-6) started the trend to conspicuously pixie-sized leading men — and let it all hang out up against taller leading women like Marthe Keller and Diane Keaton, though wisely never paired with amazons Sigourney Weaver or Geena Davis: a bridge too far of logistical illusion. Of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, none can be called above the average range, never mind tallish. My impression of Arnie’s height is more mind over matter. Black men, by contrast, were always expected to be of some physical menace, at least of strong implied authority, on the screen (but for comedians — Bert Williams, Flip Wilson, Eddie Murphy). So for Canada Lee, Noble Johnson, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards, Harry Belafonte, Brock Peters, Woody Strode, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Jim Brown, Yaphet Kotto the bar of just standing there 6ft was the lowest of hurdles they had to meet.

Today, of very tall actors I can think of Liam Neeson… and then there’s… Did I mention Liam Neeson? Maybe Daniel Day Lewis — playing Abe Lincoln, after all. Oh, and there’s that other guy who looks taller than average — can never remember his name, good actor — in that remake of Driving Miss Daisy with Shirley MacLaine playing a former president’s widow: Nicholas Cage. On tv, 6ft-3 and a half and 6ft-4, Vincent d’Onofrio and Jeff Goldblum on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, great actors but not all that stellar.

Hard to believe that men’s (perceived) height is still an imperative with many people, one way or the other. There are authoritative, convincing lists of heights of US presidents “proving” that the tallest ones — Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt — 6ft-4 down to 6ft-2 — were the greatest ones. And on dating sites, tall women of 5ft-11 short on brains insist on the inalienable right to wear their seven-inch heels and to still have a man that towers over them — the top 0.00001 percentile of men, that is. I’ve just discovered another secret of life — No wonder butt-ugly basketball players with just enough brains to get by on sports scholarships are so popular as breeding stock!

JAMES BOND: The Sky is Falling

In art, film, Humor on December 9, 2012 at 7:21 am

When my old friend (an occupational hazard of being friends for more than a quarter century) John is let off the leash by wife Bev he often drags me along to whatever man’s movie of the moment has caught his eye — and pays for me so I don’t have to break my vow of never paying to see a modern movie until they get some style; a little will do. He must have got the idea I was itching to watch any movie as I told him to be on the lookout for a re-release of Shane (1953), the unbeatable Western color classic I’d half-heard previewed on the radio. He doesn’t value the oldies as much as I do: They’re full of acting and dramatics, plotting, scene-setting and atmospherics rather than THE GREAT GOD TECHNOLOGY and cartoon theatrics, cartoon violence, cartoon sex.

I anticipated an Imax or 3-D version — but we haven’t been able to find it. Earlier this year it was the very, very lowkey remake of John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy about early Sixties Cold War espionage within MI6. This time it was Skyfall, about early millennium Cold War espionage within MI6. The poor Brit spy schools haven’t learnt much in the past 50 years…

To avoid ‘spoiling’ the whole thing for you action fans, and to save myself the trouble, I’ll just mention a few lowlights and points worth noting.

* Near the beginning of the movie Bond goes through some of the usual leaping from tall buildings, chase scenes in a car, chase scenes on foot, fighting on top of a train. Every time I see him make incredible leaps into nowhere and other physically impossible moves I think of the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Not that Bond should necessarily be remade as a cartoon character — though it would be more believable and a lot funnier that way — but what about that half-and-half filming process they did for Tin-Tin ? At least it wouldn’t insult the people in the audience with a three-digit IQ by asking them to believe that actual humans are capable of all this.

* Daniel Craig’s permanently pursed lips — like the moulded plastic of a marionette hero from Thunderbirds — are starting to get annoying. I always half expect him to come out with something totally inappropriate in the context of making love to a woman: “Kissy, kissy!”

Skyfall* Daniel Craig shouldn’t have such close-cropped hair. There were several sustained shots of him front-on in silhouette and it made me think of The Return of Batfink or Wingnut People Conquer the Universe rather than James Bond. I’m not being picky here because I have a very similar problem myself, only lower down.

* I’ve never understood the hullabaloo about Dame Judy Dench and (Lord?) Albert Finney. Here they’re both in their seventies and it’s nice to see the old dears still trotted out and mentally competent, but I’d swear their faces had seized up worse than Charles Bronson’s in Death Wish IV or V that I reviewed a few weeks ago.

* Potential spoiler alert here: Just when we’d reached a point in the plot where I thought we were coming to the end of the movie — no real disappointment that it didn’t end here because there was plenty of good action still to come. Bond has chased arch-villain Javier Bardem (probably the best performer in the flick) down into the London Underground aware that he’s going to take out Dame Judith. As Bardem is climbing a metal ladder to escape his pursuer, Bond pulls his handgun and fires two shots that ricochet off the rungs and miss his nemesis. Bardem stops dead, but instead of Bond finishing him off with a third shot he stops to watch and listen as Bardem grapples with his bomb detonating apparatus, takes a few precious moments to grasp it, and places his thumb over the whoopsie button. Then he takes his time and tells Bond, rapt as an attentive schoolkid, a cute story about this being his new toy — after Bond had shown off his new issue handgun and radio in a previous scene. It’s the kind of exchange where you had to be there. But because this Bond is something of an automaton (hasn’t every hero been since The Terminator?), apparently with the brain reaction of a slow one, half of London is about to be destroyed and Dame Judith is forced to take premature retirement.

* Bond’s incompetence is attempted to be ‘explained’ beforehand through much tiresome exposition by his months off boozing in mourning and he is supposedly out of shape — Didn’t look like it to me, and this plot device didn’t work.

MOVIE REVIEW: Malaya (1949) and the MGM Malaise

In comedy, film on November 17, 2012 at 6:51 am

Just after WWII the customary leading studio in Hollywood, MGM, was overtaken by Paramount, Fox and Warners in revenues. Parent company Loew’s of New York panicked, and in 1948 kicked out production head Louis B Mayer and brought in a new boss from RKO. Dory Schary kept MGM’s focus on its popular musicals for the most part, starring Judy Garland, Jane Powell, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire but right away added a new hard-hitting realism to its bow too — gritty war films like Battleground, film noir Force of Evil and Act of Violence, challenging social/racial mores in Intruder in the Dust, even a truthful western seen from the Red Man’s point of view, Devil’s Doorway, containing probably Robert Taylor’s outstanding career performance…

So what category to put Malaya into? Why even make it? Postwar audiences tended to cut down on the hokum, but for two highly lucrative sub-genres: Bing Crosby & Bob Hope comedies at Paramount, and Abbott & Costello comedies at Universal. Women’s pictures were still going strong with Greer Garson at MGM, Hollywood sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine feelancing, Ingrid Bergman under contract to David Selznick, Irene Dunne at RKO, and Bette Davis, Joan Crawford & Barbara Stanwyck at Warners.

But Malaya starred Spencer Tracy and James Stewart, neither very funny, and paired for once in their life. The superstars (both in the box-office top 10 at the time) play a pair of Americans — not much of a stretch — in an exotic land where the women wear sarongs. But there is no Dorothy Lamour, Maria Montez, Yvonne De Carlo or even Carmen Miranda in sight. The only woman in it is visiting continental femme fatale Valentina Cortese, here playing it straight as Tracy’s old flame but getting limited screen time. Spence and Jimmy (or in his own parlance, Jummy Shtoourt) are up against it with the local authorities. Beginning to sound familiar? — the premise of just about every Abbott & Costello and Bing-and-Bob flick ever made. Only in this case the authority is the Japanese Empire’s wartime army, whose bushido warriors were playing pin-the-head-on-the-POW with samurai swords a mere three or four years before this flick was made. I wouldn’t draw the parallel with the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope-Dorothy Lamour “Road” movies if the action wasn’t so hokey and thereby disrespectful to literally millions of defenceless people who lost their lives to these butchers whom this movie treats like laughable incompetents. In one scene stupid to the ultimate Spence, an unathletic 49-year-old who takes tiny steps when he’s “running” like he’s wrapped in a kimono and doesn’t want to fall over, nonetheless takes on five armed Jap soldiers with nothing but his bare fists and a laughable, geriatric jiu-jitsu kicking ‘leap’, and almost gets the better of them.

I think maybe Schary was humoring Tracy, who had expressed the yen to play two-fisted roles like when he was young, at Fox in the early Thirties. Stewart, for his part, left for Universal straight after this — and you can’t blame him — to get into his celebrated series of gritty westerns directed by Anthony Mann, and made a bundle from his profit participation deals. Tracy, with Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Walter Pidgeon and other old timers stayed for years longer at MGM on reliable but much smaller salaries. For the record, Sydney Greenstreet borrowed from Warners did best on screen here, in the last year of his life, and talented star character actors Gilbert Roland, Lionel Barrymore and John Hodiak were wasted as minor support players.

The movie was made in monochrome, not color, so it was not intended to be a blockbuster. But just what was it? At about the same time, 1949, MGM-British in London was filming Calling Bulldog Drummond with Walter Pidgeon, Margaret Leighton,Margaret_Leighton_1959 Robert Beatty as the heavy, David Tomlinson as Drummond’s sidekick Algie, and Bernard Lee as the arch villain. This was almost a B movie compared to the expensive “properties” in human form on show in Malaya. Yet, the “A” would have benefited immensely with deliciously talented Leighton (pictured) in it and comedic Tomlinson in place of Tracy — and Beatty instead of the Japs come to think of it.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to remake these movies digitally with just the right cast and retouches.

UGGOS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!: You have nothing to lose but your body image

In celebrity, film, Humor, music, television on November 15, 2012 at 7:46 am

This post is dedicated to the Susan Boyles of the world, and that big fat guy that Simon Cowell also ridiculed until he opened his mouth — then Cowell’s eyes sparkled with dollar signs; the Roy Orbisons, the Ernie Borgnines, Lee Marvins, Pat Hingles, Dennis Franzes, Charles Laughtons, Ed Begleys, Broderick Crawfords, Edward G Robinsons, Van Heflins, William Conrads, Linda Hunts, Kathy Bateses, Daniel Benzalis…

Even Rod Steiger, who was basically a good-looking guy but was told by a Hollywood producer, “Lose 40 pounds and I’ll make you a star.” Well, he made it anyway.

To Alan Ladd, a head shorter than the usual screen hunk, who was told by the director when playing a love scene in Boy on a Dolphin with Sophia Loren, “Ooh, that bruising’s terrible. Here, stand on this box and you won’t be bombarded in the face.”

To Phyllis Diller, who listened to some schmuck who said, “Hey, just get some plastic surgery and you’ll be cute” — and was never heard from again.

To Clark Gable, who pulled through as the hunk among a thousand babes at MGM, where he was at first dismissed with, “He’ll never amount to anything with those sugarbowl ears.”

To Fred Astaire, a human stick insect who made Jiminy Cricket look handsome, and went down in history as the screen’s most graceful male dancer.

To Judy Garland, ridiculed for a face that was anything but chocolate-box standard and a tendency to retain baby fat, and turned out to have more talent than any of them.

To Liza Minnelli, handicapped by being the daughter of Judy Garland mated with gifted but skunk-faced director Vincent Minnelli, and still made a worthwhile career.

To all the beautiful young women, fashion models, who were told by flamboyant men in charge who can’t appreciate their womanly curves, “Just a few more pounds, ducks” — and became junkies and/or died for it.

To those pretty boys Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, who ignored or made little of their own incredible good looks to prove they had talent.

To Michael Jackson who swallowed all the hype about Aryan looks and paid the ultimate price for it.

And to Marilyn Monroe, one of the most vibrant screen presences ever, who to win conventional stardom submitted to casting couches, nose job, chin implant… so life would be perfect.

Special mention must be made of the stars of British television, who can look like the hind quarters of a British bulldog and still win romantic leading roles on the small screen. Just two of the most popular: David Jason, all 5ft-5 of him, bug-eyed, bulbous-nosed, all set off by a David Lloyd George haircut and Sydney spiv hat — and as Detective Inspector Jack Frost of the Denton police, Thames Valley, harassed by multiple lovers from one series to the next. Hugely popular for forty years, he was most believable as comedic secret agent in the slapstick title role of The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs; less as a serious detective still pulling slapstick turns. And Zoe Wanamaker, very successful in the romantic stakes on tv though seemingly hampered by her father Sam’s oversized upturned nose and lacking her father’s large soulful eyes. Congratulations also to Jack Shepherd (Superintendent Wycliffe), overcoming his anteater nose, Kevin Whately (Inspector Lewis), ageing to look like Stan Laurel, Warren Clarke (Dalziel), bulldog by nature and visage, and innumerable other English and Scottish detectives blessed with characterful looks.

Merit Awards for Uggos in American film genres: general purpose misfits Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore; Eli Wallach, Jack Elam, Neville Brand, Bruce Dern, Warren Oates, Strother Martin, L. Q. Jones for bushwhackers and trail scum; so-ugly-they’re-a-thing-of-beauty Lee Marvin, James Coburn, Lee Van Cleef; hoodwinkers, desert rats and down-and-out gentlemen Charles Coburn, Sydney Greenstreet, Fredric March, Dan Duryea, Albert Dekker, Ralph Bellamy and Edmond O’Brien.

MOVIE REVIEW — DEVOTION (1946) & DECEPTION (1947): WB Hokum and Pure Class

In film, morality on November 14, 2012 at 10:07 am

Ida_Lupinomid1940sThese two were recently on Turner Classic Movies and show what tripe and pure class a great studio like Warner bros was capable of almost in the same breath. I read somewhere that Devotion was made in 1943 but not released for three years. I suppose Deception was made within months of the other’s first airing. But that, and the peculiarly close resonance of the title words with each other, is all they have in common. Oh, and both feature that peculiarly German Frenchman Paul Henreid (Paul von Hernreidt) as the object of desire… WB’s all-purpose continental leading man in the war years: see also all-time classics Notorious opposite Bette Davis, and Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman, both from 1942.

Devotion, according to its “coming attractions” studio promos in picture theatres of the day, purported to be the story of four highly talented people — but only “two geniuses”. I’m hoping they meant Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights) BronteOlivia_de_Havilland_in_Devotion_trailer — see second photo — as the two geniuses, because Arthur Kennedy who played Bramwell Bronte and Nancy Coleman who played Anne Bronte were second leads through their careers. Bramwell comes across like an overdone obnoxious egotist, and Anne the indulgent butt of his bullying. They were probably best in Some Came Running (1958) as the small-town lawyer — and Frank Sinatra’s brother — and the secretary who loves him.

Actually, I’ve never watched the movie right through, and this time was no exception, mainly because it portrays two genuine literary geniuses as idle, dreamy girls with nothing better to do than to compete for the hand of the lovely Paul, who plays a nondescript curate (but you can tell he’d make a great male model in modern times). Considering all the Brontes barely lived to maturity — and maturity in those days was in your twenties, no wearing streetkid caps on backwards pretending in your forties — it’s a wonder any of them had time to lift a quill pen never mind compose multiple novels. In this Ida Lupino (top, as Charlotte) comes off best over Olivia de Havilland (above, as Emily), and Paul — well, he’s so upright suffering through how to announce the bad news to the unlucky one.

Avoid, unless you’re not serious about films and are into early Victoriana.

Deception is an extremely adult filmBetteDavis_PaulHenreidin Deception — and by that I don’t mean the penises are extremely long and the boobs extremely huge. It is adult in a way that is probably way over the heads of most modern audiences — full of complex motives, delicate and (inwardly) raging feelings, subtle, undermining mind games thrown up by a world of true artistic passion that doesn’t exist anymore and is beyond most people’s comprehension. It is the immediate postwar world, still unsettled by the European holocaust affecting all. Paul Henreid barely escaped his native Poland and has finally made it to America, years after fellow music student Bette Davis arrived. Paul is almost a broken man but still a performing genius on the cello. Bette traces him in New York where his tour has finally arrived — yes, he’s a concert cellist but it takes much more than massive talent to make it in America, so Bette tells him. (In fact, you probably have a better shot at fame equipped with exactly the opposite of massive talent these days.) It takes powerful contacts and pzazz coming out of every pore, Bette intimates — maybe like Simon Cowell and his latest discovery. (So have things changed so much?)

Bette still loves him of course — he’s much better looking and much younger than the alternative. Slowly, Paul comes to suspect Bette is more than just a struggling music teacher — he can tell by the jewellery, expensive furnishings, lavish parties… And maybe her obscenely wealthy much older friend who keeps throwing jealous tizzies over herClaude_Rains_in_Notorious_trailer — and he’s a modern genius of a classical composer played superbly by Claude Rains — is more than just a fatherly mentor. He doesn’t do it for her physically, but he’s just invested so much time and money as her possessive sugar daddy it’s not funny. The marvellous interplay between Rains and Davis has to be seen, over and over if you can… Rains’ performance as a frustrated, bitter old cuckold driven to evil (though he’s such a self-centred egoist it didn’t take much to push him over the edge) must surely be definitive, even over that of James Mason, another master of the type.

MOVIE REVIEW — MGM Double Feature: High Wall (1947) and Crisis (1950)

In film, morality on November 12, 2012 at 5:59 am

I watched these two in sequence late last night on Turner’s Classic Movie channel and had seen neither of them before. Each was an eye-opener in its own way.

High Wall was like a Forties B-movie but just kept going on and on long after it was supposed to finish. I’d never seen a Curtis Bernhardt-directed film as unconvincing as this one during his Warners period. I’m giving the credited screenwriters (Sydney Boehm & Lester Cole, he of the Hollywood Ten) who took the blame for this the benefit of the doubt too, assuming it was “doctored” beyond their control — ditto playrights Clark & Foote — and weren’t able to take their names off it; ditto Bernhardt. The A-movie cast, led by Robert Taylor with Audrey “Hotsy Totsy” TotterAudrey_Totter_in_The_Postman_Always_Rings_Twice_trailer and Herbert Marshall, was a puzzle too. It wasn’t as if MGM had finished with Taylor, apparently their taken-for-granted, underpaid big star by reliable accounts. He was only 35 and still had Quo Vadis?, Ivanhoe and more color spectaculars to come years after this one. Maybe because film noir was “in” they thought they would shove him into one, no matter how bad. Suffice to say here that Taylor’s character was so poorly written, Audrey’s one so dumbly devoted to him and Dorothy Patrick so sluttish as his wife (and hysterically overplayed at that) that it was very hard not to root for evil villain Herbert Marshall as the only one at least intelligent enough to know what was good for him.

Taylor is a hero flyer come home from the war to long-strayed sexy wifie who’s playing up with well-to-do editor Herbert. Taylor’s in the middle of throttling her on the spot at Herbert’s place when he blacks out — and wakes to find her dead. He’s placed in an asylum where hot psychiatrist Totter (dressed to the nines from head to foot so you just know she’s a suppressed volcano about to blow) takes a shine to him, and evidently has instant designs on Taylor, taking his 6-year-old son into her home. Everyone but her thinks he’s faking to get out of prison time. After a brain operation he seems to improve — but threatens to kill girlfriend Audrey (but she likes it rough, much preferable to nice doctor Warner Anderson) unless she smuggles him out so he can stalk Herbert, moving his furniture around so he knows that he knows. Taylor stays up all night fully dressed back at the hospital expecting him to call around on a casual visit to try to buy him off — and when he does in the morning and straight out confesses to murdering his wife, whom Taylor didn’t care about anyway, Taylor leaps on him like a mad dog and beats the shit out of him in front of everyone and thus jeopardizes ever receiving custody of his son. He’s dragged off Herbert and is hauled away foaming at the mouth, getting just one of the really stupid scenes over and done with.

Still, on escaping yet again to Herbert’s house — with seemingly the city’s entire police force out after the mad murderer Taylor — Audrey is the one who tracks him down. They somehow trick Herbert into taking sodium pentathol (truth serum) — can’t remember how this bit is contrived, thankfully — and the next we see is Taylor, the shoot-on-sight crim, interrogating Herbert and getting a full confession out of him conveniently as the police detectives and DA’s assistants have all arrived round at Herbert’s place just on cue, watching placidly.

An interesting cameo is by Elizabeth Risdon, an English superstar in the early days of silents, who plays Roberts longsuffering mom.

If this is a boy’s cops-and-robbers idea of a thriller of the period, then three years later we have an amazingly modern thriller, a triumph written and directed by young Richard Brooks on debut. If Crisis seems superficially like one of those Alfred Hitchcock thrillers where Cary Grant (or James Stewart) gets caught in an inescapable jam and spends the rest of the movie getting out of it, then it is done with an aura of overwhelming realism without any of the silly Hitchcock tricks or contrived coincidences — save for the very last scene.

Cary Grant, 46 at the time, is a neurosurgeon on vacation with wife lovely Paula Raymond (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms!, 1953), 25, in an Ibero-American country with a revolution about to blow. They are kidnapped by government police led by colonel Antonio Moreno (Latin lover from Hollywood silents) and taken to the palace of el presidente Jose Ferrer,Jose_Ferrer_in_Crisis_trailer acting everyone else off the screen, who will die of his brain tumor if not saved by Cary. On hand to assist are US ambassador Leon Ames and nice doctor Ramon Novarro (Latin lover from Hollywood silents). But in the meantime Paula is re-kidnapped by revolutionary leader Gilbert Roland (Latin lover from Hollywood silents) with the threat that she will not survive if el presidente does survive. Jose’s operation does succeed and so does the revolution… Guess what happens next! Will anyone survive the machinations of oh-so-courteous but coldly, calculatingly evil Mrs Presidente Signe Hasso?

Unbelievably, the cops and robbers get a higher rating at the International Movie Database site than the intelligently executed, believable thriller.

MOVIE LEGENDS — THE THREE GREAT BITCHES (of the screen): Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis

In celebrity, film on November 4, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Joan_Crawford_in_Rain_4Yes, they were complete, consummate actresses and had other strings to their bows, well able in the same scene, even the same line, to switch to sympathetic — though, significantly, none of the three could play out-and-out comedy convincingly. But these three icons of the big screen through the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and into the Sixties will always be remembered for their “strong women” roles and as bitches par excellence. All had eyes that could kill with a glance, their mouths set perpetually (and looking sexiest) between a sneer and a snarl, and the square-shouldered, intimidating bearing that might make large men wither and admit defeat. Their star careers were long — very, very long for those days when a woman both talented and glamorous might not last more than five years or so at peak popularity: Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Barbara LaMarr, Dolores Del Rio, Fay Wray, Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, Ruth Chatterton, Sylvia Sidney, Jean Harlow, Kay Francis, Elissa Landi, Mae West, Jeanette MacDonald, Alice Faye, Veronica Lake, Linda Darnell. Each of the three went on in lead roles for 40 years or more before stepping down to semi-retirement. And their ever-presence on the screen belittled the moderate impact of all the politically correct, thoroughly civilised posing of “emancipated women” Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell, who in comparison looked like tame graduates from an assertiveness course and might feel faint, definitely repulsed, at the mention or even thought of visceral emotions and impetuous behavior.

Of course the epithet “bitch” was assumed by many to translate to offscreen character too. Bette, demanding quality from all around her, ruffled more than a few tradesmen’s feathers on Hollywood film sets. But she would hardly have lasted her 17 years at the Warner studio (and been forgiven so many times by the Warner brothers) had she been the tyro many claimed. Many friends and coworkers balance out the claims Joan’s adopted daughter made about her tyrannical nature in Mommie Dearest. She was certainly professional and exacting, but most demanding of herself and the most devoted to her fans, answering all her mail personally or putting that touch to replies from secretaries she hired when the going got heavy — thousands of letters a month. But she was not openly rebellious, accepting the fact that though she might be at times the most popular female star in America, at her home studio for more than 15 years, MGM, she sat third in favoritism with no powerful exec to champion her interests. There were enough good roles to go around. Of the three jungle fighters, Barbara was the only one with the guts to freelance outside the shelter of a big home studio where work and good publicity were guaranteed. So she was actually absolutely unique in Hollywood — with not a single peer — among top or even medium stars, men and women, who all chose safety. Showing an uncanny confidence and business sense of her own commercial worth, she started in lead roles at Columbia at 21 (in 1929), and soon shared herself with Warners fifty-fifty. By the end of the Thirties she had worked at RKO, Fox, Paramount, MGM and United Artists too: all five major studios in the movie business and the two almost-majors. (Universal, the only other Hollywood production company occasionally aspiring to bigger things, was then almost of no account. Stanwyck dipped her toe in the water there in 1943 for a half-hour episode of Flesh and Fantasy, for which Universal stretched itself, the probable attraction being similarly imported leading man Charles Boyer.) She was equalled only by swearing-like-a-trooper Carole Lombard by coworkers in her down-to-earth reputation as a “regular guy”: uncoincidentally, another major star who got there by solid professionalism, consistent high craftsmanship and well-applied talent, not box-office hots.

Joan Crawford was the first to arrive, a leggy brunette — the tallest of the three at 5ft-3 and a half (sic) — by 1928, three years into her contract at MGM, a superstar at 24. In some of the last silent blockbuster spectacles she played an uncontrollable “flapper”, “jazz baby” and perpetual-motion dancer. When Joan was named the no.1 US box-office star of 1930, male or female — but on a factory treadmill and bringing in just $1,000 a week at the same studio that was paying Greta Garbo $250,000 per movie per year — blonde Barbara was starting in mature leading roles. Stanwyck worked hard freelancing — four starring roles a year at $50,000 a pop. This was a top fee for the day — the same that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert earned for all-time Oscar-hauler It Happened One Night (1934), and double what Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland would each get for the marathon Gone With the Wind (1939) production. Only Garbo and Dietrich negotiated much more than this per film in the early Thirties, on special deals to keep them in Hollywood and away from Europe where they were supremely popular (and Mae West, also rationed to one movie a year). Stanwyck fast earned a reputation with respectful film crews for cussing with the best on set, and as an actress in early talkies Barbara was rated among the top five women in Hollywood — “never brilliant and never lousy”, and never coming to rate in overwhelming box-office drawing power with Joan and Bette. At 29, as Stella Dallas, 1937, she would play a frumpy mother with a marriageable daughter — a gutsy move for the image-conscious Hollywood of the day. Bette showed up from Broadway, arriving with her mother on the train (a four-day transcontinental journey), Xmas 1930, and at first contracted to Universal was soon an impressive lead. BetteDavis1932In a year, requested by veteran English star George Arliss as his leading lady at Warners, Bette’s name was made. But she still had a long row to hoe to get her home studio to give her the roles worthy of her immense talent — called the greatest ever actress in any medium by so many of her peers.

From there, in Quigley’s 1931 roundup of box-office attractions in the US, in a top 10 dominated by seven women Joan came behind only sweet-girl-next-door Janet Gaynor, and ahead of Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore and Greta Garbo. The next year Dressler moved up and Joan was still third overall. Subsequently, she was sixth of the women in 1933; then regained third spot behind Gaynor and blowzy sexpot Mae West; and finally for the next two years was top woman (disregarding poppet Shirley temple unbeatable at no.1 overall). Though Joan played the prostitute central character in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932) — see first photo at top left — tempting too-upright man of the cloth Walter Huston, and Barbara had occupied the skins of many questionable types too, maybe fiery redhead Bette was first to play the out-and-out vixen type with a vengeance in Cabin in the Cotton and the following year on loan to RKO, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1934), as an ultimately conniving guttersnipe tormenting nice, desperate Leslie Howard, an over-accommodating artist made insecure by his club foot and settling as her human doormat. That was her Oscar role but she won it instead for Dangerous the year after as consolation: an alcoholic actress making amends to Franchot Tone. A good production of The Petrified Forest starting 1936, again with Leslie Howard facing Bogie this time, was an isolated event in a series of nothing roles as in Parachute Jumper, a distasteful memory she took to the grave with her 50 years later. She refused assignment after crummy assignment, eventually passed on to the Joan Blondells, Glenda Farrells or Lane sisters who usually made something attractive out of these lower-budget projects. Jack Warner put her on suspension without pay and she escaped to England. There, studio boss Jack Warner defeated her in court and restarted her $650-a-week wage — hardly more than 14-year-old Bonita Granville, the studio’s girl detective in the Nancy Drew series; about one sixth of what less-accomplished Loretta Young was getting at Fox. Marked Woman released in spring 1937, playing a razor-slashed prostitute testifying against her kid sister’s gangster murderer, set her roles on an upward climb. Still, she was lucky to survive in the business climate of Warners during the Depression, production budgets being so constricted that the same kind of glossy sophistication attained by MGM, Paramount, even RKO (and both the last two studios had been forced into receivership for a time), wasn’t possible and prestigious stars whose forte was high class settings were let go in accordance with the policy of financial boss Harry Warner in New York: first Constance Bennett (paid an eye-watering $30,000 a week by Warners for two films early in the decade), then Ruth Chatterton (the “Queen of the Warner Bros lot” when Bette first arrived in 1931), then classy soap queen Kay Francis, still retaining impressive top 40 popularity unlike the first two, in 1937.

Joan Crawford is unique in moviedom — a one-off — at the forefront in pictures through three contrasting periods of history. In the Twenties she appealed as the party girl in carefree times; in the Thirties she defied the Great Depression and women fans loved to see her suffering in mink and pretended that she was, after all, one of us; and through and post-war she was the independent woman more than pulling her weight in factory jobs and wiping that lock of hair off her face to look pretty enough for her man. But in the meantime Joan was missing out on plum roles too, with Norma Shearer, the late boss’s wife, ahead of her in the pecking order at MGM, then Garbo. She got some good roles opposite (and had a fling with) Clark Gable, and married lower-case star Franchot Tone, who after a few years got sick of being referred to after the main event — as Mr Joan Crawford. She slipped out of the coveted box-office top 10, and quickly settled into the bottom half of the top 50 — not as far as her competitors Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn had dropped (both of whom, to their credit, would also revive to reinvent themselves by changing studio). The pressure was on Joan to deliver on a salary of $400,000 p.a. in 1937, one of the highest in Hollywood and now for just two movies a year. It was only in the early Forties when both Shearer and Garbo retired and the roles didn’t get any better — supplanted as she was now by Greer Garson, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner — that she elected to leave for Columbia to reestablish herself on a fraction of her previous fee. Then in 1944, turning 40, Joan Crawford was snapped up by Warners, amazingly back in the majors at an age when prettier and arguably more talented actresses were out the back door. Bette Davis was queen here at “the studio of working stiffs” where talent and not looks was king, and had long since overtaken Joan through a long series of classic roles 1938-44: Jezebel and Dark Victory to Queen Elizabeth I, at 30 ingeniously playing Old Queen Bess — see photo;Bette_Davis_in_The_Private_Lives_of_Elizabeth_and_Essex_trailer_cropped The Letter, as a prize bitch who murders her lover at the cost of another indulgent husband, Herbert Marshall; The Great Lie, a brilliant collaboration with Mary Astor; The Little Foxes, one of several women’s masterpieces — Herbert was her victim again — under director William Wyler (with whom she had more than a fling); then Now Voyager as an uggo-turned-swan still finding her wings, romanced by Paul Henreid; Watch on the Rhine surrounded by Nazi fifth columnists in wartime USA, with Paul Lukas as the European Resistance organiser (that Henreid was in Casablanca) and villainous George Coulouris; Old Acquaintance, with old, detested acquaintance Miriam Hopkins — Bette said she was the “most thoroughgoing bitch” offscreen since sweet Nancy Carroll; and taking Mr Skeffington (Claude Rains) for granted in favor of shinier wooers. She had just turned 36 and had done it all. There was no one to match her versatility, influence on acting style and sheer domination of the screen until Brando in the Fifties. Never absolute tops at the box-office as Joan Crawford had been a decade earlier, Bette was nonetheless top woman in a male-dominated top 10 from 1939 to 1941 inclusive. In 1942, the USA’s first year in the war, she was overtaken as a movie screen attraction by GI pin-up material Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour; Ann Sheridan hard on her heels, with Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner making their plays too. Alice Faye was making a comeback, and voluptuous blonde Betty Hutton just emerging. There was only English rose Greer Garson anywhere near even aspiring to her league in the serious acting stakes, and vastly to her credit against the odds Bette hung on until finally dropping out of the box-office top 15 (counting men and women) — fourth among women — two years after the war ended.

Through the latter Forties, “Crawford vs Davis” was embedded in popular culture as the rivalry of two great tragediennes, not least by Warner Bros’ own caricatures of them going head to head in Looneytunes animated shorts that also popularized the images of their top urban tough guys, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Bogie. A director who knew both women well on and off screen contrasted them accurately while linking them at the same time, characterizing Crawford as down-to-earth offscreen and taking on the diva as an acting persona, conscious of her looks and flattering camera angles, and Davis as the starrish diva offscreen and sacrificing all glamor for the realistic portrayal onscreen.

Some of Barbara’s best-regarded movies came in a rush, high comedy, three of them in 1941 alone: The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda under mercurial writer-director Preston Sturges at Paramount; Meet John Doe, one of Frank Capra’s one-man-and-his-girl-against-the-world efforts (Warners); and Ball of Fire, again with Gary Cooper, this time at Goldwyn studios. In these sophisticated comedies Stanwyck did pretty well but tended to look like a fill-in for someone who wasn’t available, Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard being the ideal; Rosalind Russell or Myrna Loy in a pinch. No way could Barbara approach the touching performances of highly sensitive Jean Arthur, ministering and nursemaiding to Cooper/James Stewart as her deflated idealist boyfriend at the mercy of big politics in films of the capraesque style already perfected by the director at Columbia through the latter 1930s. Lady of Burlesque (1943), now at United Artists directed by William Wellman, was a fast-paced backstage murder mystery with strong comedy relief in which Barbara, like Joan, got to show off her dancer’s legs. In writer-director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), helped by Raymond Chandler in crafting this into the pinnacle of film noir, she played a bitch who gets hers in the end from boyfriend Fred MacMurray, both trying to fool insurance investigator Edward G Robinson. BarbaraStanwycks1940sIt was made for Paramount and she had been playing the studios at their own pick-and-mix game for years, parlaying her spitfire on-screen presence and reliability into a prime position with producers though her box-office was just sound even in her best years, rarely the sole centre of attention in a blockbuster as Joan and Bette were. Her compensation: She was the highest paid woman in America that year, just ahead of Bette. Now in the latter Forties all three would be predominantly at the superior talent factory that was Warners, suddenly overloaded with bitches. In 1945 they gave Joan her favorite role of all, Mildred Pierce, and it was said to be outdrawing Bette’s current project as a teacher in the Welsh valleys (The Corn is Green) at theatres on the all-important Eastern Seaboard three to one. In 1947, just as Bette dropped out of Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald‘s “official” top 25 stars list, Joan and Barbara made their comebacks to the list, their first appearances since the mid 1930s: both ranking in the top half dozen female stars most seen on screen. Other drama queens at the studio hardly got a look in: Olivia de Havilland, finally breaking through to the fringe of top 20 (fifth among women stars) to join her Warners sisters, left for lack of roles after taking many studio-enforced suspensions as Bette had the previous decade; Lauren Bacall, missing the polls entirely, took a much leaner schedule to bear kids and look after husband Bogie; Jane Wyman switched from comedy to drama at other studios, to rank high in the mid Fifties; and Ida Lupino finally quit in favor of directing.

Warners tried Joan out at the rate of $167,000 for just one film a year to test the water — and the water was fine. From 1946 came boffo box-office in Humoresque, as an alcoholic who walks into the ocean when neglected by concert violinist John Garfield — a famous concert artist stuffing his hand up a false sleeve did the fingering on the frets; then Possessed, murdering Van Heflin when he doesn’t requite her lust; on loan to Fox under Otto Preminger, as Daisy Kenyon, fashion designer fought over by Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews; in 1949 back at Warners, sympathetic for Flamingo Road under Michael Curtiz as a down-and-out carnival dancer but getting Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet and David Brian to dance to her tune. She was 45 and the legs and the rest were holding up fine. In 1950 she freelanced at Columbia as Harriet Craig, one of her defining bitches, castrating husband Wendell Corey; then five years later as the Queen Bee, and Barry Sullivan was the gelding doing servitude.

Towards the end of the Forties, when resident tall, slimline beauty Alexis Smith was tiring and sultry wise-cracking brunette Janis Paige was found to be not what the public wanted in airhead musicals, Warners started to invest in gay perky young blonde things hardly showing a brain in their heads, June Haver — borrowed from Fox for two films — and Doris Day, quickly proving a long-term winner. Bette had taken till 1941 to climb to a respectable star wage ($252,333 that year) and elevated herself to a massive $365,000 a year by 1948 — the huge majority of it going in tax in the era of post-war austerity — just as her popularity was dipping at Warners through lack of good vehicles again. That year was Barbara’s fourth Oscar nomination, for Sorry Wrong Number at Paramount: a demanding invalid wife and younger husband Burt Lancaster trying to bump her off; but her next really good one, between her enthusiastic Commie-hunting projects off screen, was Fritz Lang masterpiece Clash By Night (RKO, 1952) and a great ensemble performance again cheating on hubby, this time painfully unaware working man Paul Douglas, with virile desperado Robert Ryan. (It had Marilyn Monroe’s best early role too, a demanding one.) That year Barbara and her husband, her previous leading man when visiting MGM, Robert Taylor, called it quits, she having been the senior partner four years older and admittedly the less pretty one. A positive quality was her sympathy for younger performers — Marilyn Monroe calling her the only one of older generation actresses who supported her. Yet in contradictory mode she could be the hardest-nosed of the three, estranging herself from her adopted son, 19. At the same time she joined the virulently “anti-communist” faction in Hollywood for “the preservation of American ideals”. Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn had dragged herself up by her bootstraps, as she saw it, to be Barbara Stanwyck — so even in youth had opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, somehow as the myth goes believing that all other poor people could follow in her footsteps.

Bette quit Warners to be in a good drama — over at Fox, All About Eve. She was 42 and showing every well-earned wrinkle. She was too insecure to back herself, taking flat fees ($130,000 for that one) and ending up with a fraction of what other stars got for participation deals out of profits. At the same time her old rival Katharine Hepburn, for African Queen, was taking $130,000 plus 10%; Bogart close to a million eventually for his part; and elsewhere, Cary Grant and John Wayne on half a million, James Stewart in rugged westerns on $600,000, even young Jane Russell on $400,000 with not much more than two assets to show off on screen.

JoanCrawford-colour1950Joan at 50 and Barbara nearing the mark still had the stuff to be glamorous-kinky, usually going after younger men, and both took to rather stylized, erotic westerns in the mid 1950s: Joan just once, maybe impressed by Marlene Dietrich’s outing in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, set in glorious technicolor at age 51. (Note this was at a time in Hollywood when the number of glamor girls aged over 35 and still on screen could be counted on one hand without a thumb.) She starred for auteur Nicholas Ray in Johnny Guitar (1954), romancing all 6ft-5 of Sterling Hayden, made well by tiny cheapskate studio Republic. The technicolor did well for Joan too, not much for vindictive villainess Mercedes McCambridge in a scenery-chewing triumph (later using her gruff voice as the demon’s in The Exorcist, 1973). Barbara starred in a whole slew of westerns through mid decade: Blowing Wild, doing the dirty on Gary Cooper with Anthony Quinn; Cattle Queen of Montana, bossing “Little Ronnie” Reagan (actually his nickname at Warners, said Bette); The Violent Men, a rare good one double-crossing Edward G Robinson for Glenn Ford and Brian Keith (and dismissing young and beautiful Dianne Foster with one imperious sweep of her hand); The Maverick Queen, a cheapie at Republic, this time tricked by Pinkerton detective Barry Sullivan, envied by heavy Scott Brady (this time the beauteous ingenue was Mary Murphy from Brando’s The Wild One); Trooper Hook, a thoughtful subject as a mother and prisoner of Native Americans, rescued by Joel McCrea; and Forty Guns, as a ranchowner again, protecting outlaw brother Barry Sullivan, fairly good under writer-director Sam Fuller. She was 50 and quit films. She took someone’s bad advice and died her hair grey hoping to pass as platinum blonde — it didn’t, and aged her overnight.

Bette came from the starchy New England thespian tradition and didn’t fancy long months in desert locations though she committed herself to guest spots on two of the very best westerns on weekly tv, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke, and her remaining good roles were as old hags, to say it frankly: The Virgin Queen as Elizabeth I again but made in England (1955), this time losing Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) to Joan Collins, having 16 years earlier done in the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) over Olivia de Havilland; underestimated kitchen-sink drama The Catered Affair (1956) from the play by Paddy Chayevsky, adapted by Gore Vidal and directed by Richard Brooks, Bette as the frumpy working-class mother of the bride and co-starring Ernest Borgnine as her henpecked New York cab-driver husband and great support from Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald and Rod Taylor; and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 when she met up with Joan for the first and last time. Warners got its money’s worth when audiences had trouble till the end figuring out who was the biggest bitch up on screen killing off everyone and everything including a pet parrot, broiled. They were still legends but hardly irresistible draws to theatres anymore and going into the project skeptical Bette took $60,000 up front plus 5% of profits to come, if any; Joan took a risk on a $30,000 fee followed by a big 15% of surprise earnings — ending up almost as rich as Liz Taylor was to be soon with $1 million from her two years’ work as Cleopatra.

They were supposed to meet up again in something similar, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965) but Joan begged off ill at the last moment and Bette got her old Warners protegee Olivia de Havilland to step in. Joan had had her fill of horror by now, apparently caught hacking people’s heads off in low-budget Straight Jacket and romancing jailbate newcomer Lee Majors at the same time. Barbara, always a good mate of Joan off screen (both had been raised dirt poor, one in Hell’s Kitchen, the other in San Antonio), was a tv western star in The Big Valley, which ran from 1965 to ’68, Barbara_Stanwyck_Victoria_Barkley_Big_Valley_1968and got her frustrations out dressed in black leather and wielding a riding crop at offspring Lee Majors (Was he recommended specially by Joan?) and Linda Evans of future Dynasty fame. Preparing for the role, appearing late ’64, Barbara got her kicks on the big screen molesting Elvis in Roustabout, and reportedly in the dressing room on that gig, veteran costumier Edith Head.

Oh ho-hum, just another day in Hollywoodland.

MOVIE REVIEW — DEATH WISH V: Geriatric Dementia (1994)

In film on October 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm

I had only seen the Death Wishes I & II up till tonight and I suppose I should have anticipated the deterioration three entries on. No jokes about this bringing on a Death Wish for me or sapping my will to live, but a little over an hour into it I switched over to NYPD Blue. I’m sorry I waited that long because I missed the intro and and then some — and in the nightly reruns they’re just up to the stage where Russell has left to find herself and Charlotte Ross has yet to start a relationship with Sipowicz. (I personally like Dennis Franz as an actor but Sipowicz’s effortless — often reluctant — success with beautiful young women one after the other stretches credulity. It seems to follow the English pattern of casting where they put a plain-looking but good actor in to play a sex symbol and expect him or her to work miracles of suspension-of-disbelief on the part of the viewer.)

PrintIn that limited time, in fact in the first 15 minutes, I could see that Kersey, played by 73-year-old Charles Bronson in his 40th year in starring roles, had lost it. About to marry beautiful fashionista Lesley Anne Down, who is only 40 here, he seems to sleepwalk into situations that the early Kersey would have dealt with with ruthless aplomb. Lesley, who won a custody case years before for daughter Chelcie over her ex, sociopathic mob leader Michael Parks, is about to testify against him. Kersey/Bronson has already seen what this guy and his minions are capable of, having left a pool of congealed blood on the factory floor from a victim who crossed them. Yet, when Parks and his stooges follow him and Lesley into a restaurant and Lesley spends far too long powdering her nose all Kersey can raise the energy to do is lift his watch and look irritatedly at it every now and again. Was that irritation? — Bronson’s face was so immobile by now that it’s hard to tell. To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he was still depressed over the death of wife Jill Ireland three or four years before — I would be.

Parks’ cross-dressing henchman deals to Lesley’s lovely face (she was once voted the world’s most beautiful teen) by bashing it into the ladies’ room mirror three times. Kersey is in time to catch her as she collapses from loss of blood and accompanies her to the plastic surgery ward though it is known she will be disfigured for life. Finally, he reacts by going to his home safe and getting his trusty handgun. Unfortunately, he forgets to use it for quite a while. He suspects his friend the district attorney’s phone is tapped and is sharp enough not to tell him over the phone that Lesley will still be testifying, but is stupid enough to go round to his house and tell him — thinking it makes a difference. Of course, when the bad guys come round to eliminate Lesley, Kersey is left holding (well, not his gun) in his hand — and instead throws a vase at three men wielding machine guns and shotguns. They kill Lesley while Kersey, apparently still in great physical shape, throws himself off their building in a swan dive (to land on a well-placed mountain of garbage bags), just in time to cradle Lesley’s bloodsoaked head as she expires. He forgets to register any emotion in this scene, even vaguely pissed off.

Back home Chelcie tells him casually, “I’m going to miss Mom.” The next morning, resisting prostration from grief, Kersey is out taking a bracing jog through beautiful snowlined streets — I guess to keep in shape — can’t backslide on exercise — and they say it’s especially good for warding off depression. The horrible men show up to claim Chelcie and Kersey gets clubbed with a chunk of his own firewood. This is the limit! Yes, they can mutilate and murder my wife, steal my child from my home… But now they’re out of line! And next we see Kersey happily playing with a remote control soccer ball in a toystore. At least, he raises a faint smile now that the expendable members of the family are out of the way, enough to show that he’s back in his element devising elaborate revenges.

I only saw fragments of the rest of it — including how head baddie Michael Parks got his — but I am well able to resist spoiling it for anyone out there who might be in the least interested in watching this movie. The sad part is that Chelcie will have to spend the next 10 years being raised by a psycho mob family — because Kersey couldn’t move himself in time either to marry her mother.

MOVIE REVIEW — MacKenna’s Gold a remake of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World?

In film, literature on October 13, 2012 at 1:39 am

JulieNewmarWhen I first saw MacKenna’s Gold (1969) I was 13 or 14 and thought it was a classic — great special effects and sound effects for the Sixties, visuals for the earthquake at the end that buries all that gold. And it had other elements a kid moviegoer wanted. Even kind of a happy though cheesy twist ending reminiscent of the Sixties’ James Bond series, where the guy and the girl survive to live happily ever after with saddlebags full of gold. These days the romantic charms of Julie Newmar and Camilla Sparv are about the only ones that stack up, along with the theme tune as sung by Jose Feliciano and narrative by Victor Jory. And their fights over Gregory Peck with knives, whips, cat-wrestling in a big pond, show a piquant hint of sado-masochism (though admittedly I didn’t think about lithe young women in those terms then).

Six-foot-three Greg Peck — here dwarfed by six-nine Ted Cassidy of “Lurch” fame in tv’s The Addams Family — was always good for an epic, as was Omar Sharif. Both had worked with director J Lee Thompson before early in the decade on earlier epics (The Guns of Navarone and Taras Bulba). Telly Savalas tended to pick his pictures for blockerbuster appeal too — sheer Sixties commercial potential. The cast included a host of older guest stars, all along for the ride and underused: Edward G Robinson, Raymond Massey, Burgess Meredith, Lee J Cobb, Eli Wallach, Anthony Quayle. Sharif probably gives the best performance, at least tries the hardest. Most of the rest of the cast looks demoralised (but for Julie, who’s crazy) and I can’t blame them. Amid all this, stupid back-process shots, carelessly speeded-up film and gimmicky horse’s-head-point-of-view mounted-camera shots are too much to take.

Meantime, Missouri-born screenwriter William Rose had spent the Fifties in Britain creating truly classic screenplays like Genevieve and The Ladykillers before returning to Hollywood for It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and going on to another in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!(1966). Carl Foreman was writing Champion, Home of the Brave, Young Man With a Horn, The Men, High Noon, A Hatful of Rain — all worthy, topical subjects — before settling for the epic if-somewhat-bloated war movies Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone. Who would have thought he would be found resorting to cribbing from another screenwriter — Rose — just at the peak of his reputation?

I’d long since forgotten the gist of MacKenna’s Gold unlike It’s a Mad Mad… World, that I first saw when I was eight but have watched a few times since. Now, having just watched the western right through for the first time since 1969, the formula format is far too obvious to miss. Both stories are centered on the search for a lost treasure told of by a dying old man. Its_a_Mad,_Mad,_Mad,_Mad_World_Trailer9In both the rumor spreads until multiple factions join the search — in the western, a marshal, bandidos, Indians, townspeople, cavalry — and run across each other in a game of attrition, picking each other off. Old partnerships are summarily dissolved too, as when Telly, as a cavalry sergeant, shoots two of his own men in cold blood in his lust for gold. The dust-ups are way funnier in the comedy, between Terry-Thomas & wife Dorothy Provine, father-in-law Milton Berle & wife Ethel Merman, along with the expert hijinks of Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar & wife Edie Adams, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, Paul Ford, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney and many more.

It strikes me there’s nothing expert at all in MacKenna’s Gold aside from maybe a knife vs belt duel between Sharif and Peck (he’s helped by Camilla) — attractively choreographed, probably worked out themselves. No thanks to Foreman or Thompson. Note that this takes place between two other pointless pieces of business: climbing up a sheer thousand foot cliff, then climbing down again to fetch their horses. Maybe I should have left my teen illusions of a classic western intact…

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