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Posts Tagged ‘Clint Eastwood’

RAWHIDE!

In history, television on March 27, 2015 at 12:16 am

Rawhide cattle logoToday maybe this western television series — filmed through its seven-year run (1959-66) in black and white — is best remembered for its theme song, and not even for its classic rendition by Frankie Laine but by nonsingers Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi of The Blues Brothers (1980). It seems a shameful travesty, as seen today — and I’ve been watching the entire run semi-religiously on the Turner Channel daily, sometimes twice a day for the especially good episodes — it easily holds its quality after all these years as the best western rerun, just shading Gunsmoke but utterly destroying the color extravaganzas Bonanza, High Chaparral and The Big Valley; with a nod to The Wild Wild West, very well done but as an interesting foray into a camp, period-set crime show that had more in common with The Man From Uncle, even Star Trek. The series was created by Charles Marquis “Bill” Warren, a writer who had begun in the business with MGM. Warren kept busy with television, turning out three classics among his five western series, the others being Gunsmoke and The Virginian; another not so bad was the later Iron Horse with Dale Robertson. On none of his projects did Warren stay more than one or two seasons, happy to move on to something new once his current series was established. As such, he must rate with Quinn Martin (The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Invaders) as among the most successful independent television producers of the 1960s.

Like virtually all successful American tv series that don’t drag through repetition for a whole season, Rawhide relied on seven or eight regulars to carry the stories as genuine ensemble efforts. Eric Fleming (33 when filming started) and Eastwood (28) dominated as the trail boss and his ramrod respectively, often alternating, though the older man commanded the screen as well as the drovers. The top-billed star’s personal story is a haunting one, from a boyhood filled with vicious physical abuse from his father, to traumatic military service and facial reconstruction surgery, to early accidental death by “drowning” in a raging river (several witnesses swear he was the victim of piranha attack) filming on location in South America. Sheb Wooley as trail scout Pete Nolan was a reliable third wheel with screen presence, almost as tall as the 6ft-3-to-4 Fleming and Eastwood and fit for romantic leads, but leaving in 1962 to further his considerable country & western career — though he had been a recognisable screen face from his role as the third doomed badguy in High Noon (1952) and made most money from disc novelties like “The Purple People Eater”. Steve Raines (as Jim Quince) and Rocky Shahan (as Joe Scarlett) had started as stuntmen and background expert horsemen and wranglers, but Raines shone in an often demanding role and early on performed as central character a number of times, a convincing westerner in the Fordesque mold and a more than competent actor. Even Mushy, the young naive (slow) “cook’s louse”, played appealingly but without mushy sentiment by James Murdock, was treated as an important character, having several stories built around him. A year or so younger than Clint in real life, Murdock was handsome too and over six feet, yet another slimline hunk to ensure covering every possible combination and permutation of demographic. In keeping with the historical veracity of cattle drives held paramount for the theme of the series throughout, little Robert Cabal as “Hey Soos” (Jesus, spelt phonetically) was in charge of the remuda (corral of working horses) and added many a fine coloring of Mexican folklore and trail superstition to the atmosphere. In his eyes, packs of wolves, rogue bulls roaming solo, patent medicine pedlars and travelling entertainment shows of Gypsies were never quite what they seemed, allowing for interpretation by the supernaturally inclined — much to the taste of the drovers but the constant derision of ever tough, level-headed trail boss Gil Favor. Far less conspicuous and never featured was John Hart, a semi-regular over two early seasons but trusted with few lines though yet another who was tall with movie-star looks and not without talent: on the slow road of neglect after having been tv’s fill-in Lone Ranger for two seasons while Clayton Moore ruminated over a pay dispute with the producers, and then again every boy’s small-screen hero in the Canadian-produced Hawkeye/Last of the Mohicans.

Bewhiskered Paul Brinegar (Wishbone the cook), always good value as comedy relief in westerns — seen in the Fifties as a regular sidekick of Hugh O’Brian on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp — and whose avuncular codger appeal a sizable section of Rawhide fans swore by, was a recognised star by 1964 and he and the two established principals toured Japan, where the series was number one in the ratings. In the States it was not as overwhelmingly popular as Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Bonanza (1959-73), ratings toppers in turn for several years and all in color years before Rawhide folded; or a number of lesser western entries for that matter. Rawhide, a mid-season entry in the New Year of 1959, was an instant top 20 hit, peaking at no.6 for 1961, but then on a slow fade in domestic popularity despite a constant year-by-year improvement in overall production standards. And in the face of the fact that it was by far the most authentic western on tv through the Sixties including other vaunted candidates such as Gunsmoke, a revelation as the first adult western in 1955 and darkly noir-stylish in its early years (running till 1975), Wagon Train (1957-64), and Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-60) with Steve McQueen as the bounty hunter.

rawhide_original cast

Repeat guests of the suitably gritty quality of Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Robert Middleton, Simon Oakland, Claude Akins, R. G. Armstrong, Lola Albright, Ted De Corsia and L. Q. Jones had served the series’ long run well, along with bravura character thespians James Whitmore, Burgess Meredith, Mercedes McCambridge, Mickey Rooney, Patricia Medina, Fritz Weaver, Linda Cristal and others. Rawhide‘s production company, Revue-CBS, which in 1962 had finished with Laramie and begun the full-color, 90-minute blockbuster The Virginian/Men of Shiloh as a longrunning flagship project, by the end of 1964 was ploughing more resources into bolstering a failing series that was arguably better than ever. One episode from this period, “Canliss” directed by former sci-fi specialist Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth) features Dean Martin as the titular gunfighter, surrounded by up-and-coming leading lady Laura Devon and prestige character stars Michael Ansara (famous from tv as Cochise), Theodore Bikel and silent-movie veteran Ramon Novarro. The recruitment of Martin — best-selling crooner and moreover bona fide tv star with his own popular variety series having started that September — was a sure sign of status, the first “special guest star” to be featured upfront in the opening titles, though the series was to survive barely a year more till the New Year of 1966, just half a season after the decamp of Eric Fleming with Clint Eastwood left as the sole regular star.

The episode did without Rowdy altogether, Eastwood on hiatus making A Fistful of Dollars with Italian director Sergio Leone. Clint had guested in a pre-Rawhide episode of Maverick, co-starred with other popular tv series stars David Janssen (Richard Diamond, later The Fugitive) and Darren McGavin (Mike Hammer, later The Outsider) in an ill-starred remake of Lafayette Escadrille (1958) from prestigious director William Wellman, and gone on to guest star as himself in Mr Ed — a modest peak in American tv. Starting as a $600-a-week tv “star”, he had probably made it to a couple of thou by the end of the run — and received $15,000 for his first Leone outing; $50,000 for the second, For a Few Dollars More, filmed 1965; $250,000 for the third, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (’66). Eastwood called on Ted Post, a frequent director of Rawhide episodes, to handle his first independent film production, Hang ‘Em High.

Eric Fleming said, leaving after the 1964-65 series, the producers had let him go because he was costing them a million dollars a year — the same, record fee that Elizabeth Taylor had recently earned for Cleopatra, that took two years to film: good indication of Fleming’s centrality and appeal to fans of the show. For as long as he lasted, Gil Favor’s “Head ’em up! [six-beat pause] Move ’em out!” was an icon and probably the widest known feature of the series apart from its evergreen theme written by Dimitri Tiomkin. And when the show finally wound up the unforgettable personification of Favor, Eric Fleming, had just months to live.

While Charles Gray had filled in as scout Clay Forrester with charismatic performances (though on the back foot competing with scout Flint McCullough played by Robert Horton on Wagon Train) for a good while after the departure of Sheb Wooley, only for Wooley to return for a few episodes when it was almost all over, things were never the same when for the season opening of fall 1965 Rawhide recruited John Ireland (previously the gunslinger in Red River and Johnny Ringo in Gunfight at the OK Corral) and Raymond St Jacques for its final series — as fill-ins, as Wagon Train and Bonanza would try too for longevity. Ireland and St Jacques played it macho as badly drawn new characters, with the former bizarrely out of type as an obvious middle-ager nonetheless given to impulsive, foolish moves, previously the province of young Rowdy Yates — with Clint Eastwood now firmly in Sergio Leone mode as the unrelentingly grim, leaden-faced “man with no name” he would continue with in one context or another for the rest of his on-screen career.

Stripped of Hey Soos, “Mushy” Mushgrove III, and Joe Scarlett from its guts, gone were the incidental comedy and confrontations at the chuck wagon, around the camp fire and over the coffee pot that had made the series thoroughly human. Bit characters who had lent a special flavor, like “Teddy” and “Toothless”, were no more. And Wishbone, formerly blustering as lovably cantankerous mostly toward Mushy, was cast adrift as a bully flaying everyone in sight with pointless jibes. Young English supporting actor David Watson, with a full molded Beatle helmet and Peter & Gordon toffee-nosed accent, was introduced in hopes of updating the image to Mod 1965 — to no avail. As a supposed consolation, lost in tv history obscurity, a collective landmark was crossed with St Jacques joining Bill Cosby (I Spy) and Ivan Dixon (Hogan’s Heroes) as the first black actors as regulars in a tv series, all appearing in September 1965, to be followed by Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura a year later starting Star Trek.

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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.

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!

Clint Eastwood, Movie Legend: Happy 50th Anniversary!

In celebrity, film, ideology, morality on March 27, 2008 at 11:44 am
Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel (1971)

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

Let me be the first to congratulate Clint Eastwood for reaching fifty years as a star. At least, 1958 marked his first appearance in a featured/ensemble role, in Lafayette Escadrille, about the famous flying squadron, alongside Tab Hunter, David Janssen and Darren McGavin. It was only a moderate attraction considering it was directed by that air-ace movie expert William Wellman. But Clint seems to have taken it to heart because for the fifty years since he’s specialised in man’s-man movies with women used as not much more than decoration at best, often as rape fodder. I get the idea he made The Bridges of Madison County just so he could finally win the women over.

There’s no doubt in my mind that, along the way, he superseded the all-American hero that Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Wayne once represented. All of them had other strings to their bows of course, Cooper being the most limited in range; I’ve never seen him in a comedic role but for Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941), a romantic comedy with Barbara Stanwyck in which he employs his standard “Aw shucks” shtick as a naive professor this time: a classic of conception and writing by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett. Clint, apart from a couple of ape-slapstick movies, the same.

Clint’s first starring role on tv, Rawhide, which began screening in the New Year of 1959, had some whimsical moments. Mainly, as the ramrod of the trail drive, he was a tough guy again, but in the early years of the series ranged too to a little goofy and awkward at times to contrast with the older (only five years separated them in reality), experienced and hardened trail boss Gil Favor played well by Eric Fleming. (Given that Sergio Leone came to Hollywood in 1964 first to meet Fleming, who had made a huge impression on everybody in the command of his role, and “settled for” Clint for his spaghetti westerns, it’s irresistibly tempting to wonder, “What if…?” See my separate column on Rawhide and Eric Fleming.) And when Clint became a full-fledged star in 1967, on the big screen, via the “Man With No Name” trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he represented the all-American for a totally new generation where most of the time it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Gable and Coop were dead, Fonda and Stewart semi-retired, the Duke at 60 still active but slowing down. That year Duke Wayne starred with Robert Mitchum and James Caan in El Dorado, one of Hawks’ finest westerns that can stand alongside any other in the Sixties. But the new generation of Kennedy-King survivors were anarchists thriving on (on-screen) violence, taking over from disillusioned peace-lovers — who probably weren’t moviegoers anyway, judging from box-office results.

My favorite Clint period must be his first decade, where he showed as much variety as he was capable of, before narrowing his focus down to what might be called “The Clint Eastwood Genre”; Sylvester Stallone and then Arnie Schwarzenegger further focused down to an ‘action’ formula that would infect Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, even Anthony Hopkins among many others. Following on from his opening western series, Clint did war movies Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes, the musical Paint Your Wagon — not as bad as it’s made out to be — and created the classic character Dirty Harry. Play Misty for Me and The Eiger Sanction were interesting and showed more variety, but his cowboys got ever nastier — Joe Kidd, High Plains Drifter — until the reformed outlaw, Josey Wales. For me this picture did what Unforgiven (1992) was hailed for doing, more artificially, sixteen years later. Here Clint plays a reformed gunfighter, a conspicuous man of peace, who in the last five minutes of screen time reverts to the Clint we all know, blazing away indiscriminantly with his six-guns: “Killed most anything that walked or crawled, one time or another…”

In between, amid a lot of dross, came the engrossing Escape from Alcatraz (1979), another of his best directed by Don Siegel, and spy thrillerFirefox (1982), almost as good in a low-key way. Toward the end of that decade he worked his way more into direction (Bird, etc).

This brings us to In the Line of Fire following up Unforgiven, when Clint was 63. This week must be the fourth time I’ve watched it on tv. Written by Jeff Maguire, it always seemed to me a well-plotted thriller with all the necessary suspense, etc, but only now am I grasping its underlying message, which is none too inspiring. And I would dispute Leonard Maltin’s assertion that Eastwood has never been better.

As far as the theme goes, it makes a hero of a pretty dumb guy, despite his conspicuous jazz snobbery and ability tickling the ivories. I think the lesson of the movie is that you can bumble your way through life (he loses his wife and daughter) and your career (apparently in thirty years in the Secret Service he has never rated a promotion) and still qualify as an all-American hero. Throughout, he is pathetically led by the nose by the villain Mitch Leary, a.k.a. “Booth” played by John Malkovich; bullies his young partner (Dylan McDermott) to stay on the force through serious panic attacks and ends up directly responsible for his death; and despite being an obnoxious old fart wins the knockout gorgeous woman as usual — in this case Rene Russo, an exception in being only one generation adrift from Clint’s age.

It helps that his boss is his buddy (John Mahoney) and has saved his ass a hundred times from being terminated from the Secret Service since bungling his first big assignment: protecting JFK in the motorcade at Dallas. Never mind, despite the fact that there are “229” people guarding the president at a banquet, Clint and girlfriend Rene are somehow at the center of things, barking orders at everyone in sight to ensure the president is saved. Clint also pulls through, unlike genius “Booth”. I can’t help thinking this is a movie deliberately contrived for a male audience that might vote in a dumb president because he is the one they “would most like to have a beer with”, even though someone as unexciting as genuine war hero cum intellectual John Kerry slaughtered him in a series of tv debates on the issues. Is it an accident that the genius is a paranoid, homicidal maniac and the hero a dumb, ordinary screw-up? Even catching a glimpse of his own personal file at some stage — Clint calls himself “a borderline burnout with questionable social skills” — doesn’t give him any insight into himself. Somehow, Clint’s character, Frank Corrigan, in his mid-fifties, the age he is playing, retains his professional confidence fully intact, even overblown to the point of arrogance; to say nothing of his sexual confidence, able to draw much younger women though coming out with some juvenile lines of sexual innuendo.

It only got better for Clint in the sex department at the end of the millennium, as he crowded seventy. I once did a review of a movie from 1999 where he seemed to have stepped into a Brad Pitt role that Clint had to take over at the last minute — an alcoholic this time, a full burnout, having lost his wife and child again, but showing off saggy abs and having nubile 23-year-olds falling all over him. I’ll have to dig it up some time.

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