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Posts Tagged ‘John Wayne’

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.

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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.

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.

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!

ONCE A STAR, ALWAYS A STAR?

In celebrity, film on August 15, 2011 at 9:47 am

This is a new phenomenon — I mean new in showbiz terms, measured against the full 100 years movie stars and mass produced/distributed music have existed. It has only developed in music since the introduction of extremely narrow, dumbed-down sounds in music in 1974 — Europap ruled by Abba, Disco under the Bee Gees, Punk and Reggae — and on screen since the false dawn of Spielberg-Lucas three years later. Among stars, the Stallone-Travolta-Gibson-Schwarzenegger-Madonna era got underway in steps from 1976 to 1984, and has never stopped. Apart from various one-offs like Jessica Lange, Leonardo Di Caprio, Johnny Depp, Ellen Barkin, Sean Penn, Robin Williams, most new stars since have been spin-offs of them.

Who could ever have guessed, or wished, that the three bodybuilders Stallone, Arnie and Madonna would go on decade after decade at the top of the tree in sound bites and column-inches of coverage? — which, let’s face it, defines superstardom these days. Today’s vacuous mentality only requires these celebrities to exist to be celebrated, regardless of what they produce. The same of sell-out compromised ‘artists’ Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, who continue as celebrities while people as musically committed and talented as, say The Doors, The Byrds, Steve Marriott, rose and collapsed as stars in three years? Well over ninety percent of stars of the Twentieth Century were under-appreciated or had their careers curtailed

In the Golden Age of Hollywood only a handful of (invariably male) actors sustained superstar status for anything approaching thirty years: Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Cagney, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, James Stewart. In casting a film, no producer or director ever mistook a Gable movie for a Cooper movie, or vice versa. All of them brought highly individual characteristics to a role, and were often able to raise ordinary scripts to something watchable. Today’s stars are all interchangeable, except when a film calls for a particular physique, then it can be faked anyway with computer graphics. But for a few, they tend to sink or float with the material, i.e. How many pyrotechnic effects can the budget afford to divert attention from them?

Actors who ooze a mind-numbing sameness of one-dimensional acting in role after role just go on and on: Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Samuel L Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black… In previous times actors had to capture the public’s imagination in their first two or three films or they were OUT — and without aid of special effects and other eye-catching gimmicks.

Rap music is another phenomenon that has carried on for more than a quarter century seemingly without changing, improving, developing into something that requires talent. It’s the ideal do-it-yourself ‘music’ for anyone who can fake a Bronx accent — and I’m speaking from New Zealand, where a Bronx accent comes about as naturally as did a Liverpool accent in the Beatle era.

After numerous box-office failures, repeatedly rumored to face forced retirement, Arnie, Stallone, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta have been given chance after chance to reestablish themselves until something clicks and they’re foisted back on us. The only movie stars I can think of that have fallen from the top echelon (outside of death or retirement) in the past 30 years are Burt Reynolds and Kevin Costner. The occasional tv star like Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, Shelley Long and that red-headed guy in CSI-Miami fails to make it in movies, but not very often. Generally, the rule is whoever is hyped by the promoters makes it.

Older female stars, as much as they gripe about the lack of roles for them, are much better off than their sisters of yesteryear. The Bette Davises and Joan Crawfords were automatically on the downhill past 40, no matter how good they were. Now 55, even 60, need not be a barrier. They might not be able to command $200 million budgets like wookies and hobbits can, but what producer with $30 million on his hands for an important subject would pass up Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Emma Thompson, Cher, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Ellen Barkin, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Maggie Smith or Queen Liz in the lead?

MOVIE REVIEW — HOWARD HAWKS: Rio Bravo (1958) vs El Dorado (1966)

In film on June 27, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Famous man’s-man director Howard Hawks was primarily a maker of “action” movies, but in the olden days of Hollywood the tag was a thoroughly respectable one implying no aspersion on the audience of such films. Some of the most admired directors of silents, Rex Ingram, and Sergei Eisenstein himself, were action directors. In the Thirties came Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh, both today considered master craftsmen of fast-paced adventures made with intelligence, imagination and spirit: in other words, more than Spielberg, Lucas or other of their ilk have ever achieved, and bearing hardly any relation at all to today’s blood-and-gore fests dished up as standard fare for desensitized ghouls who pass as film buffs.

Modern cineastes have concluded that Hawks’ particular schtick was the theme of male comaraderie, starting notably with Only Angels Have Wings (1939) most familiar to modern film fans. But by then he had produced all-time classics in several genres: the similarly pilot-concerned Dawn Patrol, Scarface, Road to Glory, and not least, screwball comedy in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday to follow shortly after with Sergeant York, his third classic on World War I. He came late to westerns with 1948’s Red River but only John Ford’s are admired more, and just a few including Henry King are said to rank with Hawks as authentic interpreters of the American scene. Rio Bravo was remade with the same director-star combination into El Dorado (and certain refrains were replayed in Rio Lobo four years later). Superstar John Wayne was accompanied by Dean Martin in the first, Robert Mitchum in the second. The Duke is his Mount Rushmore self in both, each time a former hired gun turned lawman (the town sheriff in the first; allying himself with the town sheriff, an old friend, in the remake). And each story centers on him supporting his co-star in rehabilitating from town bumhood brought on by a no-good floozie. Making up the rest of the male ingroup are Ricky Nelson/James Caan on the youth side and Walter Brennan/Arthur Hunnicut as the curmudgeonly but humorously persnickety jailkeeper.

Angie Dickinson and that famous shape in costume for 'Rio Bravo', 1958

Angie Dickinson and that famous shape in costume for 'Rio Bravo', 1958

Rio Bravo, for ill-defined reasons, is the more generally admired by critics. Maybe the prominent contemporary critics that greeted the remake in the Sixties were just more vicious: Pauline Kael, Richard Schickel … Hawks specifically remade it because he believed he could improve on the first version, and then believed he had. I too, maybe because a child of the Sixties, have always preferred El Dorado, though having just seen Rio Bravo again and giving it proper attention, I appreciate its niceties more than before.

Hawks knew what he was doing in remaking it. There seems to be more happening, backed with a booming wall-to-wall Sixties soundtrack. It is in every way less sentimental than its Fifties forebear. The female roles are less defined in the remake (spread as they are now between Charlene Holt and Michele Carey), almost perfunctory compared with Angie Dickinson’s fully defined one, more in the nature of eye candy. That by itself says more about how spectacularly constructed female stars were treated in the Sixties. Raquel Welch hardly ever got a whiff of the central roles Sophia Loren had been entrusted with at an even younger age a decade earlier. And compare ingenue Natalie Wood with, say, the later Sandra Dee — typical Sixties teen fodder; and Tuesday Weld not allowed to show her talent until almost middle age. Dickinson plays a hard-drinking professional gambler turning back to saloon singing for new beau Duke’s sake, while in the Sixties version Duke comes across all bashful as an old-friend-of-the-family even responding to all-grown-up wholesome Charlene Holt, who has a scene sashaying around in a revealing figure-hugging number for no apparent reason but the aforementioned eye-candy factor.

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

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

I would have thought by most measures El Dorado is a less compromised piece of filmmaking. The performances of Robert Mitchum and James Caan are more convincing than those of their prototypes. Moreover, the expanded, modified role of Caan allows a real relationship to develop between him and his mentor (Wayne). Maybe simply to give the ensemble cast more on-screen time, there is a conscious insert in Rio Bravo where singing stars Martin and Nelson get to do their thing — Dean crooning a cowboy song — ‘My Rifle, My Pony, and Me’ — with less C & W feel than anyone since Roy Rogers. Ricky bats his thick eyelashes and heavy lids for the girls rather irritatingly throughout, and almost pouts his more-generous-than-Elvis lips. Walter Brennan comes close to self-parody with his incessant cackling. On top of this, the original is far too wordy, especially for a western — courtesy of the screenplay by highly cultured Hawks favorites Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett.

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