Posts Tagged ‘Kirk Douglas’


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.

Screen Faces: The Doppelganger Effect

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

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

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

Back a ways when I was a little kid I was used to seeing Dean Martin on television via his weekly variety series. And he was in big screen westerns with John Wayne; and so was Robert Mitchum. Both Martin and Mitchum had what women called “bedroom eyes” in those coy times when demands of cock measurements were unheard of. (Incidentally, resisting all temptation, both stayed married to their first wives for decades.) Film reviewers described them as “heavy lidded”, referring to their deceptively casual approach to acting and lazy look of almost dropping off to sleep — again, a reference to the importance of eyes in dramatic acting; something totally irrelevant in the current 37-year-long era of special effects/CGI. (Again incidentally, for you fellow trivia lovers, seen in the same movie — Five Card Stud, 1968 — Mitchum at 6ft-1 towered over Martin, who claimed to be the same height.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOVIE LEGENDS — THE MOUNT RUSHMORE FOUR (Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston)

In celebrity, film, generational/fashion, history, morality on April 7, 2008 at 2:37 am

If there are four screen stars with the granite jaws and steely gazes worthy of replacing the presidents’ faces on Mount Rushmore, they are those who rose as actor-producers in the immediate post-World War II era and projected themselves as larger-than-life characters on screen: Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston. Other stars of the era — Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Victor Mature, Cornel Wilde — miss the category by being not quite as stellar, less predictable and therefore less conventionally heroic.

Gregory Peck

Gregory Peck

Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston

Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas

In their time and for long afterwards they were derided by critical cognoscenti for not being the same type of actor as Olivier or Laughton or Muni, totally losing themselves in their roles. I’ve come to agree with Bette Davis, who, remarking on her Warner Bros studio-mate Paul Muni, regretted that he submerged himself so far into his role that there was little real flesh and blood showing on the screen. Spencer Tracy, if not Fredric March, might have lent something to them — though he too was too much of a thespian and boozer to be a producer. Brando, too, in the end, thought little of his craft, dabbling in directing often to the detriment of his films, and bent as he was on being an activist.

The Rushmore Four were also liberal activists in their day, even Charlton Heston — sticking his neck out for others’ civil rights, like Burt Lancaster, on protest marches with Martin Luther King. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were instrumental in breaking down the Hollywood Blacklist, the brick wall of rabid hatred erected by Senator Joe McCarthy and maintained by Nixon and many others starting in the late Forties and persisting for the next fifteen years with few exceptions. Gregory Peck, particularly after he gained civil-rights iconic status through To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), was near the top of Nixon’s dirty tricks hitlist. As far as acting went, the Four were plenty disciplined enough (unlike Brando) and convincing enough to carry the central role in at least a hundred major films between them from 1945 to say, 1975, though the flow had thinned out considerably over the last decade.

Though all could be relied on best to project virility effortlessly on screen — something hardly captured by the Arnies and Sylvesters with all their huffing and puffing, in their biggest, pumped-up bodies — Burt and Kirk were from the start capable of considerable subtlety of emotion along with the naked power, and Gregory and Chuck improved with age. Greg Peck’s early screen performances were described in terms of various levels of inadequacy even by his major biographer. The open implication always was that he made it on his looks in openings at a time when the real, established stars were off at the war. And at the peak of his box-office popularity in the late Forties and early Fifties he was singled out as “the kind of actor that Humphrey Bogart despised”, whatever species of beast that be. Critics held reservations about Charlton Heston because of what was said to be his “reserve” on screen, slow to come to the boil in front of the camera, for example — though probably it was all down to a highly controlled technique. He had considerably more stage experience than the others, after all. And he never quite made the Motion Picture Herald top 10 in personal popularity for any one year though starring in the biggest box-office blockbusters of all through the Fifties: The Greatest Show On Earth, The Ten Commandments for DeMille again, and Ben Hur — supposedly for lack of any deep connection felt by the audience. Lancaster and Douglas were said to be “terrible tempered twins” though not really much alike — renowned for their egos though, as good friends, surrendering status to each other in the many films they made together. Lancaster once suffered from faint praise by co-star Shirley Booth, admittedly a stickler for stage standards of quality, for relatively rare moments of “truth” in Come Back Little Sheba (1952). All were highly regarded for their ability by British audiences, foremost Douglas just shading Lancaster.

Burt (The Killers, 1946) and Kirk (Champion, 1949) were both launched to stardom at age 33. Greg and Chuck made it at 27 — vi Days of Glory (1944) and Dark City (1950) respectively, though a little less convincingly. None had difficulty filling the screen from the outset — better than say, contemporaries Richard Widmark, who just misses this bunch, with Robert Mitchum, missing only for reasons of lackadaisical anti-heroism — but only two of them made the annual top 10 box-office stars lists, and only twice each, Greg and Burt. Kirk and Charlton narrowly missed the honors list several times, as did Widmark and Mitchum. Sure there was more, and hotter, competition for places in those days. But there also wasn’t the all-fired rush for bigger blockbusters every time. Many of their films were actually made to be personally uplifting. Also, for whatever reason, in recent decades the Harrison Fords, Sylvester Stallones, Arnold Schwarzeneggers, Chuck Norrises, Samuel L Jacksons and Jackie Chans have been named top box-office draws when special effects afficionados would go along to see a trained chimp in their roles.

As far as their acting went, some of their roles have rarely been surpassed: Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956) as Vincent Van Gogh and as the disillusioned colonel in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1958). Lancaster, after a swashbuckling period — The Flame and the Arrow (1950), The Crimson Pirate (1952) — applied himself to as versatile an oeuvre as Brando, including such classics as Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Watching him recently in Run Silent, Run Deep, up against the old warhorse Clark Gable, admittedly twenty years past his prime, Lancaster came across as fine — sensitive and subtle. Surely, adding that same year his frightening portrayal of abuse of power in The Sweet Smell of Success and of sexual frustration (pursued by Rita Hayworth at her most alluring) in Separate Tables gave him the acting honors for 1958. All of them infuriated a certain type of critic at one time or another — Peck especially for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and evil Dr Mengele in The Boys from Brazil, “boring” or inert in other roles; Heston for being irredeemably dignified and monumental — as if he could be anything else in his best, most demanding roles; Lancaster for not being “method” enough to need a therapist — so definitely not the actor’s actor in the Fifties; Douglas, though more “method” and facile in displaying feelings, still too much of a hunk to please other, generally weedy actors.

Burt was an acrobat pre-acting, Kirk a professional wrestler, and Greg and Chuck similarly athletic. That by itself is enough in most circles to consign them to the monosyllabic Action Man category and disqualify them from serious artistic consideration today, when slightly built, androgynous Johnnny Depps, Brad Pitts, Matt Damons and Leonardo DiCaprios rule.

All four retreated to rather routine westerns in the latter 1960s to extend their commercial lives — and all were better for their presence. At the same time they continued extending their experience in different types of roles, just as other old timers essayed risky roles late in the decade, giving their last hurrahs in ground-breaking blockbusters: Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler), John Wayne (True Grit), Henry Fonda (Once Upon a Time in the West), Rod Steiger (Waterloo), George C Scott (Patton), with Marlon Brando (The Godfather) still to come. Of the four, as always Lancaster and Douglas did best in attempting to stretch the boundaries. Heston (Planet of the Apes) was the only one to lower himself to “disaster movies”, though he fitted them in to finance his Shakespeare and other literary classics.

Douglas produced and directed the anti-establishment western Posse (1975) before semi-retiring into the production side; Peck the same, emerging on screen for superior horror The Omen (1976). Lancaster did best through this era with 1900 and Atlantic City. All four boasted marriage partnerships of extraordinary duration, especially where Hollywood is concerned. And all lived at least into their mid-eighties, Douglas still going at 92, again maybe reflecting outstanding professionalism and discipline.


In celebrity, film, history on April 6, 2008 at 10:43 pm
Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in William Wyler's film

Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in William Wyler's film

The death of Charlton Heston two days ago at age 84 has once again brought out all the termites from the woodwork — those who think Anna Nicole Smith and Marilyn Monroe were equals in popular culture, and who feed on the downfall of Anna and great individuals just the same. Uppermost in reporters’ obituaries are a still of Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) — as if to imply Heston thought he personally had that power — his suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and the fact that, in later life, he blotted his liberal copybook as head of the National Rifle Association. It’s hardly a unique failing for a star actor to believe they have superior abilities in other directions — Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Shirley Maclaine, Arnie Schwarzennegger, Oprah Winfrey to name a few — so I will concentrate on Heston’s legacy in the main event of his life.

At the height of his career from 1956 to 1968 he was the foremost screen figure in historical roles. It is hard to believe that he was something of a fluke for his role as Moses. From his mid-twenties he had played such demanding epic roles as Marc Antony, Andrew Jackson and Buffalo Bill. And Cecil B DeMille himself had used him as the central figure in the contemporary blockbuster The Greatest Show On Earth (1952). For Ben Hur (1959), made by William Wyler for MGM, Heston was some way down the list in line for the role, behind Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando and one or two others. But it is hard to picture now anyone but Heston as the modern Ben Hur.

Kirk Douglas made good attempts to impinge on Heston’s historical epic territory with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Ulysses (both 1955), The Vikings (1958) and Spartacus (1960); Gregory Peck with David and Bathsheba (1951), Moby Dick (1956), The Guns of Navarone (1961) and a few other more tame costumers; Burt Lancaster the same. But The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur each set spectacular box-office records — the only films to even approach Gone With the Wind in earnings in the twenty years since.

Chuck went on in El Cid (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) and then when overblown costume epics suddenly stopped returning their massive outlay — as with Cleopatra and, spectacularly, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) — one star carried on unaffected, still drawing crowds into The Greatest Story Ever Told as John the Baptist, The Agony and the Ecstasy as Michelangelo, The Warlord (all 1965), Khartoum (1966) as General Gordon, and of course Planet of the Apes (1968) as a futuristic hero of the human race.

Most of these films he carried by himself as sole box-office draw, and along the way out-acted such prestigious names as Laurence Olivier. Yet, never once did he appear in the annual top 10 box-office stars lists. This fact is incomprehensible in an age when Samuel L jackson can claim to be all-time box-office champion by virtue of appearing in some of the biggest box-office takers in history through an era of outlandish prices — even though unrecognizable in Star Wars and others.

It has been said by film historians that he was not overly popular with audiences because his portrayals were impersonal, not intimate enough to engage the viewers on a deeply personal level. If this is so, it is my guess they were suitably awestruck by the fact that Heston appeared to be whatever monumental figure he was playing and certain didn’t need — or wheedle for — audience sympathy in the way that ‘great’ actors like Brando, Olivier and Laughton did.

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