Monday, September 22, 2014

Comfort Movies: Big Jake






 BIG JAKE (1971) is probably my favorite John Wayne western. Not his best, mind you, but my favorite. I've seen it countless times and will happily sit down and watch it a dozen more times. While I'm not blind to the film's faults, for me they are minimal and don't hamper my enjoyment of the film.

I was nine years old when I saw my first John Wayne movie, BIG JAKE, at the theater and that may be one of the reasons I like it so much. I remember being very impressed by this towering authority figure who travels to Mexico to retrieve his kidnapped grandson from the clutches of a ruthless outlaw gang led by John Fain (Richard Boone).

I've written before about that viewing that night at the Dolton Theater, my home away from home growing up. The place was packed on that summer evening and the theater was obviously loaded with John Wayne fans. When that freeze frame appeared at the end and the triumphant Elmer Bernstein score kicked in to herald the end credits, the applause and cheering was long and sustained. I remember it to this day. I think I was one of those louder participants.

Like some young 'uns seeing STAR WARS (1977) or E.T.  (1982) for the first time, I can say that BIG JAKE screening changed my life.




I love the many dialogue exchanges between Wayne and Boone. Here are two men who would kill each other at the drop of a hat, but I believe have a grudging respect for each other. The film was written by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, who also wrote DIRTY HARRY that year. I can easily imagine Dirty Harry saying some Big Jake's dialogue and vice versa. The film is loaded with endlessly quotable dialogue.



The one scene between Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, in what proved to be the last of their five films together, is a testament to movie star mystique.  Wayne greets estranged wife O'Hara and the look that passes between them says more than pages of dialogue could. If one had never seen a John Wayne/Maureen O'Hara movie before, the scene plays beautifully, with the two anxious to secure their grandson's freedom. But for movie fans who have long enjoyed their previous films together the scene has added resonance. However you see it, it plays beautifully on both levels.

As I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate the many familiar faces in the cast. Old-time western fans  who watched hundreds of westerns in the past likely silently cheered each time a favorite face showed up: John Agar, Harry Carey, Jr., Glenn Corbett, Jim Davis, John Doucette, Gregg Palmer and Hank Worden. Just typing all of those names makes me very happy.

BEWITCHED's Dr. Bombay himself, Bernard Fox, has a good scene as a shepherd about to be hung before being saved by Big Jake.



Wayne has one of his all-time best introductory scenes here, with a great close up of him taking aim at the aforementioned lynching party. He's decides not to butt in, until one of the lynchers hits a little boy. That's enough for Wayne to ride down and confront lynch leader Jim Davis.




Patrick Wayne (Duke's son) and Christoper Mitchum (Robert's son) are both every appealing as his estranged sons who join their father in the trek down to Mexico. Jake's best friend is an Indian, Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), who accompanies the trio as well. Also tagging along is Wayne's dog, which he simply calls Dog. (Was this an homage to Wayne's great HONDO (1953)? If memory serves, he calls his dog in that movie Dog as well).



Anti-P.C. Rant – I love how Wayne's best friend in the movie is a Native American, which gives no credence to the belief held by many that Wayne's movies are filled with anti-Native American bigotry.  Some may wince at a Native American being played by Bruce Cabot. Wayne would have scoffed at that. Bruce Cabot was a long-standing friend and Wayne loved working with his buddies. Cabot needed the work and Wayne was happy to oblige. Helping out a friend was much more important to Wayne than being politically correct. It was one of Cabot's last films. He died the following year.

If there are some faults to find with the film,  it's we never find out why Wayne left his family years ago. Sam and Dog are both killed in the final shoot out and I wish there had been a scene – heck, even a line of dialogue would have sufficed – where Jake is regretful about the losses.

But the shootouts are beautifully staged, the scenery on the trek to Mexico is to die for, and the comedy   bits are well played. Elmer Bernstein contributes one of his most infectious scores and the whole thing is a blast from beginning to end. It's one of my all time favorites.

After I saw it for the firs time, I remember asking my dad about this Wayne guy and he told me he's been in movies forever, and they showed up on TV all the time (even in the early 1970s this was true). A few weeks later a local station advertised THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN (1949) on the 10:30 movie. Since Wayne was in it I wanted to see it and to my delight there was Oliver Hardy in the movie. I had been a Laurel and Hardy fan for as long as I could remember but didn't know he was going to be in it. It was like a whole world was opening up before me. I couldn't wait to see what else it revealed. 







Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Comfort Movies: Prince Valiant


Comfort movies. I guess everyone has a different definition of what a comfort movie is. For me, a comfort movie is a very personal one, a movie you really enjoy and watch whenever it is on TV or you watch the DVD more than other movies in your collection.

That love may not be shared by others.

I'm not necessarily talking about favorite movies beloved by millions like CASABLANCA (1942) or SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952).

No, what I mean are those movies that you and you alone seem to adore. The kind where  you eagerly share with others, but when the movie is over an embarrassed silence engulfs the room.

“You actually like that?” is the unspoken implication.

Maybe comfort movie isn't the right term, but it will do for now. I know quite a few people who can quote  from the THE GODFATHER movies at the drop of a hat. Again, I'm not talking about universally beloved movies, but one's own very personal favorites.

I have friends who have their own comfort movies. One friend unreservedly loves MR. DESTINY (1990) with Jim Belushi, while another worships at the altar of MYSTERY, ALASKA (1999), the Russell Crowe hockey movie. I enjoyed both of them but not to the extent they do. But there is some intangible thing about those movies they respond to. I get that. I may not share it with those particular titles, but I totally understand where they are coming from.

There will be occasional looks at favorite comfort movies of mine. Movies that make me just as happy to think about as to watch, opinions not shared by many others, but that does not stop me from adoring each of these movies without reservation. (Note, these will not be critical evaluations). There may be some slight spoilers ahead.

Prince Valiant

One of 20th Century Fox's first Cinemascope adventure films, PRINCE VALIANT (1954) ranks among my all-time favorite swashbucklers. Not only is it one of the most enjoyable swashbucklers ever made, but I think it is one of the best comic strip/comic book adaptations ever. Some of the images and scenes were copied right from Hal Foster's celebrated comic strip chronicling the adventures of the young Viking prince, and they're a joy to behold. For me, its one of the few movies that captures the exuberance and excitement of the comics medium.

Some friends I've shown it to do not share my appreciation of the film, and found it pretty juvenile. For one, they could not get past star Robert Wagner's wig in the film. (Wagner agrees with them, calling it his Bette Davis look). But you can't do a Prince Valiant film without that famous Valiant hairstyle and trying to do so is like making a Superman movie without the iconic costume)

 



It doesn't bother me at all, and neither does Wagner's portrayal. The Valiant of the film is young, callow and very green. He's all exuberance, giving little thought to the consequences of his actions. Wagner does a great job of promoting Valiant's immaturity while still being very likable. That's harder than it sounds.

Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain is also a tough swallow for many, but the big lug is very appealing. It may not be his best performance, but I'm hard pressed to think of one that is so likable. True, I guess a Knight of the Round Table should not be thought of as a lug, but that's how Hayden plays him.

 

Love interest is delivered by Janet Leigh and Debra Paget, two of the loveliest medieval princesses one could imagine. This is the movie that began my life-long infatuation with Debra Paget. (Shameless name dropping: Years ago I met Janet Leigh at a book signing years and told her how much I like this film. She said she read the Prince Valiant comic strip growing up, and was thrilled to be cast in the movie.)




James Mason is Sir Brack, a Knight of the Round Table who is also the Black Knight, a mysterious figure who allies with the pagan Vikings to overthrow King Arthur's Camelot. He's great as always, with his marvelously plummy voice contrasting nicely with Wagner's. I've always been intrigued by his  appearance here. He likely considered it slumming, as movies adapted from comic strips and comic books were mainly the purview of Saturday afternoon serials. Over the last several decades, it's become routine for celebrated actors like Gene Hackman and Anthony Hopkins to appear in comic book movies, but back then James Mason's appearance in one must have been an eyebrow raiser for many. I think he's great in it, a pure pleasure to watch. What a year he had in 1954, what with two of his most famous performances, in A STAR IS BORN and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.



Director Henry Hathaway, who has provided me with lots of red-blooded thrills over the years, gives us one of the best castle sieges in history, with Christian Vikings attacking the pagan Vikings in an orgy of screaming men, flashing swords, battering rams, fire, boiling oil and crumbling walls.

But the real star of the movie may be composer Franz Waxman, who delivered one of the most gloriously exuberant scores in motion picture history. Why it isn't more celebrated I'll never know, because it's pure joy from beginning to end. There's a short sequence where Valiant is escaping from a seaside prison by undoing the bars on a window. Using a rope made from a mattress spring he uses it to scale the walls and escape. Waxman gives us a stunning piece of music during the 120-second or so sequence which delivers more orchestral color, drama and suspense than anything I've heard at the movies over the last 10 years.



The final broadsword duel between Valiant and Sir Brack is one of the best in moviedom, with the broadswords making enormous clanging sounds as each tries to outfight the other. Waxman leaves the sequence unscored save towards the end, when Valiant begins getting the better of his nemesis. Waxman introduces a very ethereal, high pitched, slow treatment of his main Prince Valiant theme, played on, of all things, an electric violin, subliminally implying that now is the moment when Prince Valiant has ceased to be a boy and has become a man. It's a beautifully scored scene, working on both a dramatic and musical level. 

The final scene sees Prince Valiant knighted Sir Valiant for his service to King Arthur. It's a great pity there was never a sequel called SIR VALIANT. But what we have here is one of the most wonderfully entertaining swashbucklers of all time.

One of the best studies of the swashbuckling genre is the book “Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York” by Jeffrey Richards (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1977). Richards shares my enthusiasm for the film and provides some very interesting production background:

“The rights to the strip were purchased by MGM who for two years tried and failed to get it into script form. Eventually they sold the rights to 20th Century Fox and producer Robert Jacks, enthusiastic about the project, decided to go directly to the strip for inspiration. 23,980 drawings were made available to screenwriter Dudley Nichols and from them he fashioned a dramatic and exciting script. Fox then assigned a budget of 3 million dollars and assembled a talented team of artists to bring the script to life: cinematographer Lucien Ballard, composer Franz Waxman and ace action director Henry Hathaway. Nine weeks of location shooting in Britain produced some superb footage of Caernarvon, Warwick, Braemar and Eilean Donan castles, with Ainwick standing in as Camelot and the Scottish village of Dornie transformed into a Viking settlement. Back in Hollywood, Sligon's castle was constructed at the Fox studios and for several days a Viking fleet was to be seen sailing off the Pacific coast, so that exteriors for the film could be completed.



 “The resulting film has all the innocence, vigour and mythic quality of Foster's elegantly drawn strip. Action, dialogue and settings are appropriately stylized, creating a totally believable fantasy chivalric world, perfectly laid out picture-book gardens, majestic castles superbly photogenic, coolly inviting woodlands, rolling downs grazed by peaceful sheep, a deep-blue sea edged with creamy breakers....

“Tableau-style ceremonial, hieratic groupings and deliberately posed medium and long-shot dialogue scenes are the entirely appropriate hallmarks of Henry Hathaway's direction, conveying without effort the ritual and mythic elements of the story. But the film is punctuated by all-stops-out, no-holds-barred action sequences, handled by veteran stunt director Richard Talmadge, with a full complement of Hollywood stuntmen, half of whom were injured in one way or another during the course of the picture. (Fencing Instructor) Jean Heremans coached Robert Wagner in sword-fighting and helped stage the fencing sequences. Henry Hathaway paid tribute to his expertise when he described the character of Valiant as a “combination of D'Artagnan, Doug Fairbanks Sr., Tarzan, Robin Hood, Jim Bowie, William Tell and Jean Heremans.'”

You can have your dopey Dark Knight movies or the beyond wretched MAN OF STEEL (2013). For me PRINCE VALIANT ranks among the best comic strip movies ever. It's a fun, exhilarating movie that doesn't have a dull moment and is chock full of speed, romance and action. I don't care if others don't respond to it. PRINCE VALIANT is one movie I never get tired watching.

Off the top of my head, I can think of other comfort movies I can write about, such as John Wayne in BIG JAKE (1971), Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland in BREAKHEART PASS (1976), WWII all-star musicals THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943) and (despite an aversion to Betty Hutton) STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM (1942), Jon Hall and Maria Montez in ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944). So many wonderful movies....even if I sometimes feel I'm the only one who thinks so.

What are some of  your favorite comfort movies?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dibs and Dabs: Russell Crowe, Jersey Boys, Obscure U.S. Presidents on Film and A Strange Coincidence Involving The Mole People


I haven't watched anything of late to blog about, but I've had a few ideas percolating in my mind for a couple of weeks. Current movies will be discussed, but there will be some Golden Age tie-ins.

The Mumbler Russell Crowe



Two of the dopiest movies of the year are NOAH and WINTER'S TALE. Both star Russell Crowe, and I'm afraid he's a big part of the problem. For in the last several years, Mr. Crowe has become a mumbler, that dreaded aspect of so many contemporary movies where performers have decided that mumbling their lines is “natural” and “true to life.” Not by a long shot.

No one talks like this. I've had some very serious conversations in my day but none of them took place at volumes lower than dog whistles. Some of Mr. Crowe's dialogue delivery in these films, especially NOAH, is rendered practically mute due to him speaking his lines in a barely heard whisper. I had no problem understanding dialogue from the other performers, so there was no fault with the theater's sound system or my hearing. It's infuriating and compounds what is already two excruciating viewing experiences. He's always been a low talker, but he seems to have taken his whisperings to new levels of inaudibility.

Among Golden Age stars, Alan Ladd was probably the champion low talker. Now I've seen many an Alan Ladd movie in my time, but never once have I had a problem understanding what he was saying. Alan Ladd enunciates. Russell Crowe mumbles.

Like someone telling Clint Eastwood to please hire a professional composer to write the scores for his movies, I wish someone would tell Russell Crowe to stop mumbling, speak clearly and don't pretend that your mumbling has anything to do with the way people talk. In its own way, it's as forced and mannered as the most exaggerated pantomime in silent cinema.

Jersey Boys

Speaking of Clint Eastwood I went to see his latest, JERSEY BOYS, one of my most eagerly anticipated films of the summer. It's only OK, and I was pretty disappointed. We've seen so many rags to riches show biz sagas I'm not sure if anything new can be brought to the table. I like my musical biographies to have lots of music and for me there was not enough of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as performers. Some might argue that if I want the music buy a CD. But for me, if a movie sacrifices back story for performances of the music that made them famous,  such as the Sousa biography STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER (1952) or the Gus Kahn story I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1952), then I'm all for it.



Not that a musical biopic should be all music. But since many show biz movies are so clich├ęd, I'd rather hear the music that made the artist famous in the first place. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) is, for me, the champion biopic that deftly balances music, drama, comedy and historic background in a most satisfying way.

Minor spoiler alert in the next paragraph:

JERSEY BOYS wraps up with a production number of “Oh, What a Night” with every character in the movie participating in during a street party. It's a terrific number and one of the highlights of the movie. But then director Eastwood almost ruins it at the end, with everyone freezing with arms extended into the air, as if they are awaiting applause. It lasts a long time and is really annoying. It's a movie, not a stage show. Very odd. I felt the same way at the end of the movie version of MAMA MIA! (2008), where Meryl Streep and company perform ed a number and then asked the audience if they want more. What works on stage comes off as terribly forced and one would think a more creative solution could be found for such moments. It's all very strange and off-putting.

Obscure Presidents on Film

 


I'm always interested when obscure U.S. presidents are shown on film. By coincidence in one week, I saw President #23, Benjamin Harrison, make a token appearance in the Sousa biography STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER (1952) and, in a much bigger role, #20, James Garfield, in THE NIGHT RIDERS (1939), a Three Mesquiteers B-western starring John Wayne. The latter is interesting, as President Garfield asks the trio to investigate wrong doings by an unscrupulous land baron out west. It's a secret mission, known only to the President and the Mesquiteers. When the three are jailed and facing execution, they await word from the president to pardon them, not knowing that Garfield has been assassinated, and no one in Washington is aware of their predicament.

If that sounds familiar, it's because two years earlier Secret Service agent Robert Taylor found himself in a similar jam in THIS IS MY AFFAIR (1937), with President #25 William McKinley felled by an assassin's bullet before he can pardon undercover agent Taylor. Again, only the president is aware of the mission.

There aren't too many portrayals of Harrison and Garfield in the movies, and I found it an amusing coincidence that I saw them a few days apart. I eagerly await future sightings of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur.

The Police and the Mole People
A scene from THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956) while channel flipping recently reminded me of the strange quirks the universe sometimes plays on us poor souls.

I've only been in the police car twice in my life and both times there has been a MOLE PEOPLE connection. How's that for an attention getter.

 


Back in the VHS days, Blockbuster Video used to have a big sale during Labor Day weekend, where unrented tapes would be put up for sale. I would spend far too much time driving to various Blockbusters looking for wanted titles. Since my interest was in classic cinema and most Blockbuster patrons only rented the latest trash on the New Releases shelf,  I usually found some real gems.

One visit netted me a copy of THE MOLE PEOPLE, a terrible film to be sure, but one I'll probably watch many more times than the Best Picture winner that year, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. 

I was driving home when I saw vast amounts of steam coming from my car hood. I was at a red light when the car stalled. The blinkers went on and fortunately a squad car had seen me and followed me. He pulled up behind me, lights flashing and I waited in the back seat of the squad car for a tow truck to take me to the repair shop at my dealer, several miles away.  I remember watching THE MOLE PEOPLE when I got home. After all, I didn't have a car to go anyplace.

Jump ahead quite a few years and I'm in the car again, waiting for a red light to change. It does and I'm ready to go forward when the car dies. Nothing. I put the car in park and turned the key several times to no avail. Again, a squad car was nearby, noticed by flashing blinkers and pulled behind me. For the second time in my life, I waited in the back seat of a squad car until I could be rescued by a tow truck.

Since the car repair shop was only eight blocks away, I walked home and there on the front porch was a package from Amazon, a DVD set of five 1950s science fiction movies, one of which was THE MOLE PEOPLE.

What are the odds? I mean, really. What are the odds?

I will never buy THE MOLE PEOPLE on Blu Ray. I can't afford another car repair bill.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Gal Sal


 
We often think of Golden Age movie stars living a life of ease, making movies during the day and then going to nightclubs like Ciro's or The Brown Derby in the evening. But Golden Age movie stardom was hard work. When not making the actual movies, actors and actresses spent their days in endless publicity photo poses or learned new skills such as horseback riding, fencing or dancing the minuet for an upcoming movie. Such skills didn't come overnight and often required endless hours of rehearsal for a scene that may only last a minute or two on-screen.

That occurred to me while watching MY GAL SAL (1942), an above average entry in the period musical genre so favored by 20th Century Fox.

In one scene, Victor Mature plays two pianos at the same time during a medicine show. He swivels on his stool and continues to play the pianos behind him while facing the audience. I'm no expert on piano techniques, but Mature's fingering looks pretty spot-on to me. I don't know if Mature was musically inclined in real life, but if not, I can only imagine the hours of rehearsal he went through to make it look so convincing.

Fox had a penchant for celebrating obscure songwriters of the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, such as Fred Fisher in OH YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL (1949), Joe Howard in I WONDER WHO'S KISSING HER NOW (1947) and Ernest Ball in IRISH EYES ARE SMILING (1944).

In MY GAL SAL, it's Paul Dresser's turn. Dresser's most famous song is probably “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”, written in 1897 and, according to Wikipedia, it became the second best-selling song – in sheet music sales – in the nineteenth century. Hoosiers liked it enough to make it the official state song of Indiana in 1913.

Much of what we know about Dresser comes courtesy of his brother, novelist Theodore Dreiser, author of “An American Tragedy”, which was made into a movie of the same name in 1931 with Sylvia Sidney and most famously in A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951). MY GAL SAL was adopted from his story “My Brother Paul.”(Paul Dreiser changed his name to Dresser when he was 20 years old).

Still, even blessed with a novelist's imagination, I doubt Theodore would recognize elements of Paul Dresser's life in the wildly imaginative MY GAL SAL. But that's OK- truth belongs to documentaries, and MY GAL SAL is a most entertaining, Technicolor-drenched show.

An indelible part of the film's appeal is Rita Hayworth, who plays the film's title role. She's Sally Elliott, big theatrical star, who earns Dresser's enmity when she and some friends laugh at Dresser's music act at a medicine show. When he sees her perform, Dresser realizes that he's only been slumming in the medicine shows and is determined to make it to the big time.


Rita Hayworth and Technicolor are made for each other, with her red hair and peaches and cream complexion beautifully captured by the Technicolor cameras.
If MY GAL SAL is not the equal of the musicals she made with Astaire or Kelly, it's still very enjoyable, though admittedly formulaic.

As is typical of these films, the two leads fall in love, fall out of love, and there's a misunderstanding or two until all is resolved. In the meantime we are treated to a series of musical numbers, some songs courtesy the pen of Dresser with others from the songwriting team of Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger.

(I've always been amused by the number of composer biographies that include new song numbers penned by studio songwriters.)

The interpolated songs are good ones, especially “Oh, the Pity of It All” charmingly sung by Mature (dubbed by Ben Gage, later Esther Williams' husband) and Hayworth (dubbed by Nan Wynn). I also liked “Me and My Fella and a Big Umbrella”, a charming number with Rita wearing a most fetching 1890s-style bathing suit.

The new ballad, “Here You Are” is a nice song but sounds exactly like it was written in 1942. It doesn't sound like anything from the 1890's. But I don't think Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck concerned himself very much with such matters.
Speaking of Zanuck, he could be very petty with actresses who didn't bend to his will. The Sally Elliott role was first offered to Carole Landis, but she refused to dye her blond hair red. Rita Hayworth was borrowed from Columbia for the role and Landis was given a nothing role as the gal in the medicine show who nurses Dresser back to health after he is tarred and feathered by an angry mob after the medicine show's elixir proves to be not so healthy. It's a demeaning role for one of Fox's most promising ladies, and proof one did not get on Zanuck's bad side.

I like Mature a lot in this too. His Dresser is brash, not particularly classy and a braggart. He sees a party thrown in Sally's honor as a party for him celebrating his first song hit. (Hayworth's reaction to this is priceless). But he brings some real vigor to the role and despite his coarseness, I couldn't help rooting for him. Rita and Victor dated in the early 1940s and their chemistry together is undeniable.
 

The film's choreographer Hermes Pan shows up as Rita's dance partner in “On the Gay White Way”, a terrific number that showcases Rita at her dancing best. The supporting cast can't be beat. Any movie with James Gleason and Frank Orth is worth cherishing.

Director is Irving Cummings, an old hand at material like this. He also directed one of Betty Grable's best period musicals, SWEET ROSIE O'GRADY (1943). If there's nothing particularly distinguished about these films, they at least move and are entertaining.

I've always liked Victor Mature. In the 1950s, my mom worked at a company and her boss served with him in World War II in the Coast Guard. He said he was a great guy who didn't take himself too seriously.

My favorite Victor Mature anecdote has to do with THE ROBE (1953). I don't want a horde of Richard Burton or Jean Simmons fans descending on me, but I think Mature gives the best performance in the film. Burton agreed and thought that he (Burton) gave a terrible performance. Burton liked telling the story of watching the scene where he is being bewitched by the power of The Robe, screaming, grimacing and making facial contortions, while Mature, in the background, has a beatific look on his face as he gazes heavenward.

Burton told him there he is on the screen making a complete idiot of himself while Mature stole the whole scene from him by standing there with that exalted look on his face. He asked Mature what he was thinking when they were doing that scene.

Mature told him, “ I was thinking of all the money Fox was paying me to stand here and look up at the ceiling.”

How can you not like that guy?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fabulous Films of the 50s: Devil's Doorway





The name of this blogathon is Fabulous Films of the 50s and when it came to the western genre, the 1950s was indeed a fabulous decade. There were probably more genuinely great westerns in that decade than any other.

1950 alone saw some of the greatest westerns ever made – BROKEN ARROW, THE FURIES, THE GUNFIGHTER, RIO GRANDE, THE STARS IN MY CROWN, WAGON MASTER and WINCHESTER '73, just to name a few. And DEVIL'S DOORWAY.

Amazingly, director Anthony Mann directed three of these – DEVIL'S DOORWAY, THE FURIES and WINCHESTER '73. Any one of these three would earn him a standing ovation in the Westerns Hall of Fame. Three in one year is very impressive, and a strong argument for the studio system. No time spent developing properties by the director, the studio did it for you.

Of the three, I'd probably give the number one spot to WINCHESTER '73, with DEVIL'S DOORWAY coming in a very close second. It's not as well known as it should be. It's sympathetic treatment of the American Indian was overshadowed that year by the huge success of the similarly themed BROKEN ARROW. I like BROKEN ARROW a lot, but its a more family-friendly movie, while DEVIL'S DOORWAY is stark, brutal and unrelenting.

In her book Source: Anthony Mann (Wesleyan University Press, 2007). Jeanine Basinger astutely places Mann's western work in its proper context: “Mann might be said to have modernized the genre, incorporating into it an increased violence and using it to express man's vision to self, the conflicts of his inner psychology.”
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In DEVIL'S DOORWAY Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), a full-blooded Shoshone, returns to his Wyoming home after serving with the Union Army during the American Civil War, where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Upon his return though, he finds himself the target of bigotry and prejudice, with not even the basic rights of a citizen.

The local doctor refuses to give up his poker game to treat  his dying father, and the town bully starts a barroom brawl with Poole simply because he's a Shoshone.

Poole owns a particularly coveted spread, eagerly wanted by the local ranchers. There's a loophole in the law uncovered by an Eastern lawyer named Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who wants the Shoshones driven from their land at all costs.

Poole enlists the aid of a new lawyer in town, A. Masters. To his shock, A. Masters turns out to be a woman, Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond, underrated here), who takes his case. I think she knows the Shoshones are getting a raw deal and should keep their land, but knows in her heart its a lost cause. 

Poole and his fellow Shoshones stand ready to defend their land to the death. The U.S. Cavalry sides with the townspeople, and Poole and the Shoshones make a last stand on their land.

DEVIL'S DOORWAY deserves to be better known. It's a gorgeous film to look at. Mann and ace cinematographer John Alton film many scenes like a noir. There's a noir-like barroom fight where the spectators watch in sweaty-faced close up. Think THE SET-UP (1949) on the frontier. Much of the action plays in the shadows with some characters barely visible in conversations.

The combination of Mann and Alton means there isn't a dull or uninteresting shot in the whole movie. (Anyone who thinks black and white photography is boring really needs to see this movie, or anything Alton shot in black and white).




Take the photographic treatment of Coolan. Dressed in black, Mann positions him often in the foreground or at a low angle looking up, as people in the background discuss what they will do with the Shoshones. He stands there quietly taking it all in, almost as if he represented the evil of bigotry. I don't mean to imply that he is demonic or anything like that, but the way he is presented its almost as if he personifies  evil on the frontier, chortling inside as he spreads the ugliness of bigotry under a most respectable facade. Between this and his weak-willed lawyer turn in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE the same year, Louis Calhern had a banner year playing two very different villains.

 

Unfortunately, DEVIL'S DOORWAY tanked at the box office, having the bad luck to open the same year as the very popular and similar-themed BROKEN ARROW.

Basinger again: “DEVIL'S DOORWAY was not a critical or commercial success. Its reception was greatly harmed by the release of Delmer Daves's BROKEN ARROW, starring James Stewart as a western scout who tries to make peace with Cochise. Most critics saw Mann's film as a low-budget black and white rip-off of Daves. This was unfortunate, because DEVIL'S DOORWAY is a far superior film. BROKEN ARROW is self-conscious and talky, but its overt moralizing was taken seriously by the same critics who dismissed DEVIL'S DOORWAY. It was not Mann's style to film screenplays which discussed and presented concepts laid over a story. Rather he presented stories with ideas and concepts built into them, and the depth of his films is still overlooked on this basis....

“A key to the relative honesty of the two films might be their attitudes toward sexual relationships between Indians and whites. In BROKEN ARROW, Stewart married an appropriately beautiful Indian maiden, Debra Paget, who is killed by whites. This cliched area of white-man-loves-Pocahontas is a staple of the old-fashioned western story and does nothing to further the truth about the plight of the Indians. On the contrary, the sight of Paget in her beautifully designed suede moccasins and color-coordinated beads is enough to send any white man scampering to the reservation. No love is allowed in DEVIL'S DOORWAY, a far more truthful situation and although white-man-can-love-redwoman, white woman still cannot love red man without shame and ostracism....

“Fortunately, DEVIL'S DOORWAY has gained in reputation since its release. It is not only an honest portrait of the plight of the Indian, but it also has an interesting portrait of a pre-liberation woman. It is in every way a modern film. In Mann's career, it stands out as a major step forward, carrying over his noir sensibility, both formally and thematically, into a new genre.” 

Yes, a very modern film, though I suspect some contemporary audiences won't be able to get past the casting of Robert Taylor as a Native American. But he's terrific in it, and I would rank it among his top three performances. His Lance Poole is a very sympathetic character, giving everything for his country only to return to his home where he is treated less than dirt.

I can see some actors gnashing their teeth and beating their chest as indignity after indignity is forced on them. But Taylor underplays, letting us see the very proud man trying to hold onto his values while hoping he can help his people as much as possible.  It's a quietly physical performance, and I can't think of another actor who could have done as good a job.



Taylor made quite a few westerns in the decade, including two of the very best ever, WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951) and THE LAST HUNT (1956). Even those of the more routine variety, such as AMBUSH (1950), RIDE, VAQUERO (1953) and THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958) are very entertaining contributions to the genre. Add DEVIL'S DOORWAY to the list and I think a good case can be made that Robert Taylor made many important contributions to the western film.

I remember when DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) opened, and while I enjoyed it, it it bugged me to no end how in interviews and press materials the movie was touted as the first Hollywood film to treat Native Americans with respect  for their culture, instead of being the anonymous bad guys in hundreds of westerns.

I'm no apologist for Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans, but that's simply not true. Most reporters and film journalists whose knowledge of film history only goes back to STAR WARS (1977) eagerly nodded their heads and lauded Costner and Co. for their bold stand on behalf of the continent's original settlers. There was an article in Film Comment that pointed out the fallacy to the film's defenders, but many writers thought DANCES WITH WOLVES was the first western to treat the Native American culture sympathetically.   (I guess they never saw any of Richard Harris' MAN CALLED HORSE movies).


 

But Hollywood was there long before DANCES WITH WOLVES. Movies like DEVIL'S DOORWAY and BROKEN ARROW also showed the injustice the white man showed to Native Americans. Even in the silent era, Richard Dix played a heroic Native Americans in THE VANISHING AMERICAN (1925) and the part-sound REDSKIN (1929) – the title may be racist but the film hardly is.

There was the remarkable MASSACRE (1934) from Warner Bros., a pre-Code doozie with Richard Barthelmess trying vainly to save the reservation from ruin in the heights of the Depression, with hindrance after hindrance thrown up by crooked government officials.

Some viewers who equate John Wayne with traditional western thinking might be surprised at some of his dialogue in HONDO (1953), where Wayne pretty much says he doesn't blame the Apaches for going on the war path, as the Apaches never broke a treaty while the U.S. Government broke every one they ever signed.

So DANCES WITH WOLVES was hardly the first pro-Indian film, and far from the best, despite its many Oscars. Others were there first. DEVIL'S DOORWAY did it before and far more effectively. And as Basinger says, it's very modern, its starkly beautiful photography often in counterpoint with the stain of prejudice. It's one of the best westerns ever made, a tribute to Mann, Alton, Taylor and company.

Be sure to visit the Classic Movie Bloggers Association website - http://clamba.blogspot.com/ - for a list of titles and blogs during this blogathon. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Tyrone Power Blogathon: Son of Fury


This entry is happily part of the Power-Mad blogathon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Hollywood's most enduring stars, Tyrone Power. Other entries can be found here: http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com/2014/03/celebrating-tyrone-powers-100th-birthday.html.

For me, SON OF FURY (1942) is a prime representation of Golden Age Hollywood. Impossibly beautiful leading men and ladies, luminous cinematography, a haunting music score, studio craftsmanship able to convincingly recreate 19th century London, an English country manor house and a South Seas island paradise on the Fox back lot, and a seemingly never-ending cavalcade of unforgettable character actors.

SON OF FURY is a perfect vehicle for star Tyrone Power. Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was always on the look out for suitable stories for his top male box office attraction, and while Power may have blanched at some of these roles, Zanuck knew his audience and what to give them – and he did, in some of the best adventure films ever made.

Tyrone Power had that rare talent to wear period clothing and making it look completely natural. He inhabited those costumes like 007 wearing a tuxedo. And his beautiful speaking voice with clear diction made him an ideal fit for these roles.


Based on the 1941 best-selling novel “Benjamin Blake” by Edison Marshall, SON OF FURY tells the story of young Benjamin Blake (Roddy McDowall), the illegitimate son of an English landowner who is brought up by his grandfather (Harry Davenport). His estate has been stolen from him by his uncle Sir Arthur Blake (George Sanders).

Blake works at the estate as a stable boy where he grows up to become Tyrone Power, falling in love with his cousin Isabel (Frances Farmer) and tormented on a regular basis by his cruel uncle. Finding Ben and Isabel together, Arthur whips Ben unmercifully. (Power seemed to get beat up or tortured by quite a bit in his adventure films, such as here and in THE BLACK SWAN the same year).

With the help of kindly tavern keeper (Elsa Lanchester), Ben flees England and stows away on a ship headed to the South Seas. Upon discovery he is beaten up some more by the captain, but allowed to work his way for his passage. He befriends Caleb Green (John Carradine) who tells him of an island whose sea beds are loaded with pearls.


Ben and Caleb jump ship at the island, where they find a fortune in pearls. Ben falls in love with one of the girls on the island who he names Eve (Gene Tierney). After an idyllic time spent on the island, Ben returns to England, where he enlists the aid of London's sliest lawyer Bartholomew Pratt (Dudley Digges) to reclaim his birthright and extract revenge on his uncle, not only in court but in a well-staged bout of fisticuffs.

While Marshall set his novel in the 1770s and early 1780s, Zanuck was having none of that. A July 1, 1941 memo from script coordinator Dorothy Hechtlinger wrote: “Mr. Zanuck is against using any kind of wigs in the motion picture. For this reason, we will change the period of the story proper to 1810, the period of LLOYD'S OF LONDON (Power's first starring role in 1936), which is a very good period. The prologue would take place around 1795.”

Not only was the novel's setting changed, but so was the title. Though “Benjamin Blake” had been a best seller, Zanuck wanted a punchier title. Zanuck liked one of the suggested titles, SON OF FURY, enough to keep it. Other titles considered were HE WHO CAME BACK and SON OF THE STORM. But “The Story of Benjamin Blake” was retained as a subtitle on the film's promotional materials and on the film's title card, to help rein in the book's many readers.

Though Power was always set for the lead, some of the initial casting ideas for the other roles are very interesting. Laird Cregar was penciled in for Sir Arthur and Ida Lupino as Isabel. Though Lupino was under contract to Warners at the time, she still owed Fox a picture in a contract dating back to her role in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939). Instead, Fox cast her opposite Jean Gabin MOONTIDE (1942). Maureen O'Hara was then slated until she was felled by appendicitis which required surgery and recuperation. Next up was Fox contract player Cobina Wright Jr., until a serious throat infection caused her to drop out. In desperation, Fox borrowed from Paramount the troubled but very talented Frances Farmer, in what proved to be her penultimate film appearance.


For the role of Eve, Ben's South Seas love interest, Zanuck suggested “If we don't use a real native girl, Gene Tierney.” We now know Tierney from such roles as LAURA (1944) and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1946), but at this point in her career being cast as a South Seas maiden likely didn't seem so odd. She had been already cast as an Arab in SUNDOWN (1941), and Asians in THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) and CHINA GIRL (1942). She makes a most fetching Eve, especially when so lovingly photographed by ace cinematographer Arthur Miller on those moonbeam-drenched beaches. If Tierney in a sarong was enough to bring in the men, the ladies got Tyrone Power spending most of his South Seas scenes in his bathing trunks. Something for everyone.

It's easy today to be critical about Gene Tierney cast as an island maiden, but context is everything. As socially conscious as he could be (and Zanuck was the most socially conscious of all the studio heads), there was no way Zanuck the businessman wasn't going to showcase his newest exotic-looking contract player and potential star opposite the studio's biggest leading man in what was sure to be one of the year's smash hits.


Because he was a former screenwriter Zanuck had an unusually acute sense of story structure. He was critical of screenwriter Philip Dunne's initial drafts, telling him in a memo:

“You have Blake running away from social injustice so he can come back some day and cure the horrible conditions. We don't want to tell that kind of a story. We don't want this to be a social document. It must be a personal story – the story of a bastard who has the moral right to an estate using his wits against another man who has the legal right. It must be told with gusto – swashbuckling. It is a Monte Cristo setup and should be treated as such.”

Novelist Marshall seemed somewhat ambivalent about the final film and its many changes from the book, saying at the time of the film's release, “I wrote a book to be read; Fox has made a picture to be seen, and I think they complement each other nicely.” (I don't know what he thought of the adaptation of his 1951 book “The Viking” which was made into “The Vikings” (1958) with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Hardly anything of Marshall's book is found in the movie.)

The film is loaded to the brim with great character actors. It's one of John Carradine's most appealing characterizations – it's such a pleasure to see him play a good guy for a change. Dudley Digges steals every scene he's in as the wily lawyer, and Elsa Lanchester delivers one of her loveliest and most understated performances here. No eccentricities, just a decent woman trying to do the right thing.



George Sanders delivers his usual venom-dripped performance. One senses Sir Arthur enjoys every aspect of stealing his nephew's inheritance, and even when it looks like all is finished he's still trying to finagle matters to his advantage. Any movie is better with George Sanders in it. His wife is played by Kay Johnson, wife of director John Cromwell and mother to actor James Cromwell.

Cromwell does a splendid job here. I've always thought he was a most unheralded director, based on his beyond marvelous THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) and that small jewel of a movie THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945). While not as good as those two masterpieces, SON OF FURY impresses with its sweep and lack of padding. There's a lot of story told in 98 minutes.

The film is also helped immeasurably by Alfred Newman's musical score. The film's major love theme – and its a beauty – had lyrics added to it by Mack Gordon and titled “Blue Tahitian Moon.” It achieved a modicum of success via recordings by Kenny Baker and Frances Langford, but without the smash success of Newman's haunting “The Moon of Manakoora” from John Ford's South Seas epic THE HURRICANE (1937). (While most famously used in the Ford film, that melody was originally composed for MR. ROBINSON CRUSOE (1932) starring Douglas Fairbanks.)

SON OF FURY was successful enough to warrant a remake, TREASURE OF THE GOLDEN CONDOR (1953), with Cornel Wilde, George Macready, Anne Bancroft and Constance Smith in, respectively, the Tyrone Power, George Sanders, Frances Framer and Gene Tierney roles. Filmed in Technicolor and moved to Guatemala, it's not a bad little film (the Sol Kaplan score is first-rate, one of his finest), but can't compare with SON OF FURY. The Power film remains as watchable today as it did when it was first made.



I know Power wished for more challenging roles from Zanuck, but he did exceptional work in the swashbuckling/adventure film genres. I've always felt he gave an Academy Award nomination-worthy performance in THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) – it's probably my second favorite performance after his very atypical role in the classic NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947). But Power, like Errol Flynn and to a lesser extent Stewart Granger, had the unheralded talent to look at home in other eras. It's much harder than it looks (ever see Brad Pitt in TROY(2004)? I think he's a terrific actor, but he was so out of place there).

It's a tragedy that Power died so young. It would have been nice to see him make it to the nostalgic boom of the 1970s, become a respected character actor, and look at his past films and say, “Boy, those were some pretty entertaining films after all. Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Happy 100th Birthday to one of the great ones, an actor whose performances have given and continue to give enormous pleasure over the decades.

(Background information on SON OF FURY came courtesy booklet notes from the SON OF FURY soundtrack CD, a Screen Archives Entertainment Production.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

James Stewart Blogathon: The FBI Story


 

THE FBI STORY (1959) is a product of its time, as conservative a movie made in the 1950s or any other decade. The FBI is portrayed as the finest friend the American citizen has, fighting against the Ku Klux Klan, those who would defraud Native Americans, gangsters, Nazis and, of course, Communists. I'm no  expert on American crime, but I know the FBI was hardly the halo-wearing bureau as presented here.

Alas, while THE FBI STORY is not one of Jimmy Stewart's most memorable films, it does utilize many aspects of the famed Stewart persona, and provides a preview of his “befuddled” father character he would play in the upcoming decade.

With Stewart's FBI special agent Chip Hardesty character guiding us through many of the most memorable crimes and outlaws of the 20th century, there's a little something for every Jimmy Stewart fan.

You want Stewart as an upstanding lawman upholding American values? You got it here.

 

You like seeing Jimmy Stewart out west? Then you will likely enjoy a segment with Hardesty in Oklahoma investigating the murders of members of the Osage Indians and a plot to steal their oil-rich land. While the calendar says 1920s, it may as well be Stewart in the Old West, what with crooked bankers and shady lawyers.

Others may enjoy watching Stewart as family man. The family scenes get lots of footage with wife Vera Miles sometimes resentful, but ultimately accepting, of her husband's job and the responsibilities that come with it.

The casting of Miles is interesting because it gives us a what-if idea of what their scenes in VERTIGO (1958) would look like if Miles hadn't gotten pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak. There's a scene involving a family crisis with close-ups of Stewart comforting Miles and one can't help but think of VERTIGO's many memorable close-ups.


It may be one of the most fortuitous pregnancies in movie history because as much as I try, I can't see Vera Miles as Madeline (or Judy). Because THE FBI STORY came one year after VERTIGO, I think it's easier to imagine the VERTIGO possibilities than the other Stewart-Miles pairing in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962), glamor-wise the complete antithesis of VERTIGO. (I find Novak so perfectly cast I can't imagine anyone else in the role.)

Stewart's scenes as the father trying to connect with his children look ahead to his father roles in such family friendly fare as TAKE HER SHE' S MINE (1963), MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962) and DEAR BRIGITTE (1965). Personally, this is my least favorite Stewart persona, though I do enjoy the Mr. Hobbs film. The family scenes are the worst part of THE FBI STORY and help make the film an almost unendurable 149 minutes long.

They also provide what is, for me, the most painful scene in Stewart's career, where Chip Hardesty, who has fought every type of villain under the sun, throws a hissy fit because one of his kids used all the tissue paper to make an angel costume for the school's Christmas pageant. Hardesty mopes, yells and complains and its embarrassing to watch. The scene seems to go on forever and it took awhile for me to re-adjust my sympathy back to the Chip Hardesty character.


THE FBI STORY was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and, alas, his best days were behind him. I'm not going to knock LeRoy, who directed several favorite films of mine, including two 1930s classics, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. Equal parts scrappy, biting and perceptive, these movies capture the 1930s as well as any documentary could, while being supremely entertaining. But none of the pep of these movies can be found in THE FBI STORY. A lumbering script, based on a best-selling 1956 novel by Don Whitehead doesn't help, but I'm not blaming LeRoy. He had less freedom on the film then any he did in his career, what with being under the steely glare of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for the length of the production.

According to “Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover” by Anthony Summers (G.P. Putnams Sons, 1993), Hoover cultivated Jack Warner for years. Agents would greet Warner at airports and arranged quick exits through the airport. If any studio was going to produce a love letter to the FBI, it was Warner Bros. Hoover provided THE FBI STORY with two special agents as technical advisors on government expense and five additional agents appeared in the film as agents. I'm guessing that in this case, technical advisors equals spies.

(The Warner Bros. TV series, THE FBI was also produced under close scrutiny by the agency. Hoover read all the scripts and an agent was on the set at all times to ensure proper procedures were shown, scripts were never deviated from and the bureau was always shown in the most positive light.)

Hoover could not have been more pleased with the film. He wrote to director LeRoy:

“Dear Mervyn: As I told you yesterday, words cannot express my complete delight at seeing THE FBI STORY. I felt certain the picture would be a great credit to the FBI but what I saw and heard was beyond my greatest expectations. Your treatment of the development and growth of our bureau, interwoven with a warm family story, will have a great impact on the American public. It was down with great warmth, humility and dignity...It can be truly be said you are one of us.”


According to “Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover” by Richard Hack (New Millennium Press, 2004), Hoover received $50,000 in unreported income for his services on the film as a technical consultant. No wonder he loved the film so much.

I've always thought THE FBI STORY came about due to the enormous success of THE UNTOUCHABLES television show, but that show premiered in 1959 as well. There seemed to be some sort of nostalgia boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the 1920s, especially its lawless years.


While THE FBI STORY shows the bureau tracking down Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, each of these famous characters, and others, received their own movies. Mickey Rooney shot up the screen as BABY FACE NELSON (1957), Rod Steiger was a memorable AL CAPONE (1959), Charles Bronson was a violent MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958), Lurene Tuttle scowled her way through MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD (1960), Dorothy Provine was no Faye Dunaway in THE BONNIE PARKER STORY (1958), John Ericson played PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960), and Ray Danton impressed in THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND (1960). Even Robert Taylor got into the act as a 1920s gangland lawyer in the superb PARTY GIRL (1958). And of course, we can't forget Josephine and Daphne hiding from gangsters in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Sociologists more familiar than me with this fascination with the 1920s could provide a better explanation than me. Most of the above are of the B movie variety and have much more energy and zip than the often lethargic, though higher budget, THE FBI STORY.

But for its use of many facets of past Jimmy Stewart characterizations, and the first of his father vs. the generation gap characterizations, THE FBI STORY is worth watching for the Stewart admirer.

This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. You can view the complete blogathon schedule here: http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2014/03/announcing-james-stewart-blogathon.html)

Lots of great films to be covered by a lot of terrific writers. It's going to be a great week.