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it gives us a what-if idea of what their scenes in VERTIGO (1958) would look like if Miles hadn't gotten pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak.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.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Master Minds


MASTER MINDS (1949) is one of the more amusing entries in the Bowery Boys series, and may prove of special interest to1940s horror movie fans.

At 48 entries and, to date, the longest-running feature film series in film history, I happen to think the Bowery Boys movies, produced by Monogram Studios between 1946 and 1958, is one of the more underrated movie series of the era. While the films were primarily aimed at children, earlier entries tended to be a little gritter and earthier, and some, like ANGELS IN DISGUISE (1949) offer scenes that would not be out of place in the film noir classics of the era.

Forty-eight films means all genres, situations and military branches got invaded by the Bowery Boys. Some of the more popular titles of their time, and today, are the entries were the Boys got involved in spooks, mad scientists, haunted mansions and monsters. The series' highest grossing film was THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS (1954), one of the most self-explanatory titles in movie history (and an obvious cue from the success of the Abbott and Costello Meet movies).


One of the best of these is MASTER MINDS where Bowery dunce Satch (Huntz Hall) gets the uncanny ability to foretell the future after earning a toothache from eating too much candy. Chief of the boys, Slip Mahoney (Leo Gorcey) exhibits Satch's prophecy skills in a carny act. Satch really can foretell the future and attracts the attention of Dr. Druzik (Alan Napier), who wants to put Satch's brain into that of Atlas the Monster (Glenn Strange), creating an army of supermen and, in true Monogram fashion, take over the world.

Glenn Strange is perhaps best known for his three portrayals of the Frankenstein monster in three Universal horror pics, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). He also played an overalls-wearing werewolf in PRC's THE MAD MONSTER (1942). Physically imposing, Strange doesn't do much with the Frankenstein monster, especially in the first two entries.



But in MASTER MINDS, Strange really cuts loose, perfectly mimicking Huntz Hall's body language to a T. While his voice is obviously Hall's dubbed in, he perfectly conveys the idea that Satch is inhabiting a monster's body. I've seen a lot of Bowery Boys movies in my time, and Strange nails Hall's mannerisms. Strange appeared in seemingly hundreds of movies and I can't lay claim to seeing all of them, or even most of them. But from what I have seen, I have to pick his role in MASTER MINDS as my favorite performance of his. He likely enjoyed the change of pace and more than rises to the occasion.

Playing on of Dr. Druzik's assistants is the lovely Jane Adams. Universal horror fans will likely recognize female lead Jane Adams, who played the hunchback nurse in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Caped Crusader fans with a severe Batman fetish might get a kick out of seeing TV's Alfred the Butler (Alan Napier) share scenes with cinema's first Vicki Vale, Jane Adams from the 1949 Columbia serial BATMAN AND ROBIN.

Another of the assistants is played by Skelton Knaggs. A name and a face perfectly suited for thrillers and horror movies, Knaggs moves and looks like a zombie even when he is doing as simple as walking across a room.

 The movie itself is typical Bowery Boys shenanigans, which means I enjoyed it. For me, its one of the better entries. I always enjoy the never never land shown in Monogram horror movies of spooky mansions and hayseed law enforcement officers. All of the Boys (David Gorcey, Bennie Bartlett and Billy Benedict) have a little more to do than usual, and even sweet shop owner Louie (Bernard Gorcey, father of Leo and David) overcomes his courage of spooky places to impersonate a ghost to help save his profit-eating pals. (I'm currently re-watching the series, out of order, thanks to the Warner Archive, and hope to come across an entry where Slip, Satch and the Boys actually pay for something at Louie's Sweet Shop.)

MASTER MINDS is a most enjoyable entry in the horror comedy sweepstakes and I was glad to re-make its acquaintance. With 48 films, the Bowery Boys must have been doing something right.

I'm very pleased to be participating in the James Stewart blogathon, April 14-18, sponsored by the Classic Film and TV Cafe site. On April 14, I'll be tackling THE FBI STORY (1959). Not a particularly great movie, but an interesting use of the Stewart persona and a preview of what the next decade held in store for Stewart. I'm looking forward to all of the great posts on one one of my favorite actors.

 


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Best and Worst Movies of 2013



(My apologies for the lateness of this Best of 2013 column. It's up much later than I planned, thanks to irritating computer problems and equally irritating life issues that sometimes pop up. An earlier, slightly longer and more refined version of this article was ready when it went away into computer heaven. I never had so many problems with a blog posting. But at least it's ready by the Oscars. The following is based on my viewing of 100 2013 releases I saw, either at the theater or on DVD, from January 1, 2013 to mid-February, 2014).

I must admit to scratching my head when I read some articles proclaiming what a great year 2013 was for the movies, for I thought it was a fairly undistinguished one, especially compared to last year, which I thought was probably the best year for movies in a decade.

2013? Overall, not so much. Oh there were some good movies to be had, but mainly of the independent film variety. Most of the splashy Hollywood productions were very disappointing, with the summer being, for me, offering one colossal clunker after another.

One thing that struck me particularly this year, is that Hollywood has forgotten how to entertain. Even up to 10 years or so I can remember leaving some movies exhilarated and moved, but that rarely happens today. It does happen occasionally, but it was the rare occurrence this year when I left the theater with a smile on my face and a soaring feeling in my heart. (Don't get me started on the majority of new comedies I saw this year. Blech!)

It seems to me like many contemporary directors and producers think entertainment is a dirty word, and they’re almost afraid of providing a pleasurable reaction. Even ideally sure fire ideas like this year’s THE LONE RANGER and MAN OF STEEL were bogged down in their own sense of self-importance and spectacle for the sake of spectacle.

The summer was an especially loud and obnoxious one. The only big summer movie I enjoyed was the giant robot vs. giant monster epic PACIFC RIM. I saw it once, and enjoyed it, but have no desire to see it again. But at least I was entertained while watching it.

I will give major props to our actors and actresses, many of which turned in terrific performances even in movies I didn’t care for, such as AMERICAN HUSTLE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and SAVING MR. BANKS (I swear if there was one more flashback to Australia I would have torn out my remaining hairs). Great acting on display here, even if the films themselves, were, for me, severely wanting.

Still, I’m not ready to write off Hollywood yet. The tide has to turn sometime. Last year was a great year and this year not so great. But if one looked past Hollywood and sought out some independent or smaller films, there were a lot of jewels to be found.

The following is my personal list of what I think are 2013’s best films. The list will will likely strike some as pretentious and snobbish. But I didn't respond to a lot of what was offered at the theaters and got the most satisfaction from the many fine independent films I saw last year.

RUNNER UPS:

Before I get to my top ten, the following films are ones that almost, but did not quite qualify for the Top Ten. Readers may want to realize I tend to rate films that are high on the emotional level – both happy and sad. I don’t mean schmaltz, but films that speak equally to the heart and the mind.

 


OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL – The year’s most pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect to like it, but I thought it was pretty darn good. Great candy-coated color too and production design, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s nice to see a fantasy film that wasn’t dominated by steely-looking gray or blue dominance.



FRANCES HA – Wonderful indie drama starring the great Greta Gerwig as one of these lovable but sad sack types we all know who just can’t seem to get it together. It was wonderful hearing that music too from the late, great French film composer Georges Delerue. I’m usually against using old film scores for new movies, but it sure was nice to hear real melody in a movie again.



THE CONJURING – The year’s scariest movie, and proof positive filmmakers can generate plenty of tension and willies without resorting to gore.

 

THE WAY WAY BACK – What can I say, I like coming of age dramas and in a year of good ones, this was one of the best. Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney and Steve Carrel deliver some of the best work of their careers.



BLUE JASMINE – I like most Woody Allen movies and his winning streak. This is probably my favorite entry in a year of movies devoted to the ever increasing gap between the haves and have nots. Cate Blanchett delivers the year’s best performance.



DALLAS BUYERS CLUB – Another one where I liked the acting more than the actual film, but Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto deliver two of the year’s best performances about the early days of the AIDS crisis. Count me as a fan, so maybe I’m biased.



CAPTAIN PHILLIPS – Beautifully acted and written, this one just missed for me because I remembered a lot of details of the situation from, I believe, a Vanity Fair article, and I’m not a fan of shaky-cam (such a cliché now). But there’s no denying the solidity of the acting here.



HER – Major props for originality, but for me, a tad too cold and antiseptic (this is a minority opinion). I also thought the main character, Theodore, was such a mope before and during his romance with his computer operating system that I didn’t care. Another demerit – too long by about 20-30 minutes.



A HIJACKING – Similar to CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, this Danish film was a gripping look at a prolonged hostage situation involving Somali pirates as well. Unlike CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, which we knew how it was going to end, this drama fascinated with its look at the toil long negotiations take, not only on the captors and their prisoners, but the negotiators, the families involved and the board of directors of the shipping line who begrudge paying any more ransom than necessary. For me, the year’s most intense film.



THE SPECTACULAR NOW – One of the best high school coming of age stories in a long time. Studious Shailene Woodley falls for likable though alcoholic Miles Teller and what happens when their feelings for each other start getting stronger. It's the type of movie where I was silently pleading with the characters not to go down certain life decisions.


THE BEST FILMS OF 2013

My very personal picks for the year’s best movies.


10. DISCONNECT – HER is getting all the attention with its look at man’s relationships with his machines, but this multi-part story about how technology is affecting our relationships strikes me as more powerful. This one has continued to stick with me for a long time. Standout work by Jason Bateman.



9. ABOUT TIME – This time travel romance was easily the most charming and beguiling film of the year, in a year of movies were such qualities were in woefully short supply. Rachel McAdams is luminous here and like the great characters of old, we eagerly await for Bill Nighy to appear and wish he was in more scenes.



8. ENOUGH SAID – Beautifully written, acted and directed middle-age romance starring James Gandolfini in one of his last roles and Julia Louis Dreyfuss as a couple befuddled by their relationship and how what one person thinks could derail a relationship.



7. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES – Another multi-part movie where several disparate elements that play off each other over the course of many years culminate in a shattering conclusion. I think Bradley Cooper was better here than in AMERICAN HUSTLE, but the latter is getting all the love.



6. NEBRASKA – Beautifully shot in black and white and one of the year’s most beautifully expressive scores highlight director Alexander Payne’s road trip movie starring the great Bruce Dern in the performance of his career. Equally memorable work by the feisty June Squibb as his long-suffering wife. The biggest surprise for me was how much I liked Will Forte here.



5. SHORT TERM 12– Wonderful drama about a foster care facility and troubled teens and how those in charge are not much older than those they are caring for. Despite their own troubled pasts, these young adults do their best to tend to those they are responsible for. Beautifully acted, and also heart wrenching, the final shot of this film may be my favorite of the year.



4. GRAVITY - Not the final shot, but GRAVITY's final sequence, with Sandra Bullock desperately trying to return to Earth is probably my favorite and life affirming. The year’s greatest technical achievement. What I liked about GRAVITY is I’ve seen a lot of movies in my day. A lot of movies. But Gravity showed me visuals and situations I’ve never seen before.



3. MUD – Deliberately paced, this Southern Gothic drama is one of the best coming of age movies I’ve seen in a young time, though the characters are younger than in THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Matthew McConaughey delivers his second best performance of the year, and Reese Witherspoon is the best she’s been in years. No other film had a better sense of time and place than MUD. An unforgettable experience.



2. PHILOMENA – The year’s most moving experience I had in a movie theater last year. Yes, I’m something of a softie, so that may have something to do with it. Some have said this is Anti-Catholic. I didn’t find it that way, and I attend mass every week. But it is a very powerful tale of forgiveness and Judi Dench is unforgettable as Philomena Lee who had her son taken away for adoption by nuns 50 years ago. She only wants to find out what happened to him and if he was happy. Wonderful on every level.



1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE – My pick for the best film of the year is one of the most brutal and difficult to watch films. We all know how cruel slavery is but never has it been painted on such a dehumanizing level for both slaves and slave owners equally.

THE WORST OF 2013

Here my choices for the worst films of the year, each and every one of these an excruciating experience. How bad were they? If I left the theater after watching one of these turkeys, got into my car, turned on the radio and heard there was an asteroid on an imminent collision course with Earth, I would not try to flee to high ground. That’s how dispiriting these movies were.

I’m not going to rank them, because they all stink to high heaven. No descriptions either, as I don’t want to waste any more time on them than necessary.

In the order in which I saw them:

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD

PAIN AND GAIN

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

MAN OF STEEL

AFTER EARTH

WHITE HOUSE DOWN

THE HANGOVER III

THIS IS THE END

THE LONE RANGER

GROWN UPS 2

RIDDICK

THE FIFTH ESTATE

Here's hoping 2014 gives us a year of great movies enjoyed by friends and family along with much good health and happiness. And more than a few TCM premieres.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Lady in the Iron Mask





It took me several decades, but I finally got to see LADY IN THE IRON MASK (1952) which for many years was one of my most sought-after titles.

It wasn’t under idyllic circumstances that I saw it. The bootleg DVD of this color film was in black and white, and was eight minutes shy of its 78-minute running time. But my curiosity has been satisfied and I was glad to finally see it under any circumstances.

Was it worth the wait? I would say yes. I didn’t have particularly high expectations of it and its less than perfect version is not the ideal way to judge it.

But what I saw I enjoyed.

Why did I want to see LADY IN THE IRON MASK so much? Well, it’s a swashbuckler, one of my favorite genres, and starred Louis Hayward, one of my favorite actors in that genre.

For many years I assumed it was a Fox film, so couldn’t understand the difficulty to see it. But the credits read a Walter Wanger Production - a little easier to understand its relative rarity. Independent films often fall through the cracks. Still, the film was distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, so I assumed the production values would be high, as other Wanger productions were. .

Plus, it had a Dimitri Tiomkin score and I was very interested to hear how the Russian maestro would handle a swashbuckling film.

I must say, Dimitri didn’t disappoint as the main title is a marvelously rousing piece, and sets the stage for the adventure to follow, which, let’s face it, is really nothing more than what the title explains, a distaff version of the famous Alexandre Dumas novel “The Man in the Iron Mask.”


Instead of a king being kidnapped and having his head wrapped in an iron mask, it’s a queen this time. Patricia Medina plays twin sisters Queen Anne and Princess Louise. John Sutton plays the Duc de Valdac who replaces the Queen with her sister.

The musketeers, including D’Artagnan (Hayward), Porthos (Alan Hale, Jr.), Aramis (Judd Holdren) and Athos (Steve Brodie) are charged with finding the real queen before the coronation can take place, and strop the Duc de Valdac’s plans to be the real power behind the throne. One of the clues is the placement of a birthmark on the real queen. There’s some innuendo as to where the birthmark is located, but this being the 1950s, its locale is not as salacious as one led to believe at the beginning.

Nothing new here, but it’s played with the right amount of gusto. Director Ralph Murphy has a decent eye for composition that I could discern through the murky bootleg quality of the DVD. There are some effective tracking shots during a chase on horseback and some inventive staging during a duel scene in a torture chamber. Said chamber is manned by the massive Tor Johnson. It’s always fun when he turns up.


LADY IN THE IRON MASK was filmed using a cheaper color process called Naturalcolor, one of the cheaper processes and one I am not familiar with. Due to the DVD being in black and white, I can’t judge what the color was like.

Still. I’m a fan of these medium-budget swashbucklers, and Louis Hayward is the first name that comes to mind with them. He starred in quite a few gems, especially his first forays into the genre, THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1939) and my favorite, THE SON OF MONTE CRISTO (1940).

He may not have had the cache of a Flynn, Power, Fairbanks or Granger, but if producers wanted a swashbuckler hero to carry their “B” swashbucklers, then Hayward was the man.

In addition to being a hero on screen, Hayward was a World War II hero in real life, though at enormous personal cost. Compare the pre-war Hayward to the post-war one, and one can see the effect his war service took on him. The swashbuckling portrayals he did after the war are less ebullient, more grounded.

I can think of few actors whose portrayals before and after the war are so stark in their contrast. The vivacity on display in THE SON OF MONTE CRISO is considerably muted in such roles as THE RETURN OF MONTE CRISTO (1946) or THE BLACK ARROW (1948). I’m not implying he’s moping around, but there’s a weariness and ennui not present in those earlier roles. The post-war Louis Hayward would not be able to give as appealing a performance as he gives in THE SON OF MONTE CRISTO.

“Stars in the Corps: Movie Actors in the United States Marines” by James E. Wise, Jr. and Anne Collier Rehill (Naval Institute Press, 1999) gives a very interesting account of Hayward’s wartime service.

The South African-born Hayward became an American citizen on Dec. 6, 1941, one day before Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Marines on June 8, 1942. Because of his film background, he was commissioned on July 1, 1941 as a first lieutenant, in the Marine Corps Photographic Section.

He and his camera crew filmed the Marines landing at Tarawa. Not from a ship, but Hayward and crew jumped from the landing craft onto the beach along with the Marines, cameras running the whole time through a gauntlet of bullets and explosions from the defending Japanese. Their footage found its way into the documentary film WITH THE MARINES AT TARAWA which was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary of 1944.



Despite the film’s success, the experience took a heavy toll on Hayward. As Wise and Rehill write:

“He came home a changed man: pale, withdrawn, deeply disturbed about the violent death he had managed to crawl away from while leaving so many others there forever. From time to time he began to tell (then wife Ida Lupino) about some things about Tarawa, but then he would fall suddenly silent….He was then assigned to assist in processing the film footage for the final cut of WITH THE MARINES AT TARAWA.  Day after day he had to relive the battle, shown in grotesque scenes that the general public would never see. He grew even more moody and nervous at home and suffered severe asthma attacks. In the end, he and Ida, unable to recover their former intimacy, separated, remaining on friendly and mutually supportive terms.”

In June of 1944, Hayward suffered a complete physical collapse, and he spent his remaining two months in the Corps as a patient in naval hospitals.

He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps on November 9, 1944.  He was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V” with the following citation:

“For meritorious service as Assistant Intelligence Officer in Charge of Combat Photography of the Second Marine Division, prior to and during operations against Japanese forces on Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, from 20 to 28 November 1943. Personally going ashore with the assault units of the division despite grave hazards, Captain Hayward skillfully and daringly directed his men in their efforts throughout the battle and afterwards while photographing the enemy defenses for intelligence studies. By his efficient preparation in training his men in all phases and techniques of combat photography and his tireless leadership ashore, he succeeded in producing a comprehensive and technically excellent coverage of our forces in battle. Captain Hayward’s professional ability, courageous conduct and tireless devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. Captain Hayward is authorized to wear the Combat “V.”

He resumed his film career with one of his finest films, the best adaptation of the famous Agatha Christie mystery AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945).  Few actors were as lucky Hayward for their return to the screen.

Hayward’s last film before joining the service showcases probably his best performance in LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1941), a terrific melodrama that ranks with one of the best movies in one of the greatest movie years ever. Like Tyrone Power’s greatest performance in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), Hayward demonstrated his acting talents by playing against type. Both actors seem to relish the opportunity these roles offered and really deliver the goods.


Costume adventure films were big in the post-war years. The European markets were again open and these types of films always played very well overseas. So Hayward again donned sword and cape for these medium-budget swashbucklers, many of them for Columbia.

Four of them co-starred raven-haired Patricia Medina, making them a B-team Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Ironically, their first film together was FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD (1950), echoing the first film Errol and Olivia made as a team. This was followed by THE LADY AND THE BANDIT (1951), LADY IN THE IRON MASK (1952) and CAPTAIN PIRATE (1952). Medina was pleasant enough, if lacking in the spirit de Havilland brought to her roles.

In yet another nod to the great Flynn, Flynn’s friend and frequent co-star Alan Hale played Porthos in Hayward’s THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.



In LADY IN THE IRON MASK, Alan Hale, Jr. plays Porthos. The same year, he was the son of Porthos in RKO’s AT SWORD’S POINT, one of the liveliest of the “B” swashbucklers. He would play Porthos one last time, in THE FIFTH MUSKETEER (1979), another Iron Mask take-off which features a cameo by Olivia de Havilland as the Queen Mother. Kevin Bacon has nothing on these folks.


LADY IN THE IRON MASK is no world-beater, but I enjoyed it. I hope to see the complete film in color one day. It’s a nice showcase for Hayward, who for me remains one of those actors like Tom Conway. While they may have headlined their movies, they never attained the super star status. But I’m always happy to see them in a movie. Louis Hayward was one of the most appealing actors to ever wield a sword on screen and I was very glad to finally see this most elusive of titles.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100+ Years of Chicago and the Movies





(A copy of Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100+ Years of Chicago and the Movies by Michael Corcoran and Arnie Bernstein (Chicago Review Press, 2013) was submitted to me for review.)

As a lifelong resident of the Chicago area, and a movie fan for about as long, I had a marvelous time reading the second edition of Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100+ Years of Chicago and the Movies by Michael Corcoran and Arnie Bernstein.

I had bought, and enjoyed, the first edition of the book, but there’s a lot of fascinating new material on hand for the new edition. So many movies have been shot in the Chicago area since the first book came out that there’s lots of interesting tidbits to enjoy.

The book is loaded with not only stories and anecdotes, but interviews with moviemakers with deep Chicago roots, such as writer/director Harold Ramis, producer Michael Shamberg, actress Irma P. Hall and so many others.

Plus, the authors have substantially beefed up the section on the early days of cinema, where for a short time it looked like Chicago might be the nation’s movie making capital. This is what I found particularly interesting.

Just outside Chicago’s borders was lots of undeveloped land, perfect for the shooting of westerns in the early days of the movies. William Selig opened one of the first movie studios in Chicago and hired the screen’s first cowboy star, Bronco Billy Anderson, to make a series of westerns. As the authors explained, “Circus horse riders were hired to play cowboys, and Native Americans were brought in from Michigan as Selig’s Indians. Teepees were erected on the studio lot that doubled as both housing for the Native American actors and sets for the Selig westerns.”

The first royalty payments to an author for a movie took place in 1914 when Selig paid author Rex Beach royalties for “The Spoilers”. That early version, starred William Farnum and the Alaska-set story was filmed in Chicago. Anyone who has ever experienced a Chicago winter can easily suspend belief.

Another studio that called Chicago home was Essanay. Charlie Chaplin’s contract with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios ended, and Chaplin was eager to strike out on his own. Chaplin accepted an offer at Essanay, but eventually chafed under the restrictions Essanay forced on him.



His short time in Chicago was not a happy chapter in Chaplin’s life, though he did begin a lifelong friendship with Ben Turpin when they made “His New Job” (1915) together. Also in the cast was a young Gloria Swanson, a Chicago native anxious to make good in the fledging motion picture industry.

When Chaplin’s contract with Essanay ended in 1916, he signed a new contract with the Mutual Film Corporation, starting a string of some of the most popular comedies ever made. I’m sure the California climate was more agreeable to Chaplin as well.

Probably the most prestigious silent film made in Chicago was D.W. Griffith’s “That Royale Girl” (1925) starring Carol Dempster and W.C. Fields.  The climax features a tornado destroying the hideout of some gangsters. Griffith said the tornado was “the only elemental thing I could use that could carry on and culminate the fury of life in Chicago – the vortex of disordered – humanity.”

I was intrigued to read that the first movie screened at the Vatican was “The Coming of Columbus” in 1912. Pope Pius X watched the movie, filmed in Chicago, using replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria originally built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The three ships were sailed to Jackson Park Yacht Basin, where Columbus’s famous discovery of America was re-created.

I also enjoyed many anecdotes in the book, including the accidental extras in “North by Northwest” (1959) and Maureen O’Sullivan being painfully reminded of her cinematic past.


“North by Northwest” was one of the rare films shot in Chicago in the 1950s. A Midway Airport scene on the tarmac had Leo G. Carroll explaining part of the plot to Cary Grant. But Corcoran and Bernstein give us more.

“Look closely during this scene and you’ll notice two men in the background. Extras? Hardly. During the shoot, Bill Blaney, an airport worker at the time, and one of his colleagues snuck onto the runway to catch a peek at Cary Grant. Upon seeing the two men on the runway, Blaney recalled, Hitchcock was outraged. The master of suspense berated the duo for ruining the shot and ordered them to leave. Nevertheless, Blaney and his pal remained in the final cut, giving North by Northwest a slightly more realistic look, albeit through a volunteer effort.”

I’ve enjoyed “North by Northwest” countless times but don’t recall seeing the gentlemen described here. Looks like I’ll have to watch the film again.

Robert Altman’s film “A Wedding” (1978) was shot on the grounds of the Armour Estate in Lake Bluff, a tony suburb known for its expensive real estate. The cast included Mia Farrow, Lauren Hutton, Paul Dooley, Howard Duff, Dina Merrill, Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin and Lillian Gish. Apparently the shoot was a happy one, with Cinematographer Steven B. Poster likening the experience to summer camp: “The children working in the movie would love to have Carol Burnett do her Tarzan yell. Every day, somewhere on the Armour estate you would hear way off in the background this wonderful person doing her Tarzan yell.

“One day, I was sitting in front of the main house. There was a big circular driveway and this huge limousine drove up. Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother, got out of the car. At that moment, somewhere on the estate, Carol was doing her Tarzan yell, because the kids got her to do it again. For a second, I saw Maureen O’Sullivan’s eyes glaze over. Of course, she had played Jane opposite Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. I think she thought she was back in the Tarzan movies! It was hysterical. Carol found out about it later and was extremely embarrassed. It was one of those golden moments.”  

“Call Northside 777” (1947) is a terrific movie for many reasons, but what fascinates me are the scenes of Chicago circa 1947. It’s like time travel, going back in time where all those intersections and streets one walks on every day are simultaneously the same and yet so different.

 

What I’m not happily familiar with, except from the movie, are the prison scenes in “Call Northside 777”, which were filmed at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

What I didn’t know is a few years previously 20th Century Fox had made an earlier visit to Stateville to film scenes for a film unknown to me, “Roger Touhy, Gangster” (1944). At a time when almost all movies were filmed in Hollywood, Fox saw fit to send a crew, along with Preston Foster, Anthony Quinn and Henry Morgan to Stateville to film the prison scenes there. Yet another movie to be on the lookout for. .


Movies Up Close 

Reading about the many movies filmed in the Chicago area over the last couple of decades brought back lots of memories. Thanks to going to college in downtown Chicago, and working there since the mid-1980s, I’ve been lucky enough to see a few movies being made, or been lucky enough to work in buildings near where some moves where filmed.  

I saw Tom Hanks walk out of the Wrigley Building and yell at a cop for giving him a ticket in “Nothing in Common” (1986). When director Garry Marshall yelled “Cut and print”, everyone watching applauded.

I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger get out of a limo and prepare to shoot a scene for “Raw Deal” (1986). He was shorter than I expected.



One sunny afternoon, a group of us from the office went out to lunch and were strolling down Wacker Drive and came across a crew getting ready to shoot a scene for “Straight Talk” (1992), an underrated romantic comedy starring James Woods and Dolly Parton. Woods was standing on the corner talking to someone and this group of office girls across the street started yelling his name. He looked up and waved to them. The girls started screaming like they were at a Beatles concert. He shook his head, grinned and went back to talking to the gentleman.

My home town of Dolton, a south suburb, only got bit by the Hollywood bug once, for one scene in “The Package” (1989), a spy thriller starring Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones, which authors Corcoran and Bernstein applaud for Chicago’s ability to stand in for multiple international locations.

As they explain, “The action opens in what was then East Berlin, switches to Washington D.C., and winds up in the Windy City. Yet with the exception of some establishing footage shot in East Germany, the entire film was made in the Chicago area.”

I haven’t seen the film since it came out but remember liking it very much. The scene filmed in Dolton had Hackman going to a house to question someone. If memory serves, the scene in the story was set in Virginia, but Dolton filled the bill just fine. I remember the story in the local paper, and Hackman eating lunch and visiting a local senior’s facility and being quoted, “You’ve got a nice little town here.”  Yes, we did.

My old office, at 208 S. LaSalle St., is located right in the LaSalle Street Canyon, a famous locale for viewers of period gangster movies like “Hoodlum” (1997), “The Road to Perdition” (2002) and “The Untouchables” (1987). With its vintage streetlights and facades that have not changed since the 1920s, only modern signage gives away the fact that it’s 2013 and not 1927. No wonder filmmakers love to shoot there.


There’s the famous shot in “The Untouchables” where Eliot Ness and Co. pull their first raid. They walk across La Salle St., accompanied by that swelling Ennio Morricone theme, stopping traffic and enter a post office which turns out to be bootleg operation. The door they walked through was for many years a Coach retail store in our building, but this 007 fan always thought it was great that Sean Connery filmed an iconic scene in a building I went to work in every day. OK, maybe not in the building, but I’ll settle for a door.

A few years later we moved to an office on Wacker Drive, across the Chicago River and facing the Merchandise Mart.

I don’t care very much for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Still, it was pretty exciting when building management and a representative from Warner Bros. came to our office with a request. Apparently, “The Dark Knight” (2008) was going to be shooting a rooftop meeting scene on the building across the alley from us and the camera crew determined the 12th floor offices in our building were ideal to hang additional lighting for the scene. Would we give them permission to put lights in our offices facing the building across the alley? Of course we said yes.

It turned out fine. The lights were only in our offices two or three nights and all the equipment was off when we arrived for work in the morning. I forget how much they paid us – it was a nominal fee – but it wasn’t a hassle at all.   A few days after the lights were removed, a rep from the movie came by and asked if everything was OK, if anything was damaged and did we have any complaints. We didn’t because everything was handled with the utmost professionalism.

I must confess to some disappointment on watching the scene and not being able to recognize our building in the background. I do think, however, that it’s probably the best lit scene in the movie.


I positively loathed “Wanted” (2008), the Angelina Jolie assassination movie, but again our office building played a little role in it. At the time, there was an empty retail space on the ground floor and the film’s caterers used it to feed the cast and crew while they were filming the big chase scene along Wacker Drive. As I left the office each evening you could see what was being prepared and they had some real nice spreads laid out.

Talking to our building crew after they left, they all got to meet Angelina Jolie and they all said she could not have been nicer or more down to earth, with no airs or pretensions about her at all. That’s always nice to hear.

A few days later I was talking in the elevator to a lawyer tenant who had been working late that evening and had his mind on an upcoming case. He said he almost had a heart attack when he walked out the front door just as various cars came screeching around the corner followed by a street-level helicopter. Our building sits by a curve and all the cameras were around the corner, so he didn’t ruin a shot.

Reading about all the movies filmed here, my vote for favorite Chicago movie still remains “Code of Silence” (1985) starring Chuck Norris, thanks to the incredible array of locations on display. Few movies highlight the breadth of the city so well. Director Andrew Davis is a native Chicagoan and knows its nooks and crannies better than anyone. He also makes the best use of the famous el trains I’ve ever seen, staging a terrific fight scene atop a moving el train as it works its through the Loop and over the Chicago River.


While the book is probably of most interest to those Chicagoans who recognize the places and neighborhoods mentioned in the book, Hollywood on Lake Michigan offers a useful guide to Chicago’s famous film locations. Visitors looking to take a movie tour of Chicago should use the book as a most entertaining guide. Use it as a guide and stay for the anecdotes.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Quentin Durward




M-G-M’s swashbuckling adventure film “Quentin Durward” is one of those films that plays much better now than when it was first released in 1955. At the time it was perceived as just another swashbuckler in a year glutted with costume adventure films.

But viewed today, it seems to me a witty and knowing take on the adventure film genre. Its makers appear to realize that the heyday of movies about noble heroes and daring deeds was coming to an end. “Quentin Durward” plays like a swashbuckling riff on old age, the end of chivalry and aging heroes, much as movies like “Ride the High Country” (1962) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969) foretold the eventual demise of the western, with its heroes out of time and place in a new mechanical age.

I’ve never read the original novel by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1823, so I don’t know if the novel also discusses the end of chivalry and the notion of heroism as an anachronism. But the movie version is rife with such allusions.  

The story opens proper with this title card:

“Our story begins in Scotland in 1465 – when Knighthood was a drooping blossom – but the Scot, as usual, was poor in naught but cash.”

Right there we realize we’re not in for a traditional adventure film.

 

Quentin Durward (Robert Taylor) is a Scottish knight sent to France by his elderly uncle to ascertain the worth of the Countess Isabelle (Kay Kendall), who, being “the richest and most beautiful woman in Europe”, has no shortage of suitors.

Upon arriving in France, and always in need of a loan from the Scottish ambassador to France, Durward  becomes involved in all sorts of court intrigue, tied to King Louis XI (Robert Morley, a wonderful performance), and the machinations of Count William De le Mack (Duncan Lamont).


Durward and Isabelle fall in love with each other, but Durward, bound to oath to his uncle, won’t act on the love. At one point, he refers to himself as obsolete and suggests that the way he was raised – to be proud, praise God, defend the weak, be loyal to his family and always true to his word – are values no longer celebrated. 

De le Mack makes several attempts to kidnap Isabelle, embarrass the King and steal the kingdom. Durward fights the Count every step of the way, culminating in one of the most inventively staged action scenes in any swashbuckler, with Durward and the Count swinging on ropes and slashing at each other in a burning bell tower.


M-G-M, star Robert Taylor and director Richard Thorpe boasted a real winner in their first swashbuckling adventure film, “Ivanhoe” (1952), also based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott. “Ivanhoe” was one of the rare swashbucklers to earn a Best Picture nomination, and where “Ivanhoe” takes matters very seriously, “Quentin Durward” is much lighter on its feet.

In addition to the casting of Robert Taylor in the title role, other factors make one think M-G-M was deliberately aping “Ivanhoe” in hopes of another success. .

“Ivanhoe” concludes with a terrific axe and mace combat scene between Taylor and George Sanders. Though composer Miklos Rozsa provided one of his best scores to “Ivanhoe” he kept this scene unscored, save for the steady tattoo of nearby drummers, who never vary their rhythm as two men try to kill each other in front of them. It's very effective.

In “Quentin Durward”, the fight in the burning bell tower is also left unscored by composer Bronisalu Kaper. He no doubt felt the ringing of the bells, the fires and the falling timbers were enough of a soundtrack and didn’t need any musical embellishment. (The other great M-G-M swashbuckler of the 1950s, “Scaramouche” (1952), has its famous five-minute-plus dueling scene unscored as well. People who think older movies were always over scored would do well to watch these scenes.)


To take advantage of post-war tax laws, with host counties insisting movie companies shoot on location to free up collected monies, “Ivanhoe” and “Quentin Durward” were filmed on location, “Ivanhoe” in England and “Quentin Durward” in England and France. No studio back lots here, and “Quentin Durward” includes plenty of stunning visuals shot on location at Bodian Castle in England; Chateau de Chamford, Chateau de Chenoceaux and Chateau de Maitenon, all in France.

To compete with television, the new rage of Cinemascope and other wide-screen processes had the studios turning out scads of adventure and costume epics. By the mid-1950s, audiences had been swamped by swashbuckling spectacles, much like today with the seemingly endless comic book and science fiction movies in a typical summer (and often beyond) movie season.

Moviegoers in 1955 alone saw “Moonfleet” (Stewart Granger), “The Purple Mask” (Tony Curtis), “The King’s Thief” (Edmund Purdom) and “The Warriors” (Errol Flynn).

The preceding year saw Robert Taylor don armor again in the Arthurian “Knights of the Round Table”, along with “Prince Valiant” (Robert Wagner), ”The Black Knight” (Alan Ladd) and “The Black Shield of Falworth” (Tony Curtis again).

No wonder Danny Kaye saw fit to spoof the genre with his wonderful “The Court Jester” (1956). He certainly had plenty of material to work with.

When “Quentin Durward” was released in 1955, the reviews were indifferent, to say the least. The New York Times said, “It is difficult to take this picture as anything but a massive masquerade.”


I can see where audiences by 1955 were tired of the genre and unknowingly overlooked “Quentin Durward” and its self-referential qualities. But there’s a gentle grace to “Quentin Durward”, a movie wise about itself, and seems to be aware that, in a decade of Brando and Dean, tales of chivalrous knights saving damsels in distress would be seen as corny and horribly out-of-date.

Kay Kendall makes a marvelous Isabelle, annoyed by all the attentions of unwanted suitors. She takes to Durward, saying he’s the first man she’s seen at the palace who isn’t a thousand years old.

The Countess Isabelle was originally offered to Grace Kelly, who turned it down, saying: “All the man can duel and fight, but all I’d do would be to wear 35 different costumes, look pretty and frightened….the stage directions on every page of the script say ‘She clutches her jewel box and flees.’ I just thought I’d be bored.”


Robert Taylor didn’t like making swashbucklers – he called them “iron jockstrap” roles. He much preferred making westerns. But he makes a fine, chivalrous hero and wears costumes like he was born in them. As Tony Thomas wrote in his book, :The Great Adventure Films (Citadel Press, 1976) about the swashbuckling Taylor, “…in all of them, Taylor performed with dignity and with a really credible heroic bearing – his deep American voice lessening the medieval image just a little.”

Seen today away from its 1955 competition, “Quentin Durward” surprises and amuses with its wit and candor about growing old and being born “perhaps a few minutes too late”, as Durward ruefully observes (rare for a swashbuckling hero to show such self-reflection).

But thanks to its on-location shooting, Kaper’s lovely music score, exciting action scenes, and witty screenplay, “Quentin Durward” is one of the most durable and winning entries in the swashbuckling sweepstakes. I was very pleased to re-acquaint myself with it.