The nicest movie surprise I’ve had in a while is the rare “Black Gold” (1947) which TCM ran last month as part of its Summer Under the Stars day-long salute to Anthony Quinn. It manages to work in a large number of plot threads and themes in its 92-minute running time, and features one of Quinn’s most relaxed performances.
The next day I saw the “Total Recall” remake, which had no, I mean zero, plot threads over the course of its 121-minute running time. More on that colossal clunker later.
“Black Gold” was one of the first films for Allied Artists, the larger-budget spin-off of Monogram Pictures. Some of their earlier films, such as “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” (1947) and “The Gangster” (1947) were filmed in black and white, but “Black Gold” was filmed in Tru Color, a cheaper color process than Technicolor. The print TCM ran was very nice indeed, and I hope a video release is forthcoming.
“Black Gold” deals with many topics, including prejudice, horse racing, family conflicts, the emergence of Oklahoma as an oil-producing center and even a bit of Indian mysticism.
The movie is based very loosely on a true story of the 1924 Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold, owned by a Cherokee woman named Rosa Hoots. Rosa named the horse for the oil wells sprouting through her home state of Oklahoma,
Anthony Quinn plays Charley Eagle, a good-hearted Cherokee who adopts a young Chinese boy named Davey (“Ducky” Louie) after his father is killed. He brings Davey home to his wife Sarah (Quinn’s real-life wife at the time, Katherine DeMille) who welcomes the boy but not in a fawning, saccharine-like manner. She has known prejudice in her life, and knows the young Chinese boy will have a rough go of it in Oklahoma in the early years of the 20th century.
Katherine DeMille has never been known as one of the screen’s greatest emoters, but this is probably her best performance. Certainly her warmest. She and Quinn (obviously) play very well together in their roles as an old married couple comfortable with the rhythms of each other’s lives.
Charley Eagle enters a winning horse in a local horse race, but is fleeced of the horse by a con man. Dejected, but never losing his spirit, he makes his way home to Sarah. Eventually oil is discovered on his land, and he uses his winnings to buy more horses, one of which produces the Derby-winning Black Gold, which Davey rides in the Derby.
Anthony Quinn could chew the scenery with the best of them, and God bless him for it, but here he’s very restrained. Charley Eagle could be the most decent character Quinn ever played, a character without a larcenous bone in his body. His love for his wife, Davey, his horses and the land is evident in every scene.
There’s also some tragedies and set backs, which I won’t go into. But I was impressed with how matter-of-fact everything was presented. Nothing was over-dramatized or contrived. It shows a life in all its aspects, victories and setbacks, disappointments and triumphs.
Director Phil Karlson is probably best known today his 1950s noirs, terrific titles like “Kansas City Confidential” (1952), “Tight Spot” (1955) and “The Phenix City Story” (1955). But here, he shows he can direct touching family movies with the best of them.
If TCM runs “Black Gold” again, I hope you get a chance to check it out. It’s a winner.
On the flip side, an uncomfortable September heat wave drove me to the theater to see the “Total Recall” remake starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel. It was easily one of the worst movies of the year, a ghastly farrago consisting of never-ending chases, shoot outs and fight scenes.
Apparently there’s a revolution afoot in the 22nd century, but I had no idea who was against who and why. No foundation is ever established. It’s amazing that $125 million was spent on this movie without a modicum of a good script.
I’m afraid the biggest culprit is director Len Wiseman, whose continued employment continues to baffle me. He helmed the dopiest of the “Die Hard” sequels, “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007), and directed one of the worst movies ever made, “Underworld” (2003), a movie so bad I could never bring myself to go near any of the sequels. And I love horror movies.
“Underworld” opens with an endless fight scene involving vampires and werewolves shooting at each other and beating the crap out of each other. Since we don’t know who to root for, it’s beyond painful to watch and goes on for what seems days. (Also, why creatures of a supernatural bent have to shoot endless rounds from machine guns at each other is never explained.)
I will always remember “Underworld” for its countless scenes of characters walking down corridors, or up and down staircases. I’ve never, I mean never, seen a movie with so much walking. Apparently Mr. Wiseman doesn’t know that you don’t have to actually show characters walking to and from a location. They discovered this back in the silent era. It’s called an edit.
“Total Recall” totally recalls those scenes, for here we have countless scenes of Kate Beckinsale (Mrs. Wiseman in real life) wearing a perpetual scowl walking towards her quarry next to groups of Storm Troopers (they really weren’t Storm Troopers, but they looked like the ones from “Star Wars”). Kate Beckinsale was the star of “Underworld” and it’s no wonder she’s in such great shape, thanks to all the walking she does in her husband’s movies. I lost count as to how many Kate Beckinsale-scowling scenes there were, since I can’t count that high.
Hitchcock had his blonde fetish and Tarantino has his foot fetish. I suspect Len Wiseman’s is people walking through corridors.
Blondes I can understand. Feet? Not so much, but hey, whatever floats your boat. But walking down corridors? I’m glad Len Wiseman is able to satisfy his fetishes on screen. But must we, the audience, suffer for it?
When characters are not walking down corridors, they’re shooting at each other, and jumping off of buildings and landing in ways the human body can only accomplish in cartoons. Since there’s no character involvement or even attempt at anything resembling humanity, it’s pure agony to sit through, especially when one considers there’s another hour to go. So far, it’s the leading contender for worst movie of the year.
And don’t get me started on the hugely irritating use of lens flares throughout. Mr. Wiseman has obviously seen one too many J.J. Abrams movies.
So we have two movies, one modestly budgeted family movie which touches on many themes and offers heartfelt characters. And then there’s a $125 million “blockbuster” which delivers no premise, no characters and stock action situations.
I love movies and every time I go to the show I want to be taken away. I want every movie to do well. But I’m glad “Total Recall” was such a bomb at the box office. Maybe next time, Hollywood will learn it’s best not to start with a concept, but with a script. But I doubt it.