Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.


Monday, December 21, 2009

A STAR IN THE NIGHT (1945)





















In the 1960’s and 70’s, director Don Siegel was known for his urban, gritty, often violent crime dramas, the best example being “Dirty Harry.” In the 1950’s, he was known as an up-and-coming director of tough and smart “B” pictures, like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” But in the late 1930’s and 40’s, he was under contract to Warner Brothers, and his specialty was editing montages, those nifty, layered, transitional sequences with their spinning newspapers, peeling calendar pages, flying graphics, canted angles, stock footage and rapid fire images, for feature films. So good was he at this job that Jack Warner refused to let Siegel out of his contract so he could direct features himself. The consolation prize evidently thrown Siegel’s way was the opportunity to direct short subjects for the studio. Two he directed in 1945 both won Academy Awards in 1946 - “Hitler Lives” for Best Documentary, Short Subject and “A Star in the Night” for Best Short Subject, Two-Reel.

A Star In The Night” is an modern re-imagining of the Nativity Story, writ small, personal and accessible. It is a parable with J. Carrol Naish as a disenchanted Scrooge-like “inn-keeper” who, along with his rather misenthropic guests, learns the true meaning of Christmas when, on Christmas Eve, three gift-bearing cowboys, a philosophical hitchhiker, and a young pregnant couple named Maria and Jose, converge on his isolated desert motel after he erects a giant shining electric star to attract business.

A talented and ubiquitous character actor with over 200 film and television credits, Naish is best known to my generation as the villainous Daka in the 1943 “Batman” theatrical serial, and for roles in genre pictures such as “House of Frankenstein” and “The Beast with Five Fingers,” all seen in television re-runs and distributed on 8mm film for home viewing. He was perhaps best knows to my father’s generation in the title role of the top rated radio comedy, Life with Luigi.

The cast is rounded out with recognizable character actors the likes of Donald Woods, whose television and move career spanned six decades; Rosina Galli, at one time the prima ballerina (1914-29) and ballet mistress (1930-34) of the Metropolitan Opera; Richard Erdman, who is still making movies and television shows to this day; blustery Dick Elliot, who with 350 credits specialized in rotund and apoplexic characters, with memorable parts in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, ” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and as the original Mayor Pike on “The Andy Griffith Show;” silent film actress Claire Du Brey; Irving Bacon, with an astonishing 500 + screen credits, a dozen of which were for director Frank Capra; and Anthony Caruso, who, with almost 250 big and small screen credits, played the mob boss Bela Oxmyx in the original Star Trek series episode, "A Piece of the Action.”







Produced to play in theaters as part of a feature program during the holiday season, this is one of many interesting short subjects created by the Hollywood studio system at its heyday that might have been lost forever were it not for Turner Classic Movies.

It is a terrific film for the holiday season, moving, amusing and imaginative. Siegel keeps the plot and characters moving, and you can almost forget that nearly the entire film takes place in one set. Part of the fun is watching these talented actors make emotional u-turns as they decide to sacrifice their comforts to help the young couple in need. Also amusing is how Siegel and writer Saul Elkins cleverly avoid any direct mention of the couple's delicate condition, sidestepping any issues with Production Code restrictions and creating a running gag in the process.

I can’t say that “A Star in the Night,” was one of my Dad’s favorite movies. I can’t even say for sure if he ever saw it. But it’s one I think he would have liked very much, if for no other reason than the cleverness of the allegory and the filmmakers’ commitment to the metaphor. One of my Dad’s favorite movies was John Ford’s enjoyably overwrought “3 Godfathers,” which similarly retells the Nativity story with equal ingenuity.

You can see "A Star in the Night" here in its entirety.  Consider it a twenty minute Christimas card, and Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

SCROOGE (1970)







In the 1960’s, my Dad jury rigged a construction of cables and alligator clips and plugs that allowed us to record audio from our television and from our console radio/record player onto our portable (by 1960’s standards) reel-to-reel tape recorder. In the early 1970’s, I spent several days just before Christmas in the hospital. I took the reel-to-reel with me, and to keep in the holiday mood, listened to the soundtrack of the movie ‘"Scrooge.”

There have been more film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” than can be counted, beginning with short silent versions near the turn of the last century and continuing to today. But it was the musical version, “Scrooge,” starring Albert Finney in the title role, that was my Dad’s favorite, and is mine.









In 1970, turning the Dickens classic into a musical would not have been an obvious move without the monstrous success of another Dickens musical adaptation, “Oliver!,” just two years earlier.

Thirty-four year old Albert Finney may be the youngest actor to ever portray Ebenezer Scrooge in a feature film. Richard Harris, who was initially offered the role, and having some musical experience in “Camelot” three years before, would have been 40. Rex Harrison, briefly cast before conflicts with another commitment took him out of the running, would have been 62.

Here, Finney is straddling his intermittent and somewhat schizophrenic shift from leading man to character actor. Finney, the young studly hooligan of “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Tom Jones,” is utterly convincing and almost unrecognizable as the gnarled, grimacing elder Scrooge. And in a part often portrayed by a younger alternate actor, he is virile and attractive as the younger version of Scrooge seen in flashbacks instigated by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Finney’s ability to persuasively portray both ages lends the story a continuity of emotion and makes the transition from youthful optimistic lover to bitter cantankerous misanthrope all the more heartbreaking and believable.

Through the 1970’s and 80’s, Finney would continue to essay similar, make-up laden character roles in “Murder on the Orient Express” and “The Dresser,” while continuing to play leading love interests and even action heroes in films such as “Gumshoe,” “The Wolfen,” and “Looker.” But “Scrooge” was his only chance to play both in one film.





There is a lot of impressive talent in evidence here. The supporting cast is a once-in-a-lifetime collection of British luminaries, including Dame Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, and Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost.

Finney and the cast are put through his paces by veteran British director Ronald Neame, whose career of over 80 screen credits stretched back at least as far as Alfred Hitchcock’s and the British film industry’s first talking picture, “Blackmail.” Neame’s eclectic career as a director included “The Horse's Mouth,” “Tunes of Glory, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

He collaborates here with the man he considered to be “the greatest cameraman in the world,” renowned Director of Photography Oswald Morris, who had photographed “Oliver!,” and who worked with Neame in one capacity or another on 15 ventures.

The impressive visual effects, including flying sequences, are by British special effects legend Wally Veevers (“Things to Come,” “Night of the Demon,” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” “Excalibur”), eight years before he helped the world believe that a man could fly in “Superman.”

Even the whimsical credit sequence by iconoclastic cartoonist and illustrator Ronald Searle is notable (see images here ). Searle was solicited no doubt in part due to his illustrated version of "A Christmas Carol" published in 1961 (see images here).














But the real creative force behind “Scrooge” is undoubtedly Leslie Bricusse, who adapted the Charles Dickens story, composed the score and wrote the lyrics.

The script is tight, funny and moving, using Scrooge’s back story to lend pathos and verisimilitude to a character too often charactured. The actors deliver uniformly first class performances. The visuals, design, and costumes are striking, taking full advantage of the period setting. But it is the joyous, emotive, catchy songs and the lively choreography that accompanies them that truly distinguishes this version and that stayed with my Dad, in particular the raucous “Thank You Very Much,” a jubilant celebration of Scrooge’s passing by those who owe him money …



… and the festive “December the 25th,” which deserved to become a Christmas standard.




Even cleverer is the way several of the songs are reprised during and after Scrooge’s conversion. Scrooge’s anthem “I Hate People” becomes “I Like Life.” “Father Christmas,” sung with sarcastic bite by the street urchins that pester Scrooge as he slogs through the dirty streets of London, becomes an upbeat appreciation of Scrooge as he dons a Father Christmas costume to deliver gifts on Christmas morning. And “Thank You Very Much” is repeated in sincere gratitude for the man Scrooge has become.

Ronald Neame related this story to the British Film Institute: We were going to have Richard Harris. He was going to play the lead. And he had to go and make a film in Israel, I think. Something went wrong with it and he had to take it over, and he had to direct it. So we couldn't get him. The company who were financing the film said, well, if you can't get him, there are only two or three other names that are acceptable to us. One of those names was Finney - who turned it down. He said, I don't want to make a film just now. So we thought, Rex, Rex Harrison. Rex could sort of play Scrooge. So we gave the script to Rex and he liked it very much and we cast him. But there was a problem. Because he was at the end of a play which he was working on in London. He had three weeks more to play. We had to start in two weeks, because of weather conditions, summer and winter scenes. So this three weeks was really a nuisance, but we had to face it. And then we decided we would pay the theatre off. We'd pay for the three weeks, and we'd get Rex earlier. And then one day, we had a phone call from Alby Finney, who said, on the phone, I have just read your screenplay, in my office, because my partner is playing a small part, and (he said) you know, I would love to play it. And we said, Oh, Alby, oh goodness me! We've cast Rex Harrison. And he said, Oh well, it's my fault, but I would have loved it. And we did a terrible thing. Slightly ashamed to tell you. We told Rex that we hadn't got the money to pay off the theatre, but we had to start shooting the following Monday. Rex didn't mind very much. And Alby played the part. I've always been slightly ashamed of that. I don't know why I should tell you tonight, but you're all very fair!

You can see more clips from “Scrooge” at the Turner Classic Movies web site.
And you can buy Scrooge at Amazon.com.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A THOUSAND CLOWNS (1965)









My Dad led what could be described as a conventional life, even thought I think he was far from a conventional man. He worked his way through college, found employment in the shipping and then the textile industries. He started his own business. He went to work and came home every day at the same times. He never worked weekends. He kept his work life and his home life separate. And like most men of his generation, he prioritized supporting a family over other more personal goals. It was not until late in his life that I learned he had secretly harbored a desire to be an architect. He was a talented amateur artist, leaning toward emulating his childhood heroes like comic book illustrators Jack Kirby and Bill Everett. He designed the addition to our house. But his real life was his home and his family, and he was happy to do what was necessary to support and protect them.

However, it is no surprise that my Dad and others might have found the life of Murray N. Burns diverting or even appealing. As portrayed by Jason Robards on the Broadway stage and then in the movie version of playwright Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns,” Murray is a charming, charismatic, witty, iconoclastic, irreverent, bohemian non-conformist, redeemed by his affection for the 12 year-old nephew Nick that he has raised since his mother abandoned him. Together they live an unconventional life in a one-room New York City apartment as cluttered, eclectic and in disarray as Murray himself. As the movie opens Burns has been unemployed for months, having quit his demeaning job as joke writer for a television show aptly titled "Chuckles the Chipmunk.” He has never officially adopted his nephew, and the two draw the attention of social workers who threaten to take the boy into foster care unless Murray can somehow prove his fitness as a guardian.



“A Thousand Clowns” might be described as a coming-of-age story about a thirty-something man. But in the end, “A Thousand Clowns” is about parenting. And once Murray is convinced that he has provided Nick with the foundation to think for himself and not become “a chair,” he happily enters the rat race he has so abhorred for the sake of the “son” he loves. Murray is among the ranks of other non-conformist but ultimately dedicated movie parents and parental figures from others of my Dad’s favorite movies, most aptly Frank Sinatra in “A Hole in the Head” and Cary Grant in “Father Goose.”

I only briefly knew my father’s father, but I have the impression he may as well have been a bit of an endearing small-town rouge. And I like to think that my own relationship with my father somewhat mirrors a small portion of the fun and friendship these movies relate, even though my father’s life evidences none of the irresponsibility these characters possess.

“A Thousand Clowns” is ably directed by live television veteran Fred Coe, a producer and director known for discovering and nurturing extraordinary writing talent (Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Tad Mosel, JP Miller, Herb Gardner). He attempted to “open up” the one-set play with punctuating and exuberant location excursions, shot with New Wave inspired visuals and sounds. But derived as it is from a Tony-nominated stage play, the movie maintains a talky and hightened theatricality, particularly in performance, that is appropriate to the material. While some might consider this to be Robard’s movie, it is really the perfect balance of well-developed, three-dimensional characters and endearing performances that elevates “A Thousand Clowns.”



Barry Gordon delivers a career making performance as the precocious Nick. It is shocking that as he continues to work to this day he has never been given the chance at another role as meaty and substantial as the one in “A Thousand Clowns.” Martin Balsam won his only Oscar as Murray’s conventional and concerned brother Arnold. Barbara Harris’ film debut brings her signature quirkiness to the role of the neophyte social worker pulled in by the appeal of Murray’s world. And famed Broadway director Gene Saks gives one of his rare film performances, bringing memorable menace and smarminess to "Chuckles the Chipmunk.”

But perhaps the most moving, eloquent and understated performance comes from William Daniels in only his second film appearance, two years before he would appear as Dustin Hoffman’s father in “The Graduate.” As Albert Amundsen, the stiff, stuffy, cold, humorless, by-the-book social worker who eventually threatens to take Nick from his home with Murray, Daniels plays what is essentially the heavy of the film. But author Gardner and performer Daniels bring a pathos and humanity to the character that borders on heart-breaking. He also has one of the best lines in the movie: "You are not a person, Mr. Burns. You are an experience."


Daniels went on to memorable performances in movies, television, and on the stage. He originated the part of John Adams in the Broadway musical “1776” and repeated the role in the film version. He played John Quincy Adams in the PBS production of “The Adams Chronicles,” won two Emmy’s as the caustic but well-meaning Dr. Mark Craig on the hit TV series “St. Elsewhere," was beloved of a generationas teacher Mr. Feeny in ABC's "Boy Meets World" and its Disney Channel sequel "Girl Meets World," and, to my Dad’s delight, was the voice of KITT the car in the original “Knight Rider” series.

You can watch "A Thousand Clowns" with some regularity on TCM.

Friday, November 20, 2009

LADY IN THE LAKE (1947)








Webster’s defines “gimmick” as “an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, esp. one designed to attract attention or increase appeal,” and more negatively as “a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal: An offer that good must have a gimmick in it somewhere.” It is perhaps this later usage that has given the word a derogatory flavor. But a good gimmick, especially in a movie, can be the spark that gives a film life.

Some gimmicks become mainstream. At one point, sound was a gimmick (“The Jazz Singer”), color was a gimmick (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Becky Sharp”), hand-held cameras were a gimmick and rapid paced editing was a gimmick. Then there are gimmicks that are rarer, or have more limited life spans. 3-D was such a gimmick, with a short life cycle in the 1950’s before it was resurrected in the 21st century. Telling a story in reverse is an interesting seldom used gimmick (“Betrayal,” “Memento”). Giving a film the appearance of being filmed in a continuous take (“Rope”), or shooting an entire film in a continuous take ("Russian Ark") are others. Then there were the films of producer William Castle, who was famous for inserting gimmicks into his films, their promotion and their exhibition, electrifying theater seats (“The Tingler”), flying glow-in-the-dark skeletons over the audience (“House on Haunted Hill”) and providing special glasses that allowed the viewer to see on-screen ghosts (“13 Ghosts”).

In 1940, when Orson Welles was first lured to Hollywood by an extraordinary contract with RKO studios, giving him unprecedented artistic control of his films, he toyed with the notion of an intriguing gimmick. Welles had for years produced radio dramas that were largely told in the first person. He thought this might translate to film as well. What if an entire film was seen from the main character’s perspective, through that character’s eyes? What if the entire film was a series of point-of-view shots. This is the approach he adopted as he moved forward planning an ambitious adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” wherein “eye = I.” Budgetary restrictions lead to the project being abandoned, making the way for the production of “Citizen Kane.”


Eventually a filmmaker and studio took on this daunting narrative and technical challenge. The studio, which I imagine did not quite know what it was getting itself into, was MGM, and the filmmaker was actor Robert Montgomery. The film was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “Lady in the Lake.” Montgomery was making his credited directorial debut while playing the lead role of Philip Marlow, Private Detective, literally from behind the camera. Never before had almost an entire film been photographed with a subjective camera, no mean feat in 1947 when cameras were large, bulky, unwieldy devices, and before the invention of steady-cams of even the widespread use of hand-held cameras. It is even to this day an almost unique narrative device. Portions of other movies, even lengthy sequences, had been shot from a character’s unbroken perspective before, most notably in Rouben Mamoulian's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." And some television episodes experimented with the technique in the years to follow. But I do not believe there has ever been another mainstream film to adopt the technique so thoroughly and consistently. The MGM publicity department played this to the hilt in their trailer for the movie.

 

So this was a film that, even though the script and performances are wildly uneven, and even though it was disowned as an adaptation by Chandler, stayed with its viewers as something unique and original, something they had never seen before, a trait always attractive to my Dad, and why “Lady in the Lake” was one of my Dad’s favorite movies.

See “Lady in the Lake” on Turner Classic Movies this Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 6:30 am EST (5:30 am CST) and on January 20, 2010 at 8 am EST (7 am CST).

Buy Lady in the Lake at Amazon.com

Friday, November 13, 2009

WHITE HEAT (1949)








The classic era of Warner Brothers gangster movies is bookended by four extraordinary, brutal and unsentimental performances from two of Hollywood’s most talented stars, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Robinson’s performance as the crude and ambitious Rico Bandello in “Little Caesar” in 1930 was followed the next year by Cagney’s as the greedy and ruthless Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy.” The studio hit a trifecta the following year when Paul Muni played a thinly veiled version of Al Capone in “Scarface.”

Then came enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (AKA the Hays Code), citing what was, and more importantly, what was not acceptable content for motion pictures. The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) had adopted the guidelines, developed through the late 1920’s, in 1930, but an enforcement entity was not in place until 1934. With its prohibitions against creating sympathy for “the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” the depiction of the use of liquor "when not required by the plot or for proper characterization," explicit presentations of the methods of crime, murder scenes unless “filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life,” brutal killings and revenge, the Code effectively ended the hard-edged portrayal of gangsters as protagonists. These tough guy characters instead morphed into likable rouges (“All Through the Night,” “Casablanca”), private detectives (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep.”), officers of the law (“G-Men,” “Bullets or Ballots”) and redeemed criminals (“High Sierra.”). It is safe to say that Warner Brothers with its penchant for gritty urban dramas and psychological complexity pushed at the edge of the Code more than any other studio, and there are some exceptions where the coarseness and brutality of the earlier films sneak through (“The Roaring Twenties”), as well as films in which the gangsters are pitted in doomed confrontations with their betters and served their just rewards (“Angels With Dirty Faces,” “Dead End”).

Both Robinson and Cagney continued to mine their tough guy personas. Robinson became an accomplished character actor in films as diverse as “Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet,” “The Sea Wolf,” “Double Indemnity,” and “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.” Cagney became one of the most successful and beloved stars in Hollywood with films such as “The Fighting 69th,” “The Strawberry Blonde,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

In 1948 and 1949, as the power of the production code was waning, both Robinson and Cagney returned to the genre and the type of characters that had made them famous – Robinson as Johnny Rocco in “Key Largo,” and Cagney as Cody Jarrett in “White Heat.” Both can be seen as aged extensions of their previous performances in “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.” And whereas “Key Largo” is a great entertainment from director John Huston in the vein of the post-code Warner Brothers films of the later 1930’s and 1940’s, “White Heat” is an unexpected and surprising revelation.



Directed with little of the polish, gloss or civility of most studio pictures of the time by Raoul Walsh, “White Heat” follows the exploits of a rampantly paranoid aging criminal and sociopath with a mother fixation and a sadistic streak, a character that Cagney plays with no sentimentality, but with an enormous amount of energy and magnetism. It is a character unlike almost any other that had headlined a motion picture since the advent of the Production Code, or perhaps even before. It is the strength of Cagney’s charisma, as well as the comparable blandness that Edmond O’Brien brings to his portrayal of Federal Agent and protagonist Hank Fallon, that adds interest and even sympathy to such a reprehensible but utterly fascinating character.

Why was “White Heat” one of my Dad’s favorite movies? I believe that while B Westerns were his genre of choice as a young boy, the Warner Brothers crime films of the late 30’s and 40’s, with their hard boiled characters and gritty environments, were the favorites of his adolescence. I think it is also the uniqueness of Cagney’s character and portrayal, as Dad was always attracted to movies with a new and different take on their stories and characters. But in the days before VCR’s and DVR’s, it was a memorable moment or even line that lodged a movie into memory. And “White Heat” has both. One of the most harrowing moments and unrestrained performances in film is when Jarrett, serving out a prison term for a crime he did not commit but instead used as an alibi for a worse crime he did commit, hears of his mother’s death, and goes literally berserk. It is a tour-de-force for Cagney.



But no one who sees “White Heat” will ever forget Jarrett’s final line, nor the circumstances surrounding it – “Top of the World, Ma.” My Dad certainly did not.



Watch “White Heat” on Turner Classic Movies, Saturday November 14 at 10 am Eastern (9 am Central) and Monday, November 30 at 1:30 pm Eastern (12:30 pm Central)


Buy White Heat at Amazon.com

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Friday, November 6, 2009

TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969)









Woody Allen’s debut as a triple threat (co-writer, director, and actor) is a machine gun strafe of gags. Roger Ebert criticized the film, saying “I suspect it's a list of a lot of things Woody Allen wanted to do in a movie someday, and the sad thing is he did them all at once.” Having more in common with later Mel Brooks or Abrahams/Zucker movies than with the more meditative Allen comedies that would follow, “Take the Money and Run” is, as they are described in the director’s own “Stardust Memories,” one of Allen’s “early funny ones,” along with "Bananas" and "Sleeper." There is none of the character development or pathos of later efforts such as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” or “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

The film’s format as a “mockumentary,” the first of its kind, years before “Meet the Rutles (1978),” “This is Spinal Tap (1984),” or “Waiting for Guffman (1997),” allows it to be a purposefully disconnected series of gags built around the character of consistently unsuccessful career criminal Virgil Stockwell, played by Allen. I think the originality of this premise, a faux documentary that mixes playing it straight with outrageous slapstick and shtick, is what my Dad enjoyed. But the film is just as much a pastiche of "The Untouchables" and other earnestly narrated true crime television series that my Dad enjoyed.

Although “Take the Money and Run” was the first in a long series of films Allen wrote, directed, and starred in, it was certainly not the beginning of his career. He had previously been a successful gag writer and stand-up comic, had co-written and “directed” “What’s Up Tiger Lily,” a Japanese spy movie that Allen and company re-dubbed into a comedy, and had acted in such films as “What’s New Pussycat,” for which he wrote the original and largely discarded screenplay, and the original “Casino Royale.” It is reputedly his experience in the later chaotically produced film that initiated his desire to direct "Take the Money and Run” himself, after a supposedly unsuccessful attempt to get Jerry Lewis to take the job on.

Allen began an important relationship on this film with editor Ralph Rosenblum, credited as “Editorial Consultant,” who would go on to edit five more Allen features, including “Annie Hall.” He is often credited with saving “Take the Money and Run” by tightening the edit and convincing Allen to remove a violent ending emulating the bloody climax of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Rosenblum is also often credited with much of the intricate structure that makes "Annie Hall" so complelling.

But a key element to the success of “Take the Money and Run” is the performance and voice of narrator Jackson Beck, most famously the voice behind the opening of the original “Adventures of Superman” television series, voice of Blutto in the "Popeye" cartoon series, and pitchman for Little Caesar’s Pizza. The seriousness with which he plays his role adds a foundation of gravitas that buoys the outrageous comedy on screen. Beck began his prolific and lengthy career as a silent film actor, and was still doing voice work into the 1990's.


As a father, there is much in Woody Allen’s life to abhor, but this is still a funny movie, and one my Dad enjoyed long before Allen’s tragic and reprehensible behavior in later life.

Catch “Take the Money and Run” on Turner Classic Movies on November 7, 2009 at 8 pm Eastern and on December 1, 2009 at 6 pm Eastern. Here's the preview trailer.


Buy Take the Money and Run - Uncut (Widescreen Edition) at Amazon.com

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A TEMPEST IN A WATER CLOSET









Jack Paar and the Water Closet Joke:

A bit of a departure for this entry - let's call it "My Dad's Favorite Joke."

On February 10, 1960, television icon and "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar told the following joke as part of the late night talk show:

"An English lady, while visiting Switzerland, was looking for a room, and she asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend any to her. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned to her home to make the final preparations to move. When she arrived home, the thought suddenly occurred to her that she had not seen a "W.C." (water closet - what the British often call a toilet) around the place. So she immediately wrote a note to the schoolmaster asking him if there were a W.C. around. The schoolmaster was a very poor student of English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help in the matter. Together they tired to discover the meaning of the letters W.C., and the only solution they could find for the letters was a Wayside Chapel. The schoolmaster then wrote to the English lady the following note:

Dear Madam,

I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house you occupy, in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only. As there are a great number of people and they are expected during the summer months, I would suggest that you come early: although there is plenty of standing room as a rule. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it. While others who can afford to go by car arrive just in time. I would especially recommend that your ladyship go on Thursday when there is a musical accompaniment. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat ordinarily occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expression on their faces. The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all the people, since they feel it is a long felt need. My wife is rather delicate, so she can't attend regularly. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children, there is a special time and place so that they will not disturb the elders. Hoping to have been of service to you, I remain,

Sincerely,

The Schoolmaster."

The joke was also published in Paar's book "I Kid You Not," and it was a perennial favorite around our house. It was often a challenge to see who could read it aloud without laughing. I can clearly remember my Dad painstakingly working his way through a reading while trying to force his mouth from curling upwards in the smile that would undoubtledy open the door to full fledged laughter.

Paar described the joke as "a little anecdote given me by a friend. He got it from his thirteen-year-old niece, whose teacher had read it to her junior high school class. They had enjoyed it so much that the teacher had given each class member a copy."

So Paar was ill prepared when he discovered that the network censor, without notifying him, had cut the joke from the broadcast, leaving the impression that Paar had told a "smutty story." Paar asked that the offending material be aired the next night, and that the audience be allowed to decide whether it was offensive or not. The netword refused. The next night, a still angry Paar gave one of the most public, emotional and memorable resignation speeches of all time.



By March 7, Paar was back on the air hosting the Tonight Show. He strolled onto the stage, struck a pose before the expectant audience and uttered the infamous line "As I was saying before I was interrupted ..." The audience erupted in laughter.

He continued "I believe the last thing I said was 'There must be a better way to make a living than this.' Well, I've looked...and there isn't." He explained with his usual self-depricating honesty "Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing. I have been guilty of such action in the past and will perhaps be again. I'm totally unable to hide what I feel. It is not an asset in show business, but I shall do the best I can to amuse and entertain you and let other people speak freely, as I have in the past."

Two years later, in March of 1962, Paar left "The Tonight Show, " stating that he could no longer maintain the five-nights-a-week grind, and opening the door for replacement Johnny Carson. He moved to prime time with "The Jack Paar Program" airing weekly on Friday nights through 1965.



© 2009 Edward Bowen

Saturday, August 22, 2009

THE OKLAHOMA KID (1939)











And while we’re discussing the westerns of 1939, another favorite of my Dad’s was Warner Brothers’ “The Oklahoma Kid.” So what did my Dad like so much about “The Oklahoma Kid?” Well, it’s a western with James Cagney as the hero and Humphrey Bogart as the villain. What’s not to like about that. It’s Cagney’s first western, after carving out a niche for himself as a contemporary urban tough guy in films such as “The Public Enemy” and “Angels With Dirty Faces.” But Cagney was a versatile and gifted performer. Prior to “The Oklahoma Kid” he had performed in comedies, played hoofers in musicals, and had even essayed the role of Bottom in Warner Brothers’ and Max Reinhart’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Nevertheless, critics and audiences seemed to have particular difficulty accepting Cagney in a cowboy role. His co-star Bogart described him in his ten-gallon hat as looking like a mushroom. However, Cagney brings whimsy and eccentricity to what might have been a standard western role, famously coining the pick-up line “feel the air” and singing “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard” while fending off the interruptions of bad guy Ward Bond.



In 1939, Bogart was at the stage in his career where he accepted whatever parts Warner Brothers threw at him, and the studio often seemed at a loss to know how best to use him. Most often cast as heavies and gangsters, the western venue was also a departure for him. It would be another two years and ten films before Bogart would achieve true star status with “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon.” Whereas Cagney’s Jim Kincaid is, for the most part, amiable and disarming, Bogart’s Whip McCord, dressed from head to toe in black, is brutal, humorless, course, unattractive, and utterly devoid of any redeeming characteristics.

But I think what might have really attracted my Dad to “The Oklahoma Kid” is that it is a merging of the two favorite genres of his youth, the “B” western that was the love of his childhood, and the tough guy gangster/detective movie, best exemplified by the output of the Warner Brothers studio, that was the mainstay of his adolescence.

My Dad seemed more in tune with Warner Brothers’ films than those of any other studio. During the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, the studios, each run by formidable personalities, all had distinct styles of their own. Having pioneered the use of synchronized sound for motion pictures, Warners was known for biting humor, hard edged, moody, socially-conscious fare and urban, lower-class, tough characters, all of which Dad enjoyed.

The western elements of “The Oklahoma Kid” are obvious. The film even pays homage to the popular singing cowboys of the “B” westerns when Cagney performs not only “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” but also a Spanish version of ‘Rockaby Baby.” (As a side note, “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard” also figures prominently in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film “Reds.”)

The influences of the Warners’ gritty and urban gangster films are more subtle. Although Cagney’s character is quirky and appealing, this is largely a dark drama, with none of the lightness of tone found in “Destry Rides Again” that same year.

Cagney’s charming but sometimes brutal anti-hero, a criminal himself, owes a great deal to his gangster roles. The town of Tulsa is a crowded, tight, noisy place, feeling more like Warners’ New York back lot than the open expanses and simple designs of most previous western settings. Much of the movie takes place at night; even the chase scenes through the rocky wilderness are photographed day for night by renowned cinematographer James Wong Howe. His black and white lighting is often dark with shadows, his compositions are crowded with foreground elements, his camera is often low to the ground, and he keeps the horizon line high in the frame, all visual elements common to more urban fare, and adding to the claustrophobia. Other than in the Oklahoma land rush scenes, there are none of the expansive vistas common to the films of other western directors like John Ford, none of the color and brightness of Warners’ other western from that year, “Dodge City.” There is even a hint of the social consciousness that was evident in Warners’ early, pre production-code films. The film opens with President Grover Cleveland dismayed over his hesitant signing of the Indian Appropriations Bill and his belief that the opening of the Oklahoma territories to settlers is unfair to native Americans. But it is the cynicism and worldliness expressed by Cagney’s character in this exchange that truly mirrors the attitude of many early Warners pictures.  Says the Kid: "The strong take it away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong."



And, if you listen closely, you will hear in Max Steiner’s score some of the same motifs that reoccur two years later in “The Maltese Falcon.”
Although Cagney’s character brings some lightness and humor to the proceedings, this is largely a dark and surprisingly violent drama, with none of the lightness of tone found in “Destry Rides Again” that same year. Certain elements of this revenge tale are seen again years later in “Hour of the Gun.”

“The Oklahoma Kid” is probably as close to being an urban gangster film as a western can be.

Amazingly, this is another classic film that has never been released on DVD. Luckily, it airs on Turner Classic Movies with some regularity.





© 2009 Edward Bowen

Thursday, July 23, 2009

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939)











1939 was a banner year in popular culture. “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” top an astonishing list of admired and timeless movies from that year. Radio was at the peak of its popularity, and Batman debuted in Detective Comics # 27.

In 1939, the major Hollywood studios seemed to simultaneously decide that the western genre, long relegated to “B” movie status, was a proper vehicle for “A” list directors, stars, and budgets. Warner Brothers put James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in “The Oklahoma Kid” and Errol Flynn in “Dodge City.” Twentieth Century Fox cast Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda in “Jesse James,” and placed John Ford at the helm of “Drums Along the Mohawk,” also with Fonda. Paramount put a huge budget behind Cecil B. DeMille’s “Union Pacific,” with Barbara Stanwick and Joel McCrea, and released “Geronimo,” the inspiration for the famous mid-air paratrooper yell from World War II. RKO got into the action with “Allegheny Uprising,” and United Artists released Walter Wanger and John Ford’s production of “Stagecoach,” which would launch John Wayne into super stardom. And then, from Universal Studios, there was “Destry Rides Again,” an “A” western strong on comedy and character.

More than any of the other films of that year, “Destry Rides Again” borrows heavily from the formula of the “B” westerns. Heavy on action and stunt work, these low budget, quickly shot movies were a mainstay of young and old alike, and featured stars such as Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, William Boyd, Johnny Mack Brown, Dick Foran, Tim Holt, and singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers as straight-laced, square-jawed heroes. They are the movies my Dad grew up on.

There is much in “Destry,” that harkens to the familiar “B” western format - the corrupt town, the land-grabbing villain, the treacherous barmaid, the comic side-kick, the musical interludes, and the hero come to clean up the town. But it’s the variations on the familiar themes that make the movie so interesting, vital and fun

The depth and density of the corruption of Bottleneck, the setting of the movie, is almost unprecedented. It’s a palpable presence in the town’s saloon, overcrowded with riotous, unsavory extras. The urbane and unctuous saloon owner (Brian Donlevy), Frenchy, the saloon singer and hostess (Marlene Dietrich) and the sleazy, tobacco-chewing judge and mayor (Samuel S. Hinds) are all in on the illegal shenanigans. The threat is heightened by the caliber of the actors portraying these villains. And there has certainly never been a duplicitous barmaid that looked or sounded anything like Marlene Dietrich.

But the real break with tradition here is the character of Thomas Jefferson Destry, the hero with a reputation and a pedigree, brought in to save the day by the ineffective town drunk the villains have appointed sheriff. Destry is anything but what his reputation and western tradition would suggest. He arrives in town and is an immediate if unflappable laughing stock, much to the sheriff’s chagrin.



Gangly, mild-mannered, folksy, avoiding confrontation, lapsing into homespun anecdotes about probably apocryphal friends, carving napkin-rings, and most astonishingly, refusing to carry guns, Destry is unlike any western hero before.


But there is a method and a philosophy to Destry’s eccentricities …


… and as played by James Stewart, a hidden strength to the character, and a dangerous edge he keeps hidden until needed, a side of his character we see more often in Stewart’s more mature performances for Anthony Mann and John Ford later in his career.


Although others may remember Marlene Dietrich famously performing “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have,” I think it is the character of Destry that surprised and delighted my Dad, and made this one of his favorite movies. And the scene he remembered the most was not the often remembered “cat fight” between Dietrich and Una Merkle, but the aftermath when Destry incurs Frenchy’s ire.


1939 was also a big year for Stewart with five films in release. Just three years after his first film role, he begins the year as an almost unknown, recognized for his ensemble performance in Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You” the previous year, and ends it as a full fledged star, nominated for an Academy Award for his performance of Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It is interesting to note that Stewart took second billing to his female co-stars in each of his 1939 films, and would not receive top billing until “No Time For Comedy” in 1941.

Buy Destry Rides Again at Amazon.com.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Thursday, June 25, 2009

BREAKING AWAY (1979)










In 1979, writer Steve Tesich, a Yugoslavian émigré, was about to hit it big. He would win an Oscar for his first produced screenplay, “Breaking Away,” and would follow with five more produced screenplays in as many years, including “Eyewitness,” “The World According to Garp,” and the highly autobiographical “Four Friends,” a script that highlighted his immigrant’s belief in the triumph of the American dream over devastating tragedy. He would work with some of the most acclaimed film directors of his generation, including George Roy Hill, Arthur Penn, John Badham, and three times with his “Breaking Away” collaborator Peter Yates. His play “Division Street” would be performed on Broadway. Eventually, after 1985’s “American Fliers” and “Eleni,” he would cease writing screenplays and focus on playwriting as he become increasingly disillusioned about America and in particular its foreign policy.

In 1979, Peter Yates was at the pinnacle of his success. His second outing as a director, 1968’s “Bullitt,” with its innovative and unforgettable car chase through the street of San Francisco, had established itself as a classic. Seven feature films later, his most recent release, “The Deep,” based on author Peter Benchley’s follow-up to “Jaws,” and featuring a just as unforgettable Jacqueline Bisset, had been a popular success, ranking among the top ten grossers in a year that inlcuded "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," 'Smokey and the Bandit," and "Saturday Night Fever." The Academy would nominate him as Best Director for “Breaking Away,” which would also be nominated as Best Picture.

“Breaking Away” tells the story of Dave Stoller, played by Dennis Christopher, whose love of cycling and enthusiasm for Italian competitive cyclists leads him to take on a fanciful and perhaps delusional Italian persona, much to his father’s chagrin.




Stoller and his working-class friends, played by up-and coming actors Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earl Haley, spend the summer days swimming at the abandoned quarry, resisting the pulls of impending adulthood, entangled in romantic relationships, and sparing with haughty students from the local college, Indiana University. They compete against an arrogant college team in a climactic bicycle race, a battle emblematic of the antipathy between the townies, descendants of the local stoneworkers, or “cutters,” and the invading college students. The character of Dave Stoller is based on legendary bicyclist, Italian enthusiast, and Tesich’s college friend Dave Blase, and the race is an actual competition held annually at Indiana University, in which Blasé and Tesich participated during their college days.

Director Yates, Cinematographer Matthew Leonetti and Designer Patrizia von Brandenstein make the most of their Indiana locations, giving the film an authentic and believable beauty.

While most of the film focuses on the friendship and trials of the four main characters, it is Paul Dooley’s performance as Dave’s put upon father Raymond that steals the show, and the relationship of the father and son that provides the emotional foundation for the film.




Dooley delivers an astonishingly layered, unselfconscious and memorable performance, never shying away from the harsh and even cruel behavior of the character. It is his blustering inability and refusal to recognize, accept, or deal with his own parental emotions that is ultimately so endearing. He is representative of a generation or hard-working husbands and fathers for whom revealing any emotion other than anger and frustration was a sign of weakness. And due notice should be given to the less flashy but no less important performance from Barbara Barrie as Dave's charming, perceptive, understanding and patient mother. A busy television actress with memorable recurring roles in "Barney Miller" and "ThirtySomething" was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in "Breaking Away."




But I think Dooley's performance as Raymond Stoller is what my father liked best about “Breaking Away.” I believe he may have empathized with the character. My father came from working-class roots, grew up in the depression, and along with my mother sacrificed to raise a family. He shied away from excessive expressions of emotion, but was a loving, supportive and giving parent with a son I am sure he often did not understand.




A cartoonist, stand-up comedian and magician, Paul Dooley was discovered by director Mike Nichols, who cast him in the supporting cast of the original 1965 Broadway production of “The Odd Couple.” Dooley eventually replaced Art Carney as the persnickety Felix Ungar opposite Walter Matthau’s grouchy Oscar Madison. Dooley wrote for the landmark children’s series “The Electric Company” in the 1970’s. His first major film role was in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding.” Comfortable and proficient in improvisation, he became a favorite of the director, and appeared in a total of six of his films. He has made numerous memorable television appearances in series such as ‘ThirtySomething,” “Deep Space Nine,” “The Wonder Years,” “Desperate Housewives,” “My So-Called Life,” “Dream On,” and “The Practice.”

But his two most famous roles are as fathers in “Breaking Away” and 1984's “Sixteen Candles.”

“Breaking Away” is not the only movie featuring evocative father-son relationships on my Dad’s favorites list. The irresponsible father and the mature-beyond-his-years son in “A Hole in the Head,” the profane, combustible father and the bewildered son of “A Christmas Story,” and the unconventional, free-spirited uncle and surrogate father to a “middle-aged kid” in “A Thousand Clowns” were also favorites of my Dad.



Buy Breaking Away (Widescreen Edition)at Amazon.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Monday, June 8, 2009

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)













My Dad loved originality - unexpected twists on established genres or familiar plotlines intrigued him.

In 1972, almost everything about “The Night Stalker,” a television movie produced for "The ABC Movie of the Week,” was original and surprising. It is a merger of genres and styles, a fresh mash-up of horror, police procedurals, and “Front Page” style newspaper dramas. It eschews or reinvents all the gothic trappings previously associated with vampire movies, inserting the vampire for the first time fully into the modern world of blood banks and dragnets and forensics and bureaucracies. All the resultant ironies are fully mined in the script by acclaimed novelist and prolific short story and television writer Richard Matheson, adapted from the unpublished short story by Jeff Rice. In one scene after another, intrepid reporter Carl Kolshak is confronted with a series on increasingly inexplicable events and confounding evidence, all leading slowly and inevitably to the conclusion that the serial killer stalking Las Vegas must in fact be a real-life vampire.


Producer Dan Curtis had some experience reinventing the vampire genre. Years before Buffy and Angel, "Twilight,” or even Frank Langella’s “Dracula,” he had romanticized the vampire in his ground-breaking daytime series “Dark Shadows.” With “The Night Stalker” he does the opposite, reducing the vampire to a mysterious, depersonalized, silent, feral, largely off-screen presence. Matheson and Curtis would within a year revisit the genre in their TV version of “Dracula” starring Jack Palance, wherein they would invent a romantic backstory for the vampire that twenty years later would be the foundation of Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation.

In “The Night Stalker,” Curtis reteams with his ‘Dark Shadows” composer Robert Cobert, who provides a striking and original score, a jazzy and bassy mix of musical styles that nicely mirrors the eclectic story elements.

There are numerous scenes that grab the imagination both in terms of content and technique – the autopsy from the corpse’s point of view, the coroner’s inquest in which the bizarre details of the murders are delivered with matter-of-fact dispassion, and the “wild brawl” in the hospital following the vampire’s raid on the its blood bank, a tour-de-force from director John Llewellyn Moxey (“The Saint,” “Mannix,” “Mission Impossible”) and Stunt Coordinator Dick Ziker with un-credited work from legendary stunt man Hal Needham.


But the movie truly belongs to Darren McGavin. His portrayal of irascible and resolute reporter Carl Kolshak brings humor and humanity to the proceedings, and drives the movie’s pace and tone.


McGavin was a particular favorite of my Dad’s from the time he played Casey in the TV series “Crime Photographer” in the early 1950’s. While on their honeymoon in New York in 1951, my Mom and Dad rounded a street corner and literally ran into McGavin, who they described as friendly and charming. Thirty-four years later I worked with McGavin on “Raw Deal,” and found him to be just as my parents had described.


In fifteen years working on feature films, the only autograph I ever requested was from Darren McGavin, and that was for my parents.


McGavin starred in seven TV series and guest starred in many more. He had a distinguished film career, including playing the profane father in “A Christmas Story” and an un-credited but crucial role in “The Natural.” But he is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Carl Kolshak in “The Night Stalker,” its sequel “The Night Strangler,” and the subsequent series “Kolshak: The Night Stalker.” His Kolshak is a unique and original creation, Woodstein in a seer sucker suit and a porkpie hat, volatile, passionate, funny, abrasive, sarcastic and indignant, a man with a moral code of his own making. There has never been a character quite like Carl Kolshak.


McGavin once told me that the hardest part of his career was the constant and inevitable nighttime shooting that this series required. Having just come from working on “Blue Velvet,” with seven straight weeks of night filming, I could certainly sympathize.

"The ABC Movie of the Week" was a television anthology series of made-for-TV movies airing on the ABC network in various permutations from 1969 to 1976. Adhering to a 90 minute running length, as opposed to the two hour slot standard of previous made-for-television movies, gave many of the films an enhanced pace and urgency. “The Night Stalker” certainly benefits from this. There were several notable entries to the series, including “Brian’s Song,” with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, “Pursuit,” Michael Crichton’s directorial debut, the unforgetable “Trilogy of Terror” from Curtis and Matheson, and three more of my Dad’s favorites, “Duel,” from Matheson and director Steven Speilberg, “Something Evil,” also directed by Speilberg, and “Goodnight My Love,” written and directed by Peter Hyams and featuring the imaginative teaming of Richard Boone and Michael Dunn as private detectives in 1940’s Los Angeles. The program also spawned many successful series, such as "Starsky and Hutch," "Kung Fu," "The Six Million Dollar Man," and "Marcus Welby, M.D."



“The Night Stalker,” which manages to valiantly mask its television imposed budget restrictions, held the record as the highest rated television movie until “Roots” aired in 1977.


Buy The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler (Double Feature)
at Amazon.com
© 2009 Edward Bowen

Monday, May 11, 2009

GUNGA DIN (1939)










“Gunga Din” is a rousing adventure yarn, spun from the poem by Rudyard Kipling and combined with elements from Kipling’s “Soldiers Three” stories by prolific authors Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur. Hecht contributed to the screenplays of seven films released in 1939, including “Stagecoach,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Gone with the Wind.” A marriage subplot of “Gunga Din,” completely fabricated by Hecht and McArthur, is reminiscent of their most famous theatrical collaboration, “The Front Page,” itself adapted to the silver screen numerous times.

The story of “Gunga Din” follows the exploits of three fun-loving British sergeants stationed in Colonial India, who, along with Gunga Din, their regimental bhisti (water-bearer) longing to throw off his lowly status and become a soldier of the Queen, become entangled with a deadly murder cult.

I know that my Dad enjoyed this film for its action and humor, for the comedic interplay of the main characters, and for its moving climax of self-sacrifice. There is a heightened and exaggerated level of performance from Cary Grant, Victor McLachlan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that lends the film lightness and energy. Grant in particular as the happy-go-lucky treasure hunter chews the scenery with abandon, afforded one of the rare opportunities, along with “Sylvia Scarlett” and “None But the Lonely Heart,” to affect his native cockney accent.

It’s an adventure movie for the 10 year old boy in all of us.



Director George Stevens learned his craft working on westerns and on comedies for Hal Roach, and both influences are in evidence here in the mix of low comedy and high adventure. It’s impossible to imagine Stevens adopting this light-hearted approach to soldiers and war in his later films. During World War II, Stevens and his film unit, the "Stevens Irregulars," would document the Normandy landings, the liberation of Paris and the discovery of the Nazi extermination camp at Dachau, forever influencing the tone and content of Stevens’ films.

Watching “Gunga Din” today elicits mixed and conflicting emotions, particularly in its treatment of colonialism in general and the Indian people in particular. Whereas the three British soldiers are the obvious heroes of the piece, it is the Indian Gunga Din who is eventually revealed to be the bravest of the lot. However, Din’s wish to essentially be British, even when seen in light of his rejection and treatment by his own people, is demeaning. The producers had originally intended to cast Sabu, a fifteen year old native of India, in the role of Gunga Din. When Sabu proved unavailable, they instead cast 47 year old Caucasian Sam Jaffe, whose most recent role had been the 300 year old High Lama in “Lost Horizon.” Jaffe gives a powerful, heart-wrenching performance, but it’s embarrassing that none of the three most prominent Indian characters in the film are portrayed by Indians, or even Asians. American Abner Biberman, most known for essaying criminals and convicts, plays the treacherous Chota, and Italian-American Eduardo Ciannelli plays the monstrous Guru. All give powerful, affecting performances, but in the Indian equivalent of blackface. Noting that none of this is uncommon or unusual for a film of this era does little to lessen its sting.

If a modern viewer can look past this (and there is a whole other argument to be addressed as to whether a modern viewer SHOULD look past this), then “Gunga Din” can be a wonderfully entertaining experience from a cast and a director at the height of their powers to entertain.


The influence of “Gunga Din” is far reaching. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” has whole sequences that feel lifted from “Gunga Din.” Soldiers involved in extra-military treasure hunting adventures are in evidence in films as disparate as “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Three Kings.” And “Gunga Din” was remade as a western starring Sinatra’s Rat Pack as “Three Sergeants,” with Sammy David Jr. taking on the Gunga Din role.






Buy Gunga Din at Amazon.com.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Monday, May 4, 2009

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)


At least three things distinguish “Murder on the Orient Express.”

First, it’s a who-dun-it with a most unusual, outrageous, and original solution. We can thank Agatha Christie and her 1934 novel for that. It’s a surprise ending only equaled in the writer’s oeuvre by “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in 1926, which contains a distinctly literary twist ending.

Second, the striking and elegant costume and production design by Tony Walton, who began his film career ten years earlier with “Mary Poppins.” It’s a gorgeous color depiction of the era, filtered through years of cinematic influences, and lovingly photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth at the pinnacle of his impressive career.

Third, it has an all-star cast to end all all-star casts, one that would put Irwin Allen’s casting director to shame. In their careers, the 15 principal cast members amassed a total of 29 Academy Award nominations (with 8 wins), 42 BAFTA nominations (with 9 wins), 21 Emmy nominations (with 5 wins) and 11 Tony nominations (with 6 wins). Six of its stars (John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Colin Blakely, Rachel Roberts and Albert Finney) were simultaneously appearing in important West End shows during the film’s production. This elite group of theater actors is joined onscreen by seven unquestionable movie STARS (Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Tony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York, and Ingrid Bergman). Established character actors Martin Balsam and Jean-Pierre Cassel round out the cast. You might also recognize George Coulouris, Thatcher in "Citizen Kane," as the helpful doctor.



The script by Paul Dehn provides several of these actors with juicy, melodramatic parts. Director Sidney Lumet, on an odd but successful hiatus from gritty, urban, contemporary films “The Anderson Tapes,” “The Offence,” “Serpico,” and later “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network”) allows the performers to sink their teeth firmly and enjoyably into the scenery. Of particular note are Lauren Bacall as the loud, obnoxious American widow and former actress, Wendy Hiller as the aloof and emotionless Russian princess, Rachel Roberts as the severe and unyielding German maid, Tony Perkins as a mother-obsessed personal assistant, resonating back to his most famous role as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” and in particular Ingrid Bergman in a brief but Academy Award-winning performance as a psychologically unbalanced Swedish missionary.



But it is Albert Finney’s unselfconscious turn as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot that carries the show. Finney virtually disappears into the role, both psychologically and physically, concealed in make-up and mannerisms. He completes the transition from leading angry young man to character actor he began in “Scrooge” four years earlier, briefly taking on the mantle usually reserved for Alec Guinness. It’s a revelatory performance, and a detective very unlike any that American audiences had seen before. In 1974, Poirot, who appears in 33 of Christie’s novels and 51 of her short stories between 1920 and 1975, had rarely been portrayed in the movies or in television. Charles Laughton was the first to play the detective in a West End production of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” titled “Alibi.” Only four actors (Austin Trevor, Martin Gabel, Tony Randall, and Horst Bollmann) essayed the role in film or television prior to 1974. It is Finney who defined the character with all its dandified eccentricities, slow and deliberate mannerisms, sudden bursts of passionate energy, and dazzling mental pyrotechnics.



Director Lumet tells a wonderful story about his cast:

A charming thing happened at the first reading of Murder on the Orient Express. Five stars of the English theatre were appearing in the West End at the time -- John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Colin Blakely, and Rachel Roberts. Sitting with them were six movie stars: Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Tony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, and Michael York; Ingrid Bergman and Albert Finney bridged both worlds.


They began to read. I couldn't hear anything. Everyone was murmuring their lines so quietly they were inaudible.


finally figured out what was happening. The movie stars were in awe of the theatre stars; the theatre stars were in awe of the movie stars. A classic case of stage fright.

I stopped the reading and, saying that I couldn't hear a thing, asked them to please talk to one another as if we were at Gielgud's house for dinner. John said he'd never had such illustrious guests to dinner, and off we went.

Buy Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express at Amazon.com.

© 2009 Edward Bowen

Saturday, April 25, 2009

THE HAUNTING (1963)











I know that my Dad thought that “The Haunting,” was the scariest film he ever saw.

Eschewing overt violence and even physical threat, the film maintains an overwhelming atmosphere of psychological dread.

This claustrophobic, black and white, character driven horror tale might seem a departure for Robert Wise, the director of the sweeping, colorful, vibrant musicals “West Side Story” two years earlier and “The Sound of Music” two years later. But it harkens back to Wise’s days as an editor for Val Lewton, a producer whose low budget horror tales emphasized the unseen over the seen and the suggested over the explicit. Wise’s directorial debut, “The Curse of the Cat People,” a deceptively titled, beautifully etched coming-of-age tale, was produced for Lewton’s unit at RKO Pictures. “The Haunting” would be Wise’s last black and white film.

So what makes “The Haunting” so scary? What’s in Wise’s directorial tool box that’s used to create such a sense of unease and dread?

First, the vividly drawn characters in this ensemble piece, each a familiar stock character endowed with believable psychological depth, have detailed back stories that link their psyches inextricably to the back story of the house itself and the events that unfold there. The haunting becomes psychologically personal. Shirley Jackson, author of the short story “The Lottery,” that perennial favorite of high school English teachers, wrote the 1959 novel. Television scribe Nelson Gidding, screenwriter on the Susan Hayward shocker “I Want To Live” and later of “The Andromeda Strain,” both directed by Wise, provided the screenplay.

Copied and plagiarized numerous times, it’s now a familiar set-up – paranormal investigators ensconce themselves in a purportedly haunted house to prove or disprove the existence of the supernatural. But in 1959 and 1963, it was a fairly original treatment of the classic haunted house genre.



Wise, director of photography Davis Bolton and camera operator Alan McCabe use all the cinematic tricks at their disposal. High contrast photography provides impenetrable, threatening shadows. Deep focus makes the sinister surroundings a constant, palpable presence, while newly produced wide angle Panavision anamorphic lenses distort the environment. Compositions emphasize disturbing elements in the house – silent statues, half-opened doors, anthropomorphic patterns and designs in the walls. Infrared film turns the exterior skies a murky black, even in daytime. Canted angles make the house seem off-balance. In fact, the camera work continually makes the house seem alive, watchful and threatening.

But it’s the use of sound that buoys the horror, whether it is the almost subliminal whispers, the pounding on the doors and walls, or the unnerving music score of British composer Humphrey Searle, a marriage of the styles of Bernard Herrmann and James Bernard by way of Schoenberg.



What scene did my Dad remember most from this movie? The door ...



I was exposed to “The Haunting” on the CBS Late Movie in the early 70’s.

 

I would watch it alone in our basement, often becoming too scared, or too sleepy, to finish it. I saw it numerous times in its television pan-and-scan version. In its original theatrical format, preserved in recent DVD releases, the picture was 2.35 times as wide as it was tall. On television, the width was reduced to 1.33 times as wide as tall, requiring that about half of the picture be cropped, and destroying the film’s careful photographic compositions. To follow the action, the cropped image was "panned and scanned." Having become so accustomed to the cropped version, I was shocked when as an adult I finally saw the un-cropped, letterboxed version on DVD. Although I am a strong proponent of using letterboxing to preserve the filmmakers’ intentions, and there is no doubt that the original compositions in this film are powerful tools in creating suspense, there was something disconcerting and frightening in the claustrophobic effect caused by the combination of cropping and wide angle lens distortion found in the television version. And I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes miss the version that so terrified and thrilled me as a youngster.




Buy The Haunting from Amazon.

The opening ...



 © 2009 Edward Bowen
© 2009 Edward Bowen

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