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Sunday, November 19, 2017

The film collaborations of Luis Buñuel and Hugo Butler in Mexico

The 'Hollywood blacklist', composed of prominent film personnel that were presumed in the 1940s and 1950s to have ties to the Communist Party, had repercussions well beyond Tinseltown, or the U.S. for that matter.  Despite this being a decidedly dark period of U.S. and Hollywood history, those who made their livelihood from the craft of film-making often still worked to produce films of considerable interest in whatever way they could. One way was to leave the U.S.

In Mexico, two exiles, Spanish-born surrealist Luis Buñuel and blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Hugo Butler, formed an unlikely partnership and produced two unique and divergent films: Robinson Crusoe and The Young Onethe only ones Buñuel made in English.  Both challenged the structures of society that made the blacklist possible.

This post is my contribution to the "Banned and Blacklisted" CMBA Fall Blogathon.  For links to all posts, click on the image below.

Director and writer Buñuel was not a Hollywood filmmaker, and was not included on the official Hollywood blacklist, but had he had a substantive U.S. career, he may very well have been.  He was born in 1900 in Spain, and while, or because, he had a strict Jesuit education, in his younger years was already developing an irreverent, experimental style of film-making in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that was often counter-establishment.  His penetration into surrealism happened alongside his growing friendship with painter Salvador Dalí and playwright/poet Federico García Lorca.  He did find himself on the wrong side of Fascist Spain for his unabashed anti-Fascist and anti-clerical views.  And to Hollywood he did come, after establishing himself in France as a filmmaker, but the studio system did not warm to him. His friend, producer Denise Tual, was more or less kicked out of Louis B. Mayer's office in 1944 trying to recommend he hire Buñuel. Then persona non grata, Tual decided to restart her career in Mexico, and because of the increasing pressure on left-leaning filmmakers in Hollywood, Buñuel was convinced to go with her.  In Mexico he had more options, and began to make complete films again when connected to powerful producers Óscar Dancigers and George Pepper.  Pepper, also 'exiled' in Mexico as a result of the blacklist, had established his own production company under the pseudonym George P. Werker (!).
Buñuel (left) with Hugo Butler working on a script
(credit: Spartacus-Educational.com)
The pressure on screenwriter Hugo Butler to leave Hollywood was considerably more intense.  While originating from Canada, the writer of Lassie Come Home and The Southerner and his American screenwriter wife Jean Rouverol had been members of the Communist party for a time, and were expecting a call to testify by the unfriendly House Un-American Activities Committee. Rather than submitting to that, they left Hollywood for Mexico in 1951.  There, they joined fellow blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, and other 'exiles'.  The film-making industry in Mexico in the 1950s was protectionist, though, and artists such as Butler and Buñuel did not find it easy at first to gain a foothold.  The state-funded 'Asociación de Productores y Directores de Películas Mexicanas' put heavy restrictions on non-Mexicans in getting work permits.  As a result, working with Dancigers and Pepper, Butler and Buñuel became part of a 'cinematic crosscurrent'.  Exiles from their own countries, and feeling somewhat exiled within Mexico, they perhaps unsurprisingly explored the experience of 'the exile' in their work during this phase. 

Robinson Crusoe was their first joint project together.  The screenplay based on the famed novel by Daniel Defoe had been drafted first by Butler, and was sold to producer Pepper, who reached out to Buñuel to direct.  Buñuel was initially reluctant, but when he had the opportunity to contribute to the developing script the deal was sealed.  Irish actor Daniel O'Herlihy was cast as the title character, and filming commenced in color, in Mexico.  The dialogue was in English, although in the first part of the film it was minimal, with O'Herlihy dominating the screen as the castaway with no other humans.  His thoughts are related, when necessary, with voice-over narration. This version focused on the psychological struggle of Crusoe's fight to survive without any human interaction, rather than the more traditional 'man conquers nature' arc.  While he does come to dominate his surroundings, and the 'imperial' right order is restored, he questions the power dynamic of his relationship with his 'native' companion Friday.  As Ed Gonzalez says in Slant Magazine, "Buñuel dares his audience to question everything they've come to know about morality, savagery, and everything in between.” 

Butler's horizons were expanded working with Buñuel, collaborating to incorporate more non-traditional, including surrealist elements, into the script.  A famous fever-dream sequence inserts a vision of Crusoe's father, chastising Crusoe.  At one point his father is submerged eerily underwater:


Robinson Crusoe was released in 1954 through United Artists, and screenwriting credits were given to Buñuel, and Butler under the pseudonym Phillip Ansel Roll.  It got enough attention that O'Herlihy was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.  Watching it on Filmstruck, I found it a highly captivating film, and one I'll return to.

Bernie Hamilton and Key Meersman in The Young One
(credit: Spartacus-Educational.com)
The Young One (1960) was the second of the Butler-Buñuel collaborations, with a distinctly different tone, at least on the surface.  Butler, this time taking the name H. B. Addis, wrote the script from a short story by Peter Matthiessen called Travellin' Man.  It's a contemporary story of a falsely-accused African-American fugitive from justice, Traver, played by Bernie Hamilton, who retreats to a small South Carolina island inhabited only by tyrannical, racist rancher Miller (Zachary Scott) and his ailing father.  He also has living with him a young ward, Evalyn (Key Meersman).  Ultimately, Scott decides to assert himself with Evalyn a bit too much, and Traver befriends both of them while the family politics disintegrate.  Ultimately Miller is forced to confront his own racism as he loses what is dear to him.  It shares with Crusoe, though, the themes of isolation, living in exile, and redemption only by real human connection as equals.

It's filmed in black-and-white with almost no soundtrack except a spiritual "Oh Sinner-Man" at the beginning and end, giving it a harsh, lower-budget feel. Scott disappears into Miller's skin, and is so repulsive at every turn, that his semi-redemption at the end leaves us with not a small amount of doubt.  It's not an easy watch, and there are times when it veers into unreal, if not surreal.  This may because the portrayals were not exactly what Buñuel wanted.  According to his biographer, the director was thrilled to have Zachary Scott, a veteran talent, but was unhappy about what he got from Hamilton and Meersman, the former getting 'carried away' and the latter having no acting experience.  To compensate, he asked Scott to abandon his underplaying, and he then was at least relatively satisfied with the result.  The finished product is a gritty, and pessimistic take on contemporary American society, which was seething with the scourge of racism as well as the culture of fear emanating from the communist witch hunts.
Key Meersman and Zachary Scott in The Young One
Stream the film here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2jfdz6
Ironically, the positive reception of this film at Cannes in 1960 was Buñuel's ticket out of Mexico and back to making 'European' films. Three of his most remembered films, The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Belle du Jour came later in the 1960s.  Sadly, Butler did not live to see his writing credits returned to the films he penned while blacklisted--he died at age 53 in 1968 from heart disease.

Resources:
1) Baxter, John. Buñuel 
2) Wood, Michael. The Fierce Imagination of Luis Buñuel, in Great Film Directors, Leo Brandy, editor.
3) Schrieber, Rebecca M., Cold War Exiles in Mexico
4) Pepper, Margot. For George Pepper, the Blacklist Isn't Over. https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/for-producer-george-pepper-the-blacklist-isnt-over/

Sunday, November 12, 2017

William Wellman - Part 1: Four early films

William Wellman and friend (IMDb)
My love for the Harvard Film Archive* just gets stronger and stronger. Exhibit A: Their current William Wellman retrospective.  Wellman is one of those Hollywood directors that lacks the name recognition of a Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra and the like.  But his talent produced some of the best and/or most entertaining films made in Hollywood over four decades, including a film I wrote about last year, The Ox-Bow Incident.  And, as I discovered, he's a native of my current town, Brookline, Massachusetts, and for that alone, this retrospective grabbed my attention.  [Go here for the full list of films in the retrospective.]

Sadly, I can't attend all the screenings, despite my efforts to look for ways to camp out on the grass at Harvard Yard(!)  But, in the first ten days of the series, I got to four of his early films.  This post is simply my appreciation for Wellman's craft as shown in these films, all of which were first-time viewings for me.  In a later post, I'll write about some of his later films.

First, some facts--and/or legends--about William Wellman:
  • He was born in Brookline but attended high school in Newton, Mass., down the road, where he apparently got expelled for dropping a stink-bomb on the principal's head.
  • He played professional ice hockey.
  • He became a fighter pilot in WWI.
  • He piloted his airplane onto the grounds of Pickfair (the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford Hollywood estate) when given a casual invitation to "drop by" after Fairbanks saw him play in a hockey match.
  • He got his start as an actor in films in the silent era, due to his connection with Fairbanks, but quickly became much more interested in directing.
  • He directed Fairbanks' son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in Love is a Racket (1932).
  • For his escapades before and during his film career, he earned the nickname "Wild Bill" Wellman.  The picture above tells it all, doesn't it?!
  • His film Wings was the first, in 1928, to win what is now known as the 'Best Picture' Oscar.
  • His 1931 film The Public Enemy made a star of James Cagney and helped propel Jean Harlow out of obscurity.
  • He directed the first-ever version of A Star is Born (1937).
  • His directing style was wide-ranging, with an emphasis on action and movement, as well as on realistic settings.  His pre-code output in the early 30s was the greatest of his career. 
Battle scenes in Wings (IMDb)
Wings (Paramount, 1927 -- silent).
This is the first film in history to win the best picture Oscar. It tells the story of two friends in small town America who become fighter pilots in WWI. Their friendship is strengthened, but also is their rivalry, which stems from their love for the same woman back home.  There are heroic scenes aplenty, and some moments of tragedy.

The Wellman touch:  It's part action/war flick and part melodrama.  Wellman clearly put his flying expertise into this--the action shots were made by mounting cameras on actual airplanes and capturing real planes, carrying the real stars (!), flying up and down and over in the great skies. The film obviously was a huge success and played in some cinemas continually for over a year.

l-r: Charles Rogers, Clara  Bow,
Richard Arlen (HFA)
What impressed me:  The star power in this film is top caliber for the day, and oh my, the stars were stunningly gorgeous.  Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston in particular, but also Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Clara Bow, the 'IT' girl of the day, who unfortunately had a tendency to overplay in this one. Gary Cooper makes a brief appearance, but he would shortly eclipse all these stars in the popularity department.  Even El Brendel, as the comic relief, looked good here(!).


It's no secret that the action sequences are jaw-dropping, but seeing them on the big screen elicited gasps from me, and others, on more than one occasion.  The scope of the battlefield scenes reminds us that the silent era did not necessarily skimp on craft or quality compared to the sound era--directors like Wellman made the most of what was available to them, and often dreamed big.  Watch below for one of the big aerial scenes.

Beggars of Life (Paramount, 1928-silent).  
Richard Arlen again was the star in this one, but rather than a war story, this film shows the adventures of two young down-on-their-luck vagrants, the other being silent legend Louise Brooks.  The two fall in love while trying to run from the law, and get entangled with a dangerous gang.  This film was recently restored and released on Kino Lorber.

The Wellman touch:  Silent film melodrama works well when the emotions of the film's characters, the backbone of the film, are done justice by the choices the actors and director make.  The best directors work with the glory of the 'faces' they had back then to draw us in.  Wellman was terrific at this, using powerful close-ups in key moments.  But true to form, he also kept the pace moving quickly, with action sequences in this case on and around moving trains.

Louise Brooks sees Richard Arlen's character for the first time
What impressed me:  This film is a perfect demonstration of how great silent cinematic melodrama, like opera, often focuses on no more than three central characters confronting life-altering circumstances or choices.  Regardless of how realistic the scenarios are, the art is in us finding the universal feelings of the human condition and losing ourselves in the experience.  

Wellman was able to get his actors to be the best they could be: Louise Brooks, both androgynous and stunning, and Richard Arlen, handsome, virile, and yet sensitive. And for the "villain" Wallace Beery, an oafish presence in most of his films, but here his talent is inarguable.  There is a scene toward the end of the movie where his character goes through a change of heart.  With only pantomime and facial expression - Beery is so so good. I gained a new respect for Beery as an actor. 
Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life 
Beau Geste (Paramount, 1939)
The British colonial adventure novel, Beau Geste, by Percival Christopher Wren, was filmed so many times that a parody in 1977 was called The Last Remake of Beau Geste (note to self - I need to watch that sometime.) The basic story is that of the three Geste brothers, Beau, John, and Digby; they join the foreign legion and have to defend a fort in the Sahara under attack by Arabs.  In the meantime, one of them, unknown to the others, has stolen a jewel from his adoptive mother in order to protect her from scandal and bankruptcy.  Adventures ensue.  This particular film was the first 'talking' version, coming 13 years after the highly successful silent version starring Ronald Colman.

Robert Preston, Gary Cooper, and Ray Milland as the
Geste brothers, in civilian dress. (photo from HFA).
The brothers in their uniforms (IMDb)



The Wellman touch:  Here Wellman again used his love of realistic locales, and arranged for the filming of this in real sand dunes in 'Buttercup Valley' California, near the Arizona border, the same location as the 1926 film.  As usual he put his actors through the rugged treatment, but they all gained respect for him, as, according to Preston, on an off night in a Mexican border town, a character came to their table and reminded Wellman he served as his airplane mechanic in the war (from Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939, by Mark Vieira).
Brian Donlevy (from allposterimages.com)

What impressed me:
  I was pretty sure I had not seen this version going in, but when it started, it looked so familiar I began to question if I indeed had seen it. It turns out, it was the silent version I had seen, but this one adhered so closely to the that the deja vu feeling was strong and understandable.  Despite being familiar with the story, I particularly loved the commitment and zest that Brian Donlevy put into his role as the sadistic commander of the troops at the fort.  He deservedly won the Oscar for supporting actor as a result.  Apparently, he was not popular on the set, having immersed himself a bit too deeply as Sgt. Markoff.

At the beginning, the camera pans over the fort, where men are stationed one per lookout point, across the top. It is creepy, in that all of the men are staring out at us, but we realize with horror that every face is that of a dead man, killed in action, but propped up to look like he is at his post.  This was also a choice made by the director of the 1926 version, Herbert Brenon.

Overall, the film won't be on my favorites list, but it is worth seeing if you're a fan of Wellman's, or any of the actors.

Nothing Sacred (Selznick International Pictures, 1937)

As a classic 'screwball comedy', starring Carole Lombard, the screwball queen, Nothing Sacred was a departure for Wellman. In this depression-era genre, typically a dizzy female heroine involves her male companions in a farcical situation that allows them to play off one another in an early Hollywood 'battle of the sexes'.  In this one, Lombard is Hazel Flagg, a young woman in a small Vermont town who is presumably dying of radium poisoning. A down-on-his-luck New York City reporter Wally Cook, played by Fredric March, sees an angle to exploit, and brings Hazel to the big city to be a one-woman human interest story, to impress his beleagured boss, played by Walter Connolly.  Little do they know, and Hazel isn't about to reveal, that she's just been declared healthy.  And, of course, as she tries harder to conceal this fact, she and Wally fall in love.  This 'battle of the sexes' becomes a real battle, when the two don boxing gloves and literally duke it out for several minutes near the end of the film!

The Wellman touch:  The pace of the film was perfect, with the farcical situations gaining momentum without the action ever rising to the level of the maniacal. There were many scenes in which the actors were placed in a perfectly symmetrical position, and I consciously appreciated the image composition while I was enjoying the performances.  
Fredric March and Carole Lombard (Wikipedia)
What impressed me:  While Lombard is dependably wonderful, I was surprised by how well Fredric March pulled off his role. I consider him as mostly a serious actor - think The Best Years of Our Lives, The Barretts of Wimple Street.  Come to think of it, he played in two other comedies that I've seen: I Married a Witch, and Design for Living, so perhaps not as much a stretch as I originally thought.  However, I learned that the role was written for John Barrymore, but at this point in his career, his alcoholism prevented him from getting the part.

It was a little jarring to see a 1930s screwball comedy in color, but once I settled into this, I could appreciate the top production values accorded the film, as was common for Selznick, including the music by Oscar Levant and the screenplay by Ben Hecht. Also, with Lombard's reddish hair, I kept thinking about the similarities between her and Lucille Ball, who idolized Lombard as a comedienne.  You can see how Ball adopted some of Lombard's facial expressions and kinetic acting style in her Lucy Ricardo character.  

Stay tuned for more of my Wellman experience, in the next couple of months.

*Sad note: The HFA lost programmer David Pendleton, this past week.  RIP David.  I enjoyed hearing him offer his tremendous insights introducing films over the last several years.  Here is a recent appreciation by critic Ty Burr.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

'Best Film' lists Crowd-Sourced

Few topics will excite more heated conversations among movie enthusiasts than lists of the best movies by genre, by decade, of all time, etc, etc.  They fascinate us, provide endless debating opportunities, and repel us when we find much to disagree with in any given list. Some film lovers are repelled philosophically by the idea that someone, or some group, can define the 'best' films for everyone to blindly follow.

Prompted by my enjoyment of the podcast Flixwise, which uses the Sight and Sound Critics' Poll of the Greatest 250 films of all time as its inspiration, I posed a question to the New Yorker Movie Club on Facebook.  This club is a great source of movie banter and analysis from cinephiles all over the world, hosted by film critic Richard Brody.  Anyway, here is exactly what I posted:
Lists, lists, lists! I wonder whether people have a favorite or 'go to' list of best films. There are SO MANY out there, and I know it's very subjective, but...I think there can be some value in lists like this...if they are compiled well. I listen to a good podcast related to films on the latest Sight and Sound poll.
Anyway, please share what lists you particularly value. If none, that's fine too.
I summarize here the answers I received, with quotes from those offering them, and then my own comments when inspired.  This post does not endorse any of these lists or suggest anything by the order of which they are presented, which is roughly in order of their posting.

Credit:  New Yorker Movie Club Facebook page
Sight and Sound -- In this British Film Institute publication, ~1000 critics are asked, once per decade, to cite their top films from any decade and any country. The rankings are made by counting the number of times a film was cited.  The most recent list is from 2012.

Top Film:  Vertigo (A. Hitchcock, 1958)
Howard M. wrote:  "I mostly don't like lists, but Sight and Sound is amazingly on target." Peter H. wrote: "For erudite snobbishry, Sight and Sound 250."
Russell C. wrote: "I agree that the S&S list of top 250 films is an excellent resource, and I say that having used it in the last three or four years to watch all but two of the films on it."
Richard Brody's List (New Yorker) -- Top 10 films of all time.  This was Mr. Brody's submission in 2012 to the Sight and Sound Poll (above).  Note:  Vertigo was NOT on Mr. Brody's list, but Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) was.  King Lear (1987) by Jean-Luc Godard was the first in his list.

Peter H. wrote: "For eclectic taste with accompanying thoughtful analysis and overall enthusiasm for many artists, Richard Brody's. He's the literal antithesis of a curmudgeon. His hopeful attitude is infectious."


American Film Institute top 100 American Films of all time. This list was derived from "over 1500 film people" and most recently updated in 2007.  They also have many other categories (genres, for example) for film rankings.

Top Film:  Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941).  Vertigo was #9.

Arts & Faith Top 100 Films.  This was a new list to me, and is reflects the tastes of those seeing 'faith' as an important lens through which to evaluate film.  The latest one is from 2011.  It comes from the publication Image, whose mission is to "demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture."  Their number one is Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc from 1928.  I wrote about my experience watching this on the big screen with live orchestra here.

Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez's list of top ten films by year.  This is, by definition, a living list, but one I found to be incredibly fascinating to look over.  Mr. Gonzalez includes also a list of 'honorable mentions' per decade, as well as a list of films he hasn't yet seen, which might deserve a spot on his list.  Too many good ones to list here.  A shout-out for one of my faves, Renoir's The Rules of the Game, coming in at #1 in a year that is known for being among Hollywood's best, 1939.

Sachin D. wrote:  "You won’t find anything more comprehensive than Ed Gonzalez’s year-by-year top 10s."

Film Comment magazine best films by year and decade polls.  This is an ongoing year-by-year and decade-by-decade compilation of internationally sourced film critics and those working in the industry.  The sponsor is the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.  This poll has only happened so far for the 1990s and 2000s, but Film Comment has published ALL individual nominations with attributions. The film coming at the top for the 2000s was:  Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001).  I can't find their final ranking of the films from the 1990s.
Naomi Watts (left) and Laura Herring in MULHOLLAND DRIVE
Herman C. wrote: "Every year, I check in with the Film Comment 20 Best Films of the Year List. Then I make every effort to see as many of the films as I can -- however long that might take me."

BBC Top 100 Films of the 21st Century.  This one is obviously limited in scope, but for those who prefer recent film, check it out.  The BBC polled 62 critics from around the world, and the top film in this list was, as above, Mulholland Drive.  Editorial comment:  I loved Mulholland Drive, but it is not an easy watch, typical of auteur David Lynch.  Also of note:  Richard Linklater's 2014 film Boyhood was #4, while the Oscar winner that year, Iñárritu's Birdman, didn't even crack the list. (I liked both of those two films, for what it's worth).

Kate B wrote:  "The recent (BBC) critics list of top films of the 21st century was pretty cool and interesting in terms of what films people feel have cultural staying power."

Empire Online 100 Best Films of World Cinema:  This is useful for those looking for films NOT in English! No details provided as to how this list was determined, though, or who specifically contributed. Their top film:  Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954).  I am ashamed to admit I haven't yet seen this one.  Having heard great things about it, and enjoying Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) recently, I will watch soon!
Akira Kurosawa, from MUBI.com
Total Film Magazine's list of Top 100 Films of All Time.  I'm not familiar at all with this apparently British publication, but one of the Club members mentioned it.  It's interesting that a film from 1990, Scorcese's Goodfellas, is at the top here, with Vertigo second.

Some chose to dismiss lists:
Nicolas J wrote, "I can't stand lists. I embrace life's flux." 
Judy G. wrote,  "None, because (as you pointed out) lists are subjective."

Some film enthusiasts took the opportunity to share other useful compilations that aren't ranked lists, per se.  They are:
From CARNIVAL OF SINNERS 
One could get lost in any of these lists.  Thoughts?  Feel free to share them as well as any of your 'go to' lists in the Comments!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Ann Harding will not be eclipsed in the delightful pre-code Double Harness (1933)

Ann in the  early 1930s
(from Wikipedia)
Perhaps it's appropriate that TCM is honoring Ann Harding on Monday, August 21, 2017--the day of the great solar eclipse.  For here is a terrific actress and leading lady of classic Hollywood whose career has faded from view over the years since the 1930s, when she reigned at RKO Studios and very popular with depression-era audiences.  Working against her today, are a few factors, in my opinion -- a) none of her films have made it into the top echelons of time-tested audience or critics' favorites lists, hurt, no doubt, from being out of circulation (especially the 'pre-code' films) until recently; b) she was only nominated for one Oscar, in 1931, in the very early days of the talkies; c) her screen persona and fashion style was never 'cutting edge' or emblematic of female glamour of a particular era, and she liked it that way; d) she took an extended break from Hollywood after the mid-1930s, and when she returned in the early 1940s, she was being cast in supporting parts.

If you want to know more about Harding and her career, I recommend the posting about her on the blog Pre-code.com here, as well as a recent bio by Scott O'Brien.  O'Brien did a Q&A for the Filmstruck blog and revealed quite a bit about both her professional and personal lives.

Publicity for Double Harness (IMDb.com)



"Then together in double harness
 They will trot along down the line, 
Until death shall call them over
 To a bright and sunny clime."  

--from a traditional cowboy song called 'Dan Taylor.'







It's my favorite of her films, but I admit to watching Double Harness a few years ago for William Powell, the leading man in the film, who I had recently discovered.  I came across this obscure film on YouTube, (it's still up here) and didn't know what to expect, thinking I might not even finish it. Yet it grabbed me and held my attention; I savored its sophisticated story and efficient pacing, frank treatment of sexual politics of the era and its (mostly) strong women, as well as the nuanced characterizations that emerged.

Joan (Harding), Valerie (Browne) are motoring with their father
 (Stephenson) in San Francisco, discussing Joan's romantic
entanglements.  Nice use of rear projection in this scene.
The term 'double harness' of course refers to marriage, and Ann's character is Joan Colby, a wealthy single woman living in San Francisco with her father (Henry Stephenson) and younger sister Valerie (Lucile Browne), who apparently is in danger of spinsterhood when Valerie is set to be married.  Joan is the 'steady, dependable one' according to her father, in contrast to the shallow, spendthrift party girl Valerie.  But Joan is not to be relegated easily to the spinster life--she has recently snagged John Fletcher (Powell) as a boyfriend, and while he's 'the playboy of the west', according to the father, and is not interested in running the family business, Joan decides she's going to reform him by marrying him.  But alas, while John apparently is smitten with her, he declares he has no interest in marriage, and is still being pursued by former flame Monica (Lilian Bond). So Joan decides that she's willing to become his mistress, and then secretly orchestrates, with Valerie's help, the discovery of the two of them in a compromising situation by her father.  John does the honorable thing, but the passion has been snuffed out by the shackles of this 'double harness', and he wants a divorce after a respectable time. Joan is resigned to the failure of her plan, but in the meantime still manages to influence John to look after his business, which begins to turn around, and the two seem to be on a path to eventual happiness until Valerie, in an angry fit blurts out the ruse Joan pulled to trap John in marriage, and the rug seems to pulled out once again on the couple.  This takes us to the last three or so scenes of the film, and well, you can watch to see what happens.
Lilian Bond, William Powell, and Ann Harding in Double Harness
Double Harness was based on a play by Edward Poor Montgomery and adapted for the screen by Jane Murfin, also the screenwriter for The Women and Pride and Prejudice.  Due to legal battles at RKO, the film wasn't available to be viewed by mass audiences until in 2007 Turner Classic Movies acquired the rights and put it out on DVD.  The director, John Cromwell, is the father of actor James Cromwell, who is still working today.  James Cromwell spoke at the 2016 TCM Film Festival screenings of the film (in which I and hundreds of others didn't make it in -- but that's another story...).  Thankfully fans can watch the clip here.  In his remarks Cromwell referred to Ann Harding as 'brittle' in this part, and with all due respect, I completely disagree.  She enchants every scene and makes you root for her even as she manipulates those around her to get what she wants.  She's a perfect match for William Powell, in the suave, sophisticated, and utterly charming way. A side note: Powell was still at Warner Bros., a year before his MGM rise, and was loaned out to RKO for this film.

Ann Harding was absolutely lovely, with long blond tresses, but refused to be a slave to the fashions of the time, such as bobbing or unnaturally waving her hair. She often left her home without makeup.  In her films she often wore her hair up in a bun at the nape of her neck.  In Double Harness, this of course, gives her that 'steady, dependable' look, bordering on matronly.  In the very first scene in the film, Ann establishes that Joan is also maternal, adjusting her father's tie, giving her sister advice when asked, and sacrificing her share of her father's dowry to her sister's extravagant wedding plans.  Later she even prepares dinner, donning apron and all.  But a saint she is not.  She is deeply cynical, and all too knowing of the ways of the world. "If I ever get married, it will probably be at City Hall in a pair of slacks and a turtleneck" she tells her father with a wry smile.  Shortly before this film started production, Harding herself had recently been divorced from Harry Bannister, a stage actor with whom he had her first daughter. No doubt, she could bring a true quality of world-weariness to her character.
Ann in the kitchen, filling in on the 'cook's night out'
Yet she could dress to the nines and instantly become stunning, the elegant kind of woman that a wealthy bachelor-about-town could become attracted to.  This transformation in Joan early in the film is complete because Ann's Joan is smart.  Further, while maybe 'coolly virginal', as stated by Powell's character, she still presents a knowing exterior during their first evening together when she smokes a cigarette and declares "I must admit, I've been enamored of you for years" while casually looking away.

Because of Joan's inherent goodness and depth of character, she ensures that we forgive her manipulative ways, without even our discerning that there is anything to forgive.  Her determination has given her confidence.  "If I'm as good as I think I am, I (will be seeing John) several more nights in succession," she tells her father when he commented on her recent success with the wealthy John.
Ann and William Powell locked in a romantic joust
Yet she comments to her sister on how she has no natural talents, and therefore can only be successful by marrying a successful man. (This, I found hard to believe, with someone as smart as Ann's Joan.)  Ultimately she discovers that with her natural kindness and confidence, honesty pairs much better than duplicity. She takes full ownership of her actions, and when her secret is revealed, she admits everything to her husband, but leaves him with heartfelt words of how she loves him, and then calmly wishes him the best.  "I don't make scenes, Mrs. Page," she says to Monica.

The last part of the film, in which a dinner party goes wrong on many levels, devolves a bit into slapstick, and perhaps earns the film the categorization of 'comedy', but I think undermines the sophisticated pre-code drawing room drama of manners that this film really is.  And I doubt comedy was Harding's best suit.

Harding was known in her hey-day for her sophisticated yet sympathetic portraits. She had a timeless quality that needs to be better appreciated today. Double Harness is the perfect place to start.  With her modern acting style, and frank treatment of sexual politics, we could be forgiven if we forget, for a while, that this film was made in the 1930s.  Watch it.

This post is my contribution to the 'Summer Under the Stars' blogathon, hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film.  Please head over there now to check out the other posts for Ms. Harding, and all the stars being honored by TCM this month.   Double Harness airs on TCM overnight tonight (2:30 AM Eastern).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Celebrating Robert Mitchum's centennial with The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Mitchum in his noir fedora
and trenchcoat from Out of
the Past
(1947)
Once, when Bowling Green State U. film prof. Richard Edwards inquired on Twitter about our thoughts on which actors most embodied film noir, I didn't have to think before typing his name -- Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum had a unique blend of handsome elegance, a touch of menace, and a good helping of macho.  If he was your friend, you would be grateful to have him walk with you in a dark alley, a place seemingly familiar to him.  If an enemy, you'd be advised never to venture into any dark alleys with him nearby.  

Born on August 6, 1917, in Connecticut, he would have been 100 years old today.  While he passed away in 1997 at age 79, his film career lasted six decades plus.  His acting was easy, comfortable, and understated.  His face telegraphed world-weariness and intelligence, and his six foot frame was sturdy and imposing.  He played psychopathic killers in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear to such a degree that you'd never think you could look at that face again with anything but dread.  But then tune in Out of the Past, Crossfireor Holiday Affair, for example, and you'll be attracted to him all over again.  

I had the good fortune to watch one of his later films The Friends of Eddie Coyle, (1973) last night as  part of local art house Brattlefilm.org's Mitchum celebration.  I attended with a group of classic film enthusiasts, and enjoyed a lively discussion afterward.  Directed by Peter Yates, an English-born director known for Breaking Away and Bullitt, it's based on the crime novel by George V. Higgins.   Set in and around the gritty Boston environs of the 1970s and filmed on location in the chilly late autumn months, it's a Boston I don't know, but some of my friends indicated they remembered some of the location settings. Mitchum plays a local gun runner trying to go straight, but being on parole facing more time, he tries to bargain with local cops to reduce his sentence by setting up some partners in crime who are involved in a bank-robbing outfit. I'm not going to review the film here, but rather provide what captured my attention and reflections.

Did Mitchum ever really age?  Of the classic actors I've seen at both early and later phases of their careers, so many lost their looks quickly--Alan Ladd, Tyrone Power come to mind--but Mitchum's handsome features are still attractive in his later years, rather like Cary Grant, who was also fortunate in this regard.  Considering Mitchum was apparently not scarce with the booze, cigarettes, and other substances, he was lucky.  Or perhaps, it's just that as a young man, world-weariness had already seeped in, and as an older one, it had simply settled.

Cops and robbers couldn't be distinguished.  So I always have trouble unraveling convoluted plots in crime stories, but I was shocked to learn halfway through the film that a group of men I thought were a rival gang of thugs were actually cops.  Never once did they don uniforms.  Perhaps this was the point, as there often can be a fine line, especially considering the tense relationships in 1970s Boston between authorities and citizens.

To illustrate this point, left is Richard Jordan playing top cop Dave Foley, and right is Steven Keats as petty criminal Jackie Brown. 




Inspired performances by the entire cast, including two near-forgotten actors.
Both Richard Jordan and Steven Keats are not well-known today, and both did not live past their 50s. Jordan died of cancer, and Keats was a victim of suicide.  Character actor Peter Boyle was the true villain of the piece, and his oiliness oozed from every scene, but for my dollar I plead guilty to not being able to shake the image of him as the monster in Young Frankenstein.  That's what you get when you have very distinctive looks and an iconically weird but unforgettable performance from a popular film.  
Peter Boyle as double-crossing bartender Dillon
Not all crime films have an excess of graphic violence or language.  
While all kinds of guns, showdowns between gangsters and criminals and cops and robbers, car chases, and bank robberies, litter this picture, not one gun goes off until practically halfway through.  And there are only two shootings resulting in death, and almost no blood.  Conditioned by Scorcese, Tarantino, and Coppola films in the post-studio-system crime genre, I was shocked by this.  Hitchcock would have approved of the suspense-building skill on display here, and the psychological violence subbing for the physical.  And in another surprise, the "f-word" was only uttered maybe three times throughout, with a minimum of other juicy utterances (OK, the 'n-word' was uttered twice, yikes).  It still jars me to see classic actors swearing, and considering what often strikes me as an expressionistically large amount of swearing in contemporary films, I rather approve of this.

Did I enjoy the film?  Well, yes.  It was bleak -- do not expect to feel better about the world at the end. (I did smile seeing the great Bobby Orr skating for the Bruins during a pivotal scene).  But to see Mitchum still dominating the screen nearly 30 years after his first triumphs, was a great pleasure.  

Roger Ebert summed up Mitchum in this film in his 1973 review:
 "...give him a character and the room to develop it, and what he does is wonderful. Eddie Coyle is made for him: a weary middle-aged man, but tough and proud; a man who has been hurt too often in life not to respect pain." 

Check it out on Filmstruck or on Criterion DVD or Blu-Ray.
Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle contemplates a bleak future with no friends 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

'Gunman's Walk' - An Underseen 1950s Western

Fans of tall, blond and dreamy 1950s movie star and singer Tab Hunter will want to approach Gunman's Walk (1958) with caution.  Here, Hunter is tall, gorgeous...and completely despicable.  The blackness of his character at times stretches credulity, but I'll bet you won't regret the experience of this underappreciated, thematically layered, and well-crafted western.

[This post is my contribution to the 'Underseen and Underrated' CMBA Spring Blogathon.  Go here to see all the posts this week, and take the road less traveled, film-wise.]

This western was made by Columbia Pictures and directed by Phil Karlson, better known for directing noirs such as 99 River St. and Kansas City Confidential, than westerns.  The story by Ric Hardman was converted to the screen by Frank Nugent, who over the prior decade had penned many scripts for John Ford, including The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and Mister Roberts.  Getting top billing in the cast was veteran Van Heflin, followed by Hunter, and then James Darren and Kathryn Grant, at the time recently wed to Bing Crosby. Character actors Will Wright and Edward Platt, had small but memorable roles. 

The story revolves around a rancher, Lee Hackett (Heflin), who raised his two sons, Ed (Hunter) and Davy (Darren), to revere him, and instilled in them a sense of inferiority that manifested very differently in each son.  Ed is hotheaded, always wanting to equal or best his father, while Davy is introverted and generally compliant.  Lee, who the sons call by his first name, sees himself more in rambunctious Ed, and has trouble communicating with Davy.  However, Ed has developed a pathological streak, and Lee indulges him and protects him, which only frustrates the competitive son more.  Eventually Ed causes the death of a half-Indian ranch hand, the brother of a young woman (Grant) recently courted by Davy, by running him off a cliff while on horseback.  The only witnesses are two Indians who testify in court that the death was no accident.  However, a stranger appears and testifies the opposite, and Ed is let free.  This stranger, who was nowhere near the incident, expects payment from Hackett by in the form of ten of his best horses, including a white mare prized by Ed and Davy.  Lee relents, feeling he has no choice if he wants to protect Ed, but when word of this gets to Ed, a series of deadly confrontations ensue, leading up to the dramatic climax. 
James Darren (left) as Davy Hackett and Tab Hunter as Ed Hackett
Why Watch?
In 97 minutes, the film cleverly explores three themes in some depth. Credit screenwriter Nugent, whose script is economic and incredibly believable throughout.  The first, and most obvious theme, is family dysfunction, with an emphasis on the destructive side of masculinity. In the 1950s Hollywood 'discovered' the teenage/young adult market, and a great number of films explored topics of the generation gap, rebellious youth and clueless adults.  Think Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, to start. Gunman's Walk was very much of its time in this regard. 

The central male characters, father and two sons, compellingly play out the family drama.  Lee (Heflin) is essentially a good man, with a strong reputation in the community, but with his alternating competitive and indulgent treatment of his sons, has created a situation even he can't control. As Ed, Hunter himself was apparently very happy to get different sort of role and relished it. Early in the film we learn he's reckless with a gun--in a challenge to his father, he suggests each shoot a tin can that the other is holding in his hand, and while Lee decides the can needs to be positioned on a fence instead, and has just set it down, Ed shoots with no warning.  It goes downhill from there.  Ed reveals himself to be incredibly racist, boorish, and murderous. I had a mixed reaction to Hunter's performance. He did a great job of making me despise him, pulling out all the stops; yet he went so far on the black side that he lacked a nuance that would allow us to see some positive elements of his character. In a telling piece of film-making, a frustrated Ed throws a shot glass at his father's reflection in a barroom mirror. 
Davy Hackett is Ed's opposite - he's calm, sensitive, and respectful of his father, despite having reservations about the violence his father tacitly endorses. As a result, Lee can't relate to him and the son feels somewhat rejected.  Later in the movie Davy begins to stand up for himself--at one point during a confrontation with his father he says "Hey Lee, whadda ya know?  Without your boots on you aren't even as tall as I am!"  James Darren's portrayal of Davy is serviceable, if not remarkable.  Ultimately, the film leaves it to the audience to determine what was the cause of the family's downfall -- Lee's poor parenting, Ed's despicable character, circumstances, or all of the above.
The second theme is racism, as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans. Here there isn't a doubt which side the film is on...while the white settler and local Sioux have come to an uneasy arrangement, the Indians are portrayed as victims of white supremacy. Viewers be cautioned, as there are constant slurs thrown at and about the Indians, 'half-breed' being the most common. As a modern viewer this grated on me, but I suspect this unfiltered dialogue was realistic of the time and place.  The Indian characters were never fully fleshed out, and the half-Sioux protagonist 'Clee' (Grant) didn't do much more than serve as a victim and love interest.  Yet the film clearly endorsed the legitimacy of Davy and Clee's relationship ... in an overt way that was in line with the trend of films of that era beginning to shed less than a favorable light on the country's racist past. 
The third theme is the evolution of the West and the role of law and order, moving from the early settlers who maintained open ranges for livestock and used guns to defend their territory, to the next generation of settlers establishing towns with laws and those elected to enforce them.  The film title draws attention to the danger of two men carrying guns, about to confront each other on the streets of the town, and makes it clear that guns are not welcome in the local town; much of the conflict stems from Lee's unwillingness to accept that his way of life, represented by his desire to always openly carry a gun, even when that is no longer accepted among the majority.  Lee himself is still well respected, and he's allowed a lot of latitude as a result, but even he respects the 'appropriate' use of a gun, which Ed clearly oversteps again and again. The gun is can be seen here as a symbol of masculinity gone amok, as Davy rejects gun violence, Ed relishes it, and Lee is somewhere in between.

For me the greatest pleasure of the film is Heflin's performance as Lee.  Those familiar with my blog know I'm a big Heflin fan, and this film is one I'd point to for evidence. He becomes Lee Hackett, using a physical swagger and gravelly voice to make him a presence to be reckoned with, and he's not afraid to be unlikeable, through his racism, or goading of his sons. Yet, he maintains a degree of our sympathy because we can see Lee engaging in a human struggle to maintain his status, while his society, and his family, are falling apart around him.  He lets down his guard enough that we can see the humanity underneath the hard exterior. 
Tab Hunter, who is still with us, in his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential had great praise for Heflin: "To me, Van was the ultimate actor.  He completely disappeared into character, and everything he did was completely believable."  He also commented about how Heflin was committed to extra rehearsals at Hunter's request, to help him work out details of his scenes.  Heflin and Hunter were together on screen two other times, in Battle Cry (1955) and They Came to Cordura (1959), the latter which I reviewed here.

Director Karlson deserves credit for his clever stagings of the drama, as does cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr., who captures the beauty of the Tucson, Arizona location, and the claustrophobia of the many indoor scenes.   It's a notably darker film than most of John Ford's, perhaps more 'noir-like', but at the time did significantly well at the box office, perhaps as result of Hunter's star power.  Ultimately, though, this film is little remembered, possibly crowded out by the western classics from Ford, Howard Hawks, made with bigger stars like John Wayne, James Stewart and the like.  Those interested in seeing the film today can find it on demand with a subscription to STARZ, which owns licenses for Columbia films through their relationship with Sony Pictures, or with an internationally produced DVD or Blu-Ray.  The trailer is linked below.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

May 2017 Greater Boston Classic Film Screenings -- My Picks

May started joyfully and uproariously with The Freshman at the Coolidge, with live orchestral accompaniment from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.  Brilliant is not too strong a word for the music; the entire experience epitomized the best of the art of film.  I had a grin on my face the entire evening.  The BSFO has been adding performances to their calendar, including the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June and in NYC later this month.

My picks for classic film fans in the Boston area are as follows:

Zasu Pitts and Gibson Gowland in Greed
May 14, 2 PM at the Somerville Theatre, 'Silents, Please'  series, is Greed (1924, d. Erich von Stroheim).  From the name of this film, and the picture to the right, you know it's not going to be a laugh-a-minute.  It's considered a (silent) masterpiece from the German maverick director, whose vision was such that the original cut of the film was a staggering, unsustainable eight hours long; the film was eventually debuted by MGM at about 2.5 hours.  Much of the original footage was lost.  Even at 2.5 hours, modern cinephiles rave about the film.  Roger Ebert has named it one of his 'Great Movies', and in his piece illustrates the twists and turns of its fascinating history.  I read and enjoyed the source novel, McTeague by Frank Norris, about a quack dentist in turn of the century San Francisco who is runs into significant trouble when his wife Trina come in possession of a $5,000 winning lottery ticket.  This silent film stars Zasu Pitts as Trina and Gibson Gowland as McTeague.  Von Stroheim shares screenwriting credits with June Mathis, a writer and early film executive who 'discovered' Rudolph Valentino.

Accompanying this screening will be Jeff Rapsis on the piano.  I've not seen this and can't wait.

The Brattle has an impressive May lineup of David Lynch films, as well as some classic comedies, with some Welles and Hitchcock thrown in.  If you're in the area at all this month, check out their calendar.  I'm particularly excited to see the classic comedy Playtime, by influential comedian Jacques Tati on Sunday, May 28th. I've not seen it before, but I enjoyed Mon Oncle last summer when it was on TCM, which also featured Tati's slightly befuddled 'Monsieur Hulot' character.  I need to see more of Tati.
Playtime (1967) from brattlefilm.org

I may camp out in Harvard Square for the weekend, as continuing the French film theme, also from 1967, is Le Samourai, d. Jean-Pierre Melville, which will screen twice in 35mm on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29th. In this one, hearthrob actor Alain Delon portrays a hit man caught in the web of his own weaving.  Another one of Ebert's 'Great Movies', it will be fun to see this, and compare it with Alan Ladd's hitman in This Gun For Hire from 1942, which, not entirely coincidentally, is screening that same day at the Brattle.

The Brattle is also screening the documentary Harold & Lillian -- A Hollywood Love Story (2015, d. Daniel Raim), multiple times in early May.  I plan to see it this Saturday, May 6. My friend Raquel of OutofthePastBlog.com highly recommends this exploration of the story of Harold & Lillian Michelson, who contributed their talents behind the camera -- he a storyboard artist, she a film researcher, during Hollywood's golden age.  The documentary has gotten rave reviews, and currently owns a 8.7 user rating on IMDb.   Monica Castillo of the New York Times said "Like flipping through misplaced leaves in a photo book, the documentary maintains a free-flowing tone as it uncovers the work that went into creating some of the indelible scenes in Hollywood history."  Watch the trailer below:

À bientôt!