Books postsFriday May 12, 2017
How Casablanca's Villain is a Hero
I'm reading Noah Isenberg's new book, “We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie,” and while it's not great, the third chapter is. That's when he recounts the number of refugees who helped make this movie about refugees:
Nearly all of the some seventy-five actors and actresses cast in Casablanca were immigrants. .... Hailing from more than thirty different nations, the majority of refugee actors in the film served merely as day players, performing small parts—generally either as Nazis or as refugees fleeing the Nazis—most without significant dialogue. Among them, however, were many distinguished European artists with illustrious pasts on stage and screen.
The one who intrigues me most is Carl the waiter, S.Z. Sakall, who was born in 1883 under the Austria-Hungary Empire and died in L.A. in 1955 at the age of 72. Think of all he lived through. He wrote a memoir with a great title, “The Story of Cuddles: My life under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolf Hitler and the Warner Brothers,” which could be great to read, but it's going for $120 on Amazon. Somebody needs to get that book back in print. Among the “trivia” about him on IMDb is this sobering note: “All three of his sisters perished in Nazi concentration camps.”
Then there's this note about Conrad Veidt, the distinguished German actor (“Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “The Man Who Laughs”), who played the movie's villain, Maj. Heinrich Strasser:
Even an actor like Conrad Veidt, who left Germany of his own accord in 1933 (the same year he married the Jewish-Hungarian Lily Prager), was essentially a refugee by the time of the production. To express his opposition to the regime, the non-Jewish actor is said to have listed “JEW” in large block letters for his religion on a form he was required to submit with National Socialist authorities. The Nazis responded in kind, keeping his films from being shown anywhere in the Third Reich.
In his way, Veidt was braver than the actor who played the hero. When it was Humphrey Bogart's turn to face up to fascism—the right-wing, blacklist kind—he began to do the right thing, then folded. Maybe it's the character actors who have the character.
Desert Dreams: Did Tatooine Begin as a Film Project on the Set of 'Mackenna's Gold'?
There's a great little vignette near the end of Glenn Frankel's much-recommended “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” that doesn't have anything to do with “High Noon” or the blacklist but does have something to do with the making of an American classic.
Carl Foreman, screenwriter/producer for “High Noon,” was blacklisted during its production for past communist ties and refusing to name names before HUAC. He wound up in England for a few years, then re-testified before HUAC in 1956 without naming names, and, with stops and stutters, rejuvinated his career. By 1967, he was writing/producing a film, “Mackenna's Gold,” with an early '60s cast to die for (Gregory Peck, Omar Shariff, Telly Savalas), all of whom were on the downhill slide by this point.
Foreman also funded several fellowships at USC film school, and in one he offered four students the opportunity to work on the “Mackenna's” set while producing a short film about how the movie was made. One of the students, Michael Ritchie, nailed it. Another was a problem:
George Lucas had no interest in mainstream commercial movies—he saw himself either as a documentarian or creator of avant-garde underground films—and he proposed making his short film about the desert where much of Mackenna's Gold was filmed. “Carl had a fit, he got so angry with me,” Lucas would later recall. “And he said 'you can't do one about the desert, you're supposed to do it about the movie'... ”So we kind of butted heads ... I just thought of him as some big Hollywood producer, you know, had tons of money and had connections ... one of the establishment.“
The various layers of irony in that paragraph is so lovely: that Lucas thought the blacklisted Foreman one of ”the establishment“; that Lucas wasn't interested in mainstream commercial movies; and that Lucas got infatuated with the desert and wanted to film it.
This kid, in the summer of love, who identified with what would become the ”Easy Rider" generation of filmmakers, would, in 10 years, destroy them with a massively mainstream commercial product that spent much of its time on a desert planet.
Winston Churchill, Comsymp
Near the end of “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” the much-recommended new non-fiction book by Glenn Frankel, we get a bit of blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman's life in exile in London. Some bad stuff: He suffered writer's block, drank too much, slept around on his wife, felt angry all the time. He did do a few pictures for Columbia under a pseudonym, then became one of the first, if not the first, blacklisted writer to work openly again without having to name names before HUAC. He wrote and produced the lackluster “The Key,” starring William Holden and Sophia Loren, then struck it big by writing and producing “The Guns of Navarone” with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven.
One of the fans of “Navarone” was Winston Churchill, then 88, who set up a meeting with Foreman at his office to discuss the possibility of Foreman writing the movie adapatation of his memoir, “My Early Life: A Roving Commission.” (It finally became a movie in 1972, seven years after Churchill's death.) “In the interest of full disclosure,” Frankel writes, Foreman admitted to the former prime minister, and the man who had invented the term “The Iron Curtain,” that he had been blacklisted in the '50s for earlier Communist connections. This was Churchill's reply:
“Oh, I know all about you,” Churchill said. “But we don't like political blacklists in England. And speaking for myself, I don't care what a man believed in when he was a boy. My concern is whether or not he can do the job.”
Go fuck yourself, Hedda Hopper, Hedda Hopper.
Carl Foreman with infamous fellow traveler Winston Churchill.
Glenn Frankel's much-recommended “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic” includes a great story about Marlon Brando during his prep for “The Men,” which is about a WWII soldier who is paralyzed from the waist down. It's not only Brando's first film role but the first movie to unite the team that would make “High Noon” two years later: producer Stanley Kramer, writer Carl Foreman, and director Fred Zinneman:
A devout believer in Method acting, Brando immediately immersed himself in patient life at the Birmingham hospital. He confined himself to a wheelchair and drove a car specially fitted with hand controls like the vets themselves used. Brando spent four weeks living in a ward with thirty-one wary, frustrated, and often angry men. He dealt with them without a teaspoon of pity or condescension. Soon he became their leader. In the most famous tale, Brando went drinking one night with his new friends from the ward, and when a woman at a bar started praying aloud for their recovery, Brando listened for a spell, then rose up haltingly. “I can walk! I can walk!” he cried. Then he broke into a soft shoe and danced his way to the sidewalk, his paraplegic buddies trailing after him in full mirth.
Another good Brando story can be found in our recent feature on entertainment attorney Bonnie Eskenazi.
For Jan. 20, 2017
Here'a a passage from “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds” by Michael Lewis
The central question posed by Gestalt psychologists was the question the behaviorists had elected to ignore: How does the brain create meaning? How does it turn the fragments collected by the senses into a coherent picture of reality? Why does that picture so often seem to be imposed by the mind upon the world around it, rather than by the world upon the mind? How does a person turn the shards of memory into a coherent life story? Why does a person's understanding of what he sees change with the context in which he sees it? Why—to speak a bit loosely—when a regime bent on the destruction of the Jews rises to power in Europe, do some Jews see it for what it is, and flee, and others stay to be slaughtered?
Raising this last question for a friend.