Movies postsTuesday December 27, 2016
Podcast: The Generation Gap: Three Generations of Film Critics Tackle Three Generations of Film, Part I
Three movies, all nostalgic.
For the past few months, my nephew Jordan has been after me and my father to do a podcast of three generations of critics talking about film. Yesterday, the day after Christmas, we finally made it happen in the basement of Jordan's parents home in south Minneapolis.
It wasn't bad. The doing, that is. I have no idea about the listening, but you can listen to it here.
After several rounds of negotiations (mostly with my father, the holdout), we finally landed on discussing three movies that each of us liked as children. They are:
- “The Four Feathers” (1939) for my father, born in 1932
- “Star Wars” (1977) for me, born in 1963
- “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) for Jordan, born in 2001.
Yes, it's all a bit arbitrary, but it's interesting culling meaning out of it.
Each movie, for example, is nostalgic in nature. “The Four Feathers” was released on August 3, 1939, exactly a month before Britain declared war on Germany and entered World War II, but it relies upon the Kiplingesque trappings of British empire and honor. It's based on a 1902 novel and set mostly during the 1890s. It celebrates what's gone. So does “Star Wars,” released a few years after Watergate and a few years before the Iran hostage crisis, and during a period when Hollywood movies tended to be downers. But from the opening crawl to the triumphant end—not to mention the clear demarcation between good and evil—it's essentially a movie serial of the '30s and '40s sped up, and with A-production values. “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” too, is based upon a book that was published 40 years before the movie was released. We keep looking back to create the now.
Both “Feathers” and “Star Wars” contain extensive scenes in the desert. One big difference between the two: we root for the empire (British) in “Feathers” and against the Empire (Evil) in “Star Wars.”
“Feathers” seems to be the most adult but it's really about reclaiming individual honor and dignity against a backdrop of war; its story is individualistic in nature. The point of both “Star Wars” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is that there's something bigger than the individual, whether the hero finds that something within (the Force) or without (the team of wild animals relying on their natures to defeat the bad guys).
Finally, “Four Feathers” indicates why these subsequent movies tended toward fantasy. If you base your story on history, as “Feathers” did, and include period attitudes toward swaths of people that actually exist (“Fuzzie Wuzzies”), it might feel a bit awkward as the moral arc of the universe bends a little bit more in its journey.
Afterbirth of a Nation: 1938
I came across this piece in The New Yorker digital edition. It's from April 30, 1938, the “Talk of the Town” section, and about a rerelease of “The Birth of a Nation.” It's an interesting read:
Interesting for a couple of reasons:
- It's really well-written. Of course, back then, “TOTT” pieces went unsigned. You gotta wonder, though. Anyone we know?
- So “Birth” was already risible in some circles by 1938? I didn't know there was much racial progress in the years 1915 to 1938. It's often portrayed as regressive years: “Birth,” KKK, Scottsboro Boys, beginning of Tuskegee experiments, etc.
- The way he describes an earlier viewing of “Birth,” I'm curious if he first saw it in the South. Is he Southern? Born in 1901?
Anyone know who it might be? E.B. White is about the right age but grew up in New York. Joseph Mitchell grew up in North Carolina but wasn't born until 1908 so the age is off. Unless the writer is referring to an earlier re-release, say in 1922; then we got a potential match.
Future Stars of 1963
The other night I watched an old TV doc from 1963, “Hollywood: The Great Stars,” hosted by Henry Fonda, which had been sitting in my Amazon queue forever. It's about the star system, and the end of the star system. It's not great but it's intrigues for three reasons.
The first reason is its now-historical perspective of movie history. At one point, for example it updates stars from the silents to the talkies. So Douglas Fairbanks leads to Errol Flynn, which makes sense to me. But Rudolph Valentino leads to ... Charles Boyer? Similarly, William S. Hart, the first great cowboy, becomes ... Gary Cooper? I guess? A lot of what it considers important, in other words, we no longer do. The doc has the voice of authority but time has eroded it.
The second reason it intrigues is near the end, when the doc shows the unrelenting pressure of the public on a star like Marilyn Monroe. “These are the sights and sounds in the life of Marilyn Monroe,” Fonda narrates at approximately 41:10 in, and for several minutes we get just that: shouting and pushing and cameras and microphones being shoved in her face. Eventually she crumbles. You watch those several minutes and wonder why any of us pursue fame.
Finally, having dealt with the past and the present, the doc talks up the future stars of Hollywood:
Hollywood's younger people today, some now aspiring to stardom, others already reaching for greatness, will not easily become the Garbos and Gables of tomorrow. But by their films, the public shall know them and decide.
Then we get a list from that year:
- Frank Sinatra in “Come Blow Your Own”
- Debbie Reynolds in “My Six Loves”
- Geraldine Page and Dean Martin in “Toys in the Attic”
- Anthony Perkins and Sophia Loren in “Five Miles to Midnight”
- Jack Lemmon in “Irma La Douce”
- Shirley MacLaine in “Two for the Seesaw”
- Hope Lange in “Love is a Ball”
- Peter O'Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia”
- The young Sue Lyons in “Lolita”
- Yvette Mimieux and James Daren in “Diamond Head”
- Nancy Kwan and Pat Boone in “The Main Attraction”
Mostly crap. “Books find a grave as deep as any,” Updike once wrote, and so with most of these movies. And of the young stars they chose, only O'Toole really went on. Boone and Daren and the like died a swift death in post-Beatles America.
That said, I probably wouldn't do any better with “Future Stars of 2017.” Worse, most likely.
Disney v. La Nouvelle Vague
From Neal Gabler's extensive bio on Walt Disney (I'm finally nearing the end). The quotes are from the period in the early 1960s when Disney Studios began to do more live action fare, like “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and Haley Mills movies:
As for the increasingly mature competition in Hollywood that was tackling serious issues, Walt turned philistine. “These avant garde artists are adolescents,” he griped to a reporter. “It’s only a little noisy element that’s going that way, that’s creating this sick art. I don’t think the whole world is crazy!” Referring to a recent film about alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses, he said, “I don’t want to see that kind of thing. If I did, I’d go down to the county nut ward, or something” ...
Yet even Walt, for all his belligerence toward Hollywood’s new frankness, seemed to have misgivings about being stuck making puerile movies. After watching To Kill a Mockingbird at a screening in his home, he lamented, “That’s the kind of film I wish I could make.”
You can sense the coming culture wars in this comment from Dr. Max Rafferty, the superintendent of public instruction in California: “[Disney's] live movies have become lone sanctuaries of decency and health in the jungle of sex and sadism created by the Hollywood producers of pornography.”
Sex, sadism, pornography. From 1962? Somewhere, “A Clockwork Orange” hangs out in the future, thinking, “Wait'll they get a load of me.”
The Story of 'The Story of Louis Pasteur'
I love this story I read this morning in “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan. It's about the making of “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), which I've never seen, but which always seemed like an odd movie to come out of gangster-crazy Warner Bros. studio. I assumed it was a stab at respectability, since studios, then and now, don't exactly beat down doors to portray historical scientists. According to IMDb, Pasteur has been portrayed on screen only 19 times, and most of those are European productions—French, German, British—and many of those on the small screen (“Dr. Who,” etc.).
The interview is with Sheridan Gibney, who wrote “Pasteur”'s screenplay as well as “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” became twice president of the Screen Writers Guild, and whose last credit is an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” in 1975. Asked why Paul Muni, a big star in the 1930s, who got the kind of roles that Humphrey Bogart always wanted, wanted to play Louis Pasteur, he shrugs and says with a laugh. “His wife told me that he had always wanted to play someone with a beard, and that is what intrigued him.”
(Sidenote: What is it with actors and beards anyway?)
Muni told Gibney he wanted the movie to be almost documentary-like, so Gibney did weeks and weeks of research, visited hospitals, spent time with doctors, then sat down and wrote the screenplay in four weeks. Muni got a copy at the same time Jack Warner did. Their reactions differed.
Jack was horrified. He called up Hal Wallis, who was, I believe, at Lake Arrowhead or Tahoe, and sent the script up by special messenger. Monday morning, when I got to the studio, I had a three-page telegram from Hal Wallis, saying that I was to be taken off the script immediately and Laird Doyle was to put on the project. And there was to be no mention in the script of any disease that would frighten women, no experimentation with dogs, because of the Cruelty to Animals Society, no mention of Russian scientists, because that would offend Mr. Hearst, who was anti-Russian, and Mr. Muni could not wear a beard, and the whole story should take place while Pasteur is in college.
Of course Muni loves the script; and when Gibney shows him Wallis' telegram, he's furious—“I'd never seen him so mad,” Gibney says—and Muni has final approval. Now Warner bawls out Gibney for insurbordination, for showing a script to an actor before the producer, but his hands are tied. They have to make the movie to placate Muni.
They gave it the lowest possible budget an A star like Muni could work with, which was $330,000, and they cast it all with company people under contract. They gave it to an unknown director brought over by Reinhardt, who could barely speak English at this time—Bill Dieterle. He could read, but his vocabulary was limited, and he had to have the script translated to him by his wife, who spoke excellent English. And Bill Dieterle hated the script. This is the way we went into the picture. ...
When it was done, my contract was up and Leland was told I'd never be back at Warner Brothers and I left for London to work on a play. I was gone about six months, and I got a cable from [my agent] Leland saying I should come right home. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award! When I got home I was met at the dock, to my amazement, by the top New York executive of Warner Brothers, who had a limousine waiting to take me to my hotel. Sure enough, I won the Academy Award. But winning the Academy Award meant my salary automatically tripled, and even if they had wanted me back now I was beyond the range of Warner Brothers. So I signed with Zanuck, who was over at 20th Century Fox by now and wanted me to come to work for him.
The movie was also nominated for best picture, while Muni won the Oscar for lead actor. It was a huge success. Muni would go on to play similarly prestigious parts: Chinese in “The Good Earth”; Emile Zola in “The Life of Emile Zola.” But my favorite part of the story is the coda:
Two years later, Jack Warner was invited to Paris by the president of France and given the highest arts decoration and kissed on both cheeks by the president himself for this wonderful monument to French science. And for years afterward, Warner wouldn't let Muni appear in anything without a beard.
Way of the world.