Thursday October 14, 2021
Is the Best Story a Gangster Story? In the Early Days of Oscar, Yes
I came across this recently on IMDb and did a double-take. Oscar certainly seemed to like early Cagney:
Three of his first six movies got nom'ed for Best Original Story? Wow. But it turns out, original story was loaded with gangster movies in the early days—“Underworld” (1927) and “Manhattan Melodrama” (1934) even won. And among Cagney movies, it's the most commonly honored, and in six of the eight he plays a gangster:
- 8: Original Story: “The Doorway to Hell,” “The Public Enemy,” “Smart Money,” “G-Men,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “White Heat,” “Love Me or Leave Me”
- 7: Music/Score: “Something to Sing About,” “The Strawberry Blonde,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Johnny Come Lately,” “West Point Story,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Ragtime”
- 4: Picture: “Here Comes the Navy,” “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Mister Roberts”
- 4: Cinematography: “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” “Captains of the Clouds,” “One, Two, Three,” “Ragtime”
- 4: Supporting Actor: “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Come Fill the Cup,” “Mister Roberts,” “Ragtime”
- 3: Actor: “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Love Me or Leave Me”
- 3: Art Direction: “Captains of the Clouds,” “Blood on the Sun,” “Ragtime”
- 3: Sound: “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Mister Roberts”
- 3: Screenplay: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Seven Little Foys,” “Man of a Thousand Faces”
- 2: Editing: “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”
- 2: Director: “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”
- 2: Song: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Ragtime”
- 1: Assistant Director: “A Midsummer Night's Dream,”
- 1: Supporting Actress: “Ragtime”
- 1: Costume Design: “Ragtime”
Worst among the nominations? Picture for “A Midsummer Night's Dream” or screenplay for “Man of a Thousand Faces.” Most overlooked? What should've been nominated? Cagney for “Public Enemy” and Henry Fonda for “Mister Roberts.”
Sunday August 22, 2021
What is Lee Van Cleef 'Known For'?
Apparently, on IMDb, this:
First reaction: Lee Van Cleef was in “Escape from New York”? (I hadn't seen it since its release in 1981.) Second reaction: How the hell do you screw this one up, IMDb algorithms? The Leone movies are always part of the conversation, “Escape” not so much. By your own rating system, it goes “Good, Bad” at 8.8, “Few Dollars” 8.2, “Escape” 7.2. By your own number of ratings it's the same: 714k, 242k, 132k. Sure, Van Cleef gets third billing in “Good, Bad” while he's second-billed in “Dollars” and “Escape,” but that doesn't explain it. Someday I'd love to see what goes into these kooky algorithms.
I watched both “Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More” this week since they were free on Amazon Prime and I hadn't seen either in .... 20 years? Twenty-five? “Fistful” suffers in comparison to “Yojimbo”; “A Few Dollars” is better. They kept adding bounty hunters, didn't they? The first has one, the second two, the third three. Eastwood is handsome, small roles often include a lot of over-acting and bad dubbing, and there's art in the shots if not in the stories.
Sunday August 08, 2021
The opening to a 1933 Edward G. Robinson movie. It's Warners but not Warners.
I've long wondered about the First National logos I've seen in pre-code Warner Bros. movies, but I didn't know the backstory until I read these passages from Alan K. Rode's bio on Michael Curtiz:
Warner Bros. assumed a majority interest in First National—one of the major Hollywood movie studios—complete with a sixty-two-acre site in Burbank that became the Warner production and corporate hub, along with a surplus of First National contracted talent and infrastructure. The acting talent absorbed by Warner Bros. included Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Loretta Young. Inherited personnel working behind the camera were the director Mervyn LeRoy and cinematographers Lee Garmes, Ernest Haller, and Sol Polito.
In November 1929 Harry Warner bought out the remaining one-third of First National stock from a cash-strapped William Fox. The bold acquisition stunned the other Hollywood studio heads, particularly Adolph Zukor at Paramount, who had alternately wooed and fought with First National. One competitor admitted, “It would have made more sense if First National had bought Warner Brothers.”
If Warners was the new kid on the block, First National had been around the block. It was founded in 1917 and distributed Charlie Chaplin's “The Kid” among many others. Per this list, early on, it was more distributor than producer, but began regularly doing both in the latter half of the 1920s. After the buyout, Warners kept the First National name around for tax purposes and seemed to divvy up talent by studio name. Most early Cagneys are Warner Bros., for example, while most early Edward G. Robinsons are First National. As near as I can tell, the first Cagney First National flick was “G-Men” in 1935, his 21st picture.
The same link to First National pictures lists the last one in 1936 (“Earthworm Tractors,” starring Joe E. Brown), though its main Wiki page says Warners films and posters “bore the combined trademark and copyright credits in the opening and closing sequences” until 1958. Initially, I was like “Really?” This is opening logo to “Yankee Doodle Dandy”:
It's now the classic shield and Jack L. Warner rules. And no First National anywhere. But then a few title cards later, sure, we get this:
Not very prominent. Less important newspaper stories are often called “Below the fold” stories. This is below the Foy.
Monday August 02, 2021
Richard Donner (1930-2021)
Donner directing Kidder and Reeve on the set of “Superman: The Movie.”
At the end of my review of “Superman: The Movie” (1978), I picked up on the line Jor-El tells his son about the general goodness of humanity—“They only lack the light to show the way”—and applied it to Hollywood and superhero movies:
What was the greatest superhero adaptation before “Superman: The Movie”? The “Captain Marvel” serial from 1941? Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons from the same year? The Adam West “Batman” of the 1960s? “Superman” wiped them all away. It was years ahead of its time. It was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton's “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer's “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn't think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.
That light began and ended with Richard Donner, who died last month, aged 91. His watchword on the set was verisimilitude. He wanted the movie true but light, fun but not campy. He saw that the story of Superman could be epic and made it so. Maybe he saw America was ready for heroes again. We were ready to be kids again, and in awe. Sadly, we were all too ready and we haven't grown out of it. We were a maturer country then.
Donner cast great actors in supporting roles and then ignored the movie's producers, the Salkind father-son duo, who wanted Superman to have a huge package (yes), and who wanted a big name for the title role: Robert Redford or Al Pacino(!) or Clint Eastwood. Instead Donner searched and searched and searched, and no one was quite right until, wow, who's this kid? I still think of Christopher Reeve as the greatest superhero casting ever. “He was Superman from day one,“ Donner said. In the commentary track to the Richard Donner cut of ”Superman II,“ Donner is talking about how the Salkinds cheapened the product and what a sin that was, and then Christopher Reeve's name flashes on the screen during the credits and he says, alluding to Reeve's subsequent paraplegia and early death, “This is the biggest sin. This is the best kid that ever lived. Without him, there would‘ve been no Superman.”
There's a Donner cut to ”Superman II“ because Donner's reward for making a superhero movie that was true but light, fun but not campy, a movie that was the second biggest box-office hit of 1978 and that showed Hollywood the light when it came to superhero movies—a light Hollywood didn't really follow until nearly a quarter of a century later—Donner's reward for all this was to get canned from the sequel even though much of the sequel was already in the can. And in came another Richard, Lester, to muck it all up. He made it campy. He dumbed it down. The great care Donner had put into it was gone. You watched Lester's versions and couldn't believe you once believed a man could fly.
”Superman“ was Donner's second big hit in a row, after ”The Omen“ starring Gregory Peck, but before that he'd spent 15 years in television. His first directing credit on IMDb is a 1960 episode of ”Zane Grey Theater“ called ”So Young the Savage Land,“ which starred Claudette Colbert in one of her final roles. Then it was five episodes of ”The Loretta Young Show,“ six episodes of ”Wanted: Dead or Alive,“ seven episodes of ”The Rifleman.“ He did six ”Twilight Zone“s, including ”Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,“ and three ”Gilligan's Island“s. All of it seemed to be leading nowhwere. By the end of the decade he was directing the bizzaro Saturday morning TV show ”The Banana Splits.“ Was that set in London? Was he? His first movie seems to be ”Salt and Pepper,“ from 1968, starring Rat packers Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford as a pair of detectives in London, and then ”Twinky“/”A London Affair,“ about a 38-year-old American author, Charles Bronson, who, imagine this, ”discovers the difficulties of being married to a 16-year-old British schoolgirl.“ (Last century's cool movie plot is this century's career-ending move.) Then more TV (”Ironsides,“ ”Cannon,“ ”Lucas Tanner“) and TV movies (”Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic“) before he was tapped for ”The Omen.“ I wonder why/how he got tapped?
I've never seen his more personal film, ”Inside Moves,“ starring John Savage, released in 1980 as personal films were on the way out, but unfortunately did see ”The Toy,“ an attempt to cash in on Richard Pryor's popularity by casting him as a man who is bought (!) as the toy for a rich man's bratty son. Damn, Hollywood, get a clue. I remember ”Ladyhawke“ being a good movie, while ”The Goonies“ is still beloved—we watched it with our nephews a few years ago—and then there was the whole ”Lethal Weapon“ series. It was a casting director who suggested Danny Glover to Donner, and though he objected at first, saying, no, it's supposed to be a white character, he listened when she said asked a simple question: ”Why?"
That's Donner to me. He was a man's man who was tough enough, sensitive enough, smart enough. He seems like he would've been fun to hang with. And he gave us Superman when we needed him.
Saturday July 24, 2021
Young Man With a Horn, Old Man With a Harm
Here's more on Jack Warner, Warner Bros., Hollywood and race, from Alan K. Rode's recommended book Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, this time about the making of the 1950 movie “Young Man with a Horn,” starring Kirk Douglas. The movie was based on the novel by Dorothy Baker, which was based on the short, alcoholic life of the brilliant jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke:
[Screenwriter] Edmund North used most of Baker's reinterpretations of Beiderbecke's life, with the principal exceptions of changing Smoke from a young black drummer to an adult Caucasian pianist played by Hoagy Carmichael and another character, Josephine, from a black to a Caucasian singer. [She was eventually played by Doris Day.] A Wald preproduction memo noted the “elimination of the colored angle” ...
Wald got his two days of location filming in New York in much the same way Curtiz overcame an earlier wrangle with [Jack] Warner over the key scene at Art Hazzard's funeral. Curtiz attended an African American church service in Los Angeles specifically to prep for this scene, which he shot with great care. Warner, already uncomfortable with the picture's depiction of racial comity in the jazz world, sought to have the scene dropped. Curtiz insisted that the scene was crucial to the overall narrative, and it remained in the picture.
Warner also insisted on a happy ending and got it—even when everyone else, from Curtiz to Douglas to right-wing Hollywood Reporter publisher W. R. Wilkerson, thought it nonsensical. “But Jack, why that ending?” Wilkerson wrote. “It was our impression that the ending took away about 25% of the value of the picture because it was a false ending.” Rode adds: “All the entreaties simply made Warner more adamant. The film had his name on it and he would choose how it would end.”
Here's earlier notes on Jack Warner and race.
Thursday June 17, 2021
'Sure, but I wouldn't want Cagney under the same roof as one'
“Included in Jack Warner's résumé of unpleasant character traits was racial bigotry. He steadfastly resisted for decades to produce a picture with black actors playing anything other than background characters exuding subservient clichés. In 1951 Warner forced the screenwriter Ivan Goff to change James Cagney's African American roommate in Come Fill the Cup to a character played by the veteran Irish American actor James Gleason. 'You think Cagney's gonna be under the same roof as a nigger?' demanded Warner.”
-- from Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film by Alan K. Rode. The “Cup” story comes from John McCabe's Cagney bio, which I've read and referenced often. I even highlighted that particular story in my copy but I don't remember it, so glad Rode reiterated it. A few more things about “Cup”: It was Cagney's last feature with Warner Bros. (for this reason?); and it's one of two Cagney films unavailable in any form. The other is the George Arliss-starrer “The Millionaire.” If you know where to get either of these films, please drop a line.
Wednesday June 16, 2021
Ned Beatty (1937-2021)
He played idiots and geniuses, subservients and dictators, along with painfully ordinary men.
Ned Beatty was in everything when I was growing up. Everything.
Turn on “M*A*S*H,” and there he was playing Col. Hollister, a regular army priest admonishing Father Mulcahey for his kindly passivity. Go see “Silver Streak,” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and he was playing a randy salesman on the make who—wait!—was actually an undercover FBI agent. He was a country music singer-songwriter in Burt Reynolds' “W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings” and reprised his role as Sheriff J.C. Connors in Burt Reynolds' “Gator.” He guest-starred in episodes of “Rockford Files,” “Petrocelli,” “Lucas Tanner,” and “The Rookies.” In “All the President's Men,” he was Mr. Dardis, a Florida politician who you think is giving Carl Bernstein the runaround but is actually just a busy man, and whose evidence—a $25,000 check deposted in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars—leads W&B to Kenneth Dahlberg, Midwest finance chair for Nixon's re-election campaign, who says he got the check from Maurice Stans, the chair for CREEP, thus tying the burglars to the White House for the first time. (Yes, I've watched “All the President's Men” too much.) And he played Arthur Jensen, whose five-minute sermon to Howard Beale on the cosmology of corporations—“The world is a business, Mr. Beale”—garnered Beatty his only Oscar nomination.
He was all of those things. And every one of those performances came out in 1975/1976, when I was 13/14. And that list doesn't even take into account “The Big Bus,” “Mikey and Nickey” and “Nashville,” which were also released during those years. That's a career, right there, packed into two years.
Of course, from there, he went on to play Otis, would-be ruler of Otisburg, the candy-bar-eating, sweet-natured stooge to Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor in Richard Donner's seminal 1978 movie “Superman.” I can still quote half his lines. “It's a little bitty place.” “Are we going to Addis Ababa, Mr. Luthor?” “He's serving notice to you...,” and in tandem with Hackman, “What more could anyone ask?” (Yes, I've watched “Superman” too much.) Back in 2013, I wrote “Most people go their entire lives without having the kind of chemistry with another person that Gene Hackman had with Ned Beatty.”
And I still remember Beatty from a 1979 TV movie, “Friendly Fire,” as the father of a soldier killed in Vietnam, who, with wife Carol Burnett, search to find out why. I remember him working in the front yard when a military officer and a priest show up, and the straightforward, heartbreaking way he said, “Is my boy dead?”
I think I thought Ned Beatty had been doing this forever but 1973's “Deliverance,” which I still can't bring myself to watch, was his first screen role. I think I thought he would keep doing it forever, too. All the best movies and TV shows would have Ned Beatty in them. Alas, that was the sweet spot. It was also the sweet spot for American movies, and for my ability to take in things and remember them easily. And Ned Beatty was there, playing everything. Probably why I have such a sweet spot for him.
He died Sunday, in Los Angeles, age 83. Here's to Otisburg.
Tuesday May 18, 2021
William Cagney, Palooka
Yeah, that's James Cagney's brother, Bill, who followed Jim to Hollywood, acted in a few movies, then became his agent and a producer at Cagney Productions. The above shot is from “Palooka,” a 1934 flick based on the comic strip “Joe Palooka.” It stars Jimmy Durante as the coach, Lupe Velez as the girl, Robert Armstrong as the father, and Stuart Erwin as Joe Palooka, a kind-hearted boxer who often gets pummeled. Cagney plays Al McSwatt, another boxer, the champ, I believe. He may look like older brother Jim but he doesn't have that verve, energy, glint and glimmer. No soap.
The movie's not great, either. I couldn't even finish it. But it is an early Hollywood attempt at adapting comic strips/books, which would wax and wane over the years until it became ascendant this century.
Wednesday April 28, 2021
Bruce Willis vs. Kong
I meant to mention this in my review of “Godzilla vs. Kong” but there's a moment early on, in their first big battle, when Kong senses Godzilla is ready to let loose his fire breath and cut in half the aircraft carrier Kong is standing on, so he leaps off it. And the leap reminded me but exactly of Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.”
The above doesn't even do it justice. It's same slow-mo, same arms in the air, and Kong's leg even goes up like Willis'. I'm sure someone will compare and contrast on video shortly. I posted to Twitter and got nothing ... until like a week ago. Someone else had seen the film, thought of “Die Hard” during this scene, and searched Twitter to see if anyone else noticed.
So: homage or ripoff or coincidence? I'm going homage. But too bad the movie wasn't as good as “Die Hard.”
Wednesday March 10, 2021
'Cary Grant Represents a Man We Know'
“I asked about North by Northwest and his preference for Cary Grant, who had starred in several Hitchcock pictures. 'I was very amused,' he said smiling, 'when I read the critic for The New Yorker referring to North by Northwest as ”unconsciously funny.“ Well, my dear, the film is sheer fantasy. Our original title, you know, was The Man in Lincoln's Nose. Couldn't use it, though. They also wouldn't let us shoot people on Mount Rushmore. Can't deface a national monument,' he added sarcastically. 'And it's a pity too, because I had a wonderful shot in mind of Cary Grant hiding in Lincoln's nose and having a sneezing fit.' He chuckled happily and went on. 'Cary is marvelous, you see. One doesn't direct Cary Grant, one simply puts him in front of a camera. And, you see, he enables the audience to identify with the main character. I mean by that, Cary Grant represents a man we know. He's not a stranger. If you are walking down a street and you see a man hit by a car and you don't know him, you stop and look for a moment and you say, ”Tut, tut, that's too bad,“ and you pass on. Now if the person hit were your brother, well, there's a different situation altogether. It's the same thing, you see, as Cary Grant in a film versus an unknown actor.' He paused to relight his cigar.”
-- Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchock in “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Sunday March 07, 2021
The Greatest Invention in the World
“Of course, the great [Production Code] rule was that if there was a kiss, the parties had to keep one foot on the floor. But, in spite of those restrictions, I have a feeling that it was much more erotic, that there was much more an atmosphere of eroticism without the nudity, without the absolute license there is now [in the 1970s]. Now, of course, it's obligatory that everybody be in the nude. ... I think clothes are the greatest invention in the world, and one should be awfully careful who one undresses.”
-- George Cukor in Peter Bogdanovich's “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Tuesday February 23, 2021
Never Be Anyone Else But You
How did you decide to use Ricky Nelson [for “Rio Bravo”]?
I saw Ricky Nelson on a number of TV shows, so I asked his father to send me some of his very latest stuff. I liked it and sent him a script. His father said he liked the script and that was it. We just put him in.
You gave him [Montgomery] Clift's old mannerism from Red River of rubbing the nose with his index finger.
We did anything we could to help him. For two or three days I even shot scenes I didn't need.
Just to relax him?
Yes. And after a few days I thought he did quite well. I imagine it added about a million and a half to the picture's gross. Over in Japan, Ricky Nelson's picture in the ads was in the middle—Wayne and Martin were smaller on the side. We happened to catch him just at the height of his popularity. When we went to a bullfight in Tucson during the shooting, they paid very little attention to Wayne—they just watched Rick Nelson. I think he's OK.
Not exactly Montgomery Clift, but ...
Oh, my God, no, but you can't find those around every corner.
-- Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich in “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”