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.”
Thursday February 18, 2021
Frances Farmer by Howard Hawks
How did you find Frances Farmer? She was extraordinary in the movie. [Come and Get It (1936)]
She came in to play the part of a little Swedish girl. She was getting seventy-five bucks a week over at Paramount and I said, “My God, you ought to be playing the lead in this.” She said, “I can play it.” So I had her read a little bit and I began to get enthusiastic about it, and then I said I'd make a test. We started to disagree because she came in all made up and was going to “act,” but I let her go to it and then showed her the test and said, “What do you think?” She said, “I'm horrible.” I said, “OK, where do you live?” and that night I picked her up and we went around to little cafés until we found somebody who acted the way I wanted her to play it: We saw a waitress in this beer joint and I said, “Now, you come in here every night for 10 days. Get picked up. The worst that'll happen to you is you'll get your legs felt.” She was a big husky girl who could take care of herself, you know. “Then we'll make another test.” And at the end of 10 days she came in and made a test—without makeup or anything—with just a change in attitude. Oh, she was marvelous, probably the best actress—outside of Lombard and Rosalind Russell—I've ever worked with.
-- Howard Hawks in Peter Bogdanovich's “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.”
Sunday February 07, 2021
Billy the Moron
I understand you wanted to make a picture about Billy the Kid.
I would have loved to make a picture about Billy the Kid. You know the original man? In the photos, he looked like a moron, which he probably was. And if I could have had the chance to make the first picture, I would have made a moron out of him. ... But motion pictures have spread the legend, and because an audience is educated, they know from the films that Billy the Kid was a handsome, dashing outlaw, and if somebody would make him today as he really was, it would probably be so much against the grain of an audience that it couldn't be a success.
-- Fritz Lang, talking with Peter Bogdanovich in “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.” Actors who have played Billy the Kid include Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, and Emilio Estevez. The one who gets closest is probably Michael J. Pollard in “Dirty Little Billy,” which I've never seen. Actually I've seen none of them save Peckinpah's. Would love to have seen Lang's version.
Wednesday February 03, 2021
Walter Bernstein (1919-2021)
“They'll carry me off writing.”
Described in a 2014 Esquire profile as a “human Energizer bunny,” Mr. Bernstein was writing, teaching and generating screenplay ideas well into his 90s. Until recently, he had several projects in development. He created the BBC mystery mini-series “Hidden” in 2011, and he was an adjunct instructor of dramatic writing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts until he retired in 2017.
Man, that's the way to do it. They'll carry me off writing.
We bonded last spring. Well, I bonded, he didn't know. I read his book, “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist,” and it was like finding a long-lost best friend. In the book he has a dry wit, a care for language, and a wise, shrugging sense of the tragedy of life. I keep trying to describe it and can't quite get at it. You should read it. I've been telling people that ever since. I've been buying it for people. Last November, in an email discussion after a Zoom cocktail party, friends were posting books they'd recommended, most of them recent, most topical, and Bernstein was my shrugging offering. “Probably not anyone's wheelhouse but mine, but...”
Last spring I kept posting excerpts from the book. I began with Bernstein's overall thoughts on the blacklist and on his own naivete about HUAC, so much like ours before Trump (“[They] seemed only stupid; I understood their bigotry but not their power), then incuded the origins of Red Channels and the experience of watching silent films during their heyday. That shock when sound came in. I kept finding vignettes, beautifully realized portraits of famous people: photographer Robert Capa, writer Ben Maddow, actors Bette Davis and John Garfield. I could've included a dozen more. The Garfield vignette could be an outline of a movie. Or it can be just what it is.
Bernstein went through war, then came home and went through a worse kind of war, since he was attacked by his own. That war is still going on in a way. It's both toned down (”liberal Hollywood“ rather than ”Red Hollywood“) and exaggerated beyond all meaning (”part of a global pedophile ring“).
Bernstein wrote for Yank during the war (he was the first western correspondent to interview Marshal Tito) and for The New Yorker afterwards. He went to Hollywood at exactly the wrong moment for a young communist and after he was blacklisted he spent the '50s back in New York City scraping a living and working in television pseudonymously, as he depicted in ”The Front,“ still the best movie about the blacklist. He wrote for ”You are There,“ and he was, and ”Danger,“ which he was in. Later he wrote an episode of ”Profiles in Courage,“ and he was that, too. He basically lost his thirties to right-wing paranoia, then flowered in his forties, fifties and sixties. He's the sole credited screenwriter on movies as diverse as ”Fail Safe,“ ”The Money Trap,“ ”The Molly Maguires,“ ”The Front,“ ”Semi-Tough,“ ”Little Miss Marker“ and ”The House on Carroll Street.“ He also directed ”Little Miss Marker,“ and he has a cameo in Woody Allen's ”Annie Hall.“ At the end, when Alvy sees Annie going into a screening of ”The Sorrow and the Pity," Bernstein is her date. He's with Sigourney, she's with Walter. They've each found other versions of each other. Nice work for a 57-year-old.
He missed, just missed, the mathematical beauty of being born in 1919 and leaving us in 2020. But I'm glad he stuck around until Trump ignominiously left office. I hope he was aware. I hope he toasted the moment.
Read the book.
Thursday January 14, 2021
Hoyden (n.): A boisterous girl
“I saw a kid playing baseball on the street with some other kids—it was next door to a friend of mine who was a Paramount executive. She was a cute-looking little tomboy—about twelve—a hoyden, out there knocking hell out of the other kids, playing better baseball than they were. And I needed someone of her type for this picture [A Perfect Crime, 1921]. She'd never acted, so we talked to her parents and they let her do it and she was very good. Her name was Jane Peters; she later changed it to Carole Lombard.”
-- Allan Dwan, “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors,” by Peter Bogdanovich
Tuesday December 29, 2020
Al Milgrom (1922-2020)
In his element.
Because of Al Milgrom I saw the following movies:
- My Life as a Dog
- 28 Up
- She's Gotta Have It
- When Father Was Away on Business
- Come and See
- The Tree of Wooden Clogs
They were all playing in the mid-1980s at the University Film Society, for which I volunteered every Thursday night when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. Al, who founded the U Film Society in the early 1960s, died last week at the age of 98, after suffering a stroke.
For selling/taking tickets at the Society, and keeping all the Bergman fans from getting too unruly, volunteers got to see the movies for free. If it wasn't too busy, I might watch them that night. That is, my colleague Adam L. would let me slip in as the movie started or I'd do the same for him. You could let a certain number of friends in for free, too. I seem to recall doing this with a girl I had a crush on. She was wth her boyfriend. That's how I rolled.
For all the ways he expanded my cinematic vision, I think I only saw Al a few times. He was a breeze blowing by, ever busy, but he knew me because I was the son of the movie critic for the Star-Tribune—a man who liked the movies that Al liked, and that the U Film Society exhibited. After Dad retired, he'd run into Al every so often. Late in life, Al became a documentary filmmaker, self-styled as “the world's oldest emerging filmmaker,” and he asked Dad to be a talking head for a doc about the 1970 Dinkytown riots. Al did one on Minnesota poet John Berryman, too, and only at the premiere found out Dad had been a longtime friend. He then wanted to interview Dad about Berryman—for the DVD or a recut?—and I was instructed to send along digitized photos we had of Berryman in our backyard. Don't know if anything came of that. He had a lot of plate spinning.
Something else he had in common with my father? He was also another Minnesotan name-checked by the Coens. In “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Adam Driver's character's real name is Al Milgrom. The two of them and Ron Meshbesher should've formed a club.
After I graduated, I spent a year in Taiwan, where, among other things, I became a fan of Jackie Chan movies. One day, back on the U of M campus, I saw a flyer for an upcoming U Film Society feature: Jackie Chan's “Miracles.” That made me smile. I couldn't get ahead of him. Dad has his own story about Al Milgrom and flyers. He was walking with him once, possibly for an article, when Al suddenly stopped at a telephone pole covered in flyers and ripped one of them down. It was blocking his.
Thursday December 24, 2020
'The Public Enemy,' Starring Everyone
OK, so who didn’t have the lead role in “The Public Enemy”?
Cagney fans know Ed Woods was originally chosen to play Tom Powers, but some combination of events led to the switch—most likely: screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon pitching Cagney’s case to director William Wellman, who agreed with them after seeing the dailies.
Just took a while to get the message out. If you look over the news stories leading up to the premiere, almost everyone in the cast, at some point, was touted as the lead.
In early December you have Louella O. Parsons writing about her then-future son-in-law Ed Woods in her nationally syndicated column:
A few days later, in a short piece in The Record (an LA paper) about the sale of the screen rights, only Cagney and Donald Cook are mentioned. Nothing on Woods. Exact quote: “It probably will be released as 'The Public Enemy,' with James Cagney and Donald Cook in important roles.” Did Bright and Glasmon plant this? They’d written for The Record quite a bit that year, including a four-part series over the summer on the recent history of the Chicago gangland wars that inspired “Beer and Blood”/“Public Enemy.” Maybe they left off Woods on purpose?
Yet a few days later, again in The Record, it’s only Woods who gets mentioned: “EDWARD WOODS is getting to be the screen's boy menace,” it begins. A reaction to the earlier snub? A make-up call? A Parsons plant?
I always assumed that was the battle: Cagney or Woods? But at the end of December, Joan Blondell gets into the act. (In the final movie, she has about a dozen lines.)
In mid-January, in the San Francisco Examiner, it's 1920s icon Louise Brooks. (She’s not in the final movie at all.)
Two months later, Jean Harlow, who at least is the female lead, if not quite “the lead”:
By the time the Brooklyn Citizen writes that a print of “Enemy” arrived on March 28 (!), everyone is so confused that they, in their write-up, give Cagney third-billing—after Woods and Blondell. And even when the New York Times reviews the thing in May, they list Woods first.
Maybe this happened all the time with movies back then? Everyone’s agent is pushing their client into as many column inches as possible. It’s still amusing. I went looking for info on Cagney/Woods and everyone else got into the act.
Thursday December 17, 2020
He Ain't Heard Nothing Yet
“And there's one good explanation for why we got all these light-hearted pictures. It came from the director of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' science fiction film, Phil Kaufman. He told me he thinks that people are simply bored with their everyday lives: with their jobs, everything, they don't want to see anything remotely related to this earth. So we get the science fiction films that take us out into space, and also 'Grease,' which comes out of nowhere. ... One thing that concerns me as a film critic, and probably you, too, is: Are we ever going to get serious pictures? Are these blockbusters going to crowd us out?”
-- Gene Siskel, during the special “A Look Back at 1978” episode of “Sneak Previews,” as he and Roger Ebert try to make sense of the silly genre films the public is suddenly embracing in the late 1970s. He nailed it. He asked the right question. “Are these blockbusters going to crowd us out?” Yes and no. Serious films will still be made, but they will be so marginal as to be nonexistent.
Saturday December 05, 2020
I recently researched Charles Lederer for my review of the James Cagney movie “Never Steal Anything Small,” which Lederer directed, but last night I realized I did a poor job of it. Directing wasn't his thing. I knew that much. “Never Steal” was his third and last and best-known attempt. No, he was a writer, and wrote some big things: “His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Ocean's 11.” I guess I thought that was enough to know. Apparently I didn't even look at his Wikipedia entry, which would've told me all.
Last night told me all. Patricia and I were watching “Mank,” the new David Fincher-directed Netflix movie about how Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) came to write “Citizen Kane,” when Charlie Lederer appears as a character. I was like, “Whoa, I know him. He directed 'Never Say Anything Small.' I didn't know he knew Herman Mankiewicz!”
That wasn't all I didn't know. In short order, I learned Charlie:
- was the nephew of Marion Davies
- introduced Mankiewicz to William Randolph Hearst
- was given an early copy of “Kane” by Mankiewicz
- was so upset by it he showed it to Davies and Hearst
In other words, Lederer was both responsible for the creation of “Kane” (by introducing Mank to Hearst) and for Hearst's attempt to kill “Kane” out of the gate (by introducing Hearst to the script).
And here I just thought he was the so-so director-writer of a late, uneven Cagney flick.
Lesson? Do your homework, kids. There's a whole world there.
Thursday November 19, 2020
What is Shirley Jones 'Known For'?
Ask me what Shirley Jones is known for and I'd say the 1955 movie “Oklahoma!” and the 1970s TV show “The Partridge Family.” Oh right, and “Music Man.” Marian, librarian. She was so lovely in that. She also won an Oscar for “Elmer Gantry” or something. So all that.
The other day I was checking out her IMDb page because of a Cagney connection (“Never Steal Anything Small”), and it seems IMDb's algorithms disagree with my assumptions. Again. I guess it weights for Oscars? Hence “Elmer Gantry.” Also weights for movies? Hence, no “Partridge Family.” But why isn't “Oklahoma!,” suerely one of the great American musicals, mentioned?
This could be me and the world caring about different things. That describes much of my life, actually. But I still think the algorithms are off. They care too much for Oscars and too little for TV and ...
Wait, is it that with “Oklahoma!”? I bet it is. God, that's dumb.
Shirley Jones is the female lead in “Oklahoma!” but because it was her movie debut she's fifth-billed. So I bet IMDb dings her for that. Except the movie made her such a star that she was second-billed in “Carousel” the following year. Which is why, in IMDb's logic, that one trumps the other. Even though everyone knows “Oklahoma!” and less so “Carousel.”
The problem with a society run by algorithms.
Don't even get me started on “Grandma's Boy.” JFC.
Lovely in “Oklahoma!”
Friday October 09, 2020
More on Ed Woods and Louella Parsons
Backstory for the tardy: In December 1930, in her nationally syndicated column, Louella Parsons touted a “young film comer” who had just snagged the lead in the new Warner Bros. gangster pic “The Public Enemy.” His name was Edward Woods. He eventually lost the part to James Cagney, of course, who was way better suited for it, and apparently Parsons wasn't happy—less for the now-inaccurate column than for Woods, who was, at the time, engaged to her daughter, Harriet. I wrote about some of this in my review of “Mothers Cry,” Woods' first movie.
In my research for that, I came across other mentions of Woods in Parsons' columns. This is from May 1931, the month “Public Enemy” was releaased to general acclaim.
- I can't find any reference to “The Blue Moon Murder Mystery” on AFI's film site, which includes working titles of Hollywood films. So not only was it not made with Cagney and Woods, apparently it wasn't made at all.
- Cagney and Blondell do star in “Larceny Lane”/“Blonde Crazy,” but not Woods. I wouldn't even know what part he would have played. Maybe the Ray Milland role?
- In fact, Woods never made any other movie with Cagney or Blondell. I don't think he ever made another Warner Bros. picture.
I guess the big question is how true any of it ever was. Or was Parsons simply simply pimping for her daughter's fiance?
A year later, in August 1932, there was this item in Parsons' column:
- “Not Saturday”? Did she mean “Hot Saturday”? That was a movie that both Carroll and Woods were in, and it was released that fall; but while Carroll was the leading lady Woods was fourth-billed. The star was a relative unknown named Cary Grant. Woods kept getting billed down from future legends.
- Paramount told Woods to “come back home; all was forgiven”? Paramount was never his home. And forgiven for what? Was this a kind of secret message? The engagement to Parsons' daughter was broken off this year, not sure when, and probably because Harriet was gay. Is this Louella's attempt to bring hime back into the fold? Is it her telling him this?
No answers. As usual, history is a Hyrda head. Answer one question, two more pop up.
Wednesday September 02, 2020
‘Young Film Comer to Have Lead Role in Public Enemy’
No, the other one. The clip is from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 8, 1930.
A few corrections to Louella Parsons' scoop:
- It's not Kubic Glass but Kubec Glasmon, nee J.J. Glassman, a former Chicago druggist and bootlegger
- He didn't write “His Honor, Bill Thompson”; that was Bright alone
- Bright's title is actually “Hizzoner Big Bill Thompson”; it was an attack on the Chicago politician; apparently Thompson sued
- I don't know how smart these boys were but they were certainly going for their chance
- Archie Mayo may have been Zanuck's choice to direct but it went to William Wellman
The biggest change, of course, is that after initial filming, the lead role and the secondary role switched actors, and a star was born.
Who gets credit for the switch? Everyone's certainly taken it: Zanuck, Bright, Jack Warner. Dismiss Warner out of hand. My best guess is Wellman. I just wish they'd switched the kid actors, too, so the short kid who looks like Cagney, Frankie Darro, wouldn't grow up to be Woods. I guess that stuff was already in the can? Wonder when they began filming and when the switch was made. The movie was released May 15, 1931. Bright and Glasmon got an Oscar nom for best story.
I guess I'll have to see “Mother's Cry” one of these days, to see what they saw in Woods; to see if it was more than what we saw in “Public Enemy.” He only made a total of 12 pictures, the last in 1938. From IMDb:
Eventually [Woods] went into producing, directing and stage management, working with the Schubert Organization and 20th Century Fox. During WWII, he worked with Ronald Reagan making training films for the U.S Army. He retired in 1975, and moved to Salt Lake City.
For more on Parsons, see Peter Bogdanovich's “The Cat's Meow.”
ADDENDUM: I did wind up seeing “Mothers Cry.” I didn't see what they saw in Woods.