Wednesday January 12, 2022
What Is Peter Bogdanovich 'Known For'?
Peter Bogdanovich died last week at age 82. Here are some of the headlines:
- CNN: Peter Bogdanovich, the Oscar-nominated director of 'The Last Picture Show,' dead at 82
- The New York Times: Peter Bogdanovich, 82, Director Whose Career Was a Hollywood Drama, Dies
- Variety: Ellen Burstyn Remembers 'Last Picture Show' Director Peter Bogdanovich: 'He Loved and Understood Film Better Than Anyone'
Director, director, director. And here's what he's “known for” according to the algorithms of IMDb:
One out of four. Given IMDb's known-for history, I suppose we'll take it.
Tech geeks are kind of screwing up the knowledge of the world, aren't they? “Since Peter Bogdanovich has more acting credits, he's mostly an actor. Since Steven Spielberg has more producing credits, he's mostly a producer. That's what they're known for.”
Sunday January 09, 2022
Dreaming of Mark Hamill
A dream from the other night.
I had just finished a writing project, needed to do more, but wanted to clear my head so I went for a bike ride. Mid-ride I thought I’d pop in over to Mark Hamill’s house. We were friends—kind of. We’d just done something together earlier that day. Even as I was riding over there, though, I was thinking, “Does this pop-in make sense? Who does pop-ins anymore? And I don’t really know him that well.” But my momentum kept me going. I knew it was a bad idea but I kept moving forward. His house was a big house like the Ollermans near Lake Harriet, I rang the doorbell and came inside. There was a distinguished older man wearing a suit and standing just off the doorway in a book-lined den. He asked me what I wanted and I asked if Mark was home. He hesitated, and—figuring Mark had a lot of fans showing up unbidden and unwanted—I said, “We’re friends. I’m Erik. We just went to …” and then mentioned the place we’d been to earlier that day. He nodded and called for Mark.
Mark and I were in our twenties. He wasn’t happy to see me.
Me: Hey, sorry for popping in like this.
He: Uh huh.
Me: I was just writing and needed a break.
He: Uh huh.
Me: Probably wasn’t a good idea.
He: Uh huh.
Me: I … should probably just go, right?
He: Uh huh.
Then I was outside, walking down the stairs to my bike, chastising myself. I had known it was a bad idea. Why had I kept going? I picked up my bike and tried to find the bike path again. There was a public bike path that wound through their backyard but it seemed one way. Everyone was going around the big house and that wasn’t the way I wanted to go. But it’s the way I wound up going.
Saturday January 08, 2022
Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)
According to “Belafonte’s Balancing Act,” an essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. that appeared in The New Yorker in 1996, when Harry Belafonte joined the American Negro Theater in Harlem in the late 1940s he met another aspiring young actor, originally from Cat Island, Bahamas, with whom he quickly became friends even though they often competed for the same roles. In one production called “Days of Our Youth,” Belafonte got the lead but he also had a regular job as a janitor’s assistant, emptying garbage, etc., and one night he couldn’t find anyone to cover for the janitor job, so the understudy, his friend, went on in his place. That also happened to be the night off-Broadway producers came to the theater seeking actors for an all-Black version of Lysistrata. They tapped the understudy. Soon his friend had a starring role in the Joseph Mankiewicz movie “No Way Out,” co-starring Richard Widmark, and was on his way.
“As a result,” Gates writes, “Belafonte has long joked that [Sidney] Poitier’s career is ‘based on garbage.’” Good line.
Sidney Poitier was the first the way that Jackie Robinson was the first—but also not. After Jackie broke through he was followed by Larry Doby and Hank Thompson, Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson. Baseball was forever changed. After Sidney Poitier broke through as a leading man in prestige Hollywood productions, he was followed by … um … Denzel? Whoever it was, it took a while. We got blaxploitation stars: Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree and Ron O’Neal. I guess James Earl Jones and Paul Winfield had moments, Howard E. Rollins had a moment, but the next crossover stars were comedians: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy. So really it’s Denzel. It took decades.
The point is Sidney was alone on his journey. The point is that while Jackie stopped having to turn the other cheek in 1949, Sidney never really got the chance. Endicott notwithstanding.
He was already legendary but kind of over by the time I came of age in the mid-1970s. Historian Donald Bogle calls him “a hero for an integrationist age,” which is why he was kind of over. No one was fighting for integration anymore.
Did he ever tire of the routine? Show up, be exceptional, turn racists around? That feels like half his movies. “A Black doctor is assigned to treat two white racist suspects…” “Two escaped convicts chained together…” “A couple’s attitudes are challenged when…” “A blind, uneducated white girl is befriended by…” “A traveling handyman becomes the answers to the prayers of nuns…”
And of course: “A Black Philadelphia police detective is mistakenly suspected of…”
Mark Harris, in his obit, touches on the burden he carried:
For a movie actor, there is perhaps no crueler fate than to be forced to serve as a symbol from the first day you step in front of the cameras to the moment when, more than 50 years later, you give your final performance. Acting is about risk-taking, exploration, struggling all your life with how best to make vivid the humanity of the character you play, for better and for worse. It's hard, maybe even impossible, to do your job when the expectations of an entire industry, and of an entire race, are draped across your shoulders.
It is part of the lasting significance of Poitier that he took on a burden he never asked for not as a curse but as a responsibility, and bore it not with resentment but with unshowy solemnity.
Then there's Howard Bryant’s tweet on this scene in “In the Heat of the Night,” whose significance I missed:
Did anyone have a year like Poitier had in 1967? “To Sir With Love” was released in June, “In the Heat of the Night’ in August, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” December. All three were box-office smashes. “Guess Who” was the second-biggest movie of the year after “The Graduate,” while the title song to “To Sir With Love”—which was basically a love song to Sidney Poitier—was the No. 1 song of the year. “Guess Who” was nominated for 10 Oscars and won two (actress; screenplay), while “In the Heat of the Night” was nominated for seven and won five, including actor for Rod Steiger, editing for Hal Ashby, and best picture. It also had the longest legs. Sidney played Virgil Tibbs two more times in the 1970s, and the concept became a TV staple in the 1980s with Carroll O’Connor and Howard E. Rollins.
He was shut out that year. Poitier received just two Oscar nominations in his career: the famous one he won, “Lilies in the Fields,” which probably had more to do with the year it was released—the year of Birmingham, the March, and the JFK assassination—than anything else; and “The Defiant Ones” in 1958. That one was a breakthrough, too: the first nomination for a Black man in any acting category. The next Black actor to win an Oscar after Poitier was Louis Gosset Jr. in 1982. The next to win as lead was Denzel in 2001. Poitier was actually more honored in England, where the BAFTAs had a “Foreign Actor” category—basically anyone not British—and where he was nominated six times: “Edge of the City,” “Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lilies,” “Patch of Blue” and “In the Heat of the Night.” He won for “Defiant Ones.”
By the time I came of age, Poitier wasn’t doing the integrationist thing anymore; he was directing and starring in a series of comedies with Bill Cosby. I wouldn’t mind seeing those, to be honest, to see if there’s anything there. He also directed “Stir Crazy,” with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, a huge, huge hit. He also directed himself and his old friend, Harry Belafonte, in a western, “Buck and the Preacher.”
Two more things from Gates’ essay. At one point in the late 1940s, still scrambling, Belafonte and Poitier decided that comedy was the way to go and worked on a standup routine. Can you imagine? The comedy stylings of Belafonte and Poitier? The young actors were also befriended by acting/singing legend Paul Robeson, who was impressed with them. “I remember times,” Poitier says in the essay, “when he and I would meet Robeson in a bar on Fifth Avenue just off 125th Street, and sit there and talk.” Feels like it could be a play—a 1940s version of “One Night in Miami.” Someone should be working on that.
Friday January 07, 2022
Peter Bogdanovich (1939-2022)
One of the saddest things I’ve heard in recent years—which, let’s face it, has been a time of immense sadness—was on the TCM podcast “The Plot Thickens” when they ran a seven-part series on the life and career of director Peter Bogdanovich.
I already knew some of it, of course. Early career as a movie critic, fascination with the legends of Hollywood like John Ford and Howard Hawks, work with guerilla filmmaker and B-movie legend Roger Corman; and then that early, nearly unprecedented success as a director. In the first years of the 1970s, he came to the plate three times and he hit three homeruns: “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon.” Bam, bam, bam. The first was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including picture, director and screenplay, and two in each of the two support categories, both of which it won: for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. “What’s Up, Doc?” was a comedy so it didn’t get AA consideration—though Madeleine Kahn was nominated for a Golden Globe as “Most Promising Female Newcomer” (losing to Diana Ross), and the trio of top-level screenwriters, Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton, won the WGA. But “Moon” was nominated for another four Oscars, and won a supporting award for Tatum O’Neal, age 10, the youngest recipient ever.
Think of all that. Think of that high. One wonders if he thought it was all so easy. Plus the affair and then relationship with Cybill Shepherd. Dude had it all. Had anyone ever rose so quickly?
Did anyone ever fall so fast?
You know in “The Natural” when Roy Hobbs keeps hitting homeruns and then meets Kim Basinger and keeps striking out? Maybe Cybill Shepherd was Kim Basinger. Or maybe Polly Platt, Bogdanovich’s first wife and creative partner, was Wonderboy. Either way, in the next three years, he made: “Daisy Miller,” “At Long Last Love,” and “Nickelodeon.” Whiff, whiff, whiff. Yer out.
And then the sad thing. After he and Shepherd split in the late ’70s, he started up a relationship with Dorothy Stratten, a Canadian model was the 25th Anniversary playmate and then Playmate of the Year 1980. She left her husband, Paul Snider, for Bogdanovich. Less than two months later, Snider murdered her before killing himself.
Again, I already knew some of this. But from a distance I’d always assumed it was an act of jealousy. “The Plot Thickens” podcast suggests another motive.
Snider was a nothing from nowhere, and Stratten was his ride to unprecedented access, all the way to the Playboy Mansion in Hollywood, California, and face-to-face meetings with his idol, Hugh Hefner, the man who had it all. That was Snider’s real goal: to be like Hef. Apparently he was sad but fine with the breakup; he already had a new girl he was promoting. As long as the gates to the Playboy mansion stayed open.
They didn’t. In the podcast, Bogdanovich talks about an annual party held at the mansion, a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” party, where everyone shows up in pajamas. But he and Dorothy, newly minted, newly enamored, didn’t show up that summer. “Neither Dorothy nor I felt like it so we didn’t go,” he says in the podcast. Later, Hefner asked him about it. “He said, ‘Would it help if I told the husband he can’t come here except with Dorothy?’ … And this is where I made a big mistake. I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it would help.’ I thought to myself: She doesn’t want to come here and I don’t want to come here, either, but what am I going to say? No, it wouldn’t help? So I said, ‘Yeah, I guess it would help.’ And then he banned him from the mansion.”
According to people who knew Snider, that’s what did it. It wasn’t the divorce from Dorothy; it was the banishment from the mansion which came about because of a surfeit of politeness. Hef wanted to hang with Stratten and Bogdanovich, they didn’t want to hang with him but were too polite to say so, and Snider was dangled as an excuse. Who wants to hang with whom? Yeah, I guess it would help.
It wasn’t jealousy. It was access. Horrifying.
And then Bogdanovich kept going down; he kept finding tragedy. Dorothy had a bit part in his next film, “They All Laughed,” which starred Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara and John Ritter, but he thought 20th Century Fox didn’t have much confidence in the film and would give it just a limited release. So he purchased the distribution rights, created his own distribution company, and distributed it himself. And lost millions. He declared bankruptcy in 1985.
In the 1980s, Bogdanovich directed “Mask,” which was respected, and the Rob Lowe comedy “Illegal Yours,” which wasn’t. In the’90s he tried to return to form with a sequel to “Picture Show.” Nope. Then the backstage comedy “Noises Off…” Worse. Then tragedy again. He directed “The Thing Called Love,” starring River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in the middle of its release. The movie lost millions.
And that was that. Bogdanovich wound up doing TV movies. He began to act more regularly, most famously playing the shrink’s shrink in “The Sopranos.” His directing projects in the 2000s often focused on sudden Hollywood death or sudden media disgrace: 1920s producer Thomas Ince, 1960s legend Natalie Wood, baseball great Pete Rose.
In the last year or two I spent a lot of time with Bogdanovich. I bought and read his books of interviews with Hollywood legends, “Who the Devil Made It” (about directors) and “Who the Hell’s In it” (actors). I bought and watched (several times) his 2018 documentary on Buster Keaton, “The Great Buster,” and hoped for more such docs from him—love letters to Hollywood artists.
His life would make a great movie. In the 1970s he was called a Wellesian wunderkind, which, rather than a compliment, should be a curse, considering what happened to Welles, and now what’s happened to Bogdanovich. “Follow your bliss,” we are told and Bogdanovich did. It worked for a time.
Saturday November 27, 2021
Birbiglia, Barth, and the Problem with Protagonists
On the Friday-morning drive back from spending Thanksgiving in Port Townsend, Wash., I listened to the episode of Mike Birbiglia's “Working It Out” podcast with Bill Hader. Or I relistened to it, since I'd listened to it when it first dropped last summer. Back then, I was doing my usual walk—from the First Hill neighborhood where I live, along Columbia Avenue, which is one of those “walkable” pandemic streets, to Madrona Park along Lake Washington. It's a not-bad hike, about two and a half miles one way, with a lot of public stairs at the end. You have to do the “Rocky” thing on the way back.
Anyway, that first time I remember laughing my ass off, and thinking, “I have to post about some of this when I get back.” But then life.
Yesterday's drive back was quite lovely: foggy, cool, and misty-rainy in the early morning. I took this shot when I was on the ferry to Seattle, which gives an idea of it:
Looks gray, but it was beautiful.
And I had great company. I still laughed my ass off, and learned, or relearned, life lessons, or art lessons, such as Bill Hader's via the “South Park” boys: The story isn't “This, and then this, and then this.” It's “This, so therefore this, so therefore this.” Here's the bit I wanted to post about last summer and never got around to. Mike Birbligia tosses out some stuff that isn't even going into his standup; he's thinking essay. It's one after the other, and they're all takeoffs on the idea that life is like a movie, although sometimes it's more specific. Example: “Life is like a Pixar movie: It's so good but then you think, 'What age is this for?'”
But my favorite, and Bill's, too, judging from his laughter, was the first:
Sometimes life is like a movie: Your friend dies, and it's crushing, but some part of you thinks, “Well, I guess he wasn't the protagonist.”
That's brilliant and cold and hilarious, and it suggests the screwed-up way we view our lives and our stories. John Barth wrote a bit about this, too, in his 1958 novel, “The End of the Road,” when one character lectures another about how we're all the protagonist in our own lives, and how our stories exacerbate this by narrowing the focus to a single point of view. “'Hamlet',” the character says, “could be told from Polonius' point of view and called 'The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlein of Denmark.' He didn't think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.” One wonders if this is where Tom Stoppard got the idea for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” which plays off of all of that. As does Birbiglia in his podcast.
Anyway, just wanted to pass along.
Friday November 26, 2021
'Give Us a Kiss': from Cagney to Lennon
This scene in “Taxi!” (1931), after James Cagney gets into a fight with George Raft at a dance contest, and his girlfriend Loretta Young berates him on the subway ride home, made me think of two things: Loretta Young looks dynamite but her tone is a bit hifalutin for the daughter of a cabbie (screenwriter John Bright was actually appalled by the casting); and Cagney's line at the end, “Give us a kiss, will ya?” seemed awfully familiar to me.
Something about it: train ride, being berated, the cheeky comeback. Then it hit me: John Lennon says the exact same thing (sans the “will ya”) to the harumphing commuter who berates the Beatles in “A Hard Day's Night.”
Anyone know of other moments in TV or movies where you get that dyanmic and then that line? Because surely it didn't stop there.
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.