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.”
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.