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.
Sunday August 01, 2021
The Pictographs of Hood Canal
This weekend, my wife and I took the Bremerton ferry over to Hood Canal—which is not a canal—to spend time with her family in Union, Wash. Saturday, the bunch of us went over to Potlatch State Park, where, after walking north along the beach until I hit a rivulet separating the public from the private, I came across a sign extolling the various types of salmon in the area: chinook, pink, steelhead, chum (they got rooked in the name game), sockeye, coho and cutthroat. And on the reverse of that sign? A warning against eating raw shellfish, with a pretty funny pictograph:
Later, we went up to Hoodsport to visit our two must-visit places in the area: Hoodsport Coffee Co., and their Olympic Mountain ice cream; and The Hardware Distillery, which makes great whiskey, vodka, gin, aqua vite, and assorted spirits. It was our first time back to either place since before the pandemic. We visited the coffee/ice cream place first (they were serving people outside rather than indoors, which I was glad to see as the pandemic ratchets up again), but we had to wait around for the distillery to open at noon. While waiting, we visited, among other places, the local library across Higway 101, where I came across yet another odd pictograph—this one a warning against slippery steps. I've seen slipping pictographs before, but never where the guy looked like he might be Gene Kelly or Ben Vereen clicking his heels.
No feet but look at those fingers.
Oh, right. In my Potlatch beachwalk, over the barnacled rocks along the shore, I also came across this googly-eyed guy, which looks like something God made in arts and crafts class:
I think I'm just two or three Hood Canal pictographs shy of my own movie rating system: from Ben Vereen (4 stars!) to Vibrio Bacteria (looking at you, Zack Snyder).
Sunday July 25, 2021
Harry Rosenfeld (1929-2021)
Bradlee, Dusty, Rosenfeld at the movie premiere. I like the drinks Bradlee and Rosenfeld are sharing. I like the plate under Rosenfeld's arm.
There's a scene halfway through “All the President's Men,” a front-page meeting/city-desk meeting, in which the various editors get together and figure out what the top stories of tomorrow's edition will be. There's some disagreement, a lot of banter and humor, and a healthy dose of cynicism. In tone, dress, posture, they remind me of my father's generation at The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and thus the literal adults in the room when I was a child. Sadly, the adults in the room are leaving us.
For the film, Rosenfeld, the assistant metro editor at The Washington Post during the Watergate years, was played by Jack Warden, and he has a couple of memorable scenes—one in which he shoos away a nosy Carl Bernstein, who is asking about the burglary at the Watergate hotel. Both Bernstein and Bob Woodward were on the metro desk, a lesser beat, and they got the story because it was considered a lesser story—a “third-rate-burglary,” to quote Ron Ziegler, at a local hotel. Then their reporting, particularly tracking a check in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars directly to Nixon's re-election committee, helped turn it into a national and international story, so managing editor Ben Bradlee was considering giving the story to the National desk. It was Rosenfeld who voiced the objection: “They're hungry. Don't you remember when you were hungry?” Bradlee listened. And the rest is history. Not to mention historic.
I didn't know Rosenfeld had been born in Weimar Germany, witnessed the rise of the Nazis, experienced Kristallnacht first-hand. I like this quote from Peter Osnos. “He brought brash New York savvy to Washington before you could get a decent bagel there.” I like this quote from Rosenfeld on the theme of his journalistic career: “holding to account the accountable, the more powerful the better.” We need more adults in the room.
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.
Monday July 19, 2021
- Rob Neyer making the big time! He has a The New York Times piece on the behind-the-scenes macinations to get the new Yogi Berra stamp, and which players we might see going forward. One player who goes unmentioned is Harmon Killebrew. I get that he's down on the list—Hank Aaron's got to be next—but to not even be part of the conversation? C'mon, Rob. Oh, and despite my Yankees aversion, I bought three sheets of the Yogis. Because baseball.
- Speaking of: Watched the All-Star Game over at Tim's house last week and we were all horrified that Joe Buck—the announcer who tries to dramatize the game rather than, you know, announce it—was talking to the players while they were playing. And then faux-dissing them when they did poorly. Turns out, we weren't the only ones who were horrified. Only MLB could not see that coming.
- During the game, which was Mariner-less, we counted up the ex-Mariners present and playing, and I suggested Tim write a Grand Salami column counting them up and what we got for them. Here it is. Excerpt: “At one point late in the game, an ex-Mariner was batting while another ex-Mariner tried to advance on a wild pitch, only to have an ex-Mariner throw him out at second base.” Fun to be us.
- Though former colleagues call him “a typical Minnesota family guy,” for more than a decade Sean G. Turnbull has been peddling conspiracy theories online as “SGTReports,” according to The Washington Post. Among his wares: 9/11 was a “false flag operation,” the COVID-19 pandemic was a “bioweapon” and its vaccine an “experimental, biological kill shot,” and the 2020 election, of course, was a “coup.” He is a true believer but is way more strident online. One wonders how the turn began.
- Gabriel Sherman follows the money in the Jeffrey Epstein case to Leslie Wexner, a Ohio retail billionaire. The biggest unanswered question: Did Epstein simply charm Wexner or was there more to it? From an upcoming book, I assume.
- Speaking of: In their new book “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year,” authors Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reveal that Gen. Mark Milley, chariman of the Joint Chiefs, worried Trump would attempt a coup in 2020 and worked to make sure it didn't happen. Trump's response to these revelations includes this all-but-admission: “If I was going to do a coup, one of the last people I would want to do it with is General Mark Milley.” Jonathan Chait comments: “All these points confirm rather than refute Milley's suggestion that Trump posed a threat to the republic...” Chait says Trump was obviously not a Hitler but points to the number of times the Hitler reference comes up—and not from critics but from his inner circle: James Mattis, John Kelly, Milley.
- Leonnig and Rucker are Post reporters and the Post is excerpting the book, most of which is the usual Trumpian horror show. Then there's the Trumpian opportunism—like this laugh-out-loud graf on what Ivanka was doing the morning of Jan. 6:
- She said this? Out loud? Was anyone in the room? Was it a real room? I picture her saying this alone in a blinding white void, the sad hero of her own retroactive, opportunistic mind.
Saturday July 17, 2021
More on 'Mission to Moscow'
I'm reading Alan K. Rode's excellent biography “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” which includes so much backchannel Warner Bros. stuff from the 1930s and '40s, and maybe none so important as the machinations of Joseph E. Davies during the making of “Mission to Moscow” in 1943.
Davies was a lawyer who had been ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938 as the Moscow trials began, and who wrote a book about his experiences there. It was published in 1941, sold well, and FDR supposedly encouraged Jack Warner and Warner Bros. to make a movie about it. They did, with Curtiz directing, and Walter Huston starring, but Davies was a problem from the get-go. He submitted 24 pages of rewrites to Curtiz and producer Robert Buckner: “Buckner attempted to finesse these issues,” Rode writes, “by inviting the ambassador to Hollywood to discuss his concerns.” That just led to additonal requests for changes. These weren't minor changes, either:
The most egregious examples concerned the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland and the characterization of the Stalinist purge trial that was the heart of the film. Davies insisted on adding dialogue indicating that Russia did not invade Finland. The final cut included Walter Huston as Davies reciting this whopper after being asked about the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939: “Russia knew she was going to be attacked by Hitler so the Soviet leaders asked Finland's permission to occupy strategic positions to defend herself against German aggression. She offered to give Finland twice as much territory in exchange, but Hitler's friend Mannheim refused and the Red Army moved in.” When Buckner challenged Davies on the veracity of this startling revisionism, the former ambassador stated that he possessed “privileged knowledge.” Buckner said that Davies was “often prone to pulling this 'mysterious knowledge' to silence us.”
Why was Davies so insistent on whitewashing Stalin's crimes? To what end? He wasn't a communist. Was it just an insistence on a worldview he assumed he knew better than anyone? Soon he and his wife relocated to Beverly Hills, where, during production, he kept nitpicking. He saw that actors were made up to look like Churchill and Stalin, and wondered why Huston wasn't made up to look like him. “That, Mr. Davies,” Curtiz responded, “is because you are not famous.” He was quoted in the trades in January 1943: “There is no man in the world I would trust more fully than Joe Stalin.” And the movie was made the way it was made.
And when it was released in April 1943, there was almost universal condemnation.
The brickbats didn't come only from those on the Right. Two noted liberals, John Dewey of Columbia University and Suzanne La Follette, niece of the famed progressive senator, castigated the film in the New York Times. Dewey had led an independent commission with La Follette that had investigated Stalin's purges. He categorized Mission to Moscow as “the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption—a propaganda which falsifies history through distortion, omission or pure invention of facts.” Dewey and La Follette enumerated most of the film's more damning attributes, including deletion of any mention of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, the whitewashing of the purge trials, the overtly negative portrayal of prewar Britain and France, and the unfavorable portrayal of the U.S. Congress, contrasted with the film's presentation of “the Soviet dictatorship as an advanced democracy.” There was the additional fiction of the Red Army Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky being portrayed as one of the defendants in the trial sequence. There had been no public trial for Tukhachevsky; Stalin had him tortured and executed in June 1937.
But Davies didn't stop. He traveled to Moscow to screen the picture for Stalin. Apparently the Soviet leadership was tickled to see itself portrayed on a Hollywood movie screen, but the falsehoods were so egregious they burst out laughing.
Many in Hollywood weren't laughing.
Sam Wood, the director of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Kings Row, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, was a right-wing zealot who viewed domestic Communism as a clear and present danger. Mission to Moscow motivated Wood to join with the screenwriters James Kevin McGuiness (described by no less than Ronald Reagan as a Red-baiter), Casey Robinson, and Morris Ryskind, along with the director-producers Victor Fleming, King Vidor, Walt Disney, Clarence Brown, and others to form the Motion Picture Alliance for Preservation of American Ideals in February 1944.
The Motion Picture Alliance led to FBI and HUAC investigations, and the Hollywood blacklist, where careers and lives were lost. Sure, there were communists in Hollywood, screenwriters mostly, but most of their attempts to get Marxist thoughts on screen never made it past front-line producers—let alone a Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. It took an upstanding U.S. ambassador to do that.
One wonders if the scales ever fell from Davies' eyes.
Friday July 16, 2021
Quotes of the Day
“Monday's virtual proceedings did not bode well for Team Kraken. U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker expressed skepticism bordering on dismay about some of the evidence and experts from the original case [challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 election]. 'I don't think I've ever seen an affidavit that has made so many leaps,' she marveled at one point. 'How could any of you as officers of the court present this affidavit?'
”Generally speaking, it's not a good sign when a judge is characterizing one's evidence in terms such as 'fantastical,' 'speculative,' 'bad faith,' 'obviously questionable' and 'layers of hearsay.' Judge Parker brushed back Ms. [Sidney] Powell's assertion that the complaint's 960 pages of affidavits proved 'due diligence,' countering, 'Volume, certainly for this court, doesn't equate with legitimacy or veracity.'
-- from Trump's 'Team Kraken' Lands in Hot Water' by Michelle Cottle in The New York Times
Wednesday July 14, 2021
Movie Review: Ragtime (1981)
Do not read this review fast.
It is never right to read movie reviews fast.
— A.O. Scott Joplin
E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime”is one of my favorite novels, Milos Forman is one of my favorite directors (“Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Hair,” “Amadeus”), so it’s a shame Forman’s adaptation of Doctorow doesn’t quite work. It’s a tough ask. The novel is so sprawling in its use of fictional and historical characters, and so precise in its writerly voice, its ironic, class-conscious narrator skewering the age, that I don’t know how you’d get it all on screen.
It’s mostly historical characters that get glossed over. There’s no J.P. Morgan or Henry Ford, let alone Emma Goldman, while the Great Houdini is relegated to newsreel footage. The storyline of Father (James Olson) accompanying Perry to the Pole is completely cut, which makes sense to me, since it seems superfluous. Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern) is expanded in terms of overall real estate but she’s reduced by becoming a shallow, comic figure. In the book she’s sadder and deeper. The best of her—the love she feels for Tateh’s daughter—is ignored for comic nude scenes and catty eye rolls. The fictional Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) is also reduced. The depths of his Old Testament despair, with his hair and beard turning white, gets truncated, as does riding the trolleys to the end of the line—and there’s nothing at all on the 1912 Lawrence textile strike—so selling the picture book on an early morning in Philadelphia isn’t this glorious moment of redemption and release. It’s just sorta nice.
I like that, early on, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) plays piano to accompany newsreel footage. It’s a good way to both introduce our most important character and include some historical figures. It’s also an anachronism. Newsreels weren’t a thing in 1906.
Handsome as fuck
The movie mostly reduces Doctorow’s myriad storylines into two. The first is the real-life murder of architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) by Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh (Robert Joy), which was huge news at the time. Newspapers called it the Crime of the Century, to which Doctorow reminds us “…it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.”
The murder was over a woman, of course, Nesbit, a model/chorus girl/actress who had originally been wooed by the superrich White and wound up married to Thaw, the scion of a coal and railroad baron. Neither man is an angel. White was 30 years older than Nesbit, and he possibly drugged her for their first sexual encounter, but he’s generally regarded as a kind man. Thaw was a horror show. He whipped Nesbit for sexual pleasure. Doctorow describes him as having “the face of a ventriloquist’s dummy.”
The flashpoint in the movie is that White places a statue of Diana atop Madison Square Garden (1890-1925), which he designed, and rumors swirled that a naked Nesbit was the model. This is barely mentioned by Doctorow, and historically impossible, as that particular statue of Diana, by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was unveiled in 1893, when Nesbit was 9 years old. Nevertheless, in the film, Thaw demands its removal, White ignores him, and in June 1906, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, Thaw shoots White three times in the head. The scene is graphic. I flashed on the JFK assassination.
The second storyline, the main one, concerns the rise and fall of Coalhouse Walker, Jr.
Shortly after we’re introduced to the family—Father, Mother (Mary Steenburgen), Mother’s Younger Brother (Brad Dourif), and the boy (Max Nichols)—basically the narrator of the novel but a nonentity here—the family maid finds a Black baby crying in their garden in New Rochelle, NY. After the police are called in, we get the racism of the day. “These niggers drop babies like rabbits,” says one official, and in the background, you can tell, they lose Mother’s Younger Brother, who is lonely, moody, and fairly progressive. They lose Mother, too, who is simply kind. In the novel, Father is away on the Perry expedition so Mother is forced to make decisions on her own. Here, she takes control in front of him, which, given the times, I don’t buy—particularly since she decides they should keep the baby. When Sarah (Debbie Allen), the half-mad mother, is discovered nearby, the family takes her in as well. And eventually Coalhouse, the father, shows up.
When I first saw “Ragtime,” I assumed Howard E. Rollins Jr. was going to be a big star. He’s handsome as fuck, with large, expressive eyes and cheekbones you could cut glass on, and he embodies the rectitude and righteous anger of Doctorow’s character. Three years later he starred in Norman Jewison’s “A Soldier’s Story,” where I thought the same thing: star. Never happened. One assumes he encountered the racism of our day. Or maybe the homophobia of our day? A cocaine addiction didn’t help. I didn’t see him again until four years later when turned up as Virgil Tibbs in the TV version of “In the Heat of the Night,” opposite Carroll O’Connor. By then, he was no longer handsome as fuck. Eight years after that, he died of AIDS-related lymphoma, age 46. It was Denzel, the villain of “Soldiers Story,” who became the star.
I do think the movie lets off Coalhouse too easily for abandoning Sarah and the baby. “I wasn’t living any kind of life I could ask a woman to share with me,” he says. Right. So he drives her to such despair she abandons the baby in a garden? In the novel, she actually buries it. Their relationship is a bit odd, too. He’s smart, she’s not; she crumbles quickly, he never does. But joy flashes in his eyes when he’s with her so we don’t question it. He plays piano for the family and they don’t question it, either. I wish Coalhouse had called out the titles of the songs, as he does in the novel, followed by “… composed by the great Scott Joplin,” but Joplin gets no such namecheck here. The scene is still great: Coalhouse gently chastising the family by telling them the piano is in need of tuning; the look of fondness in his eyes as he plays and the look of amazement in theirs; how his music is taken over by the soundtrack, which wells as he ascends to the attic room to reconcile with Sarah.
The connection between our two storylines is Mother’s Younger Brother. He winds up the unlikely paramour of Evelyn Nesbit during Thaw’s trial, and the unlikelier sixth member of Coalhouse’s gang after the firehouse incident; after he tells the gang: “I can make bombs.”
I should mention a couple of the movie’s edits—one good, one bad. Here’s the bad. After the reconciliation, Coalhouse invites the family (including Mother’s Younger Brother) to his wedding the following weekend. Then we cut to Mother’s Younger Brother making an embarrassing, last-ditch effort to see Evelyn Nesbit in New York City, which seems to take place later in the week. Then we cut to the incident with Wille Conklin (Kenneth McMillan) and The Emerald Isle Volunteer Fire Company. Except that’s in New Rochelle, Coalhouse only visits once a week, and he’s obviously returning from visiting Sarah. So wouldn’t that have been his wedding day?
It’s a horrific incident. The firetrucks are horse-drawn, Coalhouse has a brand new Model T Ford with a custom PANTASOTE top, and the firefighters resent him and it. So they block his way. When he goes to get a police officer, they defecate in the front seat. When the police officer (Jeff Daniels) arrests him instead, and he spends the night in jail, they take the time to destroy the car. His search for satisfaction—from white bureaucrats to Black lawyers—leads nowhere. Then Sarah tries to help. Teddy Roosevelt’s vice-president, Charles Fairbanks, comes through town on a whistlestop campaign tour and she tries to speak to him on Coalhouse’s behalf. She’s beaten by cops. In her attic room, wounded, Coalhouse visits and they talk quietly of their wedding, then we hear church music and cut to a church service. As the camera pans down, we see it’s not Sarah’s wedding but her funeral. That’s the good edit.
How about a shout-out for the casting director? A lot of the minor characters here went on to great stuff. Coalhouse’s gang consists of Dorsey Wright, who played Hud in Forman’s “Hair”; Calvin Levels, who has only 32 credits but seems familiar to me (that “M*A*S*H” episode, maybe?); Frankie Faison, the future Commissioner Burrell of “The Wire”; and a baby-faced Samuel L. Jackson in one of his first feature films. Among the policemen in the film we get Jeff Daniels, John Ratzenburger/Cliff Claven, and Andreas Katsulas, who became the one-armed man in “The Fugitive.”
And, of course, James Cagney.
Top of the world
Cagney had unofficially retired from the movies in 1961, after a bad experience on Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” and he more or less stayed that way. He did some narration in lesser stuff (“The Ballad of Smokey the Bear,” “Arizona Bushwackers”), mostly as favors for friends, but that was it. In 1974, he was feted by the American Film Institute and published his memoir around the same time. He was done. So how did Forman talk him out of retirement?
He was a neighbor of the Cagneys, and one evening during dinner he was discussing Doctorow’s novel, which he’d optioned. “As he did,” John McCabe writes in his Cagney biography, “Jim, because of growing sciatica, was sitting with his head slightly lowered, listening, and whenever especially interested, he raised his leonine head and looked intently at the speaker. Forman saw him do this several times and said to himself, ‘My God, if I could get him interested in the film…’” Cagney’s wife, Willie, was interested—she thought it would be good for her husband’s health—so eventually he signed on to play Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. It was huge news. A last hurrah for a Hollywood legend.
“Fire.” “Sir?” “Fire.”
Is it much of a hurrah? Cagney was 81 at the time, and, along with the sciatica, suffered from diabetes and the aftereffects of several small strokes. He has trouble turning his head, some of his lines appear to be dubbed, and his sight is diminished—meaning his long-standing acting motto (“Look in the other actor’s camera eye and tell the truth”) doesn’t serve him well. Overweight, and with a handlebar moustache, I’m reminded less of the young, rat-a-tat Cagney, that firecracker of an actor, than Burl Ives’ snowman in the Rankin-Bass “Rudolph” special. There's something swaddled about him.
It was still a good idea. Not only had Cagney lived through the ragtime period, he kept returning to it in film. “The Public Enemy” began in 1909, the brunt of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” takes place in the aughts, while two of his lesser-known films—“The Strawberry Blonde” and “Johnny Come Lately”—were set in this exact year: 1906. Put it this way: Cagney read “Ragtime” less for its acclaim than because he’d actually known Evelyn Nesbit. That blows my mind.
Did they expand the role for him? Rhinelander Waldo wasn’t much of a character in the book—he’s just mentioned in passing after Coalhouse’s gang takes over the J.P. Morgan Library in Manhattan. This is after they attack the Emerald Isle Volunteer Fire Company to get Conklin. He’s not there, so he becomes part of the demand: Coalhouse’s Model T returned to him in its original condition, and the life of Conklin for the life of his Sarah. They attack other firehouses, too. Why the J.P. Morgan Library? In the novel it’s a bit of a mix-up. They plan is to hold Morgan, the richest man in the world, hostage in order to get Conklin, but they go to the wrong place—his library rather than his residence—and anyway Morgan was abroad; so instead they just hold his priceless artifacts hostage. The hostage negotiator in the novel is New York D.A. Charles S. Whitman, who has presidential ambitions and decides “he had a few minutes to take care of this matter of the mad coon.” Things don’t go well.
Neither here. Conklin is found, and brought before Waldo, red-faced and sweaty, and Waldo toys with him a bit. Other negotiators are brought in: Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn), and Father, fresh from Atlantic City, where the family, with Coalhouse’s baby, is recovering from the press attention. Eventually Coalhouse sees there’s no out for him, so he switches demands. Forget Conklin. He wants the Model T and the life of his men. Let them go free. Waldo agrees, since he figures it won’t be hard to track five Black men in a marked Model T. He doesn’t know about Mother’s Younger Brother (now adeptly called Younger Brother by Doctorow), who, several blocks away, takes the wheel, and they give the cops the slip. It’s the best bit that’s not in the novel.
Coalhouse’s surrender to the cops resonates even more today than when it was made. Leaving the Morgan Library, unarmed, with hands raised, he’s cut down—like Charles Kinsey, Jonathan Price, Terence Crutcher, countless others. In the novel, it’s a volley of shots, a regular shooting gallery a la “Bonnie and Clyde.” Here it’s just one shot from one cop—at the command of Rhinelander Waldo. That resonates in a different way. Cagney, the original gangster shot dead in the streets in “Public Enemy” and “The Roaring Twenties,” orders the same for the century’s first black revolutionary. After the shot rings out, Coalhouse pauses, then keeps walking forward, hands still raised. For a second you wonder if he’d been hit. Then he crumples on the stairs like Cagney did in “Roaring Twenties.” He’d just been too stubborn to fall. But there’s no one there to say, as Gladys George did for Cagney, “He used to be a big shot.” Instead, we get a few notes of ragtime, played plaintively on the piano by Randy Newman.
Telling the cop “Fire” is the last line James Cagney will ever say in a feature film.
Like something closer to America
So the movie has moments but it’s not on the same level as the novel. I don’t think any cinematic depiction will ever be on the same level as the novel since you can’t capture that authorial voice on screen. The best attempt would be a miniseries. That might allow for the novel’s many interweaving storylines. I could see HBO having a go someday.
I knew about Cagney, of course, but I was surprised to see his Irish mafia pal Pat O’Brien playing Harry K. Thaw’s lead attorney. Like Cagney, it was his final film role. O’Brien and Cagney made eight movies together between 1934 and 1940, so it’s a shame they don’t get any scenes together. Cagney does have a scene with Norman Mailer’s Stanford White. At least White introduces the police commissioner to Harry K. Thaw, but it’s separate shots so one assumes they were filmed on separate days. Even so, Norman Mailer introducing James Cagney is a true colliding of my worlds. I was tickled just seeing it.
Beyond Rollins and McGovern, who were both nominated for supporting Oscars, there are standouts in smaller roles. I like Moses Gunn’s authority as Booker T. Washington, Ted Ross saying “I can’t taste it” as the Black lawyer, the privileged insanity of Robert Joy’s Harry K. Thaw, and the great, huffing, without-vanity performance of McMillan. Olson as Father is underrated: He brings a quiet humanity to the role. And it’s always a pleasure to see Brad Dourif. He had a moment when movies mattered.
Forman leaves a lot of loose ends that Doctorow ties up. In the novel, after their escape, Younger Brother travels south and becomes a revolutionary with Zapata’s army, where he’s considered brilliant but reckless. He dies within a year. During the Great War, Father is selling the armaments Younger Brother devised to Great Britain, but he’s aboard the Lusitania when it’s torpedoed by the Germans. Widowed, Mother marries Tateh, who has gone from picture-book making to film making. That’s what he’s doing in Atlantic City when he first meets the family. Doctorow has them move to Southern California, nascent Hollywood, where one day, watching Mother’s gentile son and Coalhouse’s Black son and his Jewish daughter playing together, he comes up with the idea for the “Our Gang” comedies. That’s cute but ... a bit overdone? I like that Forman and screenwriter Michael Weller let us connect the dots. Father doesn’t die, Mother simply leaves him for Tateh; and as Father watches from behind a lace curtain, we see the new family drive off—Jewish, gentile, Black. It feels like something closer to America.