I mentioned last week that movies about famous writers, like the current "Iris," starring Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch, often take broad liberties with the historical facts in order to tell a more engaging story. Naturally enough, filmmakers often go on to take the next logical step with their writer protagonists, inventing them out of whole cloth rather than basing them on actual writers. For a look at some of the cinema's most interesting fictional wordsmiths, look for these titles on video.
"The Third Man" (1949). The setting of Graham Greene's delightful screenplay is occupied postwar Vienna, carved up by the victorious Allies into separate Russian, British, and American jurisdictions. Since everyone is jointly in charge, it follows that no one is really in charge. Amid the confusion a black market thrives, along with all manner of collateral corruption. Into this cauldron of intrigue comes Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer of Western novels. He has come to Vienna to meet his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who has offered him a job. Upon arriving, however, the hapless Holly is told that Harry has been killed in a street accident. As Holly probes more deeply into the circumstances surrounding the incident, a disturbingly unflattering image of his friend begins to emerge.
"Sunset Boulevard" (1950). William Holden stars as penniless screenwriter Joe Gillis in one of the classic Hollywood movies about Hollywood. While eluding some men who want to repossess his car, Joe stumbles upon the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a has-been star of the silent screen. He learns that she is planning a comeback in the role of Salome, starring in a script she has written herself. Desperate for work, Joe convinces her to hire him to rewrite her script for the contemporary market. Soon, however, he learns that she is interested in more than his writing talents. Writer-director Billy Wilder bit the hand that fed him with this sharply satiric send-up of Hollywood, but he did it so artfully that the industry gave him an Academy Award for his screenplay. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"A Fine Madness" (1966). If I told you that this mid-sixties film was the story of a brooding poet struggling to write a masterpiece long after his muse had deserted him, who would you expect to see in the lead role? In the highly unlikely event that you guessed Sean Connery, you'd be correct. Right in the middle of his very successful run as the screen's first and best James Bond, Connery acquitted himself admirably in this manic comedy about the trials and tribulations of a tortured, misunderstood poet.
"Sleuth" (1972). Anthony Shaffer's play about a deadly game of cat and mouse was translated to the screen with consummate skill by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of the most respected directors from the old days of the Hollywood studio system. Most of the film is concerned with the conflict between aristocratic mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) and Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a working class hairdresser. It seems that Milo has been having an affair with Andrew's wife. When Milo visits Andrew's stately mansion to discuss the matter, Andrew uses the occasion to take his revenge. But, being a famous mystery writer, Andrew feels compelled to make a game of it, weaving an elaborate plot in which Milo becomes perilously entangled. Olivier and Caine play off one another spectacularly.
"Reuben, Reuben" (1983). Tom Conti stars as Gowan McGland, a dissolute Scottish poet who finds himself living in a strait-laced New England college town. Gowan is that most wretched of creatures, a writer who can no longer write. Empty of inspiration, seemingly with his best work behind him although still a young man, he has turned to drink and debauchery. After a series of sordid liaisons with older women, he meets a younger woman, played by Kelly McGillis in her screen debut. Gowan falls in love with her, and finds in her youthful vitality the hope of rediscovering the wellspring of poetic invention that has so long eluded him.
Thankfully, the sort of terminal writer's block that we see in movies like "A Fine Madness" and "Reuben, Reuben" isn't that common in real life. In fact, the script for "Reuben, Reuben" was written by septuagenarian Julius J. Epstein, still going strong after having co-scripted "Casblanca" some forty years earlier.
Alphabetical Index of Column Topics
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
I mentioned last week that movies about famous writers, like the current "Iris," starring Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch, often take broad liberties with the historical facts in order to tell a more engaging story. Naturally enough, filmmakers often go on to take the next logical step with their writer protagonists, inventing them out of whole cloth rather than basing them on actual writers. For a look at some of the cinema's most interesting fictional wordsmiths, look for these titles on video.
When an editor at Doubleday suggested to Isaac Asimov that he write an autobiography to mark the occasion of his 200th published book, he initally hesitated. Having written 200 books, he argued, he had scarcely had time to have a life away from the typewriter. Most writers, however, don't write anything close to 200 books in their lives, let alone the 470-odd books that marked Asimov's final tally. Despite all appearances, writers - Asimov included - do have lives. In fact, studying a writer's life can often provide fascinating insights into his or her published works, which is why literary biography is a genre with a long and distinguished history.
Films, too, have often portrayed the lives of literary figures. The recently released "Iris," for example, dramatizes the life of novelist Iris Murdoch, with Kate Winslet as the young Murdoch and Judi Dench as Murdoch toward the end of her life. For a sampling of earlier movie biographies of writers, look for these titles on video.
"The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934). Rudolf Besier's play about the courtship and marriage of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett became one of the high-gloss prestige productions for which M-G-M was known in its glory days. Norma Shearer and Fredric March star as Elizabeth and Robert, ably supported by Charles Laughton as Elizabeth's tyrannical father, who is bitterly opposed to their romance.
"The Life of Emile Zola" (1937). Biographical pictures were one of the specialties of the Warner Brothers studio. In particular, Paul Muni, who was under contract to Warners, made something of a personal specialty of the portrayal of historical figures, from Louis Pasteur to Benito Juarez. Here he plays French writer Emile Zola. Understandably, much of the film is dedicated to Zola's famous defense of Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongly convicted of treason by the French army and sentenced to Devil's Island. The first half, however, shows Zola's rise from poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame, showing how much he was risking by taking up the cause of Dreyfus. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"Julia" (1977). Based on Lillian Hellman's autobiographical "Pentimento," this film parallels Hellman's early successes as a playwright with the early adulthood of her childhood friend, Julia. Hellman (Jane Fonda) admires Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), but worries that Julia's increasingly radical political views will get her into trouble. Eventually they do, and Hellman has to decide whether to stick out her own neck to advance her friend's idealistic crusade.
"Agatha" (1979). In 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie caused a bit of a stir by disappearing for ten days. She then reappeared, seeming none the worse for her experience, and declined any comment on where she had been. She never did explain her absence, and, so far as anyone knows, took the secret of those ten days with her to her grave. This entertaining film offers a fictional explanation for her whereabouts during that period. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Christie, along with Dustin Hoffman as a journalist who tracks her down. The notion of a real mystery story involving one of our most beloved mystery writers is irresistible, and this entertaining movie makes the most of it.
"Heart Beat" (1980). This interesting and largely ignored little film dramatizes the relationship between Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac, Carolyn Robinson, and Neal Cassady, who inspired the character Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's "On the Road." Kerouac is played by John Heard and Cassady by Nick Nolte, but it is Sissy Spacek as Robinson who narrates the film. Robinson is ideally positioned to tell the story by virtue of her romantic involvement with both Cassady and Kerouac. In fact, the film shows them attempting a sort of three-way marriage.
"Cross Creek" (1983). In the late twenties, so this movie tells us, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of "The Yearling," left home and husband behind to move to a Florida farm and find herself. As portrayed by Mary Steenburgen, under the direction of Martin Ritt, she's a sort of distaff Thoreau without the politics. That's not quite how it happened, but it does make for a good story.
In fact, none of these films hesitates to sacrifice historical accuracy on the altar of good storytelling. Still, considering the subject matter, that might be for the best. The principle that good drama trumps good history would almost certainly be endorsed by every writer whose story is told in these films.
Back in the old days, before movies and television, they had their own ways of exploiting the perpetrators and/or victims of sensational crimes. For instance, some quick-thinking entrepreneur might visit the boneyard in the wee hours and dig up the corpse of the individual in question. He would then tour the stiff around the county fair circuit, charging the locals two bits a head to view the remains.
Today, we have the electronic equivalent of this sideshow profiteering: the television docudrama. Just this week, for example, the tube exhumed for our edification poor Marilyn Reza, whose husband, Dr. Robert Reza, was convicted of her 1990 murder largely on the testimony of his former mistress. The CBS miniseries "Guilty Hearts" changed the names, but makes no bones about the connection, advertising itself as a "true crime love story."
Still, television didn't invent the idea of capitalizing on sensational crime stories. Movies have been doing it since the silent days. Here are some prime examples to look for on home video.
"Rope" (1948). The infamous Leopold and Loeb case was the inspiration for this Alfred Hitchcock film about a pair of intellectual college boys who murder a school chum for no other reason than to prove they can get away with it. Farley Granger and John Dall play the lead roles opposite James Stewart as the professor whose cynical philosophical musings inspired the boys to commit the murder. Hitchcock tried a fascinating technical experiment with this picture. Since the action is played out in real time on a single set, he decided to film it without any cuts. That is to say, the camera never stops running - the whole film is one long, unbroken shot. Because a camera's film magazine can only hold about ten minutes of film, Hitchcock had an actor cross in front of the camera just before the film ran out, then started again with the actor crossing the lens. By splicing the film just as the actor blocks the view, the illusion of a continuous shot could be maintained. It is still, I believe, the only commercial feature film to have been shot in this manner.
"I Want to Live!" (1958). Almost 50 years after her execution in the gas chamber at San Quentin, the case of Barbara Graham can still start arguments. There are those who say that she was railroaded and others who maintain that the verdict was just. She had been convicted of murdering an elderly, crippled woman while attempting to rob her. The conviction stood despite certain discrepancies that subsequently came to light. Susan Hayward received an Academy Award for portraying Graham in this Hollywood version of her story, directed by Robert Wise. Producer Walter Wanger and scriptwriters Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz clearly come down on Graham's side of the controversy. In fact, the film emerges as a powerful statement against capital punishment.
"In Cold Blood" (1967). Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" about the murder of the Clutter family of Kansas by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock was adapted for the screen by Richard Brooks. Instead of casting big name stars in the roles of the killers, Brooks decided to go with unknown actors - Robert Blake (prior to his television success as "Baretta") and Scott Wilson. He ratcheted down the budget, shot in black and white on the actual locations where the events had transpired, and turned out a fictional film that looked and felt like a documentary. But while maintaining this realistic, just the facts ma'am veneer, Brooks ransacks his director's bag of tricks. You name it, he does it: cross cuts, match cuts, flashbacks, fancy dissolves, the works. It's a neat bit of sleight of hand, and very effective.
"The Boston Strangler" (1968). Tony Curtis delivers a striking performance as Albert De Salvo, whose multiple personality disorder permits him to murder and mutilate women without ever realizing that the killer and he are one and the same. This is really almost like two films butted together. The first half follows the police investigation tracking down suspects, while the second half follows De Salvo's journey into the treacherous labyrinth of his own tortured mind.
To be sure, these modern-day sideshows substitute actors for the actual participants in the scandals and crimes they commemorate. But don't feel too cheated. At least half the time the exhibits that toured the county fair circuit were not the real McCoys either.
Don't let Chris Carter kid you. He already knows the truth. And the truth is this: the profits are out there. "The X-Files," Carter's phenomenally successful television series demonstrates that intelligent, imaginative contemporary fantasy can command an enthusiastic and loyal audience.
The only problem is that it's a devilishly difficult form to do well. It may look easy enough - just come up with a way-out premise and see where it takes you - but those who have tried it know better. The films of recent vintage that have sought to cash in on the success of "The X-Files," from M. Night Shyamalan's excellent "The Sixth Sense" (1999) to the somewhat less sure-footed "Mothman Prophecies," which is currently playing nationwide, have all had to deal with the fact that Carter's style is not easily emulated.
At the same time, Carter and "The X-Files" didn't spring full blown from the head of Zeus. It seems to me that the success of Carter's show and its many clones ought to be the occasion for a renewed interest in some of the practitioners of contemporary fantasy who blazed the trail that Carter follows so capably.
In particular, no one deserves to share in the adulation of the X-fans more than novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson. If you're a fan of "The X-Files," or if you enjoyed "The Mothman Prophecies," and you aren't familiar with Matheson's work, run, don't walk, to the corner video store and look for these titles.
"The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957). I know, it's a silly title. It wasn't Matheson's fault. This was Hollywood in the 1950s, when silly titles were all the rage, and it was Matheson's first film script. Even though it was based on his novel, "The Shrinking Man," he didn't have much say in the movie's title. The script, however, is anything but silly. This shivery fantasy about a man who begins to shrink after being exposed to a radioactive cloud pursues its premise with inexorable logic to a disquieting conclusion.
"The Twilight Zone: Nick of Time" (1960). If you're thinking of calling one of those psychic network 900 lines, watch this first. William Shatner and Patricia Breslin play a young couple who are passing through a small town. While waiting for a car repair, they stop in a local café for lunch. At the table, they have some fun with a little fortune telling device that answers questions for a penny. The fun takes a serious turn, however, when some of the answers prove to be a little too close for comfort.
"Star Trek: The Enemy Within" (1966). When the Enterprise's transporter malfunctions while beaming Captain Kirk aboard, two Kirks materialize instead of just one. The two Kirks are not identical, however. One manifests only Kirk's good character traits, while the other has only his evil tendencies. Matheson's script updates the Jekyll and Hyde theme with skill and intelligence.
"Duel" (1971). Dennis Weaver stars as a man whose business trip is complicated by an ongoing duel with a malevolent truck driver. Matheson does this sort of story wonderfully - an everyday, mundane situation that gradually spirals out of control and into the realm of fantasy. This TV movie was one of the early successes for a young director named Steven Spielberg.
"The Legend of Hell House" (1973). Matheson's tribute to Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" places a group of intrepid ghost hunters in the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," a creepy old mansion called the Belasco House, to see what transpires. Soon enough the overnight guests, who range from paranormal researchers to psychics, have reason to doubt the wisdom of their little adventure.
"Somewhere in Time" (1980). Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour star in a most unusual love story. Reeve's character becomes infatuated with the 1912 portrait of a beguiling actress. By means of directed imagery, he manages to transport himself back to her era and meet her (or perhaps he's imagining the whole thing; Matheson leaves that for you to decide). Naturally, they fall in love. The circumstances, however, are anything but natural, which does not bode well for the relationship.
Oh, and if you're wondering whether Chris Carter is aware of his debt to Matheson, you'll find the answer in earlier seasons of the show itself, in the name of Agent Mulder's contact in Congress: Senator Richard Matheson.
Having spent the last couple of weeks laboring mightily, along with my departmental colleagues, to get another semester underway - liftin' that roster and totin' that syllabus - I'm not much in the mood just now for a movie with a collegiate setting. That's why I'll probably wait a while to see "Orange County," the recently released comedy about a student's efforts to get into Stanford. Soon, however, the trauma of kicking off the semester will subside, and I'll be ready once again to enjoy some campus comedies like the ones we looked at last week. Here are some additional titles in that vein to look for on home video.
"The Freshman" (1925). The flapper era of the 1920s saw a profusion of campus comedies from Hollywood. Silent comic Harold Lloyd's contribution was one of his finest and most popular films. He plays a naïve, college-bound young man whose entire concept of collegiate life has been gleaned from (where else?) the movies. He's even learned to do a little jig-like dance step that his favorite campus movie character uses to introduce himself. In short order he becomes the laughingstock of the campus. When he is given the job of football team water boy, he thinks he's made the team, and no one bothers to disabuse him of the notion. Then comes the day of the big game...
"Horse Feathers" (1932). Wherever the Marx Brothers went, dignity was inevitably put to rout. Knowing this, they particularly liked to take aim at institutions that pride themselves on their dignity, from the halls of government to grand opera. The pomp and circumstance of a university provided an irresistible target. Groucho plays Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College. Following his inauguration, he gets right down to the important business of hiring professional players for the college's football team, but mistakenly hires a dogcatcher (Harpo) and a bootlegger (Chico) instead.
"Bonzo Goes to College" (1952). Bonzo the Chimp had been introduced in "Bedtime For Bonzo" (1951), in which he is raised in a totally human environment by a psychology professor (Ronald Reagan) attempting to prove that environment is more important than heredity. In this sequel, which does not feature Reagan, Bonzo ends up on a college campus, where he is adopted by a professor's daughter. The college is badly in need of a star football player, so when the hyperintelligent Bonzo proves that he can pass the school's entrance exam, the inevitable consequences ensue. Like its predecessor, this film was directed by Frederick de Cordova, who would go on to produce NBC's "Tonight Show" during Johnny Carson's tenure there.
"Back to School" (1986). It is well known that Rodney Dangerfield excels at playing a boorish loudmouth. In this entertaining picture, however, he accomplished the neat trick of making that character loveable. A self-made millionaire who has become disillusioned with his sham of a marriage, he decides to go back to college in order to be closer to his son. The youngster is therefore exposed to what must be the ultimate teen nightmare: being away at school and yet still being embarassed by a clinging parent. Along with the amusing brand of vulgarity that has become Dangerfield's screen trademark, the film also manages to effectively lampoon the ivory-tower stuffiness of academe while still endorsing the value of higher education.
"School Daze" (1988). Set in a fictionalized version of Atlanta's Morehouse College, the director's alma mater, Spike Lee's comedy brings to the screen a provocative take on the African-American college experience. He deals with such touchy issues as complexion prejudice among blacks (light-skins versus dark-skins) and sexism among black men while still keeping the overall tone light and entertaining. Lee himself appears in the film as a hapless fraternity pledge striving to be accepted.
As someone who still labors in the halls of academe, I suppose campus comedies will always have a particular significance for me. After all, I have a wider range of college memories than most people, having attended two and having taught at three. My responses to particular college films vary, of course, but in the aggregate they pretty much come down to this: where was Groucho when I really needed him?
Most of us look back on our college days with some affection. After all, it was a time when we had both maximal personal autonomy and minimal responsibilities at the same time. A lot of us didn't really appreciate what a neat trick that was until after graduation, so we have to be content with appreciating it in retrospect.
This widespread alumni nostalgia has not, of course, escaped the notice of filmmakers. Movies that take place on college campuses have been served up by Hollywood on a regular basis from the silent film era right down to today. They come in all flavors, of course, but it seems that the most consistent audience pleasers are the collegiate comedies, like the recently released "Orange County." If this tale of the trials and tribulations of getting into Stanford has you waxing sentimental over your own carefree university days, here are some classic college comedies to look for on home video.
"College" (1927). Campus comedies were already a movie staple by the time silent film comedian Buster Keaton weighed in with this hilarious take on college life. Buster was the valedictorian of his high school class, but in college it seems that you have to be a sports hero to have real status. When the girl he's stuck on spurns him, he resolves to take up a sport to win her approval. As he stumbles and fumbles his way through one sport after another, the film gets funnier and funnier.
"The Male Animal" (1942). This delightful adaptation of the play by James Thurber and Elliot Nugent features Henry Fonda as Tommy Turner, a soft-spoken English professor who feels his marriage is in jeopardy when a former star football player returns to campus. It seems that the jock and Tommy's wife were an item during their undergraduate days. At the same time, Tommy is being pressured by the administration to change his mind about reading a politically charged letter to his class as an example of eloquent writing. Thurber and Nugent's satirical barbs effectively skewer campus culture at all levels, from air headed jocks to narrow minded college administrators.
"Good News" (1947). Leave it to MGM to create the definitive campus musical. Peter Lawford stars as the captain of the football team and June Allyson stars as the co-ed who makes sure that his grades are good enough to keep him on the team. The story was already old when "Good News" premiered as a Broadway play in 1927, but MGM musicals are about style, not substance. That distinctive style comes through in musical numbers like "The Best Things In Life Are Free" and "The Varsity Drag." Reproduced below is the original promotional trailer for the film, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"The Affairs of Dobie Gillis" (1953). When freshman Dobie Gillis arrives at Grainbelt University, he has his priorities straight: chasing skirts first, studies second, if at all. This MGM musical production features Bobby Van as Dobie and Debbie Reynolds as the object of his amorous attentions. This screen incarnation of novelist Max Shulman's character was sufficiently successful to inspire a television series, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," in which Dwayne Hickman took over the role.
"The Nutty Professor" (1963). Jerry Lewis used a college setting in this comedy to do an offbeat variation on the Jekyll and Hyde story. As Professor Julius Kelp, he is lovable but socially inept. A formula he develops converts him into the attractive, smooth, and thoroughly insufferable Buddy Love. Some thirty years later, the film was remade as a very successful vehicle for Eddie Murphy.
"National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978). Long before Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and the Farrelly brothers elevated bad taste to an art form, the trail was blazed for them by the screen antics of the brothers of the Delta house. Led by John Belushi at his most outrageous, the cast creates a memorable portrait of campus debauchery triumphant. Although its excesses have since been rendered somewhat tame by comparison with the likes of "There's Something About Mary," it remains an entertaining look at a significant, if less than salutary, aspect of campus life.
Next time we'll consider even more examples of college comedies, including a look at what happens when the solemn dignity of a university campus is besieged by the irresistible chaos of the Marx Brothers.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
I have this theory that we're all born as geniuses. Think about it: we're born knowing absolutely nothing, not even how to roll over, and yet in five years' time most of us have a pretty good handle on how to function in the world. The skills we acquired in that time starting from ground zero are truly staggering to consider, including walking, language acquisition, and programming a VCR. Who but a genius could accomplish so much in so short a time? Leo Tolstoy put it this way: "From the child of five to myself is but a step. But from the newborn baby to the child of five is an appalling distance."
All too soon, however, our native genius fades, exhausted perhaps after carrying us through that first tidal wave of learning, and we settle in to become just average folks. In a few of us, this heightened capacity for learning persists, although often confined to just a single category of learning, and it is those people whom we label as "geniuses."
Most fascinating of all are the youngsters, known as "child prodigies," who not only exhibit normal development, a prodigious enough accomplishment in itself, but actually progress beyond childish proficiencies to attain a level of mastery unusual even in adults. These remarkable youngsters are universally irresistible to storytellers of all types, from journalists to filmmakers. The producers of the recent release, "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," have tapped into this premise by creating a 21st Century variation on Tom Swift, the fictional boy inventor whose exploits have introduced many a youngster to the wonders of technology. Naturally, there are plenty of earlier movies that have dealt in some way with child prodigies. Here are a few examples that can be found on home video.
"Village of the Damned" (1960). In the English town of Midwich, a number of women become mysteriously impregnated. In due course, they give birth to a group of somber, extremely intelligent children with intense, penetrating eyes. Gradually it becomes clear that these children are not of this Earth, and that they represent a threat to humanity. Unfortunately, by the time this is recognized they have achieved such a level of superiority that no attempt to thwart them is likely to succeed. This classic science fiction film, based on John Wyndham's novel, "The Midwich Cuckoos," inspired both a sequel, "Children of the Damned" (1964), and a 1995 John Carpenter remake.
"Dear Brigitte" (1965). Most college professors would be delighted to have a child who turned out to be a genius. In this film, James Stewart plays a humanities professor who is chagrined to learn that his son, Erasmus (Billy Mumy), is a mathematical prodigy. Stewart's character holds math and science in utter disdain, and was hoping that his children would have a special affinity for painting or music, areas in which Erasmus shows no aptitude whatever. Young Erasmus's head for figures is not, however, confined to equations. It seems that he has developed a crush on French screen star Brigitte Bardot, and has made it his goal to meet her in person.
"Little Man Tate" (1991). Those alien children in "Village of the Damned" were more than just stock villains. They were a metaphor for the reality of hyperintelligent children. To those who interact with them, and even to their own parents, infant prodigies can indeed seem like alien beings. "Little Man Tate" deals with this theme without the overlay of fantasy metaphor. Jodie Foster (who also directed), plays Dede Tate, whose son, seven year old Fred, is a transcendant genius. Dede, an average working class mom with no special intellectual abilities, knows all too well that she can't provide him with the stimulation his vast intellect requires. She decides to entrust Fred to a child psychologist, played by Dianne Wiest, who will oversee his mental development. But Wiest's character becomes so engrossed in training Fred's intellect that she neglects the emotional nurturing that all children need.
One way or another, that is a theme that is central to most child prodigy movies: no matter how much of a prodigy a child may be, he or she is still a child, with a child's emotional needs. Despite the fact that we call such children "gifted," the hard truth is that the gift exacts a price. And that, as all storytellers know, is a perfect recipe for drama.
Last week I recommended some boxing movies that focus on the stories of real prize fighters, as does this year's "Ali." I also pointed out that boxing has long been a favorite subject of moviemakers. The ring has provided the backdrop for dozens of films over the years, including some of the most beloved and influential classics of American cinema.
Some of the very best boxing movies are built around entirely fictional characters, in contrast to last week's biographical films. In part, that's because much of the drama surrounding the fight game flows from its long-standing association with the corrupting influence of gambling. If you're telling a story about a fighter who gets seduced by mob money or otherwise falls victim to the corrupting influence of a tainted sport, your options boil down to two. You can use a real fighter as your protagonist, stepping carefully through the minefield of libel law, or you can invent a character from whole cloth and sidestep the legal worries altogether. Understandably, filmmakers more often opt for the latter course. Here are just a few of the classic movies about fictional boxers currently available on video.
"The Champ" (1931). This is the prototype for the often-parodied sentimental tale of a washed up fighter and the kid who believes in him. Not wishing to disillusion the boy, the has-been pug hits the comeback trail for one final swan song in the ring. With Wallace Beery as the fighter and Jackie Cooper as his adoring son, the film could hardly go wrong.
"They Made Me a Criminal" (1939). John Garfield stars as a hard-drinking, hard-living hellraiser of a boxer. On one particularly dissolute night, he commits a murder and crashes his car. When he learns that he is believed to have been killed in the wreck, he allows the world to continue thinking that he is dead, starting a new, anonymous life to evade the consequences of his crime. Drifting out to Arizona, he becomes involved with an institution for the rehabilitation of troubled inner city youths. When the institution needs to raise a sum of money quickly, Garfield's character realizes that he can fill the need by participating in a boxing exhibition. To do so, however, would mean blowing his cover and exposing himself to prosecution.
"Body and Soul" (1941). Garfield's most enduring contribution to the boxing movie genre, however, is this dark drama about a fighter named Charlie Davis (Garfield). Charlie is driven by a consuming rage over the murder of his father and the subsequent shame as his mother is stripped of her dignity by the social services people to whom she turns for help. His rage finds expression in the boxing ring, where he soon wins the world championship. In the process, however, he has had to play ball with some of the same criminal element who were responsible for his father's death. In the end he must decide whether the success he has had is worth the selling of his soul.
"Champion" (1949). In one of the most memorable performances of his career, Kirk Douglas stars as boxer Midge Kelly, one of Hollywood's great anti-heroes. Midge is a thoroughgoing jerk, with no loyalties except to himself, and the kind of temper that allows the violence of the fight game to bring out the very worst in him. By the final fadeout, screenwriter Carl Foreman's adaptation of Ring Lardner's story has wrung every last drop of irony out of the word "champion."
"Golden Boy" (1939). This popular Clifford Odets play provided the vehicle for William Holden's first significant screen appearance. As Joe Bonaparte, Holden plays a young violinist who temporarily goes into prize fighting to finance his musical education. Not wishing to hurt his valuable hands in the process, Joe holds back in the ring. His scheming fight manager, seeing what is going on, recruits a woman played by Barbara Stanwyck to romance him into going all-out in the ring. Hollywood, true to form, softened the tragic ending of the play, but there are still plenty of tears to go around.
I haven't mentioned "Rocky" (1976), of course, but then I also haven't mentioned "Fat City" (1972) or "The Harder They Fall" (1956). Even to scratch the surface of Hollywood's great boxing movies is a daunting task, but well worth it. Keep punching.
The single most rousing moment of the 1997 Academy Awards show may well have been the standing ovation given to Muhammad Ali as he was escorted to the stage. He hadn't won an Oscar, of course, but "When We Were Kings," the documentary about his 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman, had.
It may seem odd that the movie community, on the occasion of its annual orgy of self-congratulatory mutual backslapping, should reserve one of its most enthusiastic ovations for a retired prizefighter, however distinguished, rather than one of their own. The deeper truth, however, is that boxers are, for all intents and purposes, honorary movie stars. Indeed, Ali himself starred in the film of his own life story, "The Greatest," back in 1977. Now, a new movie has been released featuring Will Smith as the immortal Ali.
Moviemakers were drawn to boxing as a subject matter right from the beginning. A cynic might assume that part of the attraction lies in the fact that a boxing match makes for an agreeably low-budget action scene. Actually, it probably has more to do with the reduction of the protagonist-antagonist conflict that lies at the heart of all drama to its most basic elements. Whatever the reasons, filmmakers love making movies about boxers. If you love watching them, here are a few to look for on video.
"Gentleman Jim" (1942). The handsome, flamboyant Erroll Flynn was ideally cast as James J. Corbett, the boxer who ushered in the era of scientific boxing by defeating the legendary John L. Sullivan. The reign of the seemingly invincible Sullivan ended when bare knuckles and toe-to-toe slugfests were replaced with boxing gloves and Marquis of Queensbury Rules. The great character actor Ward Bond is outstanding in the role of Sullivan.
"The Joe Louis Story" (1953). Given the level of hero worship that surrounded Joe Louis, it was inevitable that a film biography would be made sooner or later. What is remarkable is that the filmmakers chose to portray Louis in very human terms, warts and all, rather than taking the easy road of using dramatic license to confer sainthood on him. Coley Wallace is excellent in the title role. His physical resemblance to Louis permitted the use of actual fight footage throughout the film.
"Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956). Following a disastrous screen debut in "The Silver Chalice" (1954), Paul Newman established himself as a significant new Hollywood talent with this portrayal of boxer Rocky Graziano. Based on the fighter's autobiography, the film follows Graziano's rise from a troubled youth and dishonorable discharge from the military to a championship in the boxing ring, where his aggression finds release without getting him into trouble.
"The Great White Hope" (1970). Howard Sackler's Pulitzer Prize winning play, from which this film is adapted, is a fictionalized account of the life and career of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. Johnson, whose name is changed here to Jack Jefferson, was a decidedly unpopular champion with the white establishment for two reasons. First, he took the championship from an Irish-American, prompting a nationwide search for a "Great White Hope" who could reclaim the title from this black upstart. Second, he had the effrontery to have an affair with a white woman. James Earl Jones gives one of his finest performances in the lead role, which he had previously performed on the stage.
"Raging Bull" (1980). Director Martin Scorsese took the boxing movie genre to a new level with this classic portrait of former world middleweight champion Jake La Motta. Scorsese shot the film in black and white, partly to evoke the look of the boxing movies he had seen and loved as a child and partly to protest the cavalier attitude of Hollywood studios toward preserving the color negatives in their vaults, which fade badly over time unless costly precautions are taken. In the role of La Motta, Robert De Niro, ever the method actor, scorned the use of body make-up in the scenes showing the fighter in his latter days, old and out of shape. Instead, he deliberately overate until his weight went up sufficiently to play the scenes.
These few titles by no means cover the full range of boxing movies. So far, we've only looked at films based on the lives of real boxers. Next time, we'll look at some classic boxing movies drawn entirely from the imaginations of screenwriters.
With a full slate of Christmas releases to compete with and a tight economy to boot, the films currently in release need any edge they can get. One way for producers to hedge their bet is by basing their film on a premise with a tried and true track record at the box office. That's what the producers of "Black Knight," starring Martin Lawrence, have done. The plot device of sending a modern-day man back to medieval times has a long and honorable pedigree extending all the way back to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."
Naturally, "Black Knight" is not the first film to borrow Twain's idea. Through the years there have been a number of movie versions of this same premise, ranging from straight adaptations of Twain's story to oddball variations on the theme. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have treated this classic plot, look for these titles on home video.
"A Connecticut Yankee" (1931). Who better to adapt the work of one great American humorist than another icon of American humor? This version of Twain's story features Will Rogers as a radio repairman who wakes from a bump on the head to find himself in medieval England. Like Twain's hero, he inspires awe by pretending to have caused a solar eclipse, but the film's anachronistic gags go far beyond anything Twain envisioned. Rogers makes many topical references to social and political conditions of the early Thirties that may seem arcane to viewers today, but overall the film remains enormously entertaining.
"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949). This musical adaptation from Paramount stars Bing Crosby as the time traveling Hank Martin. With its technicolor imagery and tuneful soundtrack, this version offers a sharp contrast to the earlier Rogers vehicle. It also sticks more closely to the original story, although liberties are still taken. Most movie fans still regard this high-gloss production as the definitive Hollywood rendering of "Connecticut Yankee." The film's original promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"Unidentified Flying Oddball" (1979). Disney's take on the story leaves behind the familiar device of a bump on the head, substituting instead a more pseudoscientific explanation for the main character's time shift. Dennis Dugan plays Tom Trimble, a NASA scientist whose android double is about to become the test pilot on the first faster than light spacecraft. Through a mixup, Tom is on board when the launch occurs, so that both he and the android make the journey. It is a well established principle in science fiction (although not in science) that faster than light travel is capable of moving the traveler through time as well as space, and that's exactly what happens here. Tom and his android companion soon find themselves at King Arthur's court. Generally played for broad comedy, this version of Twain's premise is aimed squarely at younger viewers. The canny folks at Disney were sharp enough to realize that by making the main character both an astronaut and a knight they would be tapping into two common childhood fantasies at the same time.
"Army of Darkness" (1993). Perhaps the strangest movie variation on "Connecticut Yankee" is this bizarre comedy from director Sam Raimi, which manages to simultaneously parody horror films and medieval period films. This is billed as the third film in Raimi's "Evil Dead" series, but the connection with "The Evil Dead" (1983) and "Evil Dead 2" (1987) is tenuous at best. "Ash" (Bruce Campbell), one of the lead characters from the earlier films reappears, as does a mystical book, the "Necronomicon," which sends Ash back to medieval times. Those, however, are the only threads connecting this film with its predecessors. Although Ash finds himself stranded in the distant past, he does have a few 20th Century artifacts with him: his car, a shotgun, a chemistry textbook, and a chainsaw. Each of these comes in handy in fighting off an army of the dead, which Ash himself accidentally awakens by botching a spell from the "Necronomicon." Raimi's style, though eccentric, is quite entertaining, so long as you have a high tolerance for blood and guts and a slightly twisted sense of humor. It's certainly not for everyone, but I like to think that Mark Twain, crusty old curmudgeon that he was, would have gotten a kick out of it.
One of the many fascinations of the motion picture medium is its ability to confer on its artisans complete mastery over time and space. It can annihilate distance by showing, say, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a single split-screen image. Even more impressively, it can ignore the constraints of time by compressing many years of a character's life into a few seconds of screen time with just a couple of judiciously chosen transitions. We might see a youngster toddling around his playpen, followed by pages falling from a calendar, then a shot of him playing little league baseball, more pages, then a shot of him receiving his college degree.
Martin Lawrence's new film, "Black Knight," plays with time in yet another way, actually propelling its protagonist back through the ages to live out an adventure in the 14th Century. Of course, movie makers didn't originate this sort of manipulation of chronology. It has been a favorite device of science fiction and fantasy writers since before movies were invented. Still, when you combine this fantasy theme with the camera-eye realism of the movie screen, the result is particularly potent. If the idea of grabbing hold of the arrow of time and twisting it around like a pretzel stimulates your sense of wonder, here are some titles to look for on home video.
"The Time Machine" (1960). The H. G. Wells time travel classic was lovingly rendered by producer/director George Pal. Rod Taylor stars as the 19th Century tinkerer who is so convinced that the future will be a utopia that he builds a machine to take him there. After a disillusioning glimpse of the world wars to come, he pushes on to the far, far future and finds what seems to be the carefree world he had envisioned. But beneath the surface a horrifying secret awaits him. Pal took some liberties with Wells's original story, but he had earned the right. He wasn't just a Hollywood deal-maker cashing in on a famous book. Pal had a deep love and reverence for science fiction and fantasy. I met him shortly before his death in 1980 and can testify that he was not only an imaginative filmmaker but also that rarest of birds in Hollywood: a true gentleman. Reproduced below is the original promotional trailer for "The Time Machine," courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"Time After Time" (1979). How's this for a premise: H.G. Wells, in addition to writing "The Time Machine," has actually constructed a working time machine. One of his acquaintances, who just happens to be Jack the Ripper, learns of this and steals the machine in order to elude the police by escaping to the future. A fail-safe device built into the machine returns it to Wells's time, whereupon Wells pursues Jack into the future. Nicholas Meyer's script is as clever as his premise is ingenious.
"Somewhere In Time" (1980). Christopher Reeve plays a writer who becomes entranced by the image of a woman in a 70 year old painting. Propelled back in time, apparently by the sheer force of his infatuation, he meets the woman (Jane Seymour) and they fall in love. Richard Matheson, who wrote many of the best episodes of the "Twilight Zone" TV series, adapted the script from his own novel, "Bid Time Return."
"Time Bandits" (1980). Terry Gilliam, the only American member of the Monty Python team, has proved in recent years to be one of our most imaginative filmmakers. This is one of his first directorial efforts. Any attempt to summarize the plot is doomed right from the start, but it has something to do with six dwarfs knocking around the universe through "time holes," looting and pillaging as they go. Along the way they encounter Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese, in a hysterical portrayal), and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery). As is to be expected from Gilliam, the humor is irreverent and the imagery is striking, even breathtaking at times. The promise Gilliam showed in this film has since been amply fulfilled by such visionary works as "Brazil" (1985) and "The Fisher King" (1991).
The one time travel title I haven't mentioned in connection with "Black Knight" is the most obvious one. That's because Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" has provided the inspiration for not one film, but several, "Black Knight" being only the most recent. Next week we'll look at the many cinematic variations on Twain's classic story.
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Much of the buzz generated by this year's network television schedule seems to have focused on "24," a new series starring Kiefer Sutherland. The producers, it seems, have come up with a fresh, new concept that has captured the imaginations of both viewers and critics. The entire series will encompass the events of a single day, with each hour of the show playing out in "real time," each hour of screen time equaling precisely one hour of story time.
It's a clever device, to be sure, but it requires careful handling to work well. Most filmed dramas, whether for television or the big screen, leave out big chunks of story time, and for good reason. If the main character needs to drive across town for the next scene, do we really want to watch him sweating out traffic jams and waiting at stoplights for half an hour? In fact, Alfred Hitchcock once defined drama as "life, with the dull bits cut out."
Still, the producers of "24" are by no means the first to have taken on the challenge of making a viable real time screen drama. If you're curious about how earlier filmmakers have used this specialized form of storytelling, look for these titles on home video.
"Rope" (1948). Notwithstanding his definition of drama, in this one picture Alfred Hitchcock didn't cut anything out. In fact, the entire 80 minutes appears to play out as a single, continuous running of the camera, without cuts, fades, or other transitions. Actually, this required some trickery because cameras can only hold so much film at one time, but the illusion of unbroken action is the point. The story, based on the Leopold and Loeb case, is about two young men who commit a murder just to see if they can get away with it.
"High Noon" (1952). In one of his most renowned performances, Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a sheriff who is getting married and hanging up his guns. There's just one problem - some bad guys are coming to town on the noon train to kill him. Kane's conscience won't permit him to leave town without facing the outlaws, but he can't seem to find any townspeople who are willing to stand with him against them. Abandoned and alone, Kane has less than two hours to prepare for the gunfight. Director Fred Zinnemann makes us sweat out every minute of it with him.
"12 Angry Men" (1957). Based on a classic program from the golden age of live television drama, this film consists entirely of a jury deliberation. We don't see the trial; all we know about it is what comes out in the jury's discussions. A young Puerto Rican man is on trial for the murder of his father. Eleven of the jurors are ready to convict him at once, but one man, played by Henry Fonda, isn't so sure. He takes the "reasonable doubt" standard seriously and wants to explore some doubts that still nag at him. As arguments are exchanged and tempers flare, we come to know each of the jurors as people.
"The Set-Up" (1949). Robert Ryan stars as Bill "Stoker" Thompson, a washed-up prize fighter who clings to the belief that he is still "just one punch away" from the big payoff that will allow him to retire in comfort. His wife, who knows better, tries to talk him out of this evening's bout. His manager, who also knows better, makes a deal with a local mobster for Stoker to take a dive. But Stoker himself has other plans. Director Robert Wise makes us live through the punishment Stoker endures, minute by agonizing minute.
"Cleo From 5 to 7" (1962). French filmmaker Agnes Varda crafted this remarkable slice of life. Cleo is a Parisian singer who may or may not have cancer. While she waits for the biopsy results, we follow her around Paris for 90 minutes. Much of what she does is unremarkable - visiting a friend, visiting her lover, walking in a park - but always in the background is a shadowy foreboding. Cleo's sudden, intense awareness of her mortality invests these everyday occurrences with a new level of meaning and gravity.
That, I think, is the secret behind the appeal of "24." If the dramatic backdrop is intense enough, real time can enhance the drama rather than diluting it. Stay tuned.
One of the lessons we have learned from science fiction movies is that it may not be safe to harbor strangers in our midst. There is always the danger that they may represent a threat. Science fiction dramatizes this most often by showing us extraterrestrials who turn out to be the vanguard of a full-scale invasion.
There is, however, another side to the story. Some of the best science fiction stories suggest that there is an equal danger in being too quick to assume that those who are not like us are necessarily the enemy. Consider, for example, the inoffensive character played by Kevin Spacey in the recently released "K-Pax." He may or may not be the extraterrestrial he claims to be, but whether he is or not it seems clear that he represents no threat. To demonize and persecute him for being different would serve no purpose but to transform earthlings into the ravenous, bloodthirsty beings they so often imagine alien invaders to be. I think it may be fortuitous that we're seeing "K-Pax" on our screens at the moment rather than, say, "Independence Day." At a time when emotions toward foreigners in our midst are running especially high, it strikes me as a healthier message to be exposed to. We looked last week at some earlier screen portrayals of benevolent aliens. Here are some additional titles to look for on home video.
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). Lest we forget, "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" (1982) was not director Steven Spielberg's first friendly alien. Riding high on the success of "Jaws" (1975), and therefore able to write his own ticket, Spielberg next turned his considerable talents to this tale of humanity's first contact with visitors from another world. Their technology is awe-inspiring, and they do create a certain amount of unintentional havoc, but in the end it turns out that they just want to get acquainted. Renowned science fiction author Ray Bradbury has said that this is his all-time favorite film.
"Cocoon" (1985). How many movies about extraterrestrials can accurately be described as sweet and sentimental? Not that many, to be sure, but this is one of the few. It depicts visitors to our planet who are not here in search of conquest or to exploit Earth's resources in any way. Instead, they have come to quietly reclaim some of their own, who were left behind in cocoons when their race made a hasty departure long ago. The aliens assume human form and rent a house with a pool to carry out the reanimation of their sleeping companions. The cocoons are placed at the bottom of the pool, which is then invested with life-renewing energy. As it happens, some elderly gents from a nearby retirement home have been sneaking into this pool for a refreshing daily dip. Now, however, they discover that the pool seems to be restoring their lost youth. It's a nice premise, but what really makes the film soar are the performances by a cast of old pros including Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, and Wilford Brimley.
"Man Facing Southeast" (1986). But for the fact that "K-Pax" is credited as an adaptation of a novel by Gene Brewer, I would have simply assumed it to be a direct remake of this film by Argentinean writer-director Eliseo Subiela. It features a mysterious mental patient who claims to be an extraterrestrial and a psychiatrist who becomes fascinated with his case. "Man Facing Southeast" leans perhaps a bit more heavily on the messianic overtones than does "K-Pax," drawing as it does on the Latin American literary tradition of "magic realism," but the broad strokes of the two films are nevertheless strikingly similar.
Needless to say, I would be remiss here if I didn't mention the most benevolent alien of all: the last survivor of the planet Krypton. In addition to being an exceptional journalist in his guise as Clark Kent, he's been known to put aside his notepad from time to time in order to go out and save the planet from certain doom. Considering how often Superman has saved our bacon in the comics, on television, and in the movies, you'd think we would have learned to treat our movie aliens with a little more respect by now.
At a time when those in our midst who come from somewhere else are being regarded with an extraordinary level of suspicion, it is perhaps a good thing that we can go to see a movie about an affable, harmless fellow who claims to be from a culture more remote than anything our State Department has ever dreamed of. In "K-Pax," Kevin Spacey plays a character who cheerfully explains that he is an alien - the kind from outer space, that is.
Although threatening extraterrestrials who invade with ray guns blazing have always made for exciting screen fare, there is also a substantial tradition of movies about encounters with benevolent aliens. For a sampling of anti-xenophobic science fiction movies, look for these titles on home video.
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951). The inversion of the alien invasion plot, casting earthlings as the menace and aliens as the victims, had long been common currency in science fiction literature before this film introduced it to the screen. Michael Rennie plays Klaatu, an emissary from a federation of civilizations dedicated to galactic peace. They have had our young planet under observation for some time, but now that our warlike species has developed nuclear weaponry, the day of reckoning has come. We can join the cause of peace or face total annihilation.
"Moon Pilot" (1962). Although not one of Disney studio's better-remembered pictures, this comedy ranks with some of its most clever work. Tom Tryon stars as Captain Richmond Talbot, an astronaut who is chosen to be the first man to orbit the moon. Although he is closely guarded by the FBI, a beautiful young woman keeps managing to slip past the security detail to talk with Captain Talbot. She says that she is from the planet Beta Lyrae, and she seems intent on helping Talbot by giving him a formula with which to coat the rocket's hull to protect it during the journey. Although Disney's films are not generally known for satirical humor, this one takes some very funny digs at the FBI, the Air Force, and NASA, neatly puncturing the self-importance of each organization.
"The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976). Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, this strange but intriguing film stars David Bowie as an alien who has been sent to Earth on a mission. His planet is dying of thirst, and his assignment is to work out a way to tap into the supply of our water-rich planet. Drawing on his civilization's advanced technology, he becomes fabulously wealthy virtually overnight by introducing several basic and utterly new patents. Unfortunately, he is diverted from his task by some of Earth's less salutary distractions, including alcohol and television. The style of director Nicolas Roeg is definitely an acquired taste, with his eccentric visuals and quirky, nonlinear narrative progression, but the film does reward careful viewing, and has become quite a favorite among the midnight movie cult film crowd.
"Starman" (1984). Having made his reputation with such hard-edged fare as "Halloween" (1978) and "Escape From New York" (1981), director John Carpenter showed that he also had a soft and fuzzy side with this sentimental romance between an alien (Jeff Bridges) and an Earth woman (Karen Allen). The alien is a friendly emissary who has come to Earth in response to our message of greeting on Voyager I. He startles Allen's character by appearing to her in the form of her late husband, having mimicked the form he saw in her photo albums. While helping him escape the clutches of hostile earthlings, she finds herself falling in love. If you don't ask too many questions, it's an entertaining, if somewhat offbeat, love story.
"The Brother From Another Planet" (1984). Writer-director John Sayles cast Joe Morton as a dark-skinned, humanoid alien who is on the lam from intergalactic bounty hunters. He hides out on Earth, making his way to Harlem, where he is accepted as a black earthling. Sayles uses this outlandish premise as the basis for a sharply satirical look at urban culture, as well as the prejudices that can turn earthlings into aliens among their own kind.
Next week, we'll look at more benevolent alien movies, including the remarkable Argentinean film of which "K-Pax" is a virtual remake.
In his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that the only thing worth writing about is "the human heart in conflict with itself." Interestingly, the category of fiction that realizes Faulkner's ideal most vividly may well be fantasy. Consider "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," for instance. Now there's a man who's really in conflict with himself.
One of the most popular and durable tropes of the Jekyll and Hyde type is the werewolf, recently given an intriguing spin by a new CBS television series called "Wolf Lake." If Freudian dramas about coming to terms with the beast within appeal to you, or if you just like scary stories about large, hairy guys with fangs and claws, here are some titles to look for on home video.
"The Werewolf of London" (1935). In the Thirties and Forties, Universal Pictures had a virtually unchallenged lock on the horror film genre. In 1931 alone, they had released both the Boris Karloff version of "Frankenstein" and the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula." For their first werewolf movie, however, they cast neither of these established horror icons. Instead, they gave the part to Henry Hull, a distinguished stage actor. Hull plays a British botanist named Wilfred Glendon, who is on an expedition in Tibet, searching for a rare flower that blooms only by moonlight. Coincidentally, this same flower also happens to be the only cure for lycanthropy (transmutation into a wolf). The unfortunate Glendon collects his specimen just as a werewolf arrives on the scene in search of a cure. Although he survives the attack, Glendon is bitten on the arm during the struggle, and therefore becomes a werewolf himself. An interesting angle in this film is the idea that the werewolf is instinctively driven to kill the thing it loves best. As it happens, Glendon's wife seems to be drifting back into the arms of an old flame, unaware that her spouse is now far more dangerous than the average jealous husband.
"The Wolf Man" (1941). Although Hull did a creditable job, it was not "The Werewolf of London" that set the benchmark for Universal Pictures werewolf movies, and it was not Hull who joined Lugosi and Karloff in the pantheon of Universal horror stars. It was Lon Chaney Jr., in this 1941 film, who created the werewolf character that has endured longer than any other. In contrast to Hull's worldly botanist, Chaney's Larry Talbot is more naïve, more pathetic - more of a victim. That, I think, is the key to the better werewolf movies. They combine monster and victim into one character, allowing the filmmaker to draw from both melodrama and the kind of high drama to which Faulkner refers. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (1957). I know what you're thinking. And on one level, you're absolutely right. It's a dreadful, corny title. But on another level, there was genius at work here. American International Pictures, for years the most successful American producers of exploitation films, were doing a thriving business in horror/science fiction movies and in juvenile delinquency movies. With this one masterstroke, they combined the two appeals, while echoing the titles of more respectable pictures like "I Was a Male War Bride" and "I Was a Communist For the F.B.I." And yes, the film itself is rather tawdry, and the dialogue hasn't aged well. Even so, there's something compelling about it. The main character, Tony, is played by a youngster named Michael Landon, who went on to do some television work, if memory serves. Tony's violent temper constantly gets him into trouble, so the school principal sends him to a psychiatrist. Instead of treating him, the psychiatrist decides to use Tony as the subject for an experiment in primal regression under hypnosis. This treatment, combined with a series of serum injections, literally brings out the beast in Tony. The psychiatrist, played by Whit Bissell, is a pure caricature, a standard mad scientist. Landon's Tony, however, is a much more fully realized character. Like Hull's Dr. Glendon and Chaney's Larry Talbot, he is believable as both monster and victim. The connection with the Faulkner formula, although tenuous, is there.
Besides, no adolescent can fail to identify with a character who suddenly sprouts hair where there never was hair before, and who involuntarily turns into a snarling beast. Say what you want about American International, but they certainly knew their audience.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
Is anything on earth sweeter than the prospect of revenge? So many of us have lusted for it, and so few have tasted it, that it represents one of the most universal objects of our wish-fulfillment fantasies. Naturally, this has not escaped the notice of filmmakers, whose business is largely based on making our wishes come true on the big screen.
Most recently, a film called "Max Keeble's Big Move" has attempted to tap into our collective recollections of being victimized in high school by everyone from bullying classmates to overbearing principals. The premise of the film is that a harried and tormented youngster sees his chance for revenge when he learns that his family will soon be moving to another town. He takes the opportunity to exact retribution on his tormentors, knowing that he will not be around to suffer the consequences.
Young Max's revenge is played for laughs, a relatively unusual choice. The video stores are overflowing with revenge dramas - the martial arts genre, for example, consists of little else - but revenge comedies are not nearly so plentiful. If you prefer your revenge stories told with a lighter touch, look for these payback comedies on home video.
"Theatre of Blood" (1973). In addition to being one of the movies' most memorable horror stars, Vincent Price also excelled at poking fun at his own sinister image. This macabre little comedy is a case in point. Price plays a thoroughly rotten Shakespearean actor who takes revenge on the critics who have panned him over the years by murdering them in symbolically Shakespearean fashion. The critic who trashed his performance in "The Merchant of Venice," for example, loses an actual pound of flesh under the aggrieved actor's knife. The proceedings are a bit grisly, but Price is having such fun that we can't help being amused rather than repelled.
"9 to 5" (1980). Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton play a trio of oppressed secretaries slaving in the service of a boss from hell. The insufferable boss is played by Dabney Coleman, doing the jerk characterization on which he practically held a patent throughout the Eighties, both in movies and on television. When the women can stand his domineering, male chauvinist ways no longer, they band together to teach the old reprobate a lesson.
"She-Devil" (1989). Fay Weldon's novel, "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil," was adapted by screenwriter Barry Strugatz and director Susan Seidelman as a vehicle for Roseanne Barr. In the title role, Barr plays Ruth Patchett, whose husband, Bob (Ed Begley, Jr.), has been stolen away by romance novelist Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep). In a cold fury, the betrayed and abandoned Ruth methodically lists the assets that the faithless Bob enjoys: home, family, career, freedom. Then she systematically plots to strip him of each in turn.
"The Lady Eve" (1941). Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a charming con artist who romances millionaire Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) in order to swindle him at the card table. Unexpectedly, she falls in love with her mark, but by then her cheating ways have been exposed by Charles's bodyguard, Muggsy (William Demarest). Spurned and humiliated, Jean determines to have her revenge. She arranges to meet Charles again, this time in the guise of "Lady Eve Sidwich." Charles recognizes the resemblance to Jean, of course, but accepts Eve's blithe insistence that they have never met. Muggsy isn't fooled ("It's the same dame," he fruitlessly repeats), but Charles is in love again. With Charles once again under her spell, the way is clear for Jean to even the score by tainting his wealthy family with scandal. This is writer-director Preston Sturges at the peak of his comic talents. If you haven't seen it, treat yourself.
Speaking of Sturges, although I don't usually recommend books in this space I can't resist mentioning a wonderful science fiction novel I recently read called "Corrupting Dr. Nice," by John Kessel. It is an affectionate tribute to "The Lady Eve," recasting its story in a futuristic setting. Kessel's pastiche eloquently and entertainingly articulates the notion that whatever technological marvels the future holds, revenge fantasies will always be with us. And, as long as they can be confined to the screen or the pages of a novel, they will always be funny.
Very early on in its history, the American film industry organized itself around the public appeal of its stars. From that point on, star power became the engine that drove the economy of the business. As a consequence of the money and adulation enjoyed by these stars, Hollywood quickly became the national touchstone for glamor and privilege.
The mid-century, however, saw the rise of another entertainment juggernaut that would seriously rival Hollywood as the epitome of glamor: rock and roll music. Since that time, Hollywood, recognizing a kindred spirit, has embraced the milieu of pop music by using it as a frequent backdrop for movie storylines. Recent examples include "Rock Star" and "Glitter," but the relationship between movies and pop music goes back to the very beginnings of rock and roll. Indeed, Alan Freed, the disc jockey most closely associated with its emergence, produced and/or appeared in a number of low-budget Fifties movies promoting the new music and its performers. Since then, dozens of movies have been made showcasing the pop stars of the moment. Here are a few to look for on home video.
"A Hard Day's Night" (1964). What better place to begin than with the movie debut of the Beatles? This began as a quickie production designed to capitalize on the intense popularity of the group. It wasn't expected to be a work of lasting value, and yet that's exactly what it turned out to be. Bringing his considerable experience with British comedy to bear, director Richard Lester kept the mood light and the gags coming thick and fast. He also had the foresight to cast a veteran comic, Wilfred Brambell, as Paul's grandfather just to make sure the laughs would be there when he needed them. The result goes far beyond the modest goal of keeping audiences amused until the next song comes along. In the oft-quoted words of critic Andrew Sarris, this is indeed "the 'Citizen Kane' of jukebox movies."
"The Harder They Come" (1972). The renewed interest in Reggae music here in the United States can be directly traced to the release of this gritty little movie, the first ever produced in Jamaica by Jamaicans. Jimmy Cliff plays a scruffy young fellow from the country who comes to the city (Kingston) with hopes of making it as a singer. Unfortunately, he can't seem to stay out of trouble. You'll notice that this film is not as polished as most Hollywood products, but what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in heart. And, of course, it has that irresistible music to bind it together.
"Head" (1966). By the time The Monkees got around to making a movie, they had already had all the exposure they could stand on their popular television series. The series had, in fact, already been cancelled, leaving the group free to poke a little fun at their own image. Also, as the title suggests, they felt free to exploit the psychedelic imagery of the time. Legend has it that director Bob Rafelson and his buddy Jack Nicholson went into seclusion with The Monkees for a weekend of heavy dope smoking and emerged with a completed screenplay. There's no way to verify the story, but this was the Sixties after all, and Nicholson does share screenwriting credit as well as a co-producing credit.
"The Girl Can't Help It" (1956). In many ways, this Jayne Mansfield vehicle is similar to lots of other Fifties comedies. Edmond O'Brien plays a gangster who hires an agent (Tom Ewell) to make his girlfriend (Mansfield) a recording star. What makes this film different is that it features performances by many of the top pop artists of the day. We see Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and a host of others in performance.
"Go, Johnny, Go" (1958). Here's an example of one of the Alan Freed productions that helped make it all happen. This one, like most, has a negligible plot, but lots of good music performances. You'll see Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, the Cadillacs, the Flamingos, and Jackie Wilson among others. It's a great time capsule, if nothing else.
With so many rock luminaries on the big screen through the years, it's hardly any wonder that the distinction between rock stars and movie stars seems fuzzy at best. The end result of this cross-pollination has been an entertainment firmament that knows no borders.
Times change, and our tastes change with them, but some stories are just too good to be forgotten. "The Musketeer," currently playing nationwide, extends by one the remarkably long list of movie adaptations of Alexandre Dumas's "The Three Musketeers." Some of the most talented people ever to work in motion pictures have taken a crack at this story, and most of them have succeeded in turning it into entertaining cinema. So why bother to do another adaptation?
Because it's a rattling good story, that's why. It has everything: laughs, thrills, romance, intrigue, an appealing hero in the person of D'Artagnan, and a world-class villain in the person of Cardinal Richelieu. The fact that it's been done before hardly makes it easier to resist. And if perchance "The Musketeer" is your first exposure to D'Artagnan and his companions in the movies, you should know that some of the best of the earlier film adaptations are available on home video. Here are three that you can't go wrong with.
"The Three Musketeers" (1921). Without question, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was the preeminent action/adventure star of the silent era. He practically invented the genre of the swashbuckler movie with "The Mark of Zorro" in 1920. Having proved that this type of film could be a success, there was little question what his follow-up film would be. His favorite character in literature was D'Artagnan, and had been since he was a kid. Now he seized the opportunity to be D'Artagnan on the big screen. He spared no trouble or expense to mount a first class production, obviously a labor of love. The Fairbanks formula was simplicity itself - he had such a good time in front of the camera that audiences couldn't help having a good time too. He never had a better time, though, than in this film, portraying his childhood hero.
Fairbanks would return to the role of D'Artagnan eight years later in "The Iron Mask" (1929). It was among the last of the epic silent pictures, released two years after "The Jazz Singer" had sounded the death knell of the silent cinema. At the end of the film, Fairbanks as D'Artagnan dies, a melancholy acknowledgement of the passing of his beloved silent screen.
"The Three Musketeers" (1948). If Douglas Fairbanks grew up wanting to be D'Artagnan, Gene Kelly grew up wanting to be Douglas Fairbanks. When MGM weighed in with its version of the story, its most athletic young song and dance man jumped at the chance to take on the role that Fairbanks had poured his heart into. In the grand MGM manner, the production was marked by a lavishness bordering on the prodigal. In addition to being the first "Three Musketeers" film version in full color, it was the first to attempt to tell the whole story. The Fairbanks version covered only the first third of the novel, ending with the foiling of Richelieu's plot to discredit the queen.
Also, Kelly was surrounded by an amazing supporting cast. The MGM publicity department boasted that the studio had under contract "more stars than there are in the heavens." One could hardly doubt them based on the constellation of talent assembled for this picture, including Lana Turner as Milady de Winter, Vincent Price as Richelieu, Angela Lansbury as Queen Anne, and June Allyson as Constance. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"The Three Musketeers" (1974) and "The Four Musketeers" (1975). Director Richard Lester came up with a rather crafty solution to the problem of filming Dumas's lengthy novel without leaving out most of the good stuff. He simply shot a 3 1/2 hour movie and released it as two separate films. Lester comes from the same kind of way-out British comedy tradition that produced "Monty Python's Flying Circus," so he naturally approached the story with a certain amount of comic flair. The great British comic Spike Milligan, of the legendary BBC "Goon Show," is riotously funny as the hapless husband of Constance. Still, this adaptation is by no means given over entirely to comedy. The swordplay is appropriately rousing and the derring-do appropriately suspenseful, making for the satisfying mix of elements that Dumas demands.
With all this rich variety of interpretation available, why limit yourself to just one movie adaptation? Dumas's story blends well with a wide range of visions without losing its power to engage and entertain. If there's a better definition of a classic, I don't know what it would be.
After 400 years of Shakespeare productions, any director of a new revival of the Bard's work will of necessity be hard pressed to come up with a completely original concept. One way to do it is to jettison the Shakespeare text altogether and just use the basic storyline for a whole new script. The recently released "O," for example, transplants the plot of "Othello" into contemporary America, substituting high school treachery for Venetian intrigues. For a sampling of how earlier films have attempted offbeat variations on Shakespearean material, look for these titles on home video.
"West Side Story" (1961). Director Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins brought "Romeo and Juliet" into the Twentieth Century with this tale of rival street gangs and star-crossed lovers. The Puerto Rican "Sharks" and the American "Jets" stand in for the feuding Montague and Capulet families as an ill-fated romance develops between an American boy and a Puerto Rican girl.
"Kiss Me Kate" (1953). One simple way of creating a variation on a theme by Shakespeare is to make a film about actors staging one of the Bard's plays, showing how the actor's own lives parallel the action of the play they are presenting. This Cole Porter musical revolves around a production of "The Taming of the Shrew" in which the lead roles of Kate and Petruchio are played by a pair of feuding ex-spouses. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
"A Double Life" (1947). Ronald Colman stars in this much darker treatment of an actor whose Shakespearean role parallels his own life. As Tony John, Colman plays a stage actor who can't quite leave his work behind when the curtain falls. When performing in a light comedy, he is charming and witty offstage. On the other hand, when he takes on the role of the tortured Othello, the doomed Moor's brooding jealousy becomes part of Tony's personality. Like Othello, it is only a matter of time before Tony is driven to violence by his groundless feelings of betrayal.
"Forbidden Planet" (1956). For a truly out of this world variation on Shakespeare, try this science fiction classic. Walter Pidgeon plays Dr. Morbius, a brilliant eccentric living on a remote planet with his daughter Altaira and their robot servant, Robby. The plot is lifted almost intact from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," with Morbius as Prospero, Altaira as Miranda, and Robby a somewhat unlikely Ariel. Even Caliban turns up in the form of a monster that terrorizes the planet.
"Men of Respect" (1991). Back in 1955, a British production called "Joe Macbeth" took the plot of "Macbeth" and translated it into a modern day gangster story about a mobster who murders his way to the top. That film is not available on video, but "Men of Respect," which is based on the same concept, is available. John Turturro plays the Macbeth role, a hood named Mike Battaglia. Egged on by his wife, and emboldened by a fortune teller's prophecy that he will run the mob, he bumps off his boss and takes over his territory. Now he only has to worry about the other half of the fortune teller's prophecy - that he will be succeeded by the son of a fellow hitman.
"My Own Private Idaho" (1991). Writer/director Gus Van Sant's stylistically mind-bending drama of two street hustlers challenges viewers on many levels. The one that seemed to blow more critics' minds than any other, however, was the middle section, in which Van Sant shifts into a bizarrely Shakespearean mode. Because one of the main characters is actually a member of the privileged class who is temporarily slumming - his father is a wealthy politician - Van Sant draws a parallel with the royal Prince Hal from "Henry IV," who goes slumming with the dissolute but charming Falstaff. The dialogue becomes quasi-Shakespearean, with quotes from "Henry IV" rewritten to suit a modern American setting yet close enough to the original wording to be recognizable.
Clearly, even after four centuries, Shakespeare continues to influence today's filmmakers. Not surprisingly, the Bard's own words say it best: "He was indeed the glass wherein the noble youth did dress themselves...He was the mark and glass, copy and book, that fashion'd others."
Americans, it seems, have always been deeply ambivalent about outlaws. On the one hand, we want their antisocial acts sufficiently curtailed to prevent us from being personally victimized. And yet, at the same time, we secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) root for them to elude capture. There is an undeniable romance attached to living outside the law that has transformed some of our most successful sociopathic criminals into celebrities, and even cult figures. When that happens, you can bet that our storytellers, including filmmakers, will lose no time in transmuting the outlaws' personal histories from the dross of historical fact into the shiny, irresistible cultural gold of legend.
Among the denizens of the American rogue's gallery who have achieved this legendary status, no name is more prominent than that of Jesse James. A veteran of Quantrill's Raiders during the Civil War, he turned to a life of crime, along with his brother Frank, after the war. Banding together with Cole Younger and his brothers, they plundered and pillaged their way into the annals of the wild west. It is only natural, then, for such a renowned outlaw to have become the subject of lots of movies through the years. The most recent is "American Outlaws," which is currently playing nationwide. For a sampling of how earlier films have portrayed the James Gang, look for these titles on home video.
"Jesse James Under the Black Flag" (1921). One of the most fascinating films about Jesse James is this rather obscure silent picture. What makes it remarkable is that it was made in cooperation with James's own family. In fact, the legendary outlaw's son, billed as "Jesse James, Jr.," plays the role of his famous father. This one isn't easy to find, but it can be obtained from Facets Video (www.facets.org).
"Jesse James" (1939). This big-budget production from 20th Century Fox represents the definitive Hollywood version of the Jesse James legend. With Tyrone Power playing Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank James, it was a foregone conclusion that the James brothers would not be portrayed as common criminals. Instead they are presented as victims, driven to a life of crime by injustices committed against them. The film even confers an air of respectability on their crimes, presenting them as latter-day Robin Hoods.
"Jesse James At Bay" (1941). The culmination of Hollywood's rehabilitation of James's image is probably to be found in this B-Western, in which the title character is played by none other than Roy Rogers. Billed as the "king of the cowboys," Rogers built his career on a squeaky-clean image. Normally he would have played a lawman in pursuit of outlaws, so the decision to cast him as the title character here is a clear indication that this portrayal, like Tyrone Power's, will be more heroic than sociopathic.
"The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid" (1972). Writer-director Philip Kaufman's version of the James Gang's career takes a completely different tack. His Jesse James, played by Robert Duvall, is a murderous thug, clearly psychologically disturbed, who seems to have, at times, only a tenuous grasp on reality. It is a mark of the power of the "Robin Hood" image of the James Gang that this film, which is probably much closer to the historical facts, is generally labeled as "revisionist."
"The Long Riders" (1980). This retelling of the legend is based on a gimmick, but it's a good one. Because the James Gang at one time included four sets of brothers, the idea was to cast four sets of sibling actors in those roles. Jesse and Frank James are played by James and Stacy Keach, respectively. This picture, directed by Walter Hill, steers a middle course between the extremes of "Jesse James at Bay" and "The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid," portraying its outlaws as neither heroes nor psychopaths.
There are plenty of other films featuring Jesse James as well, some of which emphatically illustrate the point that becoming a legend can be a mixed blessing. Once your life becomes fodder for the storytellers, almost anything can happen. Jesse James might have been pleased with some of the films about him, but we can only imagine what he would have thought, for example, of "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" (1966). Sure, Jesse knocked over a few banks in his time, but I'm not sure he deserved that kind of retribution.