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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dark Carnival (originally published 10/95)

This time of year I'm always on the lookout for new books about horror movies and the people who made them. Publishers, who know a thing or two about promotions, generally try to arrange the release of such titles to coincide with the Halloween season. This year, the most interesting title I've seen is "Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre," by David J. Skal and Elias Savada, published by Anchor.

If you conceive of Halloween as the creation of entertainment out of the morbid and the profane, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate Halloween publication. Tod Browning's early experiences as a carnival sideshow barker combined with his survival of a gruesome car crash to produce in him a lifelong fascination with disfigurement and mutilation. This obsession turns up over and over in his films, many of which are regarded as classics of the horror genre. Most of them aren't about monsters at all, but the potent strain of perverse morbidity that runs through them leaves no doubt about which genre they belong to.

"The Unknown" (1927). Browning's favorite actor, not surprisingly, was Lon Chaney Sr. Because of his elaborate and impressive talents with character make-up, Chaney had become known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces." In fact, however, it was more than just his face that was malleable. He also was willing and able to distort his body, even at the cost of considerable discomfort. For this Browning-directed melodrama, Chaney played Alonzo, a circus performer who poses as an armless knife thrower, manipulating the blades with his feet. In fact, his arms are merely bound behind his back for his performances. But when he falls for a woman who is pathologically fearful of being embraced by men, he has his arms amputated for real. In the meantime, however, his beloved has apparently gotten over her fear of men's arms and has become infatuated with the circus strongman. Alonzo's love is instantly transformed into a lust for vengeance, leading him to plot a grisly death for the strongman.

"West of Zanzibar" (1928). This Browning-Chaney collaboration, like many of their films together, repeats the formula of disfigurement and vengeance. It was a popular formula, much like the slasher formula is today, possibly because it tapped into the anger of maimed soldiers who returned from World War I to make their way through life without an arm or leg, or with a disfigured face. In earlier wars, Skal points out, soldiers who sustained such deeply maiming wounds would have died from them in short order, but by the early twentieth century advances in medicine had made such wounds survivable. This, in turn, led to guilt feelings among the maimed soldiers' loved ones, many of whom felt conscience-stricken because of secret feelings of revulsion toward their husbands and fathers, who were, after all, war heroes in addition to being family members. Naturally, most of this anger and guilt was repressed, and emotions that are repressed on a wide scale have a tendency to bubble up in the popular culture, especially movies. In "West of Zanzibar," Chaney plays a bitter man who was paralyzed from the waist down in a fight with a romantic rival. Leaving civilization behind, he withdraws to a remote village in Africa where he holes up and plots his revenge.

"Dracula" (1931). This version of the classic vampire tale was not adapted from Bram Stoker's novel, but rather from the popular stage play by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston. Bela Lugosi repeated the role he had created on the stage, and the rest, as they say, is history. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the promotional trailer from a re-release of the film.

"Freaks" (1932). This disturbing little movie represents the culmination of Browning's obsession with disfigurement and physical anomalies. Chaney, who could counterfeit such conditions so well, had met an untimely death in 1930. This time, Browning went with the real thing, using actual carnival sideshow attractions in his cast. Once seen, Browning's cautionary tale about the consequences of intolerance toward those who are different may well find its way into your nightmares.

"Devil Doll" (1936). Lionel Barrymore plays a man who has escaped from Devil's Island, where he was sent for a crime he did not commit. Seeking revenge, he appropriates an experimental miniaturization technique to shrink his accomplices to the size of figurines. He then presents them to those who framed him as dolls for their children. When the "dolls" awake from the trance state induced by the shrinking process, they avenge the frame-up in grisly fashion.

Browning was one of the most intriguing filmmakers ever produced by the Hollywood system. Skal and Savada's biography is a fascinating attempt to shed new light on the bruised and obsessive psyche that created these cinematic nightmares.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Old Friends (originally published 11/95)

In the title of her 1976 autobiography, Simone Signoret made the wry observation that "nostalgia isn't what it used to be." Perhaps not, but at least for filmmakers its appeal as story material remains undiminished. "Now and Then," a current release, uses a favorite type of nostalgia story, tracing the arc of a group friendship over a number of years.

It's easy to see why such a premise appeals to moviemakers. It allows them to develop something like the narrative sweep of an epic while exploring characterization at a level usually reserved for small, intimate stories. If that combination of elements appeals to you, here are some earlier films that trace the evolution of a circle of friends over time. Each is available on home video.

"Return of the Secaucus 7" (1980). This was the low budget film that put John Sayles on the map as a writer and director. He shows us the reunion of a group of former college classmates whose claim to fame is that they were arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey, while on their way to a 1960s protest rally in Washington. Instead of showing us their earlier days through flashbacks, Sayles allows the backstory to emerge through the dialogue as the friends reminisce. It may sound like a talky and static approach, but Sayles has a playwright's sure-footed knack for dialogue. Scenes that might have become tedious in the hands of a lesser screenwriter are invested with energy and interest by Sayles's craftsmanship. One measure of the film's popularity and influence is the fact that in 1983 Lawrence Kasdan would attempt what amounted to a big budget remake of "Return of the Secaucus 7" with "The Big Chill."

"Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982). In the mid-1950s James Dean came to Texas to give what would turn out to be his last film performance in George Stevens's film "Giant" (1956). This is the story of six members of the James Dean fan club of McCarthy, Texas, for whom their idol's presence in their midst had been a transcendental moment. Twenty years after Dean's fatal car crash the club reassembles in a small McCarthy dime store. The main characters are Jo (Karen Black), Sissy (Cher), and Mona (Sandy Dennis). As flashbacks weave in and out of present day scenes, we watch with mounting dismay as secrets are revealed and carefully nurtured delusions are shattered. Mona, for example, is forced to abandon her cherished fantasy that her son is James Dean's love child. Director Robert Altman had originally mounted this play on the stage, then used the same sets to translate it to film very inexpensively. With its sustained emotional intensity and very little in the way of comic relief, this is certainly not a film for all tastes. It is, however, a great vehicle for virtuoso acting. In fact, this was the film that established, once and for all, Cher's credentials as a dramatic actor.

"Four Friends" (1981). In 1979, screenwriter Steve Tesich made quite an impressive debut with his script for "Breaking Away," for which he drew on his experiences at college in Indiana. "Four Friends" is more ambitious. Here he seeks to put in dramatic perspective his experiences as the son of an immigrant family growing up during the turbulent decade of the 1960s. Beginning in the high school years, the film follows the lives of three male classmates and the young woman with whom each will be romantically involved. Danilo (Craig Wasson) is the main character. It's interesting to watch him come to grips with the Vietnam War protest movement. He hates the war, but at the same time he brings an immigrant's perspective to the extremity of the protest, worrying whether these American youngsters have adequate respect for the freedom they take for granted. Watching this film now, you will be irresistibly reminded of "Forrest Gump" (1994), as Tesich and director Arthur Penn slide in references to significant events that help define the times.

By the way, if you want to compare these American films with some foreign titles dealing with similar themes, try Ettore Scola's "We All Loved Each Other So Much" (1974) and Federico Fellini's "I Vitelloni" (1953). You'll see that friendship, nostalgia, and filmmaking talent know no national bounds.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

One Foot in the Grave (originally published 10/95)

Diane Keaton's career as a director has taken on an interesting trajectory. With "Heaven" (1987), she looked at the afterlife. Now, with her current release, "Unstrung Heroes," she is dealing with death. I wonder if she's planning to work her way by slow degrees back to the cradle, or even to the womb.

Actually, by smiting Andie MacDowell with a fatal illness, Keaton is following one of the movies' oldest and most surefire traditions. Lay your main character low with a terminal disease, and the world will beat a path to the boxoffice to buy tickets to your show. If, like most of us, your idea of a good time is watching the slow demise of a fellow mortal on the screen, there are a multitude of classic titles to choose from. Here are a few of the better ones available on video.

"Dark Victory" (1939). Bette Davis gives what may be her best performance ever as doomed socialite Judith Traherne, whose glamorous life is about to be terminated by a brain tumor. The role is memorable in part because Davis is called upon to employ virtually her entire emotional palette. She goes from being a carefree, spoiled child of fortune to a humbled convalescent in love with the doctor who has saved her life. Then, learning that her cure is only temporary, she turns to the wild life, determined to go out with a flourish. Finally, she finds the path to a dignified death. Davis negotiates this cascade of emotional reversals with sure-footed grace and skill. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"Diary of a Country Priest" (1950). If virtuoso acting and Hollywood's multiple-hanky approach to terminal illness puts you off, you might appreciate this quiet masterpiece by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. The title character is a young priest doing his best to minister to rural folk whose responses to his overtures range from apathy to outright hostility. When the priest falls ill, a victim of stomach cancer, Bresson methodically follows his decline and death, refusing at every turn to romanticize or sentimentalize the story.

"Cries and Whispers" (1972). Ingmar Bergman may well be world cinema's foremost interpreter of despair. This agonizing story of a woman dying of cancer is classic Bergman material. The main character's two sisters have come to be with her in her time of need, but only the faithful family maid is capable of the emotional connection that nurturing requires.

"Ikiru" (1952). Master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa shows us the last few months in the life of a man who is dying of cancer. The main character is a low-level bureaucrat whose life seems to have little meaning. Now that he is facing the end, however, he's determined to make every moment count. He turns to his family for comfort but finds them cold and apathetic. He tries indulging the pleasures of the flesh but finds no comfort there either. Ironically, in the end it is his dead-end job that provides him with a way to restore meaning to his existence.

"The Shootist" (1976). This was screen legend John Wayne's last film before cancer took him from us. Under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine a more perfect swan song. Wayne portrays J.B. Books, a legendary gunfighter at the end of his life, slowly and painfully dying of cancer. The parallels with Wayne's own life are too vivid to ignore, and director Don Siegel doesn't even try. In fact, the film begins with a recap of Books's celebrated exploits using clips from Wayne's earlier films.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973). In one of his early roles, Robert De Niro plays Bruce Pearson, a baseball catcher who is afflicted with Hodgkin's disease. Michael Moriarty plays pitcher Henry wiggen, Bruce's roommate and friend. Bruce is dimwitted and naive, while Henry fancies himself a writer. Henry therefore remains in a more or less permanent state of exasperation over Bruce's cluelessness. Even so, Henry can't bring himself to abandon a dying friend. Instead, he sticks by Bruce, becoming his advocate when the team's manager, unaware of Bruce's condition, wants to send him back to the minor leagues.

As we've seen, stories of imminent death cut across both national boundaries and stylistic boundaries. There are even comedies on the subject, such as the wonderful "Nothing Sacred" (1937). Human mortality may well be the most universal subject matter of all, making stories about terminal illness a truly immortal dramatic form.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Distorting History For Fun and Profit (originally published 10/95)

One of the silliest spectacles I've witnessed lately is the protracted breast-beating over the historical inaccuracies in Disney's "Pocahontas." Not that the breast-beaters are wrong, mind you. Obviously, there were distortions in the picture that would have made P.T. Barnum blush. What amused me was the idea that anyone would expect rigorous historical accuracy from a movie.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the scene in "Casablanca" in which Claude Rains as Captain Renault needs a quick pretext for shutting down Bogie's cafe. "I am shocked," he intones solemnly, "shocked to find that gambling is going on in here," at which point he is interrupted by the croupier bringing him his winnings for the evening.

Can anyone honestly be dismayed and disillusioned to learn that a Disney cartoon wouldn't pass muster with the editorial board at "American Heritage?" If so, I'll resist the temptation to sell you some prime real estate and send you instead to the corner video store for some other prime examples of historical scholarship, movie-style. They're all good, entertaining movies, but if you plan on paying attention to the historical context, better bring along your hip-waders.

"The Crusades" (1935). Nobody was better at making a glorious mess of history than Cecil B. DeMille. This spectacular and supremely entertaining fairy tale features rock-jawed Henry Wilcoxon as Richard the Lion-Heart. This, however, is the Richard of Sir Walter Scott, not the indifferent monarch of the history books. The film actually deals only with the third Crusade, despite the all-inclusive title, but that hardly matters. What it's actually all about are some really nifty battle scenes.

"Queen Christina" (1933). The great Greta Garbo is at her absolute greatest in this lavishly romantic tale of the 17th century Swedish queen who abdicated her throne for the love of a man. Except that she actually did no such thing. It was a combination of her devotion to art and philosophy and her desire to convert to Catholicism that led Christina to renounce the throne of Sweden. Moreover, by all accounts her habits of personal hygiene pretty much precluded the possibility of a lover in any case.

"The General" (1927). Silent film comic Buster Keaton gave the American cinema one of its crown jewels with this classic Civil War story. Keaton plays the engineer of the Confederate locomotive called "The General." When the General is stolen by Yankee spies, Buster takes off in pursuit on another train. The locomotive chase really did happen, but Keaton would have you believe that this spunky engineer singlehandedly captured a Yankee general, and all because he loved his train too much to stand by and allow it to be stolen. It's great filmmaking, but as history it won't wash.

"My Darling Clementine" (1946). This retelling of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is one of director John Ford's masterpieces. Henry Fonda is brilliant as Wyatt Earp. As history, however, it's mush. Doc Holliday is portrayed as a surgeon (he was a dentist) and Wyatt is portrayed as the sheriff of Tombstone (it was actually his brother, Virgil Earp, who held that office). Also, the actual gunfight was more of a massacre to settle a grudge than a desperate struggle over high principles.

"Richard III" (1955). Laurence Olivier's adaptation of the Shakespeare classic is a noble effort to capture a difficult play on film. Once again, however, it fails as history. There's very little to support the idea that Richard was a psychotic villain. He probably wasn't a Boy Scout -- nice guys generally didn't get to be king in 15th century England -- but he almost certainly wasn't the ogre that Shakespeare creates for us.

If this last example doesn't make my point for me, nothing will. If you're going to berate every period movie that doesn't square with the history books, you're going to end up watching a bare handful of very dull films over and over. And you're going to miss out on some of the best entertainment ever created. When you're throwing the Bard of Avon out with the bathwater, maybe it's time to take a step back and reconsider your standards.

Instead of getting worked up over "Pocahontas," maybe we'd be better off keeping our powder dry for the next Disney assault on Manassas. In fact, now that they own a network, it wouldn't hurt to keep a close eye on the "ABC Evening News." But for mercy's sake, let's not lose our grip when a cartoon fudges the historical facts.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Gumshoes (originally published 9/95)

Few characters in the movies, and in fiction as a whole, are more durable than the private investigator. He's a fascinating, solitary figure, serving the ends of justice like a policeman, and yet largely free of the constraints that society places on its law enforcement officers. The writers who have given us the most enduring private eye characters tend to play on the lone wolf aspect of the profession to give us a romanticized vision of a man whose personal code of ethics takes precedence over a corrupt society's rules.

The golden era of such private eye tales was the 1930s and 40s, when Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were at their peak. The new Denzel Washington film, "Devil in a Blue Dress," returns to that period as the setting for its story. By setting up shop on such classic turf, both generically and chronologically, the filmmakers invite comparison, as did Walter Mosley, the author of the novel on which the film is based. Mosley's novel stood up very well under the comparison, leading to a successful series of novels featuring the character of Easy Rawlins. If you want to see if the movie compares as well with its classic counterparts, you'll want to seek out the movie incarnations of Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Between them, these two characters constitute the absolute prototype of the hard-boiled gumshoe. Look for these titles on home video.

"The Maltese Falcon" (1941). Sam Spade appeared in print in only a single novel and a handful of short stories, but the mark he left on the detective genre is profound and indelible. The novel, "The Maltese Falcon," has been adapted for the screen several times, and the character of Spade became the basis for a popular radio drama series starring Howard Duff. The Sam Spade who will endure, however, is the 1941 movie portrayal by Humphrey Bogart. He embodied the essence of the wisecracking private eye who plays strictly by his own rules and always manages to one-up his antagonists. In this classic film, Spade encounters a group of shady characters who are obsessed with the pursuit of an artifact of incalculable value -- the statue of a falcon, embedded with precious stones. The supporting cast is impressive, including Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor, but it is Bogart's performance and the fascinating character of Spade himself that make the film work.

"Murder, My Sweet" (1944). Even more intriguing than Sam Spade is Raymond Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe. Whereas Spade is a pragmatist, Marlowe is more of an idealist. Both have adapted to the underbelly of urban life, but Marlowe remains perpetually disappointed by it. Both are hard-bitten cynics, but Spade's cynicism goes right to the bone, while Marlowe's is nothing more than a surface armor, a carapace that defends him against a hard and brutal world. Marlowe, in short, is a contradiction, which makes him more complex, and therefore more interesting, than Spade. In "Murder, My Sweet," director Edward Dmytryk exploited the contradictions at the heart of Marlowe's character by casting against type. Dick Powell had been known primarily as a singer, having starred in a string of light musicals. With this film he sharply changed that image, giving a memorable performance as the hard-nosed Marlowe. Hired by a thug to trace his missing girlfriend and simultaneously hired by a society matron to investigate a murder, Marlowe learns that the upper crust and the dregs of society aren't all that different when you start digging into their secrets.

"Farewell, My Lovely" (1975). Some 30 years later, this same story was remade, restoring Chandler's original title and featuring Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. Mitchum is absolutely brilliant in the role, creating the most achingly world-weary Marlowe of all. This is a man who has seen it all. And most of what he's seen, he hasn't liked.

The real fruition of the hard-boiled private eye film occurred during and immediately following World War II, as many Americans returned from the battlefields of Europe and Asia having seen a side of humanity that they didn't like. We had lost our collective innocence at Buchenwald and Dresden, and our movies turned dark to reflect that fact.

By now, however, we have become more hardened, more like Sam Spade and less like Marlowe as a society. It will be interesting to see what sort of societal mood "Devil in a Blue Dress" reflects.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Thousand and One Nights (originally published 9/95)

Of all the collections of tales assembled by storytellers down through the centuries, few can claim to be as influential as "The Thousand and One Nights." The Arabian Nights tales were supposedly told nightly by the wily Scheherazade in order to postpone her scheduled execution by arousing her royal husband's curiosity as to how each tale would end. The king can hardly be blamed for being taken in, however, since these spellbinding stories have left their mark on the imaginations of generation after generation of artists. From the music of Rimsky-Korsakov to the poetry of Tennyson, the creative works bearing the imprint of the Arabian Nights narratives are many and varied.

Movies, certainly, are no exception. The current animated release, "Arabian Knight," is an example, as is the recent Disney megahit "Aladdin." For those who remain entranced by the narrative spell of Scheherazade, here are some earlier examples of Arabian Nights movies that are available on home video.

"Arabian Nights" (1942). During the 1940s, Jon Hall and Maria Montez were teamed for a series of flashy, gaudy adventure movies. Neither of them can be called a great actor by any means, but they both looked good in their costumes and their movies did very well at the box office. In recent years their films together have become cult classics, much prized by the camp crowd. If you're willing to lighten up and not try to take the movie seriously, this one can be great fun. Montez plays Scheherazade, with Hall as her suitor. How campy is it? Let me put it this way: the role of Sinbad is played by Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges.

"Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1943). Following up on the success of "Arabian Nights," Hall and Montez teamed up again to tell the story of Ali Baba. The storyline borrows at least as much from the Robin Hood legends as from the Arabian Nights tales, but when you're having this much fun, who's counting? Shemp doesn't appear in this one, but you do get to enjoy hearing perennial Western sidekick Andy Devine wrap his trademark raspy voice around Arabian Nights dialogue.

"Kismet" (1955). This story of Arabian romance and intrigue had been a stage vehicle for some time before it was converted into a musical. The songs, including "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads," were based on themes by Alexander Borodin. The film version of the musical play was produced by MGM at the height of the studio's glory days as the home of the finest musical production unit in Hollywood. Howard Keel stars as The Poet, around whom the intrigues of the plot are centered. Sebastian Cabot is the Wazir, whose machinations drive the plot.

"The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958). For a rousing fantasy adventure, you can't do much better than this tale of Sinbad the Sailor. Kerwin Matthews stars as Sinbad, but the real star of the show is Ray Harryhausen, who created the visual effects. Courtesy of his sophisticated stop-motion animation techniques, you'll find it easy to suspend your disbelief and come away feeling as if you've actually seen a cyclops, a fire-breathing dragon, and a host of other Arabian Nights wonders. This film was followed by a series of Sinbad pictures, but "Seventh Voyage" remains the best of the lot. Just to give you a sampling of the film's striking visual effects, a re-release trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"1001 Arabian Nights" (1959). If you're looking for something more along the lines of "Arabian Knight," try this animated feature starring the one and only Mr. Magoo, as voiced by Jim Backus. Other familiar voices include Dwayne Hickman of "Dobie Gillis" fame, Hans Conried, and Herschel Bernardi.

"The Arabian Nights" (1974). In the early 1970s, controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini made what he called his "Trilogy of Life," adapting first "The Decameron," then "The Canterbury Tales," and finally "The Arabian Nights." This is a somewhat spicier version of "The Thousand and One Nights" than the others I've mentioned, taking its cue more from Sir Richard Burton's 1885 unexpurgated translation.

All of these are delightful in their own way, but probably the best Arabian Nights movies of all are the two classic renderings of the story of "The Thief of Bagdad." The first was a silent version made in 1924 by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and the other was made by Alexander Korda in 1940. Each one is an absolute delight, packed with laughs, thrills, and wonders.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Parry and Thrust (originally published 9/95)

The heroes of today's action movies have to be handy with everything from high explosives to Harrier jets to every sort of handgun known to man. There was a time, however, when the one indispensable skill for an action hero was swordsmanship. A fencing duel was, after all, an ideal form of movie fight. Unlike an impersonal gunfight, the antagonists were necessarily close to each other and face to face. Also, unlike a fistfight, the antagonists could fight furiously without letup while simultaneously engaging in witty dialogue.

Interestingly, movie sword fights seem to be making something of a comeback. "Braveheart," "First Knight," and "Rob Roy" are all examples of recent films featuring spectacular sword fights as centerpieces of the action. If you've seen these films and found the swordplay thrilling, you may want to look for the following classic titles on home video. Each one features at least one sword fight that will curl your hair.

"The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937). David O. Selznick produced this adaptation of the classic Anthony J. Hope novel, giving it the same kind of opulent Selznick treatment that Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" would receive two years later. Ronald Colman plays the dual role of the kidnapped king of Ruritania and the look-alike English relative who stands in for him. The film's classic sword fight occurs when Colman the commoner leads an expedition to rescue Colman the royal prisoner from the castle at Zenda. Confronted by a villainous henchman (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), Colman engages him in a sword duel that meanders up the stairs, through the main hall, and out to the drawbridge.

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938). Even though new versions continue to appear, this version of the Robin Hood legend remains the definitive one for most movie fans. As the career of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., drew to a close, Errol Flynn emerged as the top swashbuckling star of the day. Here he is matched with an equally fine villain, the great Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Their climactic sword fight is both exciting and visually striking, with the antagonists' shadows looming over them on huge pillars.

"The Mark of Zorro" (1940). Twenty years earlier, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., had virtually invented the swashbuckler genre with his screen adaptation of Johnston McCulley's story of Don Diego Vega. Diego, a Spanish nobleman living in California, poses as an effeminate dandy, but when danger threatens he becomes the mysterious masked Zorro, champion of the oppressed. This remake of the Fairbanks classic established Tyrone Power as a major action star. Again, the villain who crosses swords with our hero is Basil Rathbone, who made something of a specialty of this kind of role for a while. Although movie sword fights are never really authentic, this duel contains less of that silliness of jumping on the furniture than most. Even so, veteran director Rouben Mamoulian has no problem keeping it interesting.

"Scaramouche" (1952). This version of Rafael Sabatini's novel stars Stewart Granger as Andre Moreau, the illegitimate son of a French nobleman, who makes his way in the world as an actor portraying the masked clown Scaramouche. His bitter enemy is the Marquis de Maynes, played by Mel Ferrer. In addition to being Andre's rival for the hand of Aline de Gavrillac (Janet Leigh), the Marquis has killed a friend of Andre's in a grossly unfair sword duel. The Marquis, after all, is acknowledged to be the finest swordsman in France, while Andre's doomed friend was completely unschooled in swordplay. Andre is no more competent with a sword than his slain friend, and so can do nothing about the outrage, but he swears to learn the way of the blade and to have his revenge in time. His opportunity comes one evening in the theater. Spotting the hated Marquis in the crowd, Andre challenges him from the stage. Their incredible duel, one of the longest ever filmed, takes them through the entire theater, from foyer to stage. The film's promotional trailer, reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, gives some indication of the scope of the climactic confrontation.

Of course, if you want to see where it all began, you can't do better than going back to the silent classics of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Several of them are available on home video, including "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), "The Black Pirate" (1926), and "The Iron Mask" (1929). You'll find that, although later swashbucklers learned more elegant sword techniques, no one ever surpassed the elder Fairbanks's sense of sheer fun.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Peace Out (originally published 8/95)

I love the Sixties. I know that Sixties-bashing is trendy in certain circles these days, and I recognize that the decade of the flower children was the occasion for lots of ill-advised excesses, but I still look back on it with fondness. From where I sit in the frosty, uncaring Nineties, excesses in the name of peace and love sound pretty good in contrast to the excesses in the name of greed and self-interest that we've all become accustomed to.

Even so, in cynical moments I've been known to remark ruefully that the only thing from the Sixties that seems to have survived is widespread recreational drug use. In fact, though, a lot of extraordinary music has also survived. We lost Janis along the way, and Jimi, and a few others we couldn't spare, but at least Jerry Garcia hung in there with us for a while to become an elder statesman of the counterculture. Now that Jerry is also gone, we'll have to work a little harder to hold on to the positive elements of the counterculture. We've still got the recorded music, of course, but I thought I would also suggest a few Sixties film titles to help keep the spirit alive. Each is available on home video.

"Alice's Restaurant" (1970). The inspiration for this film was the hilarious recording in which Arlo Guthrie recounts his arrest for littering in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day and how it kept him out of the draft. From this fertile kernel, director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Venabel Herndon created a sympathetic, but by no means uncritical, portrait of life in a hippie commune. Arlo appears as himself.

"The Strawberry Statement" (1970). For a look at Hollywood's take on campus radicals, try this adaptation of James Kunen's "The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary." Bruce Davison plays a politically mainstream student who becomes radicalized by his university's arrogant power play to deprive underprivileged children of a playground. The musical backgrounds are rich with the sounds of the times, including songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

"The Trip" (1967). With this low-budget film, we begin to see the work of a struggling young actor/screenwriter whose presence runs through the Sixties counterculture movies like a recurring theme in a symphony. His script for "The Trip" reflects the counterculture's hope that LSD would liberate the mind and enhance the spirit. As originally written, the script was apparently intended to be in the tradition of Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of Perception," but the production company ultimately dumbed it down significantly. Peter Fonda plays a TV commercial director who becomes fed up with the shallowness of his life and turns to chemical stimulation in his search for meaning. The screenwriter, by the way, was Jack Nicholson.

"Psych-Out" (1968). Director Richard Rush's look at the youth culture of Haight-Ashbury was also based on a Jack Nicholson script, but it was so heavily rewritten that Nicholson received no credit. He did, however, star in the picture as (are you ready for this?) the leader of a psychedelic rock band, complete with ponytail.

"Head" (1968). By the time the Monkees got around to doing a movie to capitalize on their TV success, their show was already fading from the scene, and the youth culture had evolved into something that they would never have been allowed to deal with on the tube. Rather than beat a dead horse, they made the gutsy decision to exploit their own outdated image by making fun of it in the context of psychedelic imagery. Once again, Nicholson wrote the script, along with director Bob Rafelson.

"Easy Rider" (1969). Finally, we can't forget Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's saga of two counterculture motorcyclists making their way down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The phenomenal success of this shoestring production woke the film industry up to the potential of young filmmakers to tap into the vast youth market. And who was it who played the most interesting character role in "Easy Rider," thereby cementing his future as a major movie star rather than in the less lucrative position of screenwriter? Jack Nicholson, of course.

So take heart, Deadheads. Garcia may be gone, but vestiges of the Sixties remain. Even in a Hollywood establishment figure like Jack Nicholson there beats the heart of a former radical.

Peace, brother.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Biopic as Opera (originally published 2/95)

Last week I took a look back at the long tradition of film biographies of famous composers, the most recent of which is "Immortal Beloved," featuring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. In recommending the films that I did, I was careful to point out that film biographies of composers, like all film biographies, should be regarded as sources of good entertainment rather than as sources of good history.

One fascinating case in point is the considerable body of work in this area by a filmmaker whom I did not mention last time. He's actually made more films about the lives of composers than any other filmmaker I'm aware of, but it certainly is not an interest in documenting the true and indisputable facts of the lives of these musicians that keeps him returning to this subject matter. He's got other fish to fry.

His name is Ken Russell. As the purveyor of one of the most interesting visual styles in the world of contemporary cinema, he makes films that rarely fail to evoke strong reactions -- both positive and negative. Whereas most films placidly unfold on the screen in front of you, a Russell film is more likely to grab you by the scruff of the neck and rough you up a bit. His imagery is big, broad, and passionate -- in a word, operatic.

That, I think, is the reason for his fascination with composers. His own relationship to the medium of film is more musical than dramatic. Indeed, he reminds me of no one so much as Ludwig van Beethoven, whose piano playing is said to have been so ferocious as to threaten to reduce the instrument to cordwood and splinters. That's more or less the way Russell makes a movie.

It's a style that is not for everyone, to be sure. In addition to sacrificing cinematic conventions on the altar of electrifying imagery, including some of the sacred cows of moviegoers for whom the play's the thing, Russell can be especially cavalier about historical accuracy. He'd much rather lay bare the soul of the music and see what it reveals about the soul of the composer.

Russell's early experiments with his unique style of composer biographies were produced for BBC television, including films about Elgar, Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Delius. None of these early works is currently available on video [2010 NOTE: Happily, this deficit has since been ameliorated. Of the programs mentioned here, only the Strauss bio remains unavailable.], but his three feature films dealing with composers' lives have been released. If you're ready for a unique viewing experience, give them a try.

"The Music Lovers" (1971). By way of presenting the life of Tchaikovsky, Russell offers us a meditation on the idealism of 19th century Romanticism. That may sound dry and academic, but I assure you that Russell has no difficulty bringing such musings vividly to life. We watch in growing alarm as Tchaikovsky uses the theatrical fantasy world of his music to retreat from harsh reality into a particularly disturbing kind of madness.

"Mahler" (1974). Russell's screen biography of Gustav Mahler is, on the surface, relatively conventional. We see Mahler toward the end of his life on a train journey with his wife, Alma. As they reflect on their turbulent relationship, the film provides illustrative flashbacks. Underneath, however, as Russell himself has pointed out, he was up to something rather crafty, borrowing the structural principle of the rondo from music and applying it to film. A piece of music in rondo form alternates a central theme with any number of variations, but always returning to the original theme before proceeding to the next variation. In "Mahler," Russell says, the central theme is love while the variations are scenes representing aspects of death.

"Lisztomania" (1975). Last week I mentioned "Song Without End" (1960), in which Franz Liszt is portrayed as a matinee idol. In "Lisztomania," Russell takes that concept to its logical conclusion, recognizing that Liszt was in effect the first rock star. To nail down the point, he cast a sure-enough rock star, Roger Daltrey of The Who, to play the part of Liszt. The imagery here is about as wild as it gets, so you may not want to make this your first Russell movie.

Like the audience who staggered out of the first performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, those who see Ken Russell's work experience the vertiginous sensation of the aesthetic ground shifting under their feet. You may emerge elated or infuriated, possibly both, but you won't be unaffected.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Maestros (originally published 2/95)

Motion pictures, right from the beginning, have always had a special relationship with music. Even in the silent film era you'd find some form of music wherever movies were exhibited. It might be anything from an orchestra or elaborate theater organ in the fancier venues to an out-of-tune upright piano of questionable lineage in the small-town theaters. Indeed, even the introduction of spoken dialogue could not replace the musical accompaniment. Instead, music and dialogue became more or less equal partners in the aural dimension of the movie experience.

Given this intimate relationship between movies and music, what could be a more natural subject matter for a film than the life of a composer? The current release of "Immortal Beloved" gives us the very talented Gary Oldman in the role of Beethoven, following in the successful footsteps of Tom Hulce's Mozart in "Amadeus" (1984). In fact, though, the tradition of movie biographies of famous composers goes much farther back than "Amadeus." Some of them haven't yet made it to home video, but a number of the better-known examples are available.

One caveat, however. Movie biographies of composers have one thing in common with all other movie biographies: you can't expect historical accuracy from them. Movies are show biz, after all, and life stories are simply too complex to make for good drama, even when the life in question is the fascinating story of a musical genius. So, if you want to learn the facts about the lives of the musical masters, the library will be your best bet. But if you just want an entertaining story and lots of good music, look for these titles.

"Rhapsody in Blue" (1945). Robert Alda (Alan's dad) stars as George Gershwin. One of the most interesting things about this picture is the supporting cast. Because the film was made only a few years after Gershwin's premature death, many of the composer's contemporaries were still around to portray themselves in the film. For example, Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who popularized the "Rhapsody in Blue," appears as himself, as does Oscar Levant, a close friend of Gershwin's. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer. As you will see, the film is a product of its time, proudly featuring Al Jolson performing "Swanee" in full, cringe-inducing blackface. O tempora, o mores...

"A Song to Remember" (1945). Cornel Wilde stars as Frederic Chopin. Merle Oberon plays his love interest, novelist Armandine Dupin, who is better remembered by her pen name, George Sand. The third principal cast member is the formidable Paul Muni as Professor Joseph Elsner, the music teacher who recognizes the genius of the young Chopin and helps launch his career.

"Song of Love" (1947). Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henried portray Clara Wieck Schumann and Robert Schumann in one of music's most poignant love stories. Clara Wieck was one of the finest pianists in Europe. Her marriage to Schumann, the romantic's romantic, undeniably impaired her musical career. At the same time, we have no way of knowing how much of Schumann's music might never have been written without her stabilizing influence in his life. The movie stretches the friendship between Johannes Brahms (played by Robert Walker) and Clara into a romantic interest on Brahms's part. (Show biz, remember?)

"Song Without End" (1960). Is it just me, or are you beginning to notice a trend in these titles? Maybe there's still time to change the Beethoven title to "Song of the Immortal Beloved." This one is about Franz Liszt, with Dirk Bogarde in the lead role. In a way, Liszt is an ideal subject for a movie, because he was something of a matinee idol in his day. His first and greatest acclaim came not as a composer but rather as a performer. He was, by all accounts, one of the most gifted pianists of all time. As we see his head being turned by the adulation of his fans, especially women, we can easily relate his story to those of more contemporary performers.

In fact, there's another film about Liszt that develops that aspect of his life even further than "Song Without End" does. Next week, I'll tell you about that film, and about the visionary filmmaker who largely built his early reputation on biographies of the great composers.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Table (originally published 1/95)

During the extraordinarily fecund decade of the 1920s, the city of Paris saw an amazingly stellar confluence of creative talent, from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso to Gertrude Stein. But across the Atlantic in New York City, a similar amalgamation of talent regularly gathered around a single table at a single restaurant. It was, of course, the famed Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel.

A list of Round Table regulars reads like a who's who of 20s and 30s theater and journalism. It included playwrights George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, as well as newspaper columnists Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner, and Franklin P. Adams. The group encompassed everything from drama critics like Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott to performers like Harpo Marx and Tallulah Bankhead.

It was indeed a heady group of potent personalities that gathered for those illustrious lunches, but perhaps the most compelling personality of all was packed into the diminutive form of Dorothy Parker. Combining a sweetness of manner with a quick and lacerating wit, she was no one to trifle with. Clare Booth Luce, for example, learned the cost of crossing verbal lances with her when she allowed Parker to precede her through a door with a derisive "Age before beauty." Walking past Luce with a flourish, Parker replied, "Pearls before swine."

In the current release, "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," the formidable Mrs. Parker and her talented associates are recreated for a generation that has, incredibly, forgotten most of them. If the film and its attendant publicity has stirred your curiosity about these remarkable men and women, here are some titles featuring their work to look for on video.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1941). Based on a play by Round Tabler George S. Kaufman, the title character of this comedy is in turn based on another member of the group, critic Alexander Woollcott. The character's name is Sheridan Whiteside, an irascible and imperious radio and newspaper columnist. Forced by an accidental injury to convalesce in the home of a family whom he clearly considers beneath him, he makes certain that everyone in the household stays at least as miserable as he is.

"A Star is Born" (1937). Janet Gaynor stars as a small-town girl gone to Hollywood in search of stardom. The roots of this familiar story extend back to a play called "Merton of the Movies" by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, both Round Tablers, and this version was adapted for the screen in part by Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell.

"Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1940). Round Tabler Robert Sherwood adapted his own Pulitzer Prize winning play focusing on Lincoln's life and careers before winning the presidency. Raymond Massey, who had played the title role on the stage, repeated his widely praised performance for the film version. George Kaufman's comment was, "Massey won't be satisfied until he's assassinated."

"The Sky's the Limit" (1943). The many delightful short films featuring Robert Benchley giving mock-pompous lectures remain, so far, maddeningly unavailable on video. [2010 NOTE: Happily, this is no longer the case. Several of the Benchley short subjects can now be obtained on DVD from Warner Brothers' Warner Archive collection.] Until this outrage is rectified, we'll have to make do with this Fred Astaire musical which includes one of those Benchley lectures as the highlight of one of its scenes. When he begins fumbling around with charts to make a point that he's long since forgotten, you may well get the eerie sensation that Benchley was lampooning Ross Perot some 50 years before Ross got it together.

"Dinner at Eight" (1933). Based on a play by Round Tablers Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman and adapted in part by Round Tabler Herman Mankiewicz, this was one of the all-star productions in which the MGM studio showcased its impressive stable of talent. The film portrays an elegant dinner party at which the patina of glamor and refinement barely masks the miserable lives of its participants. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

In a way, the dinner party of "Dinner at Eight" comes uncomfortably close to mirroring those Round Table luncheons. As talented and clever as they were, most of the Round Table crew were substance abusers, and many of them came to a bad, lonely end. Their story is an object lesson in the frailty of the vessels that incarnate the entertainment and wisdom we most treasure. We might do well to bear that frailty in mind as the chill winds of partisan politics begin to blow through the institutions that support today's creative talents.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Vaulting Ambition (originally published 11/95)

If you buy the premise that storytellers do their best work when dealing with familiar subject matter, the recent success of "To Die For" makes perfect sense. Who would know better about driving ambition and a blind, amoral hunger for success than the filmmaking community? As you might imagine, it's a subject they've dealt with many times before. Here are some earlier movies about vaulting ambition and its victims. Each is available on video.

"All About Eve" (1950). Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz's classic turns a jaundiced eye on the rise of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the newest toast of Broadway. The film begins with a ceremony honoring Eve for winning the Sarah Siddons award for acting, then flashes back to show us how many people she stepped on to reach that pinnacle. Most especially she steps on Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the Broadway star whom Eve befriends only to betray. The seamy proceedings are narrated for us in appropriately cynical fashion by dyspeptic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).

"Room At the Top" (1959). The late 1950s and early 1960s in Britain saw the emergence of a group of playwrights and filmmakers who have been collectively labeled the "angry young man" dramatists. This pungent indictment of the British class system is a product of that movement. Laurence Harvey stars as Joe Lampton, an ambitious working class fellow who is determined to rise in the world. Recognizing that no amount of industriousness will accomplish this goal, he resolves to marry into the upper crust. He pursues and wins the affection of a young woman from a highly placed family. At the same time, he begins an affair with a woman nearer his own station in life, for whom he has genuine feelings. Needless to say, the time comes when he must choose between love and ambition.

"The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974). Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, this Canadian film offers an early look at the developing talents of Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the title role. Duddy is a driven and ambitious young man, torn between the example of his father, a two-bit hustler, and that of his uncle, a successful and ethically responsible businessman. Duddy, hungry for quick success, elects the low road, achieving some success but losing his uncle's respect in the process.

"The Day of the Locust" (1975). It took only 36 years for Nathanael West's caustic short novel on the underbelly of Hollywood to be adapted into a movie. Considering the intensely unflattering portrait West paints of the movie colony, it's actually a little surprising that it ever made it to the screen at all. Karen Black plays Faye Greener, an ambitious, amoral young actress who is determined to make it in the movie business. In furthering her aspirations she does not hesitate to use those who fall under the spell of her superficial charm. The first of these is Tod Hackett (William Atherton), a set designer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. More tragically, she strings along a simple-minded fellow named Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), who becomes her sugar daddy without even receiving the usual benefits in return. Faye sacrifices Homer to her ambition without a thought, despite the fact that she never even achieves the success for which she has ruined his life.

"Macbeth" (1948). The ultimate tale of ruinous ambition, of course, is the one that gave us the phrase "vaulting ambition" in the first place. Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman and kinsman of King Duncan, is tricked by three witches into coveting the crown. Spurred on by his ruthless wife, he murders Duncan and diverts suspicion of the deed onto Duncan's sons, who therefore flee the country. This leaves Macbeth free to claim the throne. In the end, however, it is Macbeth himself who is the victim of his own reckless ambition. Orson Welles, one of the best cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare, made this stylish version of "Macbeth" on a shoestring budget for Republic, a studio best known for its B-Westerns and serials.

"Macbeth" is renowned in the theater as a bad luck play. Maybe that's because it, like each of these films, is about the attempt to forge one's own luck out of the misery of others. It's a doomed endeavor but, as Nicole Kidman knows, it makes for good drama.