After the 1997 AFI 100 “A-list,” this is the rest of the American canon through 2019.
This list includes all of the American-made films that are NOT already on the 1997 AFI 100, from the following lists:
Metacritic Top 25
IMDb Top 25
2007 AFI 100
University of Turin’s study of the 20 Most Influential Films
Films that were, upon release, the highest-grossing film of all time (until being displaced by another such film)
BBC Top 25 of the 21st Century (177 critics)
Sight and Sound Top 175, 2012 list (about 1000 filmmakers/critics)
My *other* 25 most influential films not heretofore covered
This is presented chronologically to let this list serve as a secondary “narrative” of American cinema. Most lists are about ostensible “greatness”; this site is about IMPORTANCE, defined with roughly a 3-to-1 ratio of greatness-to-influence, a sort of living stature that the site and the podcasts repeatedly question and explore.
As a term, “B-list” should be considered somewhat tongue-in-cheek; in fact, the total of the Rotten Tomatoes scores of this list is slightly higher than that of the “A-list.” The more salient point is that if you have seen all of the motion pictures on this list and the AFI 100, people will say that you have seen the basic building blocks of American cinema…a notion that the next list (the counter-canon) challenges.
“Seeing youth drawn to youth, Miss Jenkins realizes the bitter fact that she is no longer part of the younger world.”
After The Birth of a Nation, Griffith had several scripts for shorts lying around; he might have made them as written, or he might have developed each one into its own feature. He chose to do neither, and instead combine four of them into one interwoven, monumental story that would, unlike any short, justify the sort of lavish sets and costumes that would wow the crowds, and maybe even rival or improve upon Italian epics like Cabiria. Griffith would borrow Cabiria’s moving camera and put it on a crane for his most spectacular shot, that of Babylon in sumptuous splendor, with six train-engine-sized colonnades supporting balconies full of people walking around life-sized upright elephant sculptures – a testament to cinema’s power to conjure tableaus beyond that of any other medium.
Griffith told one of his stars, Lillian Gish, that they were creating a new language, one that Griffith saw as combining the other great art forms to create a new art form. Contemporaries agreed, writing that for millennia, six art forms had existed, namely the three so-called plastic (or permanently molded) arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting, and the three less molded arts of music, dance/performance, and poetry/prose, and then one day, voila, a seventh art form appeared called cinema. Griffith enjoyed comparing himself to Shakespeare and Dickens, and was thrilled when critics praised the novelistic, melodramatic cross-cutting in the final 30 minutes of Birth. For his next film, Griffith would cut between locations and between centuries, even millennia. He would film literal pages of a book, or sometimes stone tablets, with title cards over them in case any audience members got confused. When possible, Griffith would assign a different color tint to each of his four periods, although none of those specialized prints now survive. All Griffith needed was a unifying theme, and he felt he found it in the triumph of love over intolerance. Griffith meant to also rebuke critics of Birth, as though his prejudice against non-white people was simply prejudice for letting people love. I realize some people will never see Intolerance because of, well, intolerance of Griffith, and while I understand that, Intolerance is both foundational and fascinating. Griffith’s conflicting prejudices made Intolerance what it was, and what it wasn’t.
Intolerance is never boring or lacking for intrigue. It begins by establishing the motherly motif of Lillian Gish rocking a timeless, or really time-straddling, cradle. In the present day of 1916, we meet a wealthy, maybe-35-year-old Miss Jenkins standing outside a vibrant dance hall as she is becoming, titles tell us, “bitter that she is no longer part of the young world.” We meet the Dear One, old enough for love but girlish enough for pigtails and cartwheels, clearly part of Griffith’s preferred world. We cut to the birth of Jesus, while in the nearby Bethlehem streets, land-owning Pharisees demand local Jews deference. We cut to French Court in 1572, where Catherine de Medici looks on with bitterness as her son, King Charles the Ninth, favors the upstart Huguenots. In the Paris streets, a mercenary soldier thirsts for an already-betrothed Huguenot named Brown Eyes. And we cut to ancient Babylon of 539 B.C., with prodigiously opulent fixtures and 50-foot castle walls that no enemy has ever broached. In Babylon we meet the Mountain Girl, the film’s fieriest, fiercest, fearlessest female, who throws rocks at would-be suitor Rhapsode. Back in 1916, workers strike, bosses cut wages, and so Dear One and her father move to a nearby slum where they rub shoulders with unsavory citizens. Back in ancient Babylon, Mountain Girl’s brother puts her up for auction where she laughs at dudes until she meets Belshazzar, fresh off establishing the world’s first court of justice, who gives the Mountain Girl a seal that will permit her to marry or not. Meantime, Rhapsode tries to convert people away from Belshazzar and toward the High Priest of Bel, who schemes as he watches the city from on high. Broke and hungry, Dear One’s father dies, and she begins dating a Boy who, under her influence, quits working for the criminal Musketeer, who in turn makes an example by framing the Boy for theft and sending him to prison. The movie makes a big deal out of Jesus’s first miracle, in Galilee, being the changing of water into wine. The Pharisees show up to stone an adulterous woman until Jesus stops them by saying “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” By now, the spinster Jenkins has given her fortune to, and joined, the Uplifters, a group of stiff-upper-lipped women who shut down dance halls and take away alcohol. Outside Babylon, we see Cyrus’s troops preparing to attack, and we are invited to despise this holistic group of “Barbarians,” Persians, Ethiopians (seen for three seconds, these are the only Blacks in the 3-hour film), and the treacherous high priest of Bel. With Dear One’s Boy wrongly imprisoned, she must raise the infant alone, and seeing this, The Uplifters seize Dear One’s babe right out of her arms. Another older woman that the film hates, Catherine de Medici, persuades her Catholic courtesans to declare war on the Huguenots. Cyrus assaults Babylon with siege towers in a long, long, long battle, but Babylon barely holds, partly thanks to the Mountain Girl’s assiduous arrows. The Musketeer meets Dear One and promises to help recover her infant. More than an hour into any cut of the film, we finally see Babylon in the full splendor I mentioned, including a lot of lasciviously vertical and horizontal women, even as Mountain Girl becomes suspicious of, and secretly follows, Rhapsode and the high priest of Bel. More invidiously, the Musketeer’s wife follows her husband to Dear One’s flat, and sees him seducing/assaulting her even as the Boy, fresh out of prison, breaks in to stop them; the Musketeer’s wife shoots her husband dead and throws the gun into the flat, causing the police to arrest and charge the Boy with murder. A jury sentences him to hang. In France, Brown Eyes awakens to the start of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Finally, the Musketeer’s wife admits her crime, and as she and Dear One race to the gallows to stop the execution, the French army slaughters and the Mountain Girl speeds to cut off Cyrus, causing the intertitles to give way to rushing, chasing, and carnage. The thirsty mercenary soldier tries to rape Brown Eyes, but when she resists, he kills her and his allies kill her boyfriend. Cyrus invades Babylon, and Mountain Girl fights to her death, attended by two solemn white doves. Jesus is hung on the cross as the women arrive just in time to save Dear One’s baby daddy from the gallows. In a final rush of aspirational double-exposures, prison walls become wisteria, warring soldiers become warm comrades, and love brings peace as the cradle will rock throughout time.
Intolerance, a film about straddling periods of time, was both behind and ahead of its time. As a Kentuckian defending alcohol through the ages, Griffith was too antiquated for the coming 18th amendment, but actually anticipatory of the later-coming 21st amendment. With the exception of the Mountain Girl, delightfully incarnated by an 18-year-old Constance Talmadge, Intolerance is parochially, paternalistically prejudiced against every woman over the age of twenty-five as snooty and intolerant. But timing was perhaps the biggest difference between the box office fortunes of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance: when the former came out in early 1915, America was patriotically pacifist, but by the time the latter came out in late 1916, most Americans were resigned to the Great War, and Griffith’s repeated reminders of love and peace were not really reading the room. But if Intolerance battled to a draw at the box office, the film won the war of history’s wider judgment. Intolerance was Europe and Russia’s favorite American film for most of the next decade, influencing innumerable filmmakers. Intolerance influenced, intimated and even initiated Hollywood. By 1916, shoestring film companies had moved to Los Angeles, but within the next decade they would become well-financed Hollywood studios with backlots that could simulate Babylon, Judea, France, modern New York, or a dozen other picturesque locales. And on a stylistic level, Intolerance proved that a motion picture could simulate or even elevate literature’s narrative fluidity without losing melodramatic pathos. Apres Intolerance, le deluge.
Influenced by: Italian historical epics, 19th-century literature
Influenced: Hollywood casting conventions, Pickford Studios, European masters from Lang to Eisenstein
“He hurt a Native.”
Johnston McCulley’s story “The Curse of Capistrano” was published in 1919 in five installments in All-Story Weekly, one of the period’s pulpy magazines whose potboilers were perpended by product-hungry, prolific, cut-price movie studios. Mary Pickford suggested the story to Fairbanks, who might have taken the path of least resistance and made Capistrano into a madcap comedy, but he saw instead a chance to shift the stale swashbuckler genre. (Fred Niblo directed, but this was the sort of film where the producer-writer-star made first and final decisions.) Partly because McCulley’s story was set in Spanish-ruled California, the film’s period details could be filmed economically, mostly assured by the horseplay, swordplay and rope-play. Onscreen Fairbanks wouldn’t entirely lose his renowned sense of humor, particularly when dressed as Zorro, but the idea was to contrast his heroic alter ego with his dandyish Don Diego de la Vega, a new kind of two-sided hero for new 1920s audiences.
The Mark of Zorro begins with a title card that warns that oppression creates the power that crushes it, whether Cromwell or someone like this film’s masked rider. The first word of dialogue, spoken by one bar patron to another, points out a man who beat “a native” for no reason and now bears the mark of Zorro – and we see the Z on his face even as he and his drunk friends prepare for more oppressing. Quote “In the hut of a native,” unquote a dark-faced man says Señor Zorro is their only friend. Corrupt Governor Alvarado overtaxes Don Carlos Pulido and hires this drunk band of racist oppressors to kill Zorro, but Zorro shows up as Don Vega, fools them, leaves, sees them attack innocent Natives, changes into Zorro, and returns and fights and defeats the mercenaries. As Don Vega, our hero meets the Pulidos and tries to court their adult daughter Lolita, but she finds him foppish and repulsive, telling a friend, “he isn’t a man, he’s a fish!” The banditos, led by the dark-hearted Captain Ramon, invade the Pulidos’ home looking for Zorro, and Vega changes into Zorro to lead them away and astray. When the Pulidos go to the military Presidio to beg to keep their house, Captain Ramon shows up and sexually assaults Lolita, but before he gets too far, Zorro drops from the ceiling, sword-fights with Ramon for a few minutes, brands his neck with the Z, and chases him off the property. Lolita is now in love with Zorro but wants nothing to do with his fancy-pants alter ego. Impudent soldiers invade an indigenous-friendly iglesia and string up its Father Felipe and flay him, causing Vega to change into Zorro, roust some allies at midnight, and string up and flay the chief flayer. Now it’s war, and Ramon’s men arrest and imprison a lot of brown men as well as the Pulido family. Some of the government’s newer conscripts arrive at Don Alberto’s looking for Zorro, and Alberto shames his friend Don Vega for doing no more than offering them wine and then leaving. Minutes later, Zorro shows up and shames this landed-gentry dinner party for permitting oppression and peering at the flaying of a priest; this odd recruitment rhetoric persuades them to roll with Zorro. With their help, Zorro stages a raid and frees the prisoners, and when he asks Lolita if she trusts him, she says love means trust. Zorro’s allies escort the former prisoners to Don Vega’s house as Zorro distracts a couple dozen of Ramon’s soldiers with an elaborate, exhilarating cat-and-mouse game around a large estate. Zorro returns home as Don Vega only to find that Governor Alvarado and Captain Ramon and their personal troops have taken over his house because they now know Zorro will come for Lolita. Zorro’s allied troops are also there but seemingly useless. Ramon insults Vega’s manhood, causing Vega to set off, scrap with Ramon, slip the collar off of his neck to reveal his Z scar, and shamelessly show off his sword, resulting in Ramon remarking, “I know that blade – Zorro?!?” Everyone, including Lolita, stares at Don Vega and says “ZORRO?!?” Vega-slash-Zorro slashes up Ramon and puts his epee’s point to the Governor’s chest, demanding that he abdicate. The governor sees that even his troops are now lost to him and he surrenders, causing everyone in the room to rejoice. Vega leaps up to the balcony to let Lolita know that he looks, lectures, and loves like Zorro. They try to kiss discreetly behind a bandana, but the breeze blows it high, and…so these sweethearts smooch anyway.
For Fairbanks himself, The Mark of Zorro marked a pivot from contemporary satire to historical swashbuckling, a mini-genre that became more spectacular, and expensive, with more Fairbanks films like The Three Musketeers in 1921, Robin Hood in 1922, The Thief of Bagdad in 1924, and The Black Pirate in 1926. These pictures set the standard for action-adventure, a genre that provided work for a lot of other silent-film actors, although none matched the fame and fortune of Fairbanks, who in 1927 was the first to place his feet in the cement outside the new Graumann’s Chinese Theater and, in the same year, was elected first President of the Motion Picture Academy, a job that included handing out the first Academy Awards. In many ways, every action star, from Fairbanks Junior to Flynn to Ford to the Fast and the Furious, are following in Fairbanks’ wet-cement-formed footsteps.
The character of Zorro, formulated by Fairbanks for folks that had never heard of him, is himself foundational. The key precedent is The Scarlet Pimpernel, a character created by Baroness Orczy in 1903, featured in his own book, play, and even a 1917 movie starring Dustin Farmer – just the sort of formulaic film that Fairbanks hoped to transcend. The Pimpernel is a masked hero who leaves calling cards and attracts women who dislike him in his “ordinary” life. But the Pimpernel’s calling cards are flowers, his clothes are ruffly, and his raison d’etre is saving aristocrats from France’s reign of terror. By contrast, Zorro’s calling cards are carved “Z”s, his clothes are shiny black topped by a sombrero cordobes, and his raison d’etre is defending commoners and indigenous peoples of California from tyrants and other deplor-ab-les, ably assisted by his clever deaf servant Bernardo and his faithful black stallion Tornado. In many ways, Zorro was the first American superhero, inspiration of every humble populist masked avenger who attracted a woman (and repulsed her with his secret identity); young Bruce Wayne’s parents were coming out of a screening of The Mark of Zorro when they were killed, leaving Wayne to grow up and become the Zorro-like Batman. Bottom line, Fairbanks’ Zorro made a major mark.
Influenced by: The pulp story, having only been invented the year before
Influenced: led to Fairbanks’ 1920s, from Robin Hood to Thief of Bagdad to The Black Pirate, setting the template for future action films
“Don’t you lay your fingers on that sack!”
The story of the making and unmaking of Greed is probably better-known than the film itself; amongst film scholars, Greed has taken on almost Talmudic significance, like an endlessly enigmatic elegy from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Von Stroheim-friendly version avers that the director signed with Abe Lehr because he bragged about encouraging directors their “individuality and personality,” and at the same time Abe Lehr bragged that Von Stroheim would be saving money by not building new sets. This latter point was remarkable for a picture set thirty years in the past in fidelity to the novel, but that fidelity also meant extensive location shooting in San Francisco, the high Sierras, and Death Valley – the latter in summer. Some histories call Greed the first feature filmed fastidiously on location. Quantitatively, Abe Lehr’s Goldwyn Company’s investment paid off handsomely – Von Stroheim filmed an unprecedented 85 hours of footage – but qualitatively, the Goldwyn Company didn’t really want a 2-hour film’s ratio of footage shot to footage used to be anywhere near 40 to 1. Ah, but Von Stroheim had no intention of making a 2-hour film; his ratio may have been closer to 10 to 1, as evidenced by the 9-hour film he showed to his colleagues and about a dozen critics.
Remember that it had been less than ten years since Americans adjusted their attention spans from 30-minute films to 2-hour films; maybe people could do another quadrupling? In fairness to Von Stroheim, he expected to, and did, cut it down to a more manageable, uh, roughly 5 hours, perhaps inspired by Germany’s 5-hour-ish Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. What Von Stroheim did not expect was that during his year of editing, for reasons unrelated to him, the Goldwyn Company would merge with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer, forming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, placing yet another film of Von Stroheim’s at the mercy of Irving Thalberg. Later, Thalberg told the L.A. Times that he had taken the film to different suburban theaters, “took note of the places where interest seemed to droop,” and cut accordingly; naturally Thalberg defended these cuts as having made the film stronger. Von Stroheim disagreed vehemently and eventually violently; during one explosive shouting match, Louis B. Mayer apparently punched the Austrian, an anecdote that in itself shaped much of Hollywood’s 1930s product.
In Greed, John McTeague is a coal miner in Placer County, California, who meets a traveling dentist and becomes his apprentice, eventually opening his own practice in San Francisco. One day, McTeague’s friend Marcus Schouler brings his fiancée Trina to the dentist, and while she waits, she buys a lottery ticket. Trina and McTeague begin dating, and when her ticket wins her $5000, Schouler is bitterer about the lost money than he was about the lost fiancée. Just before Schouler leaves SF to pursue cattle ranching, he reports McTeague for practicing without a license and causes McTeague to lose his business. As months pass, Trina and McTeague become so broke that they must sell their few possessions, but Trina refuses to let McTeague touch her 5000-dollar windfall or a few hundred other dollars she has saved. The film makes much of her fingering her own money before McTeague, in frustration, bites her fingers. McTeague takes four hundred fifty and tries to earn a living fishing as Trina’s fingers become infected, and she takes a job as an elementary school janitor to pay for her fingers’ amputation. McTeague fails at fishing, forfeits his funds, and finds himself begging Trina for more; a day after she refuses, he comes to her job at school, beats her to death, and takes the five thousand dollars off of her corpse. Now a fugitive, McTeague returns to Placer Valley and establishes his own mining company only to learn that most of the region has been claimed. Following rumors, McTeague moves south and finds a quartz deposit just north of Death Valley, but before he can begin mining it, he gets word of marshals nearby. McTeague tries to lure them into summertime Death Valley where the marshals may get lost or dehydrated or killed from afar. As it happens, Schouler is with the marshals and pursues McTeague on his own course. Schouler and McTeague shoot at each other, resulting in McTeague’s horse running away and his canteen punctured and emptied. McTeague and Schouler fight in close quarters, and Schouler handcuffs himself to McTeague just before McTeague delivers the death blow. As the film ends, McTeague huddles in the heart of a hundred-degree desert handcuffed to a corpse with no horse, no water, and no way to return to his money.
Von Stroheim essayed from the best of then-current artistic movements from France, Germany, and the Soviet Union, using impressionistic flashes in some parts, collision editing in others. With that, as Blichert says, the genius of Greed is that we feel increasing empathy for its increasingly despicable leads, a tone that many, many masters imitated, among them Visconti, Welles, and Wilder. Arguably, the film’s planned length would have deepened our investments and moral concessions. However, Erich von Stroheim said that Greed was “cut by a hack with nothing on his mind but a hat.” Its editors worked for Louis B. Mayer, who never believed that the bleak, gloomy film could be a hit, and so demanded cuts that assured that…it wouldn’t be. In this regard, the battle over Greed presaged countless future battles between moguls and movie-makers. After many more developments that I’m deleting with the ruthlessness of Metro’s editors, a few parts of America saw a 4-hour version of Greed, but the most commonly available one ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and that’s the easiest one to see today. We can also see a stilted, reconstructed 4-hour version, but anything more is permanently lost – 81 hours’ worth of celluloid melted for traces of silver nitrate that Mayer presumed would be more valuable. Today, we wonder why von Stroheim ever thought to make a five-hour film – or possibly a nine-hour film, if that really was his intention – about such a relatively simple story of a corrupted love triangle. To ask the question is to invert the logic: cast-of-thousands, wide-angle, epic-scope films are the only films permitted four hours precisely becausevon Stroheim’s film wasn’t allowed to succeed. A century on, Greed comes to us as the original fort/da of film history, as interesting for what it contains as for what is missing.
Influenced by: camera innovations; social Darwinism; films like Intolerance; von Stroheim’s understanding of America and Hollywood, onscreen and off
Influenced: Eisenstein, Renoir, von Sternberg, Welles, Del Toro, Sontag, Hawks, Kurosawa, May, etc
“He’s a disgrace to the South.”
Keaton’s co-director and longtime collaborator, Clyde Bruckman, too often forgotten by film historians, brought to Keaton William Pittenger’s memoir “The Great Locomotive Chase,” the true story of the Confederate Army stealing a Union train and sabotaging the rail lines behind them. It was Keaton’s idea to swap armies, because in the 1920s, authors and culture-makers saw Confederates as a defeated people, not to be made into villains. At that point, Keaton might have turned the rest into a fairy tale, but instead he over-compensated with relative realism, bringing to set 18 freight cars’ worth of Civil War-era cannons, props, wigs, costumes, passenger cars, stagecoaches, wagons, and even house facades. Cottage Grove, Oregon, turned out to be a better shooting location than the actual Tennessee localities, partly because it had unused vintage trains and tracks, but also – less often noted – because some tracks were built far enough apart so that Bruckman could follow the onscreen train with a dolly camera on the unseen track. Jo seph Schenck, the then-head of United Artists, loved Keaton and Bruckman’s ideas and allocated a then-high $400,000 budget – only to see, that summer of ’26, as Keaton’s meticulous manipulations of made-up militias brought the budget far beyond $400,000, perhaps as much as double that number. One multi-camera shot of thousands of extras dressed as soldiers cost about $42,000, which would be considered the most expensive shot in silent-film history were it not for another shot that cost just about as much, the climactic moment of The General falling from a burning bridge into a river.
The General begins with the General, a train engine, and its engineer, Johnnie Gray, just as the Civil War breaks out. Gray tries to enlist and is rejected twice, first by his native Georgia, second by his fiancée Annabelle, who prefers a man in uniform. A year later, Annabelle’s father is wounded and she travels north to see him on a W&ARR train pulled by The General. At a station, most passengers get off for a meal, but Annabelle remains onboard the General as it is usurped by unabashed Unionists. Johnnie Gray gives pursuit by foot, handcar, and boneshaker bicycle, arriving at a town where he finds an engine called Texas, and Confederates to help him, but a failed hitch-up results in the former leaving the latter. Driving the Texas, Johnnie passes a cannon on a flatbed, hooks it up, arms the cannon, lights the fuse, watches as the muzzle falls to point at the Texas, then gets lucky around a bend as the cannon fires and just misses the Union Soldiers on the General, causing them to believe an army is firing at them. They attempt to derail the Texas by throwing wood beams on the tracks; in one rather memorable moment, Johnnie rides his cowcatcher and unmoors one beam with another. Eventually, the Union soldiers dump 2 by 4s on the Texas from atop a high bridge, where they see that Johnnie is sans mates, do an about-face, and give chase, causing Gray to disembark and hide in the wooden glades. Hungry, Johnnie sneaks into a house, only to hide under a table as Union officers enter, sit next to him, and plan a surprise attack at the Rock River Bridge. Gray sees Annabelle held captive in a room, manages to knock out her two guards, and escapes with her into the rainy woods. The next day, when Johnnie and Annabelle see the Union gathering for their secret assault, Johnnie dresses in Blue, hides his fiancée in the General and steals it back. The Union’s hot pursuit reverses the situation of the film’s first half. After changing back to his Rebel uniform, Johnnie manages to warp a track, delaying the Union for a crucial hour while Johnnie sets fire to the Rock River Bridge and alights in a Confederate camp to warn them of the sneak attack. Annabelle reunites with her wounded father while Johnnie joins the Rebels to counter the Yankees, whose commander insists that the Rock River Bridge isn’t so burned as to prevent an engine crossing it. The camera actually pans to show the Union engine attempting to cross the bridge, which spectacularly collapses with the engine’s weight. Forces conflict at the forded river; Johnnie fights poorly but is fortunate. Back at camp, Johnnie’s valor gets rewarded by medallion and by Annabelle’s renewed happiness with him. As they lean on the General, Gray tries to push away her hair to kiss her, but the etiquette of passing soldiers requires him to salute and miss the kiss. In a last bit of symbolism that may also be a, ahem, salute to Zorro, Johnnie switches sides for a final time and smooches Lolita using his left hand to push away her locks, his right hand saluting and saluting and saluting as more soldiers pass.
Keaton expert Noel Carroll wrote, “The most recurrent themes in Keaton’s narratives and gags [are] the question of mastering and understanding causal relations in a world of things, on the one hand, and the question of correctly locating and precisely orienting oneself within one’s environment on the other hand.” The General provides an exceptionally audience-friendly version of these themes, with Johnnie Gray adjusting to chaos in the first half, and coordinating the chaos in the second. The General comes to us now as the funniest of action movies, or the most action-packed of comedies, in many ways better than any single film of Chaplin’s, certainly separating Keaton from Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy in terms of scale and scope much as The Gold Rush had done for Chaplin in 1925. But The Gold Rush was a well-loved hit, while The General, well…the General is categorized as a 1926 film because it was released in two theaters in Japan on December 31, 1926, but its proper release was in February 1927, where it earned…roughly as much as Schenck’s original budget, or about $300,000 less than the film cost. Like Von Stroheim, Keaton would now be bound to a burdensome MGM contract for the rest of the peak of his career; like Von Stroheim and Fairbanks, the coming sound era would do him no favors. One of the underdiscussed reasons that we underdiscuss the silent era is that late-twenties audiences over-dismissed its stars and styles at the sound era’s sunrise.
Influenced by: vaudeville, Keystone films, Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin
Influenced: this film did so poorly that Keaton never again enjoyed complete filmmaking freedom, but later, this film and Keaton influenced postmodernists and comedians from Billy Wilder to Woody Allen
“Then overturn the boat…it will look like an accident.”
Written by Murnau’s longtime collaborator and nonpareil Expressionist artist Carl Mayer, based on Hermann Sudermann’s novel “The Excursion to Tilsit,” Sunrise is intentionally generalized and made metaphorical, with its three leads bearing the names The Man, The Wife, and The Woman from the City, and the period vaguely set at any point during the new century. Sunrise signaled a new dawn as it was the first-ever feature made with the new, soon-to-be-standard Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, but Murnau chose to leave dialogue un-synch-ed, only synch-ing the sound effects and score. The cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss is particularly groundbreaking, with lush dreamy rural visuals that resemble Goya paintings alternating with double-exposed tracking shots that follow our Man and Wife through urban chaos. Even the fonts of the intertitles are made, well, expressive.
In Sunrise, The Woman from the City visits a lush lakeside town and affixes her eye on The Man, who lives in a modest shack with his Wife and their child dreaming of the days when he and his Wife were deeply in love. The visiting woman whistles for the Man, who is torn but finally leaves his shack and kisses this temptress. She tells him to sell his farm, join her in the city, and by the way kill his wife, a notion that causes him to strangle her until he loses his nerve. Soon, The Man takes The Wife on a boat outing on a lake, and moves to throw her overboard, but when she pleads for mercy, he loses his nerve again. When the boat reaches shore, she dashes away to catch a coming trolley, and he follows, boards, sits next to her on the trolley, and begs her not to fear him. Less than thirty minutes in, our emotional investment is comparable to a film’s final act; we deeply understand the conflict between Man and Wife and fear the result no matter which way it gets resolved. After they disembark the trolley in the city, we watch, wonderstruck, the Wife’s paralyzed body language and the big Man begging her forbearance with words and gifts. They see a bride, follow her into a church, watch the wedding, and the Man breaks down and begs her to forgive him. Tearfully, they leave the church and walk through the hubbub of the city which transforms into a dreamlike pastoral as she forgives him; when they come back to reality, they’re almost hit by traffic. Now delirious with relief, restitution, and renewed affection, they revel in a resplendently romantic day in the city; instead of an affair, the Man chooses a fair, a funfair, to enjoy with his wife. On the way back home, on the boat crossing the lake, they’re caught in a sudden storm, and the man ties around his wife some reeds he’d brought in case he needed to swim away from a capsizing. After the boat capsizes, the Man awakens on the shore, gathers townspeople to search for his Wife, and finds naught but broken reeds. With the Man home again and heartbroken, the Woman from the City turns up, cocksure that their plan has worked. The Man strangles her for real this time, but she is saved when a woman calls out that The Wife has been found alive, having clung to a small bundle of reeds. The Man leaves the Woman from the City, kneels at the Wife’s bed, and watches as she slowly opens her eyes. They kiss as the film dissolves into the sunrise outside.
Sunrise is an extraordinary film by any standard, probably the best non-comic silent film. The film is about dichotomies: city and country, woman and man, passion and revulsion, and even on the level of style, sound and silence as well as expressionism and realism. It recognizes and insists that bridging these opposites is never, ever as easy as many other films imply, and that any harmony in the bridging should be, and is, hailed as miraculous. Somehow, the overt symbolism of the non-names and the urban/rural imagery doesn’t play as phony but instead as more universal than it probably deserves.
Influenced by: German Expressionism, French Impressionism
Influenced: avant-garde envelope-pushing artists
“What am I bid for my apple, the fruit that made Adam so wise? On the historic night, when he took a bite, they discovered a new paradise.”
Paramount Pictures, having extended von Sternberg’s contract after Underworld, was probably only too happy when, in 1929, its sister studio in Germany, UFA, asked for von Sternberg to travel to Berlin to make the first sound film of prestigious stage and silent actor Emil Jannings. If you’ve seen Cabaret, you might now imagine Jannings traveling to the real time and place and discovering none other than Marlene Dietrich and casting her as Jannings’ muse and undoer. In winter 1930, von Sternberg wrapped production on The Blue Angel, secured reels of a few scenes, received from Dietrich a copy of “Amy Jolly,” returned on a boat to the United States, and convinced Paramount to offer Dietrich a contract even before The Blue Angel’s American release. Dietrich was brought to Hollywood in mid-1930 and almost rushed to the set to make her first American film, based on “Amy Jolly” and retitled Morocco.
Morocco is probably Von Sternberg’s American masterpiece, and together with his German masterpiece, The Blue Angel, he set the tone for his 1930s string of Dietrich-obsessive love stories in war-torn foreign locales, a considerably influential oeuvre. Dietrich herself, introduced in Morocco in tux and tails with a kiss for a woman, became, with a little help from Paramount Pictures’ promotional team, what Andrew Sarris called “the purveyor of pansexuality and the supreme lover, male or female.” Dietrich was the ne plus ultra of sultry even for the less androgynous, from Garbo to West to Del Rio, but her pairing with Gary Cooper was more than just the singular matching of two of the most desired persons of the century. Dietrich proved that sound-era Hollywood could produce vibrant new stars, but Cooper in Morocco proved that sound-era Hollywood wouldn’t always have to. Gary Cooper in Morocco didn’t need lessons in movement, voice, or really anything; his projected persona was just what his most ardent silent fans might have hoped for, right down to the fact that he was playing a French Foreign Legionnaire in an unaltered plainspoken Montana drawl. In the unprecedented tumult of the sound transition, Morocco was the first great film that reappropriated most of the silent-film apparatus, from a lead like Cooper to the chiaroscuro lighting to the Arab-world sets. Quoting Charles Silver, the film curator at Museum of Modern Art, Morocco was the first film “to attain full mastery and control of what was essentially a new medium by restoring the fluidity and beauty of the late silent period.” Morocco is on this list not as the first great American sound film – that would be All Quiet on the Western Front – but as the first one that Hollywood could and would repeatedly emulate.
Morocco begins in an unnamed port city of Morocco where a contingent of the French Foreign Legion arrives around the same time as a passenger ship containing one Amy Jolly, whom we see rebuff the interest of one M’sieur La Bessiere. Amy Jolly turns out to be the headliner at a local nightclub, where she comes onstage in tuxedo and tails, performs “When Love Dies,” kisses a woman on the mouth, and playfully throws the woman’s flower to Legionnaire Private Tom Brown. She dresses in a womanlier fashion for her second number, “What am I bid for my apple?”, and afterward, while selling apples to the audience, she gives Private Tom her key. Tom visits Amy’s dressing room, and they talk of heartbreak and the shame of not meeting ten years before and decide that they like each other. As they walk arm-in-arm, a jealous ex-lover, Madame Caesar, hires two locals to assault Tom, but Tom attacks them back. The next day, when officers bring Tom before Adjutant Caesar on a court-martial-worthy charge of injuring two harmless natives, the Adjutant accuses Tom of romancing his wife. As a favor to Amy, the thirsty and wealthy La Bessiere persuades Caesar to drop the court-martial and instead send Tom on a suicide mission to Amalfi Pass. After La Bessiere tries and fails to court Amy, Tom stops by her dressing room to say goodbye, and Amy begs him to desert to the desert. Tom suggests they board a train to Europe together, and she agrees, but when she leaves to perform, he notices La Bessiere’s lavish gifts, decides she would be better off with a rich man, and writes on her mirror, “I changed my mind. Good luck!” When Amy comes to see Tom off anyway, she finds him in the company of many women that he has gathered to make her think him a scoundrel. She asks La Bessiere about some other women she watches following the men into the desert, and he answers that they may appear mad, but “you see, they love their men.” At Amalfi Pass, during a firefight, Caesar draws a pistol on Tom but is apparently killed by the enemy. Back in the town, Amy is behaving erratically at work and with La Bessiere, and when he confronts her about her feelings for Tom she shows him the mirror note and she agrees to his marriage proposal. At their engagement party, they learn that Caesar’s surviving troops are in a nearby hospital, and Amy insists on seeing what’s left of Tom. In the hospital, Caesar tells Amy Tom has been faking injury to avoid combat, and she finds him in a local bar cuddling with a local woman. He encourages her to marry the rich guy and gets up to join his unit which is mounting a new mission in the morning. Amy, distraught, sifts through Tom’s table of playing cards and cigarette ashes, and finds a wood heart on which Tom has carved the words “AMY JOLLY.” The next morning, Tom marches off and Amy remains torn, but as she watches a group of local ladies following the Legionnaires they love, she joins them.
Charles Silver writes that one reason Morocco was such an effective early talkie was that, perhaps ironically, von Sternberg’s “understanding of the value of silence itself.” From a modern perspective, there may be too many pauses between lines, leaving one to wonder if perhaps Paramount over-worried about dubbing it into other languages. Another way to see it is that 1930 audiences were seeing for the first time in a sound film the breathless longing and yearning between two very attractive people that had previously only existed in books or on stage. Without need for any particular dialogue, we understand why their characters would be better off without the other, why they can’t let the other go, and why at the end she follows him through the desert. Morocco was a big box-office hit, and Dietrich was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. Her uninhibited sexuality and independence influenced Hollywood and American culture for the remaining two-thirds of the century.
Influenced by: German and American trends in filmmaking
Influenced: Gary Cooper became a symbol of America, Dietrich became an oasis for the gender-fluid before that term existed
“There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Last podcast was partly about F.W. Murnau, whose excellent Expressionist film Nosferatu, released in Germany in 1922, led to 1931’s Dracula in more ways than one. The Irish author of the novel “Dracula,” Bram Stoker, could not rise from his coffin to challenge Nosferatu’s obvious plagiarism of his story, but his surviving widow Florence could get enough money for lawyers, ironically, by licensing her late husband’s story to a stage actor/producer who had worked with her late husband. Hamilton Deane’s play of “Dracula” debuted in Darby in 1924 and worked its way through England until 1927, when it began a successful yearlong run in London. In October 1927, on the same day The Jazz Singer debuted, the American adaptation opened on Broadway starring Bela Lugosi in his first major role, as the aristocratic Hungarian Dracula of Stoker’s story instead of the ratlike apparation in Murnau’s film. I told you last podcast that Murnau’s Sunrisewon Most Unique and Artistic Picture at the first Academy Awards in 1929; what I did not tell you was that award led to the long-delayed American release of Nosferatu in 1930, despite Florence Stoker’s lawyers’ best efforts. Louis B. Mayer and the other prestige-peddling moguls were wary of vampires and horror, but Carl Laemmle and especially his son Carl Laemmle Jr., the latter then head of production at his father’s Universal Studios, were willing to risk journeying to Transylvania despite the blood-sucking percentages demanded by Florence Stoker and Hamilton Deane.
Laemmle Jr. was hands-on, eventually giving himself a co-producer credit alongside director Tod Browning, and they had no easy time with the many names that might have been their Dracula. Lugosi had been replaced for the play’s American touring production, but like a vampire, happened to replace his American replacement in 1930 when the tour made it to Los Angeles. Lugosi lobbied hard and landed the part partly because he accepted a paltry total salary of $3,500. Laemmle Jr. and Browning instructed their designers, and screenwriter Garrett Fort, to study silent horror like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, but they focused closest on Murnau’s Nosferatu, lifting scenes from it that weren’t in the book or the play, for example an early pricked finger that tempts the vampire. Laemmle wasn’t above plagiarizing his own work, for example a 1925 Universal film called The Storm Breaker for shots of a ship adrift during a violent seastorm. Some say that the performances felt made for silents, but it’s closer to the truth to say that they were made for the stage, cued by Lugosi and the fog and spooky lighting and puppet bats. In the big scenes, much of this staginess is overwhelmed by sound effects created by Jack Foley, for whom the job of creating film sound-effects would be named, the Foley artist.
Dracula begins by introducing an Englishman named Renfield arriving in a Transylvanian town populated by people who, upon learning of his plan to complete a business deal with Count Dracula in his castle, warn him “you mustn’t go there.” The film cuts to the castle’s basement, where creatures emerge from coffins: rats, bees, and four people, these being three women in white and the aristocratically coiffured Count Dracula. Cutting back to Renfield, his new coach arrives, driven by Dracula in disguise. On the way to the castle, Renfield looks out his coach’s window to see that the driver has disappeared and a bat is hovering where the driver was. Somehow, the coach’s horses stop at the correct castle, and Renfield gets out and enters the spooky building, greeted by a caped man who says “I bid you…welcome,” cheers the distant, chilly noises of “children of the night,” and points out a spider spinning a web for an unwary fly. As Renfield sits to complete the business paperwork, he cuts his finger, causing the camera to zoom in on Dracula’s thirsty gaze before Renfield’s cross scares him off. After Dracula offers Renfield wine, Renfield asks “aren’t you drinking?” and Dracula answers, “I never drink…wine.” Dracula hypnotizes Renfield into opening a window, which lets in a bat, leading to all of Dracula’s wives biting Renfield before Dracula waves them off to bite Renfield himself. Aboard the schooner Vesta, Dracula feasts on most of the crew, and when the ship reaches England, Renfield is both the only man alive and a raving lunatic, causing him to be committed to Dr. Seward’s sanitorium. At a London theater, Dracula introduces himself to Seward, and meets his daughter Mina, her fiancé John Harker, and their friend Lucy, who takes an interest in the Count, gets a vampire visit in her sleep, gets rushed to the hospital for blood transfusions, and dies…or does she? Professor Van Helsing interrogates Renfield, who talks of vampires and wolfsbane and eats flies and spiders and how Dracula convinced him to enter custody by promising him thousands of delicious rats. During a visit to Seward’s parlor, as Dracula flirts with Mina to Harker’s consternation, Van Helsing notices that Dracula’s image does not reflect in the mirror, and when Van Helsing points this out to the Count, he smashes the mirror, stalks off, and attacks Mina in the garden. When newspapers report a woman in white luring children to the garden to bite them, Mina recognizes that Lucy has become a vampire, and Van Helsing orders Lucy to sleep with protective wolfsbane around her neck. Van Helsing and Dracula confront each other: the Professor promises to drive a stake through the Count’s heart, and the Count responds by trying to hypnotize the Professor, failing, lunging at him, and being repelled by Van Helsing’s crucifix. On a terrace that night, a bat cues Mina to attack her fiancé Harker, but Seward and Van Helsing save him, and when Mina explains what Dracula did to her, Harker dumps her. Dracula hypnotizes Mina’s nurse into removing the wolfsbane, grabs Mina, and kills Renfield for leading Van Helsing and Harker to him. In a climactic skirmish, Van Helsing impales Dracula through the heart.
Universal couldn’t be sure that audiences would accept a supernatural fright-fest, but viewers and critics mostly loved Dracula. If some found Bela Lugosi’s performance paralytic, others praised it as redolent of a walking, talking corpse. Released in February 1931, the film’s box office turned out to be more than double its budget, and Laemmle quickly repurposed the castle sets for another gothic horror story, Frankenstein, as mentioned in the A-list podcasts. Thanks to the success of Dracula, Universal repurposed itself as the House of Horror, following it first with Frankenstein, next with The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Dracula’s Daughter, and many more.
Influenced by: Bram Stoker’s novel and Nosferatu, but only up to a point, because this film made the Count more of a suave aristocrat
Influenced: few had heard of vampires or Transylvania; the iconography of blood, crosses, and castles seeped into the American imagination
“What do you mean, you could go for her yourself? You could go for an eighty year old chick with rheumatism.”
By mid-1930, as two Hoovers sucked into prison America’s leading criminals – those two Hoovers being President Herbert and FBI Director J. Edgar – Hollywood became both less afraid of violent reprisals and more interested in putting Al Capone-like figures onscreen. The uncomfortable truth was that as the Depression worsened, some Americans saw some gangsters as Robin Hood-like heroes, and it was Darryl Zanuck, Warner Bros. new head of production, who staked his reputation on films that would come close to glorifying gangsters but avoid censure with moralistic opening and closing title cards.
Zanuck also wanted to come close enough to Capone to capture audiences without capturing a lawsuit or a bullet, and found it in two places: W.R. Burnett’s novel “Little Caesar” and John Bright and Kubec Glasmon’s unpublished novel “Beer and Blood.” For the latter, Zanuck chose William A. Wellman to direct partly because Wellman had served in World War I much like the character Mike Powers who gives the speech about Beer and Blood, and Wellman told Zanuck, “I’ll bring you the toughest, most violent picture you ever did see.” The name of the film came by way of the Chicago Crime Commission, in March 1930, designating Al Capone “Public Enemy #1,” an appellation that became part of every article about Capone. Jimmy Cagney was actually cast as Matt Doyle, Tom Powers’ longtime best friend, and Edward Woods was cast as Tom Powers, but after watching the two actors for a couple of days, Wellman switched them. This is why the actors playing Matt Doyle and Mike Powers look like brothers, and also why the kids playing young Tom and Matt look like they’ve been switched. Wellman didn’t have the budget or time to reshoot the kid scenes or recast much of anyone. You can well imagine Cagney’s accented, brusque, ethnic demeanor being relegated to sidekick stature, so give Wellman a little credit for intuiting what would play well to 30s audiences, and also for making a decision that would resonate through every wise-guy, hey-palooka film of the next two decades. The default home for such scripts became Warner Bros; after a dozen imitators of The Jazz Singer wore out their welcome, Little Caesar and The Public Enemypivoted Warner Bros. to the rough and ready, gutter-savvy, hard-boiled identity that it maintained throughout the 1930s.
The opening titles of The Public Enemy warn of the hoodlum problem that society must solve. The first few shots of prewar Chicago are as painterly and evocative as their descendants in Godfather Part II. In 1909, young adolescent Tom uses a string and a wooden sidewalk to trip the old-timey roller-skating sister of his friend Matt, establishing the distant past as well as Tom as a no-good kid. Tom and Matt bring boosted watches to the bar of a guy named Putty Nose who reluctantly gives them a few bits for them. Putty Nose enlists them to help on a warehouse robbery that Tom fouls up, leading to the police killing a fellow gang member, Tom and Matt killing a cop, and Putty Nose skipping town leaving Tom and Matt holding the bag. As young adults, Tom and Matt deepen their delinquency despite Tom’s older brother Mike’s discouragements; both brothers keep their doting mother in the dark. As Mike returns from World War I, Tom and Matt become bootleggers in the growing illegal trade of liquor, a business so lucrative that Tom and Matt can attend a fancy club and pick up well-anointed women despite their rough demeanor. But Tom never loses his street edge; when a bartender fails to stock the correct beer, Tom spits it his face. Tom turns a family dinner into a sumptuous feast, with steak and a keg of beer, but when his brother Mike sulks, Tom asks, “What’s eating you?” and Mike throws the keg across the room accusing Tom of trafficking “beer and blood!” Tom retorts, “You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.” At breakfast, his girlfriend Kitty complains at how Tom treats her, and a silk-pajama-clad Tom impulsively picks up the half-grapefruit off of her plate and shoves it in her face. Driving around Chicago in a beautiful new 1920s convertible, Tom and Matt see a lovely woman who looks and acts like Mae West and convince her to take a ride with them. The woman, Gwen, tells Tom he’s not the worst she’s seen, and agrees to call him later; as they drive away, Matt says he could go for her, to which Tom replies, “you’d go for an 80-year-old chick with rheumatism.” Nonetheless, Matt marries his longtime beau Mamie, and at the wedding reception, Matt and Tom recognize Putty Nose, follow him and confront him; as he tries to play them a familiar song on the piano, the camera pans from the piano so that we hear, but don’t see, Tom shoot Putty Nose twice in the back. When Tom gives his mother a big wad of money, his brother Mike pushes it back to him, causing Tom to rip up the notes and throw them into Mike’s face. As Tom and Matt get drawn into war with a competing gang, they begin walking around Chicago more cautiously, and at one point they together jump and crouch and pivot at the rat-a-tat-tat sound of a coal truck loading. As they stand up laughing at the misdirect, they do incur sniper fire that kills Matt as Tom only barely skitters away. On a rainy night, Tom arrives at the rival gang’s jewelry shop to mete out justice, only to receive bullets himself; he staggers out of the jeweler, bleeding from the head and torso, says “I ain’t so tough,” and falls onto the rain-drenched curb. In the hospital, covered in bandages, Tom reconciles with Mike and agrees to reform. Back home, Tom’s mother gets a message that Tom will soon be coming home and merrily prepares the bedsheets as Mike takes a second suspicious look at the message, having heard that Tom was kidnapped from the hospital. Mike hears a knock at the door, makes sure that he answers it alone, and opens it to see Tom’s dead body, wrapped in sheets, fall CLUNK through the doorway. The closing title warns us that the hoodlum is society’s problem to solve.
In those 30s, gangsters became part of American mythology, as suffering Americans and even much of the world lionized these amoral ethnic white men with tommy-guns who took what they wanted and damned the long-term consequences. That lionization led to at least two surprising developments in 1933, first America’s first and last repeal of one of its own Amendments, Prohibition, and second a stricter Hays Code that would prevent more movies like The Public Enemy – at least until the Code fell apart in the 60s, permitting criminal-themed masterpieces that are also the favorites of critics and imdb users, like Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction. All these films and many more owe their basic structures to Darryl Zanuck’s greenlighting of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy for 1931, and then United Artists reacting to those films by releasing Scarface in 1932.
Influenced by: Capone’s story and reputation, Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931)
Influenced: Among other things, Scarface, whose Howard Hughes and Ben Hecht loomed over 30s and 40s Hollywood
“I have a confession to make to you: You like me. In fact, you’re crazy about me.”
With the advent of sound, Ernst Lubitsch and his writing-directing partner Samuel Raphaelson, like half the town, made musicals, but the Lubitsch-Raphaelson musicals were worldlier and wiser than most of their peers, making Maurice Chevalier into a household name via films like The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant. At that point, successful in 1931, Lubitsch read a brand-new play called The Honest Finder by Laszlo Aladar and decided to convert it not into a musical but a straight comedy with enough tuxedos and ball gowns to distract from the general raciness. He told Raphaelson not to read Aladar’s play but instead to base the lead thief on George Manolescu, a real-life Romanian rapscallion. Decades later, critics would name Trouble in Paradise as the essence of the “Lubitsch touch” and put it on enough best-of lists for me to put it on this B-list.
Paramount Pictures was tepid about Lubitsch changing gears from musical to comedy, and leaned on Lubitsch to cast Maurice Chevalier as the lead so that at least the poster would light up with a Gary Cooper-like star. But Lubitsch and Chevalier had fought on the set of The Smiling Lieutenant, and Lubitsch was wary of the fact that English was Chevalier’s second language; the jewel thief in Trouble in Paradise needed to command every conversation with his concupiscent communication skills. Lubitsch saw an early screening of Blonde Venus and decided that if von Sternberg could change gears from Gary Cooper to Herbert Marshall, then Lubitsch could too. Paramount wasn’t thrilled to cast as a lead this average-sized, ordinary-looking Brit, but what the studio got was a classier version of Groucho Marx-esque banter and perfect confidence in close two-shots, matching well with the fabulous Miriam Hopkins, whom Lubitsch already knew. In many ways, Marshall, Hopkins, and Kay Francis’s rapid, racy repartee and role reversals mark this film as a sort of proto-screwball comedy before anyone knew of that term.
Trouble in Paradise begins in dark alleys that are eventually revealed to be Venice at night, as though Lubitsch wanted to show the dark, seamy side of that postcard paradise before cutting to Gaston Monescu, watching from a window, of that gutter but now posing as an aristocratic baron. Fleecing a rich American named Filiba, Gaston meets a woman who is posing as Baroness and takes her to dinner. They accuse each other of masquerading as high society when in fact they’re low thieves, and after revealing each other’s stolen booty, they fall in love and abscond to Paris. At a Paris opera, Gaston steals a diamond-encrusted purse from Madame Mariette Colet, the young chief of perfume giant Colet and Company, and when she offers a reward, he turns up to claim it as the dapper M’sieur Lavalle. After charming her with ideas about art and grooming, he admits that he lost everything in the stock market, and she offers him a job as her personal secretary, permitting Gaston to secure a related admin job for Lily. Gaston confronts the company’s board of directors, led by M’sieur Giron, that they’re not giving Colet enough money; Gaston observes Colet open her private safe, and convinces her that the safe’s got too little money. Flirting with Colet all day, Gaston develops feelings for her, and Lily warns Gaston that she loves him as a thief, but he better not become a gigolo. At a garden party, Filiba accuses Gaston of having been in Venice, a charge Gaston deflects with jokes about harems in Constantinople. Gaston and Lily fear Filiba finding out their ruse, and make plans to flee France. At a lavish dinner party, a third party tells Filiba he once mistook Gaston for a doctor, and Filiba tells Colet that Gaston is an impostor, but she refuses to believe it, continuing to inappropriately flirt with her secretary. Lily sees this, secretly confronts Gaston, hears his denials, and robs Colet’s safe. Colet finds the safe robbed and accuses Gaston, who protects Lily by claiming complete credit even while blaming M’sieur Giron for filching from her family for years. With Colet on the verge of forgiving and kissing Gaston, Lily opens the door, hands Colet the cash, confesses to the theft by way of disparaging Gaston’s character, and departs with arch best wishes for “Colet…and company.” Gaston confesses everything and tells Colet this is goodbye; Colet understands everything, and lets him off with a parting gift. In the back of a taxi, Gaston and Lily reveal that each one pinched a little something extra from Colet – and each other. Love restored, Lily leaps into Gaston’s lap and they lock lips as the lens closes.Trouble in Paradise wasn’t a huge hit, but it’s the best pre-Code-enforcement example of the sort of movie that the major studios would try to make throughout the 30s – funny, white, sexualized, about non-violent crime, and classy, even if the classiness is complicated by something of a deception. Studios couldn’t quite copy Trouble in Paradise, or at least, not the dialogue’s breathless bawdy blue cheekiness, because Trouble in Paradise is one of the films that led to a much more rigid enforcement of the Hays Code after 1934.
Influenced by: less Chaplin/Keaton, more drawing-room stage comedies of the period
Influenced: the screwball comedy, particularly in terms of deadpan delivery and bourgeois trappings
“Petting in the park? Bad boy. Petting in the dark? Bad girl. First you pet a little, then let up a little, then you get a little kiss.”
Threes curlicue around the film – there are two threes in the title, the film is about a trio of women who wind up with a trio of men, and the film was the third filmed version of Avery Hopwood’s 1919 play “The Gold Diggers.” The first was a 1923 silent adaptation that the second, in 1929, made into a successful talkie musical called Gold Diggers of Broadway. The third, Gold Diggers of 1933, owes these versions both everything and nothing: the story had been done often enough for Warners to know exactly what to cut, but the 1933 film’s new material would have been unimaginable in 1929. For one thing, almost every plot turn is explicitly because of the Depression, a situation that goes a long way toward excusing the ladies’ occasional materialism, even putting the title in something like air quotes. But the real groundbreaking here came from choreographer and designer Busby Berkeley, who staged elaborate, near-abstract musical numbers that could have no easy referent in real life or this podcast. 17 years after Griffith told Gish that they were creating a new language, and after many, many subsequent abstract filmic experiments by the likes of Dali, Delluc, Dulac, Duchamp, and many others, Busby Berkeley brought to bear the business he began in 42nd Street and brought abstraction into the mainstream.
In many ways, deep-Depression-dependent backstage musicals 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 should be considered two sides of the same coin, or two versions of the same story; for the first one, for the first time, Warner Bros. hired songwriters Warren and Dubin, choreographer Busby Berkeley, and actresses Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers, all of whom did or played the same roles in both films, as did Dick Powell as the young male ingenue singer-songwriter. Having to choose between 42 and 33 for this list, I chose Gold Diggers because the repartee is just a bit faster and more knowing, making the women seem more feminist; “The Gold Diggers Song (We’re in the Money)” and “Forgotten Man,” written for this film by Warren and Dubin, are classics and even somewhat deep; and here the Berkeley set-pieces are more extensive, extravagant, and extreme.
Gold Diggers of 1933 begins with a stupendous production of “We’re in the Money”: the camera pans over the closeup faces of beautiful eyelash-batting showgirls before yielding to a dance number that carefully coordinates coin props and chorus girls into kaleidoscopic shapes. Within five minutes, then, the film establishes the Berkeley style: sumptuous closeups with elaborate group work, or what you might call a rather 1933-apropos radical individualism with radical collectivism. Despite all that, this Money show gets closed for lack of money before it opens. Three of the show’s stars – Polly, Carol and Trixie – share an apartment and sit in it, dejected, until a fourth co-star, Fay, shows up promising that their producer is coming with a new offer. A neighbor, Brad, plays a torch song on piano in order to serenade Polly, who is very receptive. The producer, Mr. Hopkins, shows up, hears Brad, tells Polly to bring him over, and slyly jokes “I can fire Warren and Dubin.” Hopkins enjoys Brad’s first song, hates his second, and loves the third, envisioning men marching, spinning fantasies about a song and a show about jobs and struggle and the Depression. When Hopkins bemoans his lack of funds, the girls all moan…until Brad promises to bring Hopkins $15,000 tomorrow as long as Polly gets a featured role in the show. After many jokes back and forth over this offer, Brad shows up the next day with the cash, but he refuses to sing onstage despite his terrific tenor, causing the ladies to think him a thief. After Trixie tells him that without him the show will fail and the cast and crew will starve, he reluctantly agrees, and sings onstage, with Polly, his number “Pettin’ in the Park” which goes “Pettin in the park, bad boy, pettin in the park, bad girl, first you pet a little, let up a little, then you get a little kiss.” For this one, Berkeley regulates a roundelay of roller skates, snow flurries, showers, balls made into geometric patterns, park dwellers, police, and a pea-shooting baby played by Billy Barty. The next day’s newspaper names the show a hit and notes the surprising presence of wealthy scion Robert Bradford, whose family warns him to stay away from the theater in general and showgirls in particular, all being gold diggers. When Brad refuses to give up his dreams of theater or Polly, Brad’s brother Lawrence and family lawyer Faneuil Peabody come to the showgirl’s apartment to buy off Polly. Carol is so bollixed at their blue-blooded bombast that she pretends to be Polly, and she and Trixie play jokes on the men, leading to Trixie taking them out to a new speakie. Trixie, the one genuine gold-digger and jokester, makes light of Faneuil, or Fanny, but really does enjoy getting more of his cash and kisses. Carol, as pretend-Polly, prefers to punish the prudish plutocrat Lawrence, but after a few more nights of singing, dancing, and Fay and real-Polly playing along, both Carol and Lawrence confess that what started as a game became affection all the same. When Lawrence says he still opposes Brad’s engagement to the real Polly, Carol breaks it off. On a Broadway stage, Brad and Polly lead “The Shadow Waltz,” another wildly inventive, intricate investiture involving innumerable ingenues that could never have been mounted on an actual stage. Backstage, when Lawrence tries to break up Brad and Polly, Carol swears she may never see him again, and so he relents, meaning that along with Trixie kissing Fanny all three housemates are ending the movie with rich men. That said, Hopkins hustles Carol onstage, along with African-American torch song specialist Etta Moten Barnett, to sing “The Forgotten Man,” an evocation of exiguity and an Expressionistic encomium to men who fought in the Great War only to be dismissed in the Great Depression.
Of all the films on the A- or B-list, Gold Diggers of 1933 probably took the least amount of time from conception to release. 42nd Street was made as FDR was being elected, released in January 1933, a hit by February, so Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck put Gold Diggers into production in March and premiered it that May. The short timeframe spoke to the previous adaptations, although who then or now released a remake four years later? Warner, Zanuck, director Mervyn LeRoy, and even Busby Berkeley knew that what they had was good, that it could be Depression-savvier and sort of post-Cagney-hard-boiled-er than anything from that wave of herky-jerky, hit-and-miss musicals from 1929. They alchemized that anarchy into something approaching art. They also made a third musical that year, Footlight Parade, and the fact that they all competed at that year’s Oscars might have indicated too much of a good thing; in any event, Gold Diggers was Warners’ biggest hit of the year.
Influenced by: the flurry of Broadway-based films of the early sound period, but mostly as contrast
Influenced: musicals; the Busby Berkeley style is widely renowned, sometimes condemned as female objectification, sometimes called symbolic of Roosevelt-era politics (individualism pressed into collectivism)
“I have here an accident policy that will absolutely protect you no matter what happens. If you lose a leg, we’ll help you look for it.”
Under Irivng Thalberg’s strict guidance, A Night at the Opera established a new or modified formula for MGM’s Marx Brothers films, like extravagant backdrops, Harpo as Chico’s brother or partner, Groucho and Chico having an extended “who’s on first?”-ish routine, a friendship between the romantic couple and Chico, and a big Act III setpiece where everyone appears and all the plot strands come together. The latter had been standard with Shakespeare and MGM comedies, but not with the Marxes. The plot of A Night at the Opera permitted and encouraged MGM-style large-scale musical numbers, and indeed Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones were already operatically trained contract players who were happy to dub their own voices.
1935 audiences saw A Night at the Opera begin with a musical number loosely based on Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, performed by a succession of everyday Italians doing everyday things, apparently full of “O solo mio”-level stereotyping. Quoting Glenn Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, Leonard Maltin, on the audio commentary on the current DVD, says that the musical opener was cut during the war as a diplomatic gesture to Italy, but MPAA records show that it was actually cut earlier, in 1938. This suggests that MGM was probably capitulating to Benito Mussolini prior to the war, but later didn’t want to admit that. The Italian-street opener was removed from the master print and no longer survives, which is why the often-stated running time of the film, 95 minutes, is three minutes more than the actual film.
The truncated film begins at an upper-class Italian club with a waiter, no longer singing, but instead calling out for Mr. Otis B. Driftwood, who has stood up wealthy dowager Mrs. Claypool by dining with a blonde woman just behind her. Driftwood (Groucho) turns, insults the waiter, receives the check for a meal, tells the blonde “If I were you I wouldn’t pay it,” joins Mrs. Claypool, and continues a barrage of overtures and understated insults. When the dowager mentions that after months he has mostly failed to get her into society, he introduces her to Herman Gottlieb, head of the New York Opera Company, and they arrange for her to finance the the New York Opera debut of Rodolfo Lassparri, “the greatest tenor since Caruso.” We soon learn that he also has one of the world’s greatest tempers when we see him backstage abusing his cross-dressing dresser, Tomasso (Harpo), to the chagrin of sweetheart soprano Rosa Castaldi, who spurns Lassparri’s advances and dotes upon the unknown tenor Ricardo Baroni, who hires his childhood best friend Fiorello (Chico) as his manager. As part of assuring the investment, Driftwood drifts backstage at Milan’s opera, where he sees Tomasso mallet-bonk Lassparri into unconsciousness. Fiorello tells Driftwood he represents the world’s greatest tenor, and Driftwood believes he’s signing Lassparri when he’s really getting Baroni – if in fact their patchwork contract is enforceable. As an ocean liner prepares to leave for America, Baroni sings a tearful goodbye to the departing Castaldi, but it later turns out that Baroni has snuck into Driftwood’s enormous steamer trunk along with Tomasso and Fiorello. Driftwood discovers this at about the same time that he grasps that his Gottlieb-granted stateroom is little more than a closet, but when he tells the hungry stowaways to leave before Claypool arrives, they insist on food first. This leads to one of the funniest and famousest scenes in comedy history as Driftwood orders a restaurant’s worth of food and the ship sends a hotel’s worth of service-people, from engineers to towel maids to a manicurist, all culminating in the closet containing maybe 15 people when Claypool opens the door, causing half of them to pop out of the stateroom like a freed jack-in-the-box. Later, on deck, during a ship party, the three stowaways can’t help but perform, with Chico on piano, Harpo on harp, and the singer played by Allan Jones singing “Cosa cosi.” After they’re found and placed in a detention room, Driftwood manages to throw a rope to their porthole, and Tomasso, after taking the rope from the ocean to the ship’s mast, lands in a room where he finds scissors and three sleeping, long-bearded aviators. When the ship arrives in New York, three impostors, posing as the heroic pilots, press forward with a press conference with their self-appointed interpreter, Driftwood, and everything goes preposterously. The stowaways are hiding out in Driftwood’s hotel room when they see their picture on the front page of the paper and soon foil a nosy policeman, leading to Ricardo climbing in the window of Rosa’s hotel room, leading to her joy and Lassparri’s fury, leading to The New York Opera Company’s sacking of Rosa and Driftwood. Revengefully, the team sabotages opening night of Il Trovatore, kidnapping Gottlieb and Lassparri and motivating some madcap mayhem, including Fiorello and Tomasso throwing a baseball as they conduct the MGM Orchestra playing Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and Tomasso swinging along various backstage ropes that make different modern sceneries interrupt the period piece. I might add that Chico and Harpo are happy to leap into drag to play the opera’s gypsies. Without any other tenor ready, the opera hires Baroni, who insists that he needs a familiar Leonor and thus gets Rosa, and together they wow the crowd. The film ends with the lovers performing an encore as Driftwood and Fiorello negotiate another contract.
Thalberg won his bet: A Night at the Opera was a big hit, and is regularly cited as one of the funniest and most influential comedies of the period. And as Thalberg had also predicted, critics were less than enthused. Mark Bourne spoke for many when he said the Marx Brothers “still let the air out of stuffed shirts and barbecue a few sacred cows, but something got lost in all that MGMness when the screen’s ultimate anti-authoritarian team started working the Andy Hardy side of the street.”
Influenced by: Monkey Business; Irving Thalberg, the MGM wunderkind who gave them free rein to do what they wanted
Influenced: the Marx Brothers’ spirit of creative anarchism reverberated through Warner Bros. cartoons and all of culture
“Lucky, please don’t feel bad. You still got me. Course I ain’t a young and pretty girl. I ain’t even a girl, but I’ll stick. I’ll never leave you.”
Swing Time is in tune with the times in ways large and small, including running gags about clothes that keep Astaire in formal-occasion fashions for almost the entire film, even if his character is coming close to starving. By mid-1935, Astaire-Rogers films were clearly a beautiful thing quite unlike any other thing Hollywood was doing (or would ever do again), and RKO could choose from the wealth of would-be collaborators wishing to work with the pair. Erwin Gelsey’s spec script, featuring Astaire’s character disingenuously taking dance lessons from Rogers’ character, was about as clever as any. Irving Berlin and Max Steiner had done terrific work on previous Astaire-Rogers films, but RKO producer Pandro S. Berman wanted a songwriter who would set up the songs more snugly with the story, and so he summoned the melodist on Roberta, the great Jerome Kern, who brought in Dorothy Fields to help him with lyrics. Kern and Fields were hired to write seven songs, six of which made it into the movie; at least three are among the period’s finest. Another key hire was George Stevens, a director who had just established his feminist bona fides with Alice Adams, starring Katharine Hepburn, and Annie Oakley, starring Barbara Stanwyck. Rogers later wrote that Stevens let her redo takes if she had better ideas, and the result is that Rogers as Penny Carrol is considerably convincing in every frame of Swing Time, resisting Lucky’s charms when she doesn’t quite believe him.
Rogers very much appreciated Stevens, which is crucial background to the legendary anecdote from this film, that at some point between two of the 48 takes of “Never Gonna Dance,” Rogers took off her shoes to see that the insides were bathed in blood, and then kept right on dancing anyway. “Never Gonna Dance” is arguably the pair’s most melodrama-motivated great dance together, and the title was a working title of the film, but RKO worried that people would think the film was a non-dancing musical. If anything, the script invited more story-oriented cavorting than usual, with the exception of “Bojangles of Harlem,” in which Astaire appears for the first and last time in blackface…for about 12 minutes on and offstage. The elaborate number, featuring a salute to Al Jolson and rear-screen shadows moving in and out of synch, took three full days of shooting and some last-minute fixes by Kern and Astaire, who worked to pay tribute to his one-time teacher, John W. Bubbles, vaudevillian and father of rhythm tap, later one of the first black artists on TV. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson became broadly famous in 1935 by dancing on stairs with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel, and the blackface is mitigated by Astaire’s sincere affection…and yet even that affection is mitigated by Astaire’s undercurrent of “oh that? I can do THAT too!”
Swing Time begins with a peek at the peak part of the performance of a dance troupe, who hurry to get offstage so that their leader, John “Lucky” Garnett, can rush off to his wedding to Margaret. Not wanting to lose Lucky, the troupe tricks him into fixing a fake fashion faux pas, and plays on his love of gambling, to delay him until the wedding is called off, unbeknownst to Lucky. One troupe-mate even bets Lucky’s bankroll that he won’t be married, and Lucky accepts, only to arrive at the venue with the bride, her father, a dog, and a cat all hissing at him. Eventually the father agrees that $25,000 would change his mind, a sum that Lucky feels he can earn with enough gambling and hustling in New York City. Lucky troops to the train ticket office, where his troupe-mates cut him off and insist on his bankroll because he bungled his bet on the bride, and so the bereft Lucky bounces onto a freight car train, trailed by his older sidekick, a magician who is confusingly yet endearingly named Pop. Walking around New York City, the pair are broke except for Lucky’s lucky quarter, so Lucky asks a random passerby, Penny Carrol, to change it, Pop pilfers it back from Penny’s purse, Penny accuses Lucky of theft and importunes a police officer, and then Penny, impugned, departs. Pop admits he pickpocketed the coin, leading to Lucky chasing Penny into her job as a dance instructor and pretending to promenade poorly. When a peeved Penny pronounces “I can’t teach you anything!,” her boss overhears and fires her, causing Lucky to show the man how much she really did teach him with a sudden spontaneous polka in perfect syncopation. Not only is Penny not fired, her boss sets up an audition for the pair, but Lucky needs a tuxedo, gambles and loses, and misses the audition, flipping Penny against him. Lucky and Pop march outside Penny’s apartment wearing cardboard signs, a la 1930s union strikers, that say “PENNY CARROL UNFAIR TO JOHN GARNETT” until Penny, with a little prompting by her older sidekick Mabel, permits them into her outer room. From there, Lucky sits at a piano and serenades her with the brand-new “The Way You Look Tonight,” impressing Penny so much that she shows up with hair in shampoo, conferring on the canticle a comical coda. Lucky and Penny’s next audition is thwarted when the club’s band leader, Ricardo Romero, in love with Penny, refuses to play for her to dance with any other man. At Romero’s club’s roulette table, Lucky is about to win the full $25,000 needed to marry Margaret, but pulls his chips at the last minute, proving he would prefer Penny. Lucky uses the almost-25-large to gamble with the club owner for Ricardo’s contract, but when Pop sees that the club owner is using a rigged deck, Pop uses sleight-of-hand to make sure Lucky’s card is the winner. Now that Lucky owns the club, Ricardo must reluctantly play for Penny’s dance with Lucky, and they sashay through one of the most superb of Astaire-Rogers sequences, a complex swing-waltz with tap overlays, a floating on air briefly punctuated with a knowing middle polka. Later, Lucky tells Pop not to leave him alone with Penny until after he tells her about his engagement to Margaret, but, reacting to Lucky’s reticence, Mabel arranges a double-date weekend at a rural, snowy cabin. Lucky and Penny sing the frustrated “A Fine Romance” while trudging their feet through the snow, marking the second standard-worthy song that doesn’t need to be, and isn’t, turned into a dance, instead relying on strong acting while lip-synching particularly from Rogers. Returned to New York City, Mabel dares Penny to act on her feelings, and you know it’s a post-Code film when you watch the over-the-moon reactions of Penny and Lucky to their mere first kiss. Ricardo Romero conducts as Lucky boogies through a boffo “Bojangles in Harlem.” Backstage, in blackface, Lucky’s life begins to break apart, first when the former club owner demands to replay for his club with a fair deck, second when that loses Lucky the club, third when Penny finds that out, and fourth when Penny finds one Margaret looking for John Garnett. After Penny tells Lucky she has accepted Ricardo’s marriage proposal, Lucky sings that he’s “Never Gonna Dance” without Penny, and they share a two-step that moves from melancholy to marvelously realized. (As an aside, Astaire also name-checks Groucho and Harpo.) The next day, Margaret reveals that she is leaving Lucky for another man, causing Lucky to say “Gee that’s swell!” and run to stop Penny’s wedding. After a few reversals, Penny agrees, and rather artfully, Penny sings “The Way You Look Tonight” while Lucky sings “A Fine Romance” as they walk to a window watching over the New York skyline, and conclude with a clandestine kiss.
Astaire and Rogers dancing together can’t be explained; seeing is believing, and no sights onscreen command your undivided attention quite like Fred and Ginger in harmony to a classic song. The comparison is to Broadway’s best dancers, but the comparison doesn’t take into account the hermetic details of plotting, acting and magazine-wedding-level elegance typical to 1930s Hollywood. As Edward Gallafent wrote, despite the tuxes and tails and trains, “this star couple seems to exude a sense of ease, or accessibility, even an intimacy – we can feel at home with them.” In Astaire and Rogers’ ten films together, not every scene could be said to work, but when everything’s working, as in Swing Time, effervescent dance supporting romance effects a transcendance not unlike eating the best meal of your life. The pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is a one-time filmic phenomenon, without equivalent in any other country or cinema with the exception of Bollywood. Gene Kelly is Astaire’s dance equal, but never had a partner that developed the same degree of prancing and romancing. No one else on a Western screen has come close, though it should be said that no one was allowed to; a more enlightened 21st century would have found the equivalent of Top Hat and Swing Time for someone like Savion Glover.
Influenced by: previous Astaire-Rogers films; 1930s codes; perhaps George Stevens’ confidence
Influenced: this is one of the leading examples of why Fred and Ginger are part of even the briefest versions of cinema history
“I’ll condemn anything that leaves the task of holding England to outlaws like me.”
It was called The Adventures of Robin Hood to distinguish it from the earlier Fairbanks film that most people called Robin Hood, which was ironic because that 1922 film’s technical full title was “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood.” Warner Bros. had long ruminated on reviving Robin Hood for its biggest star, Jimmy Cagney, but the star and studio parted ways in 1935, the same year Jack Warner took a chance on two near-unknowns, 26-year-old Errol Flynn and 19-year-old Olivia De Havilland, to work under a new-ish director, Michael Curtiz, to star in a new swashbuckler called Captain Blood. After the big-budget picture broke out at the box office, Flynn and De Havilland became something like Warners’ Astaire and Rogers, co-starring together in eight films over the next six years. Robin Hood was sorta their Swing Time, their next logical step, but it was a far bigger gamble, its three-strip Technicolor bringing the budget to roughly double that of Captain Blood, more than $2 million, by far a first for the famously flinty studio. One reason there hadn’t been more color features was that then-necessary lighting for color scenes indoors was torturously hot (a year after Robin Hood, all theWizard of Oz actors would complain of their makeup melting between takes); Robin Hood was an ideal production in that every scene was either filmed in a mock castle, with lights hanging 30 feet overhead, or outside. Tarzan descended from branches that could never have supported his weight, but, declining to ask audiences to suspend their disbelief, Jack Warner demanded high-thick-branched trees that Los Angeles County didn’t have, and so half of production was moved hundreds of miles to an oak-filled park near Chico, California, while the other half was filmed in Pasadena and Warners studios, necessitating two credited directors, Michael Curtiz and William Keighley. As color and location costs accumulated in the winter of 1938, Warner and producer Hal B. Wallis worked to film and edit Robin Hood efficiently enough that it could be released as early as May 1938, giving the film a full six months in theaters before Gone with the Wind would inevitably replace it as America’s color-suffused sensation.
A minor footnote to this particular story concerns Viennese opera conductor and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whom Wallis begged and pleaded and cajoled to come from Austria to America to compose the score for the new film. Though Korngold felt that an “action” picture was beneath him, he reluctantly agreed to a week-by-week deal that he could leave anytime he felt dissatisfied. Korngold arrived in America apprehensively planning to stay no longer than a couple of months, but then, on March 12, 1938, Hitler annexed Austria along with all of the Jewish composer’s possessions. Korngold remained in Los Angeles through 1945, lived until 1957, and always told anyone who asked that the Robin Hood movie saved his life. Beginning with Robin Hood, Korngold became one of Hollywood’s most influential composers, starting with a lush, passionate, chromatic score that elevated Robin Hood way beyond Flynn’s previous sword-fight films.
In an odd echo of what was almost Korngold’s fate, The Adventures of Robin Hood begins with medieval-scroll-looking title cards telling us that Richard the Lionheart, King of England, has been captured in Vienna. Out in Sherwood Forest, after an older, diminutive huntsman named Much kills an apparently royal deer, Sir Guy of Gisbourne turns up to punish him, and Robin Hood and friend Will Scarlet turn up to punish Sir Guy, laughing and threatening him enough that Guy rides off in a huff resulting in Much the Huntsman pledging his loyalty to Robin Hood. At a sumptuous, fully appointed royal feast in Nottingham Castle, Richard’s treacherous brother Prince John tells the many knights, as well as Lady Marian, that he is now usurping the throne with plans to over-tax the Saxons to recover Richard’s ransom. Disgraced Saxon nobleman Sir Robin of Locksley, aka Robin Hood, shows up at the feast, lays down a fresh deer for dinner, and bawdily, boldly, brazenly blazons his intent to restore Richard to his rightful throne. A bloodless brawl begins, but Robin Hood somehow smilingly subdues several soldiers and slips away out Guy of Gisbourne’s gates. Robin and Will recruit roustabouts in Sherwood Forest, like the stout but sword-skilled Friar Tuck and the staff-master Little John, who bests Robin Hood in a staff-off (probably because the actor also played Little John in Fairbanks’ film). Speaking to maybe twenty merry men, Robin makes them promise to fight for free England until Richard’s return, to rob from rich to give to poor, and to treat women with courtesy. From bows and branches high above, the Merry Men quite literally descend upon a traveling Norman party that includes Sir Guy, Lady Marian, and the Sheriff of Nottingham, commandeer their horses, and bring them into a bawdy Saxon feast that resembles an Octoberfest with endlessly overflowing mutton and venison. (In this motion picture, deer leg shanks are both motive and motif.) Maid Marian refuses to eat, eats, and declares herself unafraid of anything least of all Robin Hood, prompting Robin to escort her through the gypsy-refugee-looking backside of the encampment where she sees Saxon serfs’ sincere suffering due to Sir John. When Robin permits the Norman party to depart unharmed, he credits Lady Marian’s presence to Sir Guy and the Sheriff of Nottingham. When these two trip back to the castle and protest that they tried to arrest the Hood, Sir John asks where are their battle wounds, John apparently unaware that this is a clean Code-compliant film. Hoping to play on Robin Hood’s competitive nature, the Sheriff announces an archery tournament with a grand prize of a golden arrow to be presented by Lady Marian. Here the color pays off: in prior scenes, Robin distinguished himself wearing bright green tights, but in the archery tournament, in muted hues and a head scarf, Robin’s disguise is made more plausible. A rival’s arrow lands in the dead center of the bullseye, but Robin’s arrow splits that arrow and he wins, reveals himself, causes a fracas, and gets captured and sentenced to hang. Marian maneuvers the merry men into breaking Robin out of prison, and Robin returns the favor, sort of, by sneaking into Marian’s tower offering courtship and a wastrel’s life amongst the Saxon peasantry. When Robin threatens to fall from her high window and land on Norman guards, she chastely kisses him and admits her love for him, but refuses to leave with him on the grounds that she can help his cause more from inside the castle. At a roadside inn, a Norman bishop discovers that King Richard has returned with his retinue, all disguised as monks, and alerts John and Guy, who hire a disgraced knight to kill Richard in return for both the restoration of his rank and the receipt of Robin of Locksley’s legacy land. Marian gets word of this perfidy and quills a warning to Robin, but Guy intercepts the parchment and puts Marian in the castle prison pending trial and probable execution. Like the leads of Swing Time, Robin and Marian have older sidekicks who have started up their own relationship, and so Marian uses hers, Bess, to get a message to her sweetheart, Much, who manages to find and kill Dickon even as he, Much, becomes much wounded. Robin Hood and his men find the “monks” and feed them and find fault with them for fighting abroad when Richard needed them in England. When Will finds Much wounded he brings him to Robin to tell tale of Richard’s arrival in England, causing Richard to reveal his real identity, replete with a Royal Banner-lion-bedecked breastplate, provoking Robin and the Merry Men to kneel. Robin importunes Richard and his “monks” to remain in disguise as part of Sir John’s coronation, and sure enough, after they are inside the castle, Richard reveals his royal self and arouses a raging ruckus. Robin Hood and Sir Guy square off in a somewhat epic sword battle to the death that Robin finally wins. Robin releases Marian from her cell as Sir John’s soldiers surrender their swords, shields, and sigils. In the final scene, Richard holds court, exiling John and his followers, pardoning Saxons, and elevating Robin to Baron. Richard sees the way Marian and Robin are, checks in with each, and then commands Robin to marry Marian, a requisition to which Robin replies, “May I obey all your commands with equal pleasure, sire!”
Errol Flynn didn’t exactly make America forget Douglas Fairbanks, but he did confirm that Hollywood was now in an era of bold new sensations, for example its first beloved Australian star. Warners got lucky when Gone with the Wind went way past its schedule and was rescheduled for Christmas 1939, allowing The Adventures of Robin Hood to rob from rich studios and give to poor color-deprived moviegoers for 18 full months. Robin Hood was the first live-action full-color hit, and could even be called the first summer blockbuster. Released in May 1938 to avoid conflicting with more serious-minded Christmas competition, Robin Hood took advantage of new technology to present action-adventure and men in tights in new and good-humored ways. Swashbucklers aren’t superspies or superheroes, but those hadn’t yet been invented – well, to be precise, Superman only appeared in his first-ever comic book in April 1938 as Korngold was scoring Robin Hood’s picture lock edit. The Adventures of Robin Hood reminds modern viewers of the trappings of Medieval Times restaurants, with too many clean ramparts and coats of arms, but 1938 audiences cottoned to the colorful combination of English accents, literary pedigree, kinetic action scenes, and vague class warfare – somehow Robin’s stature as nobleman and royal sycophant was never a problem, or may even have increased his appeal.
Influenced by: 1920s’ swashbucklers, though Australian roustabout Errol Flynn remakes the type into his own image
Influenced: action movies; anyone who ever wanted to take from the rich to give to the poor
“Someday I’ll get a straight answer from you, and I won’t know what to do with it.”
Even many film aficionados don’t know Only Angels Have Wings, and its place in Sight and Sound’s Top 175 owes much to its citation by Andrew Sarris as an example of style serving as auteur signature across different genres. That said, Only Angels Have Wings endures as an excellent example of the almost routinized distinction of Hollywood product by 1939. Dmitri Tiomkin’s score is understatedly atmospheric, Viola Lawrence’s editing is supple, and Joseph Walker’s cinematography makes one think one could be in South America. Keeping with then-current sausage-making standards, principal photography was planned as a sixty-day shoot in rough script order, although Hawks went more than a month over, and then needed even more time for second-unit photography of Pilgrim Model 100-B “Barranca Airways” planes flying over parts of the Rocky Mountains substituting for the Andes.
Only Angels Have Wings may also be popular amongst foreign filmmakers and film critics because it unknowingly, or knowingly, comments on vicissitudes of American imperialism. The original script outline was by Anne Wigton, but Hawks rewrote the outline himself based on his experiences making films like Viva Villa! and Ceiling Zero.
Only Angels Have Wings begins by introducing us to (fictional) Barranca as a banana boat arrives bearing bushels of bananas and a piano player named Bonnie Lee, who disembarks and finds some sweaty, film-sped-up locals dancing to a Latin groove that goes “chiggi-chi, chiggi-chi.” Two Yankees, Joe and Les, creepily follow and then approach Bonnie, so she tells them how happy she is to hear something that doesn’t sound like Pig Latin, her apparent name for Spanish. They introduce her to their kind-hearted boss, Dutchy, who is also Barranca’s postmaster, banker, bar proprietor, and airline owner. As Joe leaves to deliver mail by air, Bonnie, in a possible gesture to the film’s title, marvels that pilots aren’t like birds at all, and the overbearing Geoff Carter, manager of the airline, says gruffly that a bird wouldn’t go out in this muck. Indeed, in an insane incident, Joe’s plane crashes and Joe dies. Geoff disingenuously blames Bonnie for distracting Joe and says “who’s Joe?” along with the other men, and after recoiling, Bonnie eventually plays along, literally on the piano. Privately, Dutchy argues with Geoff that the mail service isn’t worth sending more men to their deaths, but Geoff argues that if they can just finish this six-month probation period, they’ll secure a government contract that will earn the funds for better planes that won’t crash so easily. When Bonnie hits on Geoff and Geoff resists, Bonnie asks her about the honey that hardened his heart, only to learn that Geoff never asks a woman to do anything and never trusts a woman not to want everything. Joe’s replacement happens to be a pilot who can’t get work Stateside because he once parachuted out of an airplane leaving the plane’s mechanic to die – who happened to be the brother of “Kid” Dabb, Geoff’s favorite of his pilots. Geoff keeps Kid from killing McPherson, but will only license the latter to do a lunatic-level trial run, one whose snowy mountain peaks may be the most beautiful sight in the movie. McPherson has brought his wife Judy, and we soon learn that Judy is the woman Geoff once thought wasn’t like other women. When Kid confronts Geoff about McPherson, Geoff makes Kid take an eye exam, but after Kid learns about the six-month probation, Kid confesses to cheating on the exam, and both men realize Dutchy has been too kind to them and too hard on his own airline. Geoff says “Judy, Judy” to Judy and pours water on her hair to make her hear that she’s as repellently risk-aversive as every other woman. Because this is post-Code Hollywood, Bonnie, a piano-playing professional, seems perfectly pleased waiting around backwater Barranca for a week with the very occasional kiss from Geoff. When bad weather closes the mountain pass on the final day of the probation period, Geoff decides to take an untested Ford Tri-Motor that may or may not get above the clouds. The Kid insists on going and persuades Geoff to flip his, ahem, lucky quarter for it, winning passage until Geoff realizes the coin has two heads…but Geoff lets the Kid accompany him anyway. By this time Bonnie has seen Geoff take several risky flights, and so she hugs him as she begs him not to go…and pulls his pistol out of his holster saying she’ll shoot him if he sets off. After joking about whether he dies now or later, Geoff turns to go, and Bonnie puts the pistol on a table, where it goes off and shoots Geoff’s shoulder anyway. With Geoff too hurt to fly, McPherson and the Kid have to do the flight together, and their plane fails and then gets clocked by a convocation of condors, with McPherson barely able to bring the broken bird back to Barranca. As the Kid dies of his injuries, he avails Geoff of McPherson’s heroism, and the gang now accepts him. The next morning, the weather clears, Geoff’s wound feels better, and Geoff insists on flying one last attempt for the contract. Bonnie, on the verge of leaving, ventures to Geoff “I’m hard to get, all you have to do is ask me.” When Geoff takes out the Kid’s coin and says “all right tails you leave, heads you stay,” Bonnie holds back tears. Geoff kisses her goodbye, hands her the coin, and dashes out the door to pilot a plane. Distraught, Bonnie looks at the coin, sees that it has two heads, smiles widely, and shouts “Geoff!” as he flies his plane off the runway.
Working for Columbia meant using their actresses, which meant Howard Hawks was expected to hire, one, an unknown groomed and trained by studio head Harry Cohn for her featured-role debut, Rita Hayworth, and two, Frank Capra’s star actress, Jean Arthur, for the lead, who wound up fighting on set with Hawks. For a story set in South America, Hawks wanted the wise, wan, worldly “Hawksian woman,” while Arthur wanted to play her usual homespun sweetheart charm because it was a story set in South America. They fought on set a lot, and if they hadn’t, she might have obeyed Harry Cohn’s orders to star in Hawks’ next film, His Girl Friday…instead, she was suspended and missed that chance at eternal esteem.
Influenced by: Night Flight (1933), Ceiling Zero (1936), Flight From Glory (1937)
Influenced: merged Columbia house style with Hawks style, as model for many
“You keep out of this. All right, Bruce, suppose you have Mr. Burns examined over in his office and see what they’ll allow on that old carcass of his. If…eh, it was never anything to brag about.”
After looking for comedy scripts with the same wit and urgency as 1931 film The Front Page, Howard Hawks finally asked Harry Cohn to buy The Front Page, the twist being that America’s most trusted newsman, Walter Winchell, could play Walter Burns, the lead editor, opposite Grant as the star reporter. Cohn didn’t really care about Winchell as long as Grant would be starring, and Cohn coughed up the high rates demanded by now-major-Hollywood screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Their 1928 play The Front Page had served as their entry into Hollywood back when it was made into the 1931 movie starring Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns and Mr. Pat O’Brien as star reporter Hildy Johnson.
But then…something wonderful happened that Hecht, MacArthur, and Cohn could never have foreseen. During post-production on Only Angels Have Wings, while Hawks was doing half-days in the editing room searching in vain for takes of Jean Arthur sounding less drecky and more smart-alecky, Hawks was also holding informal auditions for supporting roles in The Front Page, and he asked his secretary to read the lines of the role Grant was signed to play. Hearing the reporter’s lines come out of a woman’s mouth, something clicked for Hawks, and he began rewriting the script as a divorce comedy, with Walter trying to get Hildy back at his paper and back in his bed. Hawks, writing with Charles Lederer, knew that Code logic dictated Hildy would have to wind up with the only man she’d ever slept with, that being Walter. That being said, Hawks and Lederer knew Cohn and the Hays Office wouldn’t like the anti-marriage, ethics-optional tone of the revised script, and so the film began with titles saying, “It all happened in the ‘dark ages’ of the newspaper game – when to a reporter ‘getting that story’ justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.” Hawks hoped Cohn and Hays wouldn’t notice the cheeky tone of that “resemblance” line, nor dialogue like Hildy describing journalism as asking people “if Hitler’s gonna start another war.”
This was impressively improvised interlocution, considering Hitler had invaded Poland two weeks before principal photography began. Hawks encouraged so much improvisation that production went a week over the standard two-month schedule, finishing on November 21st. Hawks wanted what he felt was missing from Bringing Up Baby, the blustering, bantering, and bickering that was how smart ambitious people really talked to and over each other. Thirty years before Robert Altman pioneered modern overlapping dialogue on M*A*S*H, Hawks had no recourse to multi-track sound recording, and therefore dangled multiple hanging microphones and directed his sound mixer to switch between them speedily, sometimes dozens of times. Hawks purported to put plot points in the middles of sentences so that either sentence end could be spoken over, as part of Hawks’ determination to break the record for fastest dialogue in a film, then held by The Front Page; for a few friends he screened his film and the 1931 version side-by-side to prove that he’d surpassed their pace. Average American speech is about 140 words per minute; average speech in His Girl Friday is about 240 words per minute.
The good-natured Grant gave no resistance to swapping roles from reporter Hildy Johnson to editor Walter Burns – Columbia wouldn’t ask audiences to accept a woman as Grant’s boss and a newspaper’s boss – but that left Hawks with the difficulty of finding his ideal Hildy. Hawks had imagined Carole Lombard, but Harry Cohn couldn’t afford her; over summer 1939, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullivan, Irene Dunne, and Katharine Hepburn all said no. (Hepburn was then starring on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story, another screwball-comedy-ish story that, a year later, Hepburn would make into her film comeback with help from Cary Grant playing a very Walter Burns-like smart-aleck.) Cohn forced Hawks to offer the role to Jean Arthur; when Arthur declined to fight on set with Hawks for another two months, Cohn suspended her, and Cohn’s general reputation with women may have had something to do with some of those refusals. Rosalind Russell wrote she was “everyone’s fifteenth choice” to play Hildy, something she gleaned reading The New York Times before meeting Hawks. Russell felt couldn’t turn down the role – she had hated being typed as a sophisticated lady and wanted to prove her Carole Lombard-esque chops – but after reading the Times, Russell turned up to Hawks’ office with swimming-pool-drenched hair as if she didn’t care, and later brought in her own writer to “punch up” Hildy’s dialogue. The lighting department complained about Russell’s soft chin, forcing them to overhead-cross-light her to create a jawline. I mention all these unlikely contingencies because Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson is surely one of the shining lights of feminine strength of the period, the equal of Scarlett O’Hara or Mildred Pierce or Leslie Crosbie. To be clear, as reimagined by Hawks and Russell, Hildy shares only the serendipitously androgynous name of her role from The Front Page; in this remake, she is every inch a woman, vascillating between imagined traditional domesticity and her professional virtuosity. As the only woman in the police station’s press room, in an awesome art-deco blazer-skirt combo, Hildy comes in for appreciation, approbation, and stronger connections to both the condemned man and his girlfriend. This remake needed a new title that somehow nodded to Hildy and Walter’s tempestuous relationship, like She Writes His Words or Stop Her Presses or something. Way after it was too late to rename Hildy Friday, Cohn and Hawks finally decided on His Girl Friday, which sounded vaguely cub-reporter-ish but was meant as an ironic reference to Robinson Crusoe’s dogsbody Friday – ironic because anyone who sees the film knows Hildy’s hardly Walter’s girl, although as Hildy says of an albino temptress, she’ll do til one comes along.
His Girl Friday begins with the aforementioned tongue-in-cheek title card, and pans through a carefully anonymized city’s Morning Post’s bustling newsroom of barking, braying reporters. Hildy Johnson arrives to tell her ex-boss and ex-husband, Walter Burns, that she’s quitting journalism and getting married in the morning. Humorously but relentlessly, Walter tries to change Hildy’s mind, telling her he needs her help writing a story that might stop that night’s scheduled execution of Earl Williams, apparently wrongly convicted of killing a black policeman, apparently framed to earn the mayor African-American votes. (This detail is carried over from the 1928 play and 1931 film; in no film made before World War II do we see any actual black policemen.) Walking in front of Hildy, failing to clear doors from her path, Walter approaches then mistakes Hildy’s fiancé Bruce for an old man instead of the kindhearted, mild-mannered insurance agent he is, Cary Grant doing his best Groucho Marx. Walter insists on taking the happy couple to lunch, and at the restaurant, after an abundance of back-and-forth banter that probably leaves their food cold, Walter offers to buy a $100,000 insurance policy from Bruce if Hildy will only delay their train trip to Albany long enough to write the Williams story. Bruce wants to go buy their train tickets to Albany, but Hildy insists on doing that and on all of their cash, about $500, because she doesn’t trust Walter. In Walter’s office, a doctor examines Walter and he signs the new policy with Bruce, but Hildy, on the phone, insists on a certified check and, after Walter leaves the room, insists that Bruce hide the check in his hat. At the prison press room, Hildy shows off her train tickets and assures the other six reporters – all average-sized middle-aged men – that she’s retiring after this to raise babies. The journalists do more smirking than working in the press room waiting for the execution even and especially when Mollie Malloy turns up and tearfully accuses them of telling lies about her and Earl until Hildy finally takes her out of the room. Bribing a guard with a dropped $20 to get into see Earl, Hildy offers the condemned man a sympathetic ear, even explaining his excess with Marxist theory, along the lines of a gun produced must be used. Bruce lands in jail for stealing a watch, forcing Hildy to go to another police station where she can only get him out by threatening a cop with becoming a headline in the next day’s Morning Post. Back at the prison press room, Hildy rips up her story, phones Walter, and says, “if I ever lay my two eyes on you I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkey skull of yours til it rings like a Chinese gong!” As she’s leaving, Earl Williams stages a shootout/jailbreak, and Hildy pivots, knowing she must stay on such a sensational story. In the chaos of the jailbreak, Hildy, the only woman in sight, dashes through policemen, cars, bikes, and sirens to literally tackle a fast-footed guard whom she knows she can bribe. $450 of Bruce’s money later, Hildy extracts Walter’s phone promise to reimburse it and reveals that the prestigious New York doctor evaluator, as an exercise, loaned Williams a gun which Williams used perhaps because a gun produced must be used? The mayor turns up to chew out the sheriff, and both of them greet Pettibone, the governor’s messenger who has brought Williams’ reprieve, but needing the execution for election, the Mayor entices the messenger’s silence and distraction for a few hours, telling the sheriff to command his men to shoot to kill. With reporters on the manhunt, Hildy is alone in the press room when Earl Williams enters, points a gun at her, and shoots wildly at a scary noise. Now that Earl has made a scary noise, Hildy hides him in the cover of a desk, allows an arriving Mollie to talk to Earl, calls Bruce to hold him off, and calls Walter to bring him in. Mollie tells the arriving press that they’re all a bunch of liars and jumps out of the two-story window as Walter arrives. On a new lead the press leaves, leaving Hildy to tell Walter that Williams is hidden in the desk, causing Walter to promise Hildy fortune and notoriety and the toppling of corruption if she finishes her story. As she does, Bruce arrives, blames Walter, and gives Hildy an ultimatum she barely hears, muttering “If you want me, Bruce, you better take me as I am, instead of trying to change me into something else, I’m no suburban bridge player, I’m a newspaper man.” Four twists later, concerning Walter’s confidence versus his henchman, Bruce’s mother, the sheriff, and the press, Walter finally slips, knocks on the desk, and prompts Williams to knock back, causing the police to point pistols and the press to apprehend phones. (Everyone in His Girl Friday grabs phones but, delightfully, no one ever says anything like “Operator get me KL5…”) Cops arrest Williams and Walter and Hildy, cuffing the latter two for obstruction of justice, and Hildy names this their worst jam ever until Pettibone reappears with his reprieve, remarkably relieving Walter and Hildy, who are released even as they threaten the Mayor and sheriff with ruined reputations. In the final scene, Walter admits to his jealousy and encourages Hildy to catch up to Bruce’s train to Albany, and gives her the film’s only kiss for a goodbye, but when a phone call reveals that Walter had Bruce locked up, Hildy collapses in tears, music swells for the first time in the movie, and Hildy admits she’d thought Walter didn’t love her anymore. The matter settled now, Walter happily tells his deputy that Hildy will finish the story and even marry him, and just as they’re getting ready for two weeks in Niagara Falls, the deputy mentions a story in Albany, Hildy mutters they can honeymoon in Albany, and as they run out the door, Walter tells Hildy she might want to use her hand for her suitcase.
The banter of His Girl Friday is like the dancing in Swing Time: defying description, demanding to be seen to be believed, and demarcating a delight-inducing standard by which all future derivations would be defined. Columbia loved what they had, and even rushed it into theaters in January 1940 on the theory that people might see it if they couldn’t get into Gone With the Wind. That theory was wrong; instead, His Girl Friday’s box office mostly went with the wind, and it was forgotten by the time of 1940’s Oscars. Perhaps the dialogue or even the title was too clever by half. The copyright on the film was somehow allowed to expire, and the AFI somehow forgot it on both of its 100 Greatest lists. But feminist critics have long considered it one of prewar Hollywood’s two or three best films, and directors as different as Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino have named it as one of their favorites. There’s also a wide range of well-deserved literature about His Girl Friday; skip to the index of half of cinema’s survey textbooks, and see what they have to say on the matter.
“Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and someday, you will be a real boy.”
After Snow White, Walt Disney knew he couldn’t again afford to spend three years making one feature. Instead, he and his animators spent the three years after Snow White’s Christmas 1937 release making two features, Pinocchio and Fantasia, as well as many of the storyboards and prep work for Dumbo and Bambi. Bambi had been scheduled as Snow White’s follow-up, but Disney didn’t love the sample nature animations nor the narrative trickiness of the killing of Bambi’s mother, so he sent that back to development while focusing on “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s book that was given to Disney by animator Norman Ferguson. As Maurice Sendak put it, the book’s Pinocchio is “unruly, sulking, vicious, devious,” while Disney’s Pinocchio is more “mischievous, innocent, and very naïve.” No less the author of Where the Wild Things Are considered Disney’s changes to be a major upgrade, and most people agreed, although Disney would always occasion a few grumblers. Disney was lucky in that Edgar Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy was already famous; Pinocchio’s personality could more or less knock off McCarthy’s. (As a parenthetical, as I said on the A-list podcasts, Walt Disney’s early animated features have credited directors like Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske, but control-freaky Walt supervised every frame, figure, and foley.)
Besides the puppet’s personality, Disney Blue Fairy-ed three other aspects that converted Collodi’s chronicle into a classic movie, and those were the cricket, the innovative animation, and the original music. In Collodi’s story, Pinocchio crushes the cricket and he comes back as a ghost; Disney felt Pinocchio was too monotonously misled and mislaid, so he made the cricket into the storyteller, sidekick, and self-appointed conscience. “Jumping Jiminy” and “Jumping crickets” were known expressions, so Disney himself came up with the name “Jumpin Jiminy cricket,” eventually just Jiminy Cricket. The effects animation of Pinocchio is particularly groundbreaking, with the theretofore most realistic renderings of rain, vehicles, clocks, machinery, lightning, snow, smoke, and shadows. Real animation fans should read animator Sandy Strother’s journal, a deep-dive into the splashes, ripples, bubbles, and other water effects that did so much to spellbind audiences during, well, Pinocchio’s deep-dive. It’s hard to think of many times in the 21st century that a moviemaker wished upon a star and got a song on the level of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” That song’s writers, Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, won Academy Awards for that song and for the film’s overall score, those being the first two competitive Oscars ever won by an animated feature.
Pinocchio begins with Jiminy Cricket singing that song, watching a twinkling star, and asking the audience if it believes wishes really can come true. Opening an old leather-bound volume called “Pinocchio,” Jiminy begins his tale in an antiquated Swiss Italian town where an older woodworker named Geppetto is finishing work on a marionette he names Pinocchio. As Geppetto and his cat Figaro and his fish Cleo lay down to sleep, Geppetto wishes on a bright star that Pinocchio might be a real boy. That night, a Blue Fairy visits the workshop and makes Pinocchio a living wooden puppet, telling him that if he proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish, he can become a real boy. Jiminy Cricket, having snuck into the workshop, volunteers to be Pinocchio’s conscience, and the Blue Fairy blesses the bug by transfiguring his clothes from forlorn-wear to formal wear. Geppetto is delighted to discover and dance with his living puppet, and after they climb into bed together, Geppetto tells Pinocchio that he has to go to school in the morning. Pinocchio says “Why?”, Geppetto says “To learn things,” and Pinocchio says “Why?” The next day, as Pinocchio is cheerfully striding to school, a sly fox calling himself Honest John sees a poster for Stromboli’s puppet show and, with his sidekick Giddy, convinces Pinocchio that being an actor in the theater beats being a student at school. At the top of Stromboli’s stage, Pinocchio sings, “I’ve got no strings, to…” and falls down the stairs, to the fury of the corpulent, nefarious Stromboli, until Pinocchio recovers and completes the song, and even sings it alongside a succession of flirtatious stringed puppets. Jiminy Cricket walks away muttering to himself, “an actor doesn’t need a conscience.” Back in Stromboli’s covered wagon, Stromboli is counting his hundreds and counting on Pinocchio for future windfalls, so when Pinocchio tries to go home, Stromboli tosses him into a birdcage and locks its door, telling Pinocchio that when he gets too old to perform he’ll be turned into firewood. Jiminy returns, fails to free his friend, despairs, blames himself for having been a dummy, and sees the Blue Fairy arrive. When the Fairy asks Pinocchio about school, for the one and only time in the picture, Pinocchio’s nose grows along with his lies, something that the Blue Fairy fixes, along with freeing him, forewarning that this is the final time she can help. Geppetto searches in vain in the rain, getting less Puh-nocchio and more Puh-nemonia. At an inn, Honest John and Giddy meet a coachman who looks and acts like an evil Charles Laughton asking for the fox’s assistance recruiting “naughty stupid little boys” to go to Pleasure Island. On his way home from escaping Stromboli, Pinocchio unluckily bumps into Honest John and Giddy again, who pretend to be medical professionals, purport to Pinocchio he’s allergic, and proclaim that the cure is a vacation on Pleasure Island. After the boat of boys bobs up on the fairground-ish Pleasure Island, Pinocchio, his new friend Lampwick, and the other boys enjoy cigars, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, and vandalism. Jiminy learns the island’s curse is that boys brought there transform into donkeys and become bartered as beasts of burden to circuses and salt mines. Jiminy races to the 8-ball-shaped pool hall to warn Pinocchio only to see Lampwick become a donkey, and the cricket and the puppet – still himself but now with donkey ears and a tail – to scale a rock wall, dive in the sea, and barely escape the island in time. When Jiminy and Pinocchio arrive home to find Geppetto’s workshop empty, a note arrives from the sky, giving every future screenwriter a strategy for scribbling together disparate plot points. Upon Pinocchio apprehending that Geppetto was sailing to search for him and swallowed by a super-whale, Pinocchio becomes determined to find him, and he and his cricket do another high dive, this one with a rock attached so that Pinocchio can walk on the sea floor. Geppetto is living on his wrecked boat with Figaro and Cleo in the dry belly of the mean Monstro, who occasionally opens his oversized mouth to trap a torrent of tuna, although this time he also allows in Pinocchio, who reunites with his father. Having smoked a smelly cigar on Pleasure Island, Pinocchio thinks to start a fire, give Monstro the same smoky discomfort, and make him sneeze as the family escapes on a makeshift raft. At first, the puppet’s plan fails, but then it succeeds, and the furious Monstro chases after them, almost swallows them again, and finally crashes into a cave inlet that they escape into. Geppetto and the animals seem to have survived, but not so much Pinocchio, who lies face-down in a tidepool. Back at the workshop, everyone is grieving as the Blue Fairy turns up unnoticed, pronounces Pinocchio’s goals fulfilled, removes his donkey parts, turns him into a real human boy, and vanishes into fairy dust. Pinocchio says “Father!”, Geppetto says “You’re dead Pinocchio,” Pinocchio says “No I’m not!” and there was much rejoicing. In the final moment, as Jiminy steps outside to look at the star and thank the fairy, a tiny beam of light hits his chest, creating a commemorative medal confirming the cricket is a conscience.
Pinocchio is often considered one of the best cartoons ever made – both gorgeously rendered and grittily resonant. Also, Pinocchio is decidedly and delightfully dark, in hues and in spirits. If Disney is often accused of sanitizing or whitewashing macabre tales, watching Pinocchio is a bracing reminder that Disney felt kids could and maybe should apprehend affliction for the sake of a more affective story. Pinocchio isn’t a place to look for pluralism; the only two female characters are a Carole Lombard-looking Blue Fairy and a flirtatious fish. What’s here is beauty, magic, and reasonable messages about what Nicholas Sammond called “deferred gratification, self-denial, thrift, and perseverance.” Leonard Maltin said, “with Pinocchio, Disney reached not only the height of his powers, but the apex of what many critics consider to be the realm of the animated cartoon.”
Pinocchio was released by RKO in February 1940 as a bit of counter-programming for audiences bored of or unable to get into Gone with the Wind…and it worked out about as well as His Girl Friday had. Pinocchio wasn’t a failure, but it barely recovered its considerable costs, calling into question any magic touch Disney might have maintained at movie theaters. After September 1939, European markets were mostly closed, and Disney waited until 1945 to see any ticket income from Pinocchio’s home continent. However, Pinocchio would get re-released every 7 or 8 or 9 years, and eventually earn the Walt Disney company tens of millions. Besides, Pinocchio’s village more or less scaled out to Fantasyland, the heart of Disneyland, and Disney would coordinate his brand with the film’s cobblestones, curiosos, and charm shops. “When You Wish Upon a Star” became Disney’s official theme song, its tag played at the outset of every official Disney film. Still, after the heady triumph of Snow White, animators were now bothered over their boss’s bottom line. When war rationing began, Disney’s animators began striking for fair wages, and the scabs Disney hired instead assured that we would no longer have movies like Pinocchio.
Influenced by: Walt Disney’s retro ideas of Americana and Italiana; avant-garde advances in animation
Influenced: animation, Fantasyland, whales (to need saving), the dreams and nightmares of children
“I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.”
For The Great Dictator, Paulette Goddard would be not the first, nor the last, wife that finally convinced her husband to speak. During the 1930s, newspaper cartoonists often acted as if Adolf Hitler had acquired his mustache and look from Chaplin’s Little Tramp. At first, Chaplin could consider this resemblance little more than a joke, but after a while, he began to consider it an insult and, as some of his friends had cajoled him, an opportunity. Some kind of prince-and-the-pauper-like switcheroo seemed too pat, too easy, and maybe too flattering to Hitler, but after the annexation of Austria in March 1938 that I discussed last podcast, and especially Kristallnacht a few months later, Chaplin felt he owed some kind of anti-Hitler project to his Jewish friends. While writing it in 1938 and 1939, Chaplin realized that switching prince-pauper parts for a whole picture wasn’t all that funny, and decided that if his humble persona was going to pretend to be Hitler even for a minute – if he would finally speak for the first time in a movie – he needed a speech that would make friends like Gandhi and Einstein proud.
To prepare to play the plainly Hitler-referential Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin repeatedly watched Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will. According to Chaplin’s son, Charlie Jr., his father was unfailingly fascinated by Hitler, born four days apart from him in April 1889 and rising from poverty to international power. Chaplin and Hitler both enjoyed classical music by Wagner, although their contrary conclusions say something about context affecting music’s meaning. According to Charlie Jr., his father said “He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.” This should be taken less as Chaplin admitting to fascist urges, and more Chaplin’s tendency to sympathize with every single human soul, no matter how sickly depraved. By the time Chaplin’s cameras commenced rolling in September 1939, Hitler had invaded Poland and started the war in earnest, but if Chaplin felt that his story was becoming obsolete, he certainly didn’t rush anything about production. For the big old inevitable Chaplin-Hitler comment picture, Chaplin would rather be right than rushed.
The Great Dictator begins on the Eastern Front in (fictional) Tomania in 1918, as an unnamed Charlie Chaplin working with other Tomanian soldiers try to fire cannons at Notre Dame but only hit outhouses and themselves. The Chaplin character, whom we will eventually know as a Jewish barber, helps a wounded Tomanian get into an airplane, flies with this man named Schultz, preserves some important documents, crashes, learns that Tomania just lost the war, and suffers amnesia. Twenty years later, still suffering from amnesia, the war hero is returned to his job as a barber in Tomania’s ghetto. We meet his doppelganger Adenoid Hynkel, the spitting image of Hitler except for his name and ubiquitous logos that look less like swastikas and more like the double Xs of cartoon dead eyes. Hynkel’s stormtroopers paint “JEW” on storefronts including the barber’s, who stonewalls them and scuffles with two troopers, causing Hannah to appear at a nearby window and knock out the Nazis with a natty frying pan. More stormtroopers show up to ensnare the barber, but Schultz emerges as the governor of the ghetto and returns the 20-year-old favor of saving his fellow veteran’s life. Hannah hangs out with the happy barber, who gives her a makeover as love happens to happen. An officer named Herring, a parody of Goring, shows Hynkel various defective inventions, and the brilliantly named Garbitsch informs Hynkel that if he wishes to win his war, he will need to borrow money from a Jewish banker named, uh, Epstein. Hynkel bounces a balloon globe around his office and belatedly loosens restrictions on the ghetto. However, when Epstein refuses Hynkel, Hynkel orders a punitive purge, and Schultz protests, gets pulled into a concentration camp, and escapes and hides with the barber. Stormtroopers return to the ghetto and arrest Schultz and the barber, but Hannah and her family manage to flee to Osterlich while wheeling a Stromboli-sized wagon. (The name of Osterlich is only one letter changed from the German name of its referent, Osterrich.) At his palace, Hynkel greets Benzino Napaloni, who looks and acts like Benito Mussolini, and the two have a tiff over troop placements in the field – at war, but also fronting on a field in front of them, where Napaloni makes merriment at Tomanian mistakes. Garbitsch, who has apparently been to film school, tries to keep Hynkel’s chair higher than Napaloni’s chair, leading to a series of stumbling shenanigans. We see the Semitic Barber and Schultz settling in at a surprisingly sedate Tomanian concentration camp. At a palace buffet, Hynkel and Napaloni argue over who should have the right to invade Osterlich, but after a food fight causes the two fascists to swallow spicy mustard, they find compromise followed by Hynkel invading Osterlich. Hannah and her family are trapped and trounced by Tomanian troopers. Hynkel goes duck hunting in civilian clothes, gets mistaken for the Barber, arrested, and collared into a concentration camp. Schultz and the Barber, dressed as officers, escape from the camp and walk up to the Osterlich border, where everyone salutes “Heil Hynkel!” not only for the usual reasons but because they think this is Hynkel about to deliver a victory speech. Having to give the speech or die, Hynkel walks up to the podium, the camera pulls in for a closeup, and whatever character Chaplin is now playing gives the speech of his or anyone’s life, defending peace, reason, anti-racism, technical progress, and democracy. At the end, he addresses Hannah, who hears it on her radio, allows her barbarian-beaten face to break into a beatific smile, and says, “Listen.”
The Great Dictator was widely released on Halloween of 1940 and became a shockingly big hit for United Artists. Unlike Disney, whose short films and merchandise saturated America between feature films, Chaplin probably benefited from four years entirely away from theaters and stores. The Great Dictator was even nominated for five Oscars, including three for Chaplin himself – writing, acting, and Best Picture (though the film didn’t win any). Generally, critics loved it, including Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who called it “a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist” and “perhaps the most significant film ever produced.” Chaplin needed the American love, because most European markets were out of the question until after the war. Britain had planned to ban the film because of its appeasement policy, but by October the U.K. was at war, and the Brits welcomed the propaganda value from its most famous expatriate. In general, The Great Dictator has held up as one of the better, more biting satires made at a Hollywood budget.
Influenced by: Chaplin’s long-established humanism; the war in Europe
Influenced: among other things, probably every comic from Tina Fey to Larry Sanders who agreed to lampoon their political doppleganger
“You see, Hopsi, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.”
On staff at Paramount for most of the 30s, Preston Sturges mostly kept his head down and did years of uncredited rewrites along with his colleagues, whom he later compared to piano movers. Finally, in 1939, after war closed off most European markets, Sturges convinced a belt-tightening Paramount to let him direct The Great McGinty by paying him $10 for it. Paramount actually promoted its unprecedented deal with Preston as part of publicity for The Great McGinty, and soon other writers were following the “written and directed” trail blazed by Sturges, notably Billy Wilder and John Huston. Making up for lost time, The Great McGinty was followed by seven more uproariously funny, acerbic Sturges films within the next four years, a run unmatched by any other writer-director. These were banter-driven yet world-weary films that elevated the screwball comedy genre and inspired later writer-directors like Cameron Crowe, James L. Brooks, Nancy Meyers, Gina Prince-Blythwood, and John Lasseter. The first of the only two on the A- or B-list is The Lady Eve.
In 1938, Paramount purchased Monckton Hoffe’s 19-page story “Two Bad Hats,” about a card sharp who falls in love with her mark, and assigned Sturges to do lead writing duties on it; Sturges managed to drag out the process until The Great McGinty made him a director, at which point he circled back to making The Lady Eve his third “written and directed” film. During the summer of 1940, various names were attached and then unattached, but finally Darryl Zanuck at Fox lent Paramount Henry Fonda, fresh off of the hit The Grapes of Wrath, with the purpose of pairing him with Paulette Goddard. However, once Paramount had Fonda, it offered the script to its leading leading lady, Barbara Stanwyck, who accepted. The Lady Eve’s standard-schedule shoot went from October 1940 to December 1940, though Sturges was anything but standard on set, usually peacocking with a feather popping out of a bright beret, a white cashmere scarf, and/or a loud checkered shirt. Sturges liked people knowing who the director was, and he also liked relaxing and joking with the actors between takes, maybe more now that he had two A-listers and other projects in development.
Somewhere in the Amazon, mild-mannered herpetologist Charles Pike says goodbye to his fellow herpetologists as his canoe pushes out of the provincial port. On a cruise ship’s deck, we meet the Charles Laughton-esque Colonel Harrington and his daughter Jean, comparing notes on which nabob they’d like to fleece next. As Charles Pike’s canoe sidles up to the ship’s ladder, Jean apparently drops an apple on Pike’s head, neatly invoking the twin symbolisms of Genesis and Isaac Newton. At the ship’s opulent dinner, Jean watches through her pocket mirror and narrates to her father as Charles, also heir to the Pike’s Pale Ale fortune, turns down woman after woman, gets up, gets closer to the exit, and gets tripped up by Jean. In his stateroom, Charles fixes her shoe, admires her legs, notes that his pet snake seems to have escaped, and chases a screaming siren back to her stateroom. They cuddle and cant in a close two-shot that Roger Ebert later called “the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time.” Later, at a table set off from the dining hall, Jean, her father, and Charles are playing poker when Charles’ dogsbody, Muggsy, warns Charles about these strangers and Charles responds by warning Muggsy away, saying he’s won $600 on the night. The next evening, in private, Jean warns her father that she’s factually fallen for Hopsie (aka Charles) and her father must refrain from fleecing Charles, but he counter-warns her, leading to a series of reversals at the card table that culminate in Jean showing an ace to prevent her father winning a massive hand with four fake aces. Jean makes Charles promise not to bet again, but while she’s gone, the Colonel uses his rigged deck to do some quick makeup high card betting, and when she returns, Charles is writing a check for $32,000. She asks how he could do this to the man she loves, and he says it was just chiste and chops up Charles’ check. The suspicious Muggsy convinces the ship’s authorities to come up with photos of known cruise ship card sharp con artists, and brings Charles a picture of the Colonel and Jean, which Charles turns around and shows to Jean by way of breaking up with her despite her protestations that she wanted to reform with him. As the ship pulls into New York City, the Colonel reveals that he sleight-of-handed the $32,000 check, cheering Jean even as she ruminates on a more ruthless revenge against Charles, saying “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” At a high society New York mansion party, Jean captivates a posse of plutocrats with her plummy British accent and identity as Lady Eve Sidwich, and when Charles asks her if she’s ever been to South America, she says no. Despite Muggsy warning “it’s the same dame,” Charles believes she isn’t, and begins a series of praises and pratfalls and praises and pratfalls that prefigure his proposal. In a brief montage, they court and wed, and on the train to their honeymoon, “Eve” tells Charles about previous dalliances until he gets deeply dissatisfied and disembarks. Back at their house, the Colonel tells his daughter to settle for nothing less than Charles’ entire brewery empire, but when they get Charles and his lawyers on the phone, she asks only for Charles to appear in person and apologize and say it’s over, to which Charles refuses. Jean learns that Charles is taking another ocean voyage to forget her, and she books passage on it as Jean and trips Charles just as she did before. She squeals “Hopsie!” as they hug, Charles vehemently expresses regrets, and they high-tail it to her cabin with the apparent intention of hot sweet love, although Charles holds up at the threshold, saying, “I’m married,” to which she answers, “So am I, darling” as the door closes.
Barbara Stanwyck is billed above Henry Fonda in the film’s credits, and that’s no wonder, because she’s the Lady Eve and Eve/Jean controls every aspect of the narrative. Charles is reduced to hapless and hopeless, a symbol of the fall of man as in the Bible and as in slapstick traditions. That somewhat summarizes the substance of Sturges, markedly highbrow and lowbrow and every brow beaten in between. Released in February 1941 without the competition His Girl Friday faced a year earlier, The Lady Eve did well at the box office.
Influenced by: Lubitsch, screwball comedy
Influenced: most literate comedy moviemakers, who tend to go on and on about Preston Sturges
“You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don’t have to listen to his jokes. Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something, I’d be staring into your bridgework saying ‘Yes, Mr. Smearcase. No, Mr. Smearcase. Not really, Mr. Smearcase! Oh, Mr. Smearcase, that’s my knee!’ Give Mr. Smearcase another cup of coffee. Make it two. Want a piece of pie? Why, Mr. Smearcase, aren’t you getting a little familiar?”
The title, Sullivan’s Travels, was meant to evoke Jonathan Swift’s brilliant 200-year-old satire Gulliver’s Travels, not because Sturges’ story in any way resembled Swift’s story, but more to get people in the mood for literate, bitter satire that might say more, and less, than would be immediately apparent. Sullivan’s Travels is about a famous Hollywood director of comedies who chooses to live for weeks as a vagrant to gain socially relevant experience for a hard-hitting film. The role would have been perfect for Henry Fonda, as a sort of twist on The Grapes of Wrath, but Fox wouldn’t loan him again, perhaps preserving the power of his performance of Tom Joad. Warner Bros. was willing to loan John Garfield, whose real-life experiences as a bum may have inspired the Sullivan character, but Paramount didn’t favor casting a working-class persona as someone just learning the struggles of the working-class. The Sullivan character was in fact rather tricky, as the actor needed to convincingly play a successful yet clueless director that the audience could like; Sturges would always say that he wrote it hoping that Joel McCrea would play it and nail it, and that happened.
Sturges hoped to get Barbara Stanwyck again, but this role called “The Girl” was a bit too passive and picayune for Stanwyck. Instead, to play someone exhausted from trying to make it in Hollywood, Paramount suggested a 19-year-old ingenue recently renamed Veronica Lake to play her first lead. Sturges liked her dry line readings, but when she turned up to the set in the second trimester of her pregnancy, Sturges apparently had to be physically restrained from breaking things. Paramount procured a body double for several of “The Girl”’s scenes, and Edith Head, costume designer beyond compare, concealed Lake’s condition. Arguably, all this adhered, because Lake dominated the poster and is generally excellent in the film, from Hildy Johnson-esque banter to a Charlie Chaplin imitation. Sturges hoped to hail that likeness with a scene of an audience laughing loudly at an older Chaplin film, but Chaplin refused to loan him anything, perhaps because Sturges had told Paramount that this film was a response to comedies that “abandoned the fun in favor of the message,” a description of The Great Dictator if ever there was one. (Frank Capra was another obvious target.) Instead, Paramount and Sturges went to Chaplin’s friend Walt Disney, who was willing to loan them a clip from 1934’s Playful Pluto that was, in the end, used reverently.
Sullivan’s Travels begins with a projected clip from a movie showing two men fighting on top of a moving train at night. The movie ends, the lights of the screening room come up, and the film’s director, John Sullivan, tells his fellow producers and studio leaders that he hates what he just saw. In a nearby spacious office, we learn that he has made many profitable but shallow comedies, and he now wants to make O Brother Where Art Thou?, a “picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.” The studio chiefs chafe at his cheek, and one accuses Sullivan of knowing nothing about suffering, which prompts Sullivan to embark on a journey amongst the inimitably impoverished adorned like the indigent. Yet Sullivan’s studio, sternly protecting its investment, follows him with a luxury tour bus decked out with a deli, a bar, a full kitchen, a hot shower, a radio to the studio, an operator, a butler, the previous film’s Muggsy, a doctor, assistants, and an African-American personal chef. Sullivan flags down a kid in a junior-grade sports car to help him ditch the bus, and the madcap car chase is reminiscent of Keystone silent comedies. Sullivan persuades the entourage to meet him in Las Vegas, but along the way, Sullivan sees true poverty and decides he has no business preening toward such a pretense. On the way home, shabbily-dressed Sullivan stops at a diner and realizes he has no money, and a young blonde woman kindly offers to buy him breakfast, because “the way I’m fixed, thirty-five cents isn’t going to make any difference.” He learns that she’s hitchhiking her way out of Hollywood because she never made it, and when he asks what he could do, she suggests that he write her a letter of introduction to Lubitsch. She says it’s nice that he’s not one of those big directors, because then she’d have to stare into his bridgework and say “Yes, Mr. Smearcase, no, Mr. Smearcase, that’s my knee Mr. Smearcase!” Sullivan obtains his nicer car from his estate and prepares to drive the Girl to Chicago, but they’re pulled over and, in a smash cut, imprisoned. The Girl is certain Sullivan stole the car until Sullivan’s servants bail them out and take them both to his mansion, and she pushes him into his pool for deceiving her. When Sullivan explains his desire to devolve into destitution, she demands to come with, he refuses, and she winds up coming with him dressed as a boy. This time, the experiment more or less works: they ride in cattle cars and have adventures without patronage or the entourage. In a montage, they eat in soup kitchens and sleep in homeless shelters. At a certain point, in an alley, eating gruel, they look at each other and realize they’ve both had enough. As the studio prepares publicity that purports the experiment as a success, The Girl tells Sullivan that she was kinda hoping to go where he goes, but he says he’s married, only as a tax scheme that doubly failed since his taxes went up and his “wife” is living with his manager. With the Girl angrily set off, Sullivan decides to set off with a fistful of five-dollar bills to thank as many homeless as he can. Some miscreant mugs Sullivan, takes his money and shoes, throws the unconscious Sullivan in a freight train leaving town, gets killed and mangled by a train, only identifiable by his shoes, leading to headlines that a famous director has been found dead. In a rail yard, a bleary-eyed, amnesiac Sullivan gets berated by a railway worker, and in his groggy state he hits the man with a rock. Vaseline or something on the lens indicates Sullivan’s fugue state of amnesia in court as he is sentenced to six years in prison. In the swampy bayou prison, Sullivan gradually regains his memory and with the other inmates, attends alms at an African-American church where everyone, parishioners and prisoners and even pastors, peels with laughter at the cartoon Playful Plato. Sullivan realizes something there, which might help him to realize something else, an escape plan by way of confessing to the murder of John Sullivan! The Girl, playing a French aristocrat, sees the headline and the photo of the confessed killer, dashes from her soundstage, knocks over various actors, shows the paper to the entourage and studio chiefs, and joins them in a dance of joy. In the final scene, on a plane, when Sullivan tells the Girl that now that his wife has married, she’ll have to either divorce Sullivan or be charged with bigamy, she says, “you’ll be free,” and he says “not for very long, I hope.” As they cuddle, the producers say that they’re ready for him to shoot O Brother Where Art Thou? and Sullivan responds that he doesn’t want to make it anymore, because “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
Paramount Pictures presented to Preston Sturges an atypical epistle from Walter White, leader of the NAACP, writing about his work “to induce broader and more decent picturization of the Negro instead of limiting him to menial or comic roles. The sequence in Sullivan’s Travels is a step in that direction and I want you to know how grateful we are.” History has long since smiled upon Sullivan’s Travels, a film that is regularly considered one of the two or three best screwball comedies and is a regular fixture on film class syllabi. For Paramount, Sullivan’s Travels was a base hit that made a little bit more than it cost. The absence of Fonda-Stanwyck-level stars may have factored in, but this film about understanding suffering may have simply suffered from bad timing. The film pre-screened for critics on December 4, but Pearl Harbor was attacked three days later, and the film didn’t come out in most theaters until January or February, when lots of America was a little leery of levity. Then the Hays Office declined to approve the film for wartime export, purporting that its prison gang sequences might be parlayed as propaganda by the enemy.
Influenced by: screwball comedy, Hollywood vicissitudes
Influenced: anyone who goes back and watches old comedies, which includes most famous comedy filmmakers
“It’s becoming ridiculous the way you grab attention. Whenever I start to tell a story, you finish it. If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If I have a cold, you cough. And if we should ever have a baby, I’m not so sure I’d be the mother.”
In 1941, Hollywood had one Jewish director angry enough with Hitler to risk his life on a directly anti-Hitler, pro-Jewish film, written and made before anyone knew if America would ever go to war against the Nazis. German-born Ashkenazi Jewish Ernst Lubitsch had, no less than Disney, specialized in idealizing the Europe he’d emigrated from, of late with the great Ninotchka about Russians trading Romanov jewels in an idealized Paris, and The Shop Around the Corner about cautious epistolary lovers in an idealized Budapest. By the time these terrific films came out in 1939 and 1940, Hitler was transforming those dream locations into nightmares. Also in 1940, Lubitsch watched The Great Dictator and loved it, but also saw that it left a lot out…some of which could be ascribed to Chaplin having finished his script before Hitler formally began World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939.
While The Great Dictator had dozens of moments of characters saying “Heil Hynken,” but Lubitsch’s satire would have dozens of moments of “Heil Hitler”; while The Great Dictator was festooned with double-X’s, Lubitsch’s film would be festooned with swastikas. And unlike Chaplin and The Three Stooges and others who had explored similar themes, Lubitsch would set his entire story in a Hitler-besieged nation, transforming his American cast into Polish Jewish heroes, a choice that remains resonant in our real post-war world in which the Polish Jewish resistance has mostly been memory-holed. Speaking of memory, Hitler had forced early 40s viewers of Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner to rely on happier memories of Europe, and so Lubitsch would take that head-on, showing the absolute devastation of Warsaw, with proud Jewish names emblazoned on buildings now rendered into rubble and ruin.
Though Lubitsch generally avoided meta-comedy, in this case he felt he could best defend the particular problems faced by those who wished to satirize Nazis through impersonation. Since Poland had no film industry to speak of, a troupe of Shakespearean actors made the most sense as something that American audiences could understand and relate to, and an early treatment had the troupe performing The Merchant of Venice, mostly to feature Shylock’s speech that includes, “If you prick us, do not we bleed? If you poison us, do we not die?” After months working with Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Mayer, two screenwriters of Eastern European Jewish heritage, Lubitsch decided that Hamlet made more sense as the narrative’s play that Hitler insisted upon instead of a play about the Gestapo, and the Shylock speech made more sense as an aspiration from one of the lesser players. Hamlet’s characters Rosencranz and Guildenstern, names that implied a longstanding Jewish-German companionship, could be played by two actors frustrated with stereotyping, one who looked Jewish and another who looked like Hitler, one ready to deliver the Shylock speech onstage, the other frustrated by his sudden spurious status. As a film title, To Be or Not to Be had a certain existential panache.
To be clear, Lubitsch hoped for at least one of his leads to truly be Jewish, a problem because 1, very few A-listers were truly Jewish, and 2, Lubitsch leaned toward his leading lady from Trouble in Paradise, the shiksa Miriam Hopkins, hoping to help her Hollywood come back after a hullabaloo with Bette Davis had hindered her career. For the male lead, Lubitsch had his eye on Chicago-born Benjamin Kubelsky, who had a Jewish father born in Poland, a stage name of Jack Benny and a job hosting of one of America’s most popular radio shows that had led to occasional supporting film roles. Jack Benny was so enthusiastic about To Be or Not to Be that when he fought with Miriam Hopkins, Lubitsch wound up stopping and dropping Hopkins. Carole Lombard heard of To Be or Not to Be and wanted To Be first-billed and Not to Be an actor who’d never worked with Lubitsch. Lombard was a screwball comedy legend who had married the industry’s A-list-iest actor, Clark Gable, starred in Hitchcock’s second American film, and had known Robert Stack since he was a teenager, meaning that some of his character’s boyish enthusiasm for hers wasn’t exactly faked. After Hitler invaded Poland and made obvious designs on Britain, England’s two most prestigious filmmakers fled to Hollywood, and United Artists reached out to the one – not Hitchcock – who was Jewish and born in Hungary, and Alexander Korda was happy to loan his name to To Be or Not to Be to guarantee it would eventually play in the U.K. and other British territories.
To Be or Not to Be begins in pre-war Warsaw with a narrator wondering how Adolf Hitler himself can walk around downtown Warsaw while attracting only astonished gawkers. Well, we hear, it all started…and the action moves from pre-war Warsaw to a Nazi commander’s swastika-saturated office. After the action becomes absurd, we learn that we are watching rehearsal for a new stage satire called Gestapo, featuring an actor named Bronski who can and does pass for Hitler in the street. That evening, during the company’s performance of Hamlet, Bronski and Greenberg, apparently playing Guildenstern and Rosencranz, commiserate offstage as the latter begins the “If you prick us” speech. Joseph Tura, who plays Hamlet, visits the dressing room of his wife Maria Tura, who plays Ophelia, to ask about some mystery fan bouquets that also leave Maria tongue-tied…but when her husband leaves, Maria writes a note to the probable fan, suggesting that he come backstage when Hamlet begins his “to be or not to be” speech. As Joseph begins the famous monologue, he gets tongue-tied to see an audience member walk out on him, and this uniformed disruptor, Stanislav Sobinski, goes to Maria’s dressing room, recites obscure fan trivia about her, thirsts for her, and tells her about his job flying bombers for the Polish Air Force. During the next day’s rehearsal for Gestapo, a bureaucrat arrives to cancel the premiere because Hitler wouldn’t like it, and the poster gets changed back to Hamlet, the name Maria Tura conspicuously smaller than Joseph’s on either poster. That evening, Joseph suffers more slings of outrageous fortune as Sobinski walks out again during the monologue, romances Maria, and stands with her as an assistant barges in to tell them Germany has declared war on Poland. After Sobinski rushes out, Joseph rushes in to lament the tragedy of his twice-interrupted monologue, but everyone else rushes in to lament the war. Graphically, the Jewish-named edifices of downtown Warsaw burn and crumble, the Polish resistance blows up German tanks, and posters indicate months passing, conditions worsening, and concentration camps constructed by Officer Ehrhardt. In Britain, the Polish division of the Royal Air Force, including Sobinski, sings to Hitler’s defeat alongside their guest, Professor Siletsky, who is shipping off to Poland, and the pilots beg Siletsky to deliver messages to their loved ones. Later, Sobinski reports to his RAF superiors that Siletsky had never heard of Maria Tura, Poland’s most famous actress, and the superiors agree that Siletsky is a spy who can commit deadly reprisals, and they order Sobinski to fly to Poland. Siletsky, now in Poland, playfully invites Maria to a German spy recruitment dinner. Joseph arrives home to find Sobinski in his bathrobe, Maria crashes their fight to say that we have to stop Siletsky, and the scene ends with the clueless Joseph volunteering to kill Siletsky. Maria meets Siletsky and Heil Hitlers and kisses him as an actor playing an SS arrives and escorts Siletsky to a fake Gestapo HQ where Joseph, masquerading as Ehrhardt, grills Siletsky, but when Siletsky reveals Sobinski’s code message to Maria, “To be or not to be,” Joseph angrily loses his cool and Siletsky pulls a gun on him. Surrounded, Siletsky runs to escape, gets shot and killed by Sobinski, and gets impersonated by Joseph right down to the fake beard. As Siletsky, Joseph meets the real (goofy) Ehrhardt, who has heard of the “great actor Joseph Tura,” but hated him in a play he saw, saying “he did to Shakespeare what we’re doing to Poland.” Like Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Ehrhardt has an assistant named Schultz, but this one is suspicious of this so-called Siletsky, and the Nazis come close to catching him but for Joseph’s clever beard-switching. As Germans stage a show to honor the visiting Adolf Hitler, the acting company sneaks into their theater, and in the mezzanine Greenberg causes a conspicuous distraction for long enough for the Nazis to wheel around and be fooled by Bronski as Hitler, with an entourage including Joseph as his right-hand man grilling this Jewish raconteur who launches in to the Shylock speech. The real Nazis watch as this angry small group of fake Nazis arrest Greenberg and march out of this compromised theater and get into Hitler’s actual cars. Waiting for her ride to the airport to Hitler’s plane, Maria gets seduced by Ehrhardt until Hitler (actually Bronski) throws open the door, looks at this scene, and turns and pivots without a word, causing Maria to run after him shouting “Mein Fuhrer!” and Ehrhardt to panic. The full actors’ troupe plus Sobinski easily dispose of Hitler’s pilots, and Sobinski flies them to Britain. In Scotland, when the press interviews these heroes, they ask Joseph what he’d like to do now, and Maria quickly responds that he’d like to play Hamlet. On a Scottish stage, Joseph begins the famous monologue, at first happy to see Sobinski settled in the audience, until another handsome uniformed officer gets out of his seat.
This moment of Carole Lombard addressing the press turned out to be her final one onscreen, echoing her final public moments of selling war bonds in the Midwest. On her way home, on January 16, 1942, her plane crashed into a Nevada mountain and killed all 22 people onboard, including Lombard’s mother and Lombard, aged just 33. To Be or Not to Bewas filmed in November and December 1941 and was widely released around February to middling business as people weren’t sure if laughter was quite appropriate. Beginning the film with Big Ben and “Alexander Korda presents” turned out to be smart; British receipts helped the movie turn a profit. These days, despite unfortunate humor about concentration camps, To Be or Not to Be is considered to be an all-time comedy classic. It stands next to The Great Dictator as one of Hollywood’s only two great fictionalized overtly anti-Nazi, pro-Jew statements produced before the United States entered the war, with To Be or Not to Be being the only one of those two written, produced, directed by and starring Jewish men.
Influenced by: everything happening in Europe
Influenced: political comedy
“There aren’t old times. When times are gone they aren’t old – they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!.”
RKO never changed a frame of Citizen Kane, but that film’s controversy and tepid box office led them to renegotiate Welles’ contract before production on Ambersons, and this time Welles couldn’t expect a better deal anywhere else. In exchange for points, personnel, and a pact for film Welles wound up never making, Welles surrendered final cut of The Magnificent Ambersons to RKO. And during production, Welles’ famous Martians held off but the Japanese really did attack Pearl Harbor, pivoting most American movie producers toward more upbeat pictures.
In later years, Welles would say that if it weren’t for the war, RKO never would have used its final cut clause so wickedly and wastefully. By the time the first preview of the film was ready, in March 1942, Welles was already in Brazil, having responded to his longtime theater benefactor Nelson Rockefeller’s request to make a film there as part of President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. In March in Pomona, to the surprise of RKO chief George Shaffer, the film previewed quite badly, with viewers comtemptuously talking back to the screen, and after a few cuts, in Pasadena it previewed even worse, with viewers walking out like the theater was on fire. Telegrams and telephone calls flew between the hemispheres, but finally Shaffer forced editor Robert Wise to sever several scenes and sequences, and along with assistant director Fred Fleck and Mercury Theater business manager Jack Moss, Wise filmed new footage and even a new ending that was ironically closer to Tarkington’s novel’s ending.
The film The Magnificent Ambersons begins with several blurry-bordered shots of homes, horses, and humans in a “midland city” per narrator Orson Welles, who comments on 19th-century conventions, connections, confections, and costumes, the latter mostly modeled by Joseph Cotten, who plays Eugene Morgan. Meet Me in St. Louis will take two hours to do what The Magnificent Ambersons does in about a minute, showcasing a street-shot of a Queen Anne-style middle-class Midwestern home going from fall to winter to spring. In that same soil-spattered street, Morgan attempts to serenade Isabel Amberson, the lovely daughter of the richest family in town, but he collapses on his bass viola and embarrasses Isabel, who winds up marrying mild-mannered Wilbur Minafer. We watch the wanton carousing of their pre-teen son Georgie, the chattering townspeople hoping for Georgie’s comeuppance, and a parental dressing-down of Georgie even as he is dressed and framed like a contemporary painting of a European prince. Around the turn of the century, at a Christmas ball in the gothic, ornately opulent Amberson mansion, young-adult George, back for the holidays from his Eastern college, meets the recently returned-to-town Eugene Morgan, a horseless carriage developer whom George instantly dislikes almost as much as he likes Eugene’s gracious 18-year-old daughter, Lucy. Eugene says there are no times but new times as he dances forward in the frame with George’s mother Isabel; after the party, George angrily warns his family that they better not loan any money to this crackpot inventor. The next day, in a Norman Rockwell-ready landscape of small-town snow (with very visible breath), on a sleigh ride with Lucy, George sparks his stallion to surpass Eugene’s snow-stalled car and laughs skeptically, “get a horse!” But after George’s horse knocks them off and runs off, Lucy and George tumble into the snow smooching, Eugene’s machine starts, the ingenues join the adults singing in the jumpy, janky jalopy, and George snarls at the chemistry between his mother and Eugene. Milksop Wilbur Minafer misinvests most of his money, dies, and the funeral’s mourners are seen from Wilbur’s casket’s perspective. The apparent night after the funeral (in the novel, actually years later), George eats like a horse and teases his spinster aunt Fanny Minafer for being besotted by Eugene. Cut to the flaming burst of a hammer hitting an anvil as some Morgans tour some Ambersons through their modest automobile factory. In a gorgeous medium-two-shot as George drives his horse-drawn carriage through town, Lucy describes her reluctance to marry George when George has no particular plans for any profession. At a resplendent Amberson mansion dinner, George rudely ripostes that automobiles may be detrimental to humanity, and Eugene graciously agrees. Later, George confronts Aunt Fanny with rumors of Eugene courting his mother, caustically confronts a neighbor, and closes the Amberson door on George, proclaiming him no longer welcome. George and Lucy walk downtown near a nickelodeon where George announces that he and his mom are taking a trip around the world and he’ll never see Lucy again, to which Lucy smiles gracefully, waves heartily, and then, after George walks away, faints. Despite Isabel’s intensifying illness, despite her insistent inquiries, George won’t let Eugene see Isabel, Eugene instead attending her deathbed as we see her face in lace-bedecked shadows. After Isabel’s death, the Major slips into senility and perishes, Uncle Jack leaves for a job in another city, George decides upon law school only to hear from Fanny that they’ve only a few hundred dollars left. In a two-shot reminiscent of mossy willow-shots from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Lucy tells her father an anecdote about an American Indian chief that fell from his canoe, apparently a metaphor for her failing to fix things with George. At a train station, Uncle Jack humbly borrows money from Eugene, and at Jack’s factory, George humbly asks Jack what he can do other than law clerking. In a upward-facing shot from George’s dazed, staggering perspective, George observes his city’s new maze of wires connecting telephone poles. On George’s last night before the Amberson mansion is to be sold, George prays alone at his mother’s bed, the narrator noting nobody got to see George’s comeuppance. Lucy and Eugene read a newspaper headlined “AUTO CASUALTIES MOUNT” – crowding out a cheekily placed Stage by Jed Leland featurette accompanied by some familiar brass sounds – as they learn George was injured by an automobile. In the final scene, in a hospital corridor, Eugene singularly confides in Fanny that his true love’s spirit inspired him to bring George “under shelter again.” Speaking of singular, instead of the above-the-line credits appearing as titles anywhere in the film, they are here spoken by the narrator, who concludes “I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. This is a Mercury Production.”
Robert Wise and RKO trimmed The Magnificent Ambersons from 131 minutes to a less magnificent 88, 86ing almost an hour of Orson Welles’ edited footage, and upon his return from Brazil, Welles said it looked like someone had cut his film with a lawnmower. It’s true that the film’s essence is evanescence, and that everything is meant to end while we might still miss it; it’s also true that Francois Truffaut wryly wrote that Orson Welles “shot like an exhibitionist and then edited like a censor,” but nothing can excuse RKO destroying the film footage forever. Bernard Herrmann, who composed the music for this and for Citizen Kane (and, later, Psycho and Taxi Driver), threatened a lawsuit, and RKO respected his request and released the movie with no credited musician. The Magnificent Ambersons was released in the same month, July 1942, as another film whose principal photography began before Pearl Harbor but, afterward, was rewritten and reshot, William Wyler’s eventual Best Picture winner, Mrs. Miniver, a huge patriotic hit on both sides of the Atlantic. In the second half of 1942, the story of Mrs. Miniver fared better than the story of Mrs. Minafer, with the million-dollar Magnificent Ambersons barely breaking even at the box office. In history’s longer judgment, though, the Ambersons would perform, uuh, magnificently, appearing on Sight and Sound’s Top Ten in 1972 and 1982.
Influenced by: Citizen Kane; innovative spirit; a certain kind of nostalgia for turn-of-the-century America
Influenced: drama, looking at the past
“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow, until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.”
Sally Benson published almost 100 biographical stories of her Midwestern childhood in the New Yorker during the 1930s. In 1941, some of these became a book and a play by Moss Hart, and that’s when Arthur Freed purchased a bunch of the others, having long hoped to make a family musical that echoed his own childhood as one of eight siblings. Freed also brought Benson onto the expensive, extensive set to make sure that everything really resembled her childhood, yet Freed had a problem getting another woman on set: Judy Garland. The whole reason Freed was made head of MGM musicals was because he was the one of The Wizard of Oz’s ten producers who convinced Mickey Rooney to star with Judy Garland in Babes and Arms, which came out in 1939 scant months after The Wizard of Oz and did such strong business that Rooney and Garland became the Astaire-Rogers of juvenile-centered “backyard” or “let’s put on a show” musicals. After five years of these, Garland and her mother, Ethel, were extremely unenthused about Garland playing yet another plucky teenager in Meet Me in St. Louis – it was a little like asking Winona Ryder to play a teen in The Crucible ten years after she’d been playing that age. The difference was that Minnelli didn’t want Esther to look like another one of Garland’s “girl next door” and sometimes-“ugly duckling” roles, and Minnelli instructed makeup artist Dotty Ponedel to considerably alter Garland’s usual look, making her eyebrows, lips, nose and teeth more womanly. On a DVD extra, Liza Minnelli describes one of the first meetings of her parents Minnelli also describes the loving way her father often placed her mother’s face in frames. (During production, Garland divorced her husband David Rose, and married Minnelli the following year.) After seeing the film, according to Arthur Freed, Garland told him, “Arthur, remind me not to tell you what kind of pictures to make.”
One problem with films from what we now call the Freed unit was that character seemed to scrap over something as saccharine as dance cards and corned beef preparation; that’s part of why we now prefer the period pieces like Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis. The actors probably committed better in such circumstances, though the then-seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien, who played Tootie, felt the film functioned so well because of un-fakeable familial affection between the actors playing the Smith family. Minnelli told his wife-to-be Judy Garland that if she believed in Esther, the audience would as well. The role had already been tailored to Garland’s personality and persona, and Garland fans have been particularly fascinated with Meet Me in St. Louis’s girdle-tightening scene that seems almost a meta-commentary on how MGM starved or pushed Garland to maintain a certain appearance that, some feel, led to Garland’s neuroses, addictions, and too-early death in 1969.
Meet Me in St. Louis begins with a period tintype telling us we’re in Summer 1903, pulling into the pretty picture of the Queen Anne-style Victorian house on Kensington Street as it comes to colorful life, crossed by a beer-cask-carrying carriage riding down the ruddy dirt road near passersby in period pinafores and parasols. The first ten minutes introduce the Smiths’ maid, Katie, and all of the Smiths: the Grandpa, attorney Alonzo and wife Anna, their teen son Lon, and their four daughters Rose, Esther, Agnes, and Tootie. Esther moons over, and sings of, “The Boy Next Door,” John Truett, followed by her and sister Rose singing “Meet Me in St. Louis” to the consternation of their father, who is already tired of hearing of his city’s coming World’s Fair. At dinner, the entire family eavesdrops as Rose receives a long-distance ring from her beau Warren in New York, but everyone is let down when Warren won’t propose. The two younger girls eavesdrop on a house party, their older sisters call them out, and in front of the dozens of guests, Tootie and Esther perform a two-person cakewalk to “Under the Bamboo Tree.” John lingers a little at the party’s last gleaming to help Esther dim the house’s many gaslights. The twosome contrive to meet on the trolley, and Esther is dismayed to board without John, but when he shows up running, she happily joins in singing with other passengers, “Clang clang clang went the trolley, ding ding ding went the bell.” A new tintype tells us it’s Fall 1903, which turns out to be mostly Halloween. Tootie and Agnes, dressed as rough boys, walk out to a bustling bonfire, where boys berate them until Tootie agrees to sustain local Halloween tradition and “kill” a neighbor, meaning ring his doorbell, throw flour in his face, and tell him how much she hates him. After Tootie courageously goes through with this, the older Smiths come home to hear Tootie distantly crying, and when they see her with her split lip and lost tooth, she claims “John Truitt tried to kill me.” Esther dashes next door, declaims John as a bully, beats him, returns home, learns that in fact John had saved Tootie and Agnes from a streetcar prank, returns to John’s porch to apologize, and shares her first kiss with him. Alonzo arrives home and announces they’ll all be moving to New York after Christmas, causing considerable consternation, the declination of an exquisite cake, and finally a gentle duet aria between Alonzo and Anna. The tintype tells us it’s Winter 1903, and the Smiths arrange to attend an elegant Christmas Eve ball in the film’s only non-Kensington Street, non-trolley location. After all due drama of devastated dates, Esther brings her Grandpa, Rose goes with brother Lon (who is back for the holidays from his Eastern college), and these two sisters conspire to ruin Warren’s night until they learn that his date, Lucille, isn’t really an Eastern snob. As in the trolley scene, John Truitt turns up late, and here takes Esther into the quiet snow and proposes, Esther accepting with the condition that she has no idea how they’ll make it work after she moves to New York. Esther arrives home to find a disconsolate Tootie and attempts to console her by conceiving of and superbly singing the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but Tootie sustains her sadness as she strides outside and severs the heads of several of the snowmen representing the Smith family. Mr. Smith watches from the window as Esther hugs Tootie and tells her how terrific New York will be. That same night, he assembles the family and informs them they’re not moving to New York and that St. Louis is plenty good enough, audaciously admonishing them, “You don’t appreciate it because it’s right here under your noses.” Warren enters, wags a finger like Mr. Smith, proposes to Rose, and walks out while the Smiths remember to wish each other Merry Christmas. The tintype tells us Spring 1904 as the Smith house comes close to the cover of a calendar, with pink and white stripes, roses blooming in the vines, and women all dressed in glorious puffy, lacey, white Edwardian dresses. Together the Smith family boards a carriage, and its horses take them to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, where their faces alight at the lights and sights and sounds and smells, as Esther says, “right here in St. Louis.”
Because President Roosevelt had expropriated many Technicolor cameras for wartime use, there actually weren’t many left in Hollywood by 1944, an argument Arthur Freed used on Louis B. Mayer that their film would be distinct, if expensive. Back then, black-and-white was “reality” and color was usually reserved for period, especially for bringing to colorful life a period like the early 1900s, a time most knew through photos and daguerreotypes. Later audiences would enjoy the color of Meet Me in St. Louis in the sense of a clearer view of MGM’s machinery at its classical peak.
Meet Me in St. Louis was Hollywood’s first very successful integrated musical, defined as a musical in which every song is meant to advance the plot, and therefore is a more influential film than it may appear. Fans as different as Gene Kelly and Martin Scorsese named it as their favorite movie musical. Meet Me in St. Louis may be seen as a semi-sequel to another rather famous film from 1939, that being another MGM color musical, The Wizard of Oz. L. Frank Baum’s original novel was written in 1900, a fictionalized version of certain 1890s trappings including, per many scholars, Emerald City being inspired by Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. St. Louis, home of the 1904 sequel fair, was a state over from Chicago as well as Kansas City, and yes, those are different places, but for most audiences, the homes aren’t all that different in these two films that are so reliant upon the theme of “there’s no place like home.” The Wizard of Oz is in many ways about the Judy Garland character finding her family; Meet Me in St. Louis is in many ways about the Judy Garland character keeping her family. As a minor footnote, in the scene where Tootie refuses to sing the song “Did you ever see a rabbit climb a tree,” a moment taken directly from Benson’s story, Tootie is refusing to perform a song written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum.
Influenced by: the Freed unit; Minnelli’s style as developed on Cabin in the Sky; rosy-eyed nostalgia for Edwardian America
Influenced: the Judy Garland cult, integrated musicals
“Dry your eyes, baby, it’s out of character.”
As with all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, whatever mystery may exist onscreen far exceeds any mystery offscreen; in other words, anyone can obtain the story of the making of Notorious in one of a half-dozen Hitchcock hagiographies. It still seems remarkable that David O. Selznick let Notorious slip through his fingers like so much powdered uranium. Selznick himself had suggested a Saturday Evening Post story about a spy supervising a former lover on a new operation, waiting for her to use her love for him as a reason to back out of her job. Hitch liked the idea but needed the story’s spies to be skirmishing over something, and Ben Hecht agreed. After Hitch hired the highest-rated writer in town, Ben Hecht, for uncredited rewrites on Lifeboat, Hitch hired Hecht for his next two films, Spellbound and Notorious. Hitch later told Truffaut, “A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project some place in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again.” Together, in March of 45, Hitch and Hecht went to Caltech to ask one of America’s greatest scientists, Dr. Robert Millikan, how to build an atomic bomb. Although Millikan asked if they wanted all three of them arrested, the notion wasn’t from nothing: just as everyone knew Nazis were hiding in Brazil, everyone knew Marie Curie had died of uranium poisoning in the 30s, and the idea of some kind of radiation bomb was as well-known to fiction readers as the ideas of “The War of the Worlds.” That said, Selznick hated Hitch and Hecht’s hypothesis of uranium in bottles, disparaged it as science fiction, and wasn’t convinced when Hitch said that the idea was only the MacGuffin, the thing to keep the story moving, when for Hitch the real story was the love story. On Selznick’s orders, Hecht and Hitch rewrote but never could quite remove the uranium. In May, re-editing Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Selznick trimmed to two minutes a 20-minute dream sequence created by no less than Salvador Dali (while in Hollywood, the world’s most famous surrealist spent many more months with Walt Disney making Destino, that being quite another story), and Selznick’s prize project, Duel in the Sun, went way, way over-budget. These were determinate factors in Selznick’s decision, in June, to dispense with the whole package of Notorious, including Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, to RKO and to Hitchcock, now named as sole producer with his name above the title, for $800,000 in badly needed cash as well as 50% of Notorious’s eventual profits.
Then, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and as the world reeled from the dawn of the nuclear age, Selznick reeled from realizing RKO and Hitchcock would soon be earning wine bottles’ worth of gold. With his 50% profit stake as rationale, Selznick sent RKO memo after memo after memo, for example begging them to dump the purportedly problematic Cary Grant and cast (Selznick’s contract player) Joseph Cotten in the lead, but RKO and Hitchcock had partly paid for the privilege of ignoring Selznick, and did, other than his idea of casting Claude Rains as the third lead. In a way, Notorious doesn’t belong on a list of American films – Rains, Grant, and Hitchcock are all British, Ingrid Bergman is Swedish, and the action is mostly set in Rio de Janeiro. On the other hand, production was as studio-bound as that of Meet Me in St. Louis; after seeing what RKO did to Orson Welles while he was in Brazil, Hitchcock was happy to use RKO’s sound stages to simulate the global South. Rear-screen projection sufficed for most outdoor scenes except one day of horseback riding filmed at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia. As was his custom, Hitchcock storyboarded everything in advance and only shot what he planned to use, eschewing editorial “coverage” and giving the shoot a certain hermetic feeling. Some were aggravated by this airless approach, averring that Hitchcock treated actors like cattle, but in the case of Notorious, the very un-cattle-like Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains were able to bring something to the screen with a half-life rivaling that of uranium-238.
Notorious starts with the strikingly specific title card of “Miami. Florida. Three-Twenty P.M., April the Twenty-Fourth, 1946,” and we peer into the courtroom of a man being convicted of treason just before his daughter, the alluring, alchemistic Alicia, leaves court permitting the pernicious paparazzi no more than a Mona Lisa smile. Back in her apartment, she drinks, entertains guests, and gets observed by a man whose face remains unseen to us…until the others leave, when we see that this is devilishly debonair Devlin deploying his charms upon Alicia. Alicia takes Devlin on a drunk car ride until a cop stops them and Devlin flashes an ID that causes the officer to salute and shove off and causes Alicia to call Devlin a copper and cuff and crack at him. Back at her place, she continues accosting this copper until spy recruiter Devlin plays – on her phonograph – a record of her fighting with her father and fulminating that she’s fond of America, a record that Alicia wouldn’t want falling into fascist hands. On their flight to Rio de Janeiro, as they tour Rio awaiting further instructions, they flirt, kiss, and fall into a deeply passionate love. At the British embassy, Devlin’s superiors inform him that Alicia’s job is to pretend to be in love with her father’s old friend, Nazi refugee Alex Sebastian, and Devlin replies she’s not suited to that sort of work but backs down. Briefing her at their hotel room, Alicia asks if Devlin tried to refuse on her behalf, but he suggests he didn’t, perhaps to harden her for the job, perhaps out of his hard suspicions about her past. Devlin and Alicia contrive to bump into Alex while horseback riding, and indeed Alex begins seeing his now-dead friend’s daughter, though not without Alex’s jealousy of Devlin particularly when she seems to fawn over him at a “chance” meeting at a racetrack. In fact, at the track, Devlin tasks Alicia to memorize the names of notional Nazis Alex is inviting to dinner at his mansion, and when she does, a German becomes agitated at a certain wine bottle, and a second one insists on taking him home to his presumed death. Alicia comes to the embassy to announce to all the handlers Alex’s marriage proposal, and Devlin declines to disapprove, leaving a devastated Alicia to agree to marry Alex and arrange an expeditious honeymoon. Back at the mansion, Alicia learns that her ring of keys opens every door but the wine cellar, and this fact along with the errant Nazi prompts Devlin to prompt Alicia to prompt Alex to hold a big party so that Devlin can search the estate. In one of Hitchcock’s most famous shots, the camera cranes down about 20 feet from an upper balcony along a curved staircase into the central ballroom and the mostly closed fist of Alicia, revealing the key she stole from Alex’s ring. Alicia greets Devlin by slipping him the key, but together they sneak from the party to the wine cellar, where Devlin accidentally breaks a bottle that spills some sort of black sand that Devlin scoops up for a sample of what we’ll eventually learn is uranium ore. As Sebastian enters the cellar to get more alcohol, Devlin grabs Alicia, who says “No, he’ll only think that we…” but Devlin interrupts “what I want him to think” and Devlin delivers a perfervid, passionate kiss. Caught, Devlin tells Alex, “I knew her before you, I loved her before you, but I wasn’t as lucky as you,” and leaves. Less honestly, Alicia says Devlin threatened to make a scene if they didn’t come down there. Alex sees that his key is missing, recovers it, carefully searches the cellar, and finds where the bottle was broken and replaced. Alex shares with his mother that, as she suspected all along, Alicia is an enemy agent that they now need to silence without alerting the other Nazis to Alex’s error, so Alex’s mom suggests the terror of poisoned coffee. As Alicia drinks it, another guest reaches for her coffee, and when Alex and his mother overreact, Alicia realizes what must be happening even as her POV blurs and smears. Alarmed that Alicia hasn’t appeared at their usual appointment, Devlin arrives unannounced at the mansion and scampers to her chamber, where she tells him the location of the uranium mine and that she’s been poisoned. His words, “I love you and I’ll never leave you again,” are more surprising and more curative, and he kisses and hugs her and keeps her barely talking and walking out of her room. As they struggle down that sumptuous staircase, Sebastian and mother set upon them, but when Devlin points out three nearby Nazi nabobs, Alex must maintain that Devlin is making Alicia’s way to the hospital. Outside, Devlin puts Alicia in an auto as Alex asks to accompany the agents, but Devlin locks the door on him, says “that’s your problem,” and drives away as Sebastian slowly tracks back through a black, closing door.
As of this writing, Notorious is one of 8 films with a 100 on Metacritic. On some level, I believe Notorious just works. I’m not sure it works with two stars that are less attractive or less proficient with acting. The minute you see Cary Grant with Ingrid Bergman, both playing enigmatic, secretive people, you want them to confess to each other and, if you ever wanted two characters in a film to kiss, you want them to kiss. When they do, it feels as generous and thrilling and fragile as new love ever is, with that new-love understanding that something may have been left unexpressed that could undo everything. When it turns out that those sentiments have been suppressed into espionage, Hitchcock tends to elevates the stakes more exquisitely than we expect, through spying or smooching.
Influenced by: Hitchcock’s growing mastery; anti-Nazi warcraft pivoting to Cold War spycraft
Influenced: spy films, romance films, anyone who studied Hitchcock
“If I’m gonna die, I want to die last.”
Prompted by The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, Hollywood was getting better at a certain combination of styles and themes that would later be called film noir. By 1946, by the time Howard Hawks’s adaptation of The Big Sleep was released, the noir genre or style had reached a certain knowing maturity, with a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe-like detective chain-smoking and liquor-drinking his way around shady characters and shadier streets. Somehow, all of those were necessary pre-conditions for what I personally perceive as the most perfect of films noir, voice-overed by and starring a deeply fatalistic private eye facing off with a fiercely formidable femme fatale, both bantering well beyond the bounds of propriety. The film happens to have a title that holds close to the heart of noir themes: Out of the Past.
Italian-born director of photography Nicholas Musuraca helped create the edgy, high-contrast look of film noir when he shot Stranger on the Third Floor in 1940 and Cat People in 1942. On the latter, his director was Paris-born Jacques Tourneur, an assistant and second unit director at MGM in the 1930s who got picked up by RKO. Robert Mitchum was basically a wartime extra when RKO took a chance on him for a good supporting role in 1945’s The Story of G.I. Joe, for which Mitchum earned the only Oscar nomination he would ever get. With that laurel, and with Musuraca and Tourneur’s growing professionalism, RKO acquired the rights to Daniel Mainwaring’s 1946 novel “Build My Gallows High” and decided to invest an A-budget into the pulp novel’s peripatetic plot. As with Grant, Bergman, and Rains, this combo of Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas, the latter in only his second film, elevate the material into something special, and especially rare: a noir that uses but also transcends all the noir cliches.
Out of the Past begins with postcard-appropriate shots of the stunning Sierra Nevadas segueing to a sign telling us that we’re about 350 miles from Los Angeles, 80 miles from Lake Tahoe, and 1 mile from Bridgeport. A dark-coated, dark-hatted man drives us into Bridgeport, pesters a deaf-mute young man working at a gas station, introduces himself as Joe, and gathers info at a local diner. We meet the rough-hewn Jeff with wholesome Ann, fishing a mountain lake and dreaming of building a house there, when the young mute turns up and sign languages trouble. Jeff meets Joe at Jeff’s gas station, jokes, learns “Whit” demands to see him in Lake Tahoe, and picks up Ann from her skeptical parents. On the night car trip to Tahoe, Jeff tells Ann his real last name of Markham, warns Ann that the story will hurt her, and brings us into flashback. In New York City, Kathie has shot a gangster named Whit and run off with Whit’s $40,000, leading to Whit hiring Jeff, solo, to find her; in the hall Jeff agrees with his longtime partner Fisher they’ll split the reward fifty-fifty. In an African-American club, Jeff interviews Kathie’s roommate who randomly reveals that Kathie is in Mexico. In Acapulco, Jeff waits for her, and upon seeing her, narrates “I understood why Whit didn’t care about the $40,000.” He flirts until she tells him about another club, goes to Pablo’s knowing she wouldn’t show the first night, narrates that he grinded it out anyway, and they meet on the second night, tour the town, and wind up on the beach kissing. When Kathie proves wise, Jeff says Whit didn’t die but “give him time,” and Kathie insists she never took the money. They torrid affair takes place, her coming to him “like school just got out,” him telling her he didn’t miss her any more than he’d miss his eyes. As Jeff packs to meet Kathie and board a steamer leaving Acapulco, Whit and Joe surprise him in his hotel room, yet Jeff smoothly lies that he never quite saw Kathie. In the hotel bar, Jeff manages to divert Whit and Joe’s attention from Kathie by quitting the case and offering to refund Whit’s expenses, but Whit keeps Jeff on the job saying “I fire people, nobody quits me” and leaves to buy a racehorse. Jeff and Kathie set sail on a steamship, not south but north, lay low in San Francisco while Jeff takes “bottom of the barrel” jobs, and eventually get more ambitious, appearing at a racetrack only to bump into former partner Fisher. Jeff narrates that he separated from Kathie, drove all over the state to lose Fisher, met Kathie at a pre-arranged Pyramid Creek cabin…only to find out Fisher’d followed her. In the fire-lit cabin, Fisher demands the 40k to dummy up for Whit, fists fly, and our femme fatale shoots Fisher dead. As Jeff finally finishes his flashback he assures Ann he feels no more ardor for Kathie as his car approaches Whit’s Emerald Bay cabin, and Ann tells Jeff she wants him back as he tells her to drive off. At Whit’s palatial estate overlooking the lake, Whit cheerfully serves breakfast to Jeff and Kathie, says they’re both “back in the fold,” and makes Jeff an offer he can’t really refuse, to retrieve Whit’s tax documents from a San Francisco-based shady accountant named Leonard Eels who’s using the papers to blackmail Whit. In a private room, Kathie tells Jeff she had no choice, and Jeff says “Let’s just leave it where it all is. Get out.” On a wet night in San Francisco, Jeff meets one Meeta Carson, reviews the scheme against Eels, meets him and Meeta at his Bay Bridge-overlooking apartment, and when Meeta leaves them alone Jeff squeals to Eels that this feels like a frame. After losing and tailing Meeta with his cab driver friend, Jeff circles back, finds Eels dead, hides the body, gets the papers, mails them to an airport, returns to Meta’s place, finds a wide-eyed Kathie, grills and entraps her, and learns that she signed an affidavit that Jeff killed Fisher. Whit’s thugs catch up to both of them only to discover Jeff holding a phone book instead of Eels’ papers, and an hour later he manages to escape the police they send to him. Back in Bridgeport, Kathie orders Joe to trail the deaf-mute Kid, who drives with his fishing gear to a canyon-carved river where Jeff is hiding out, but when Joe stands on a cliff aiming his pistol at Jeff, the Kid fish-line-hooks his arm and pulls Joe into the river to his death. Jeff returns to the Tahoe mansion and tells Kathie and Whit about Joe’s death that Whit might spin into a guilty suicide over killing Eels, promising to hand over the tax papers in exchange for Kathie’s affidavit. Bridgeport is finally seen in darkness as Jeff comes to a moonlight-dappled grove where he meets and reassures Ann that he loves her and will return to her. Jeff returns to Tahoe to see that Kathie has killed Jeff and will frame him for three murders if he doesn’t escape with her to Mexico, and he agrees, but while she’s upstairs packing he phones the police. As Jeff drives them away from the lake, she sees the roadblock and pulls out a pistol, sputters “dirty double-crossing,” struggles with him, and fires exactly one shot into his gut. She shoots at the police who shoot back, the car crashes into the roadblock, and the police open Jeff’s door to watch his dead body descend to the dirt. In the final scene, accompanied by a good man who hopes to marry her, Ann asks the deaf-mute Kid if Jeff was really planning to go away with Kathie, and the Kid lies that Jeff was.
Most famous films noir, and most crime-themed films, present at least one mysteriously precipitated death in the film’s first ten minutes, presuming that you, the audience member, need that hook just to stick around. No one dies in Out of the Past until about the halfway mark, with Fisher’s unambiguous, non-mysterious murder. Instead, Out of the Past begins with life, the life of the high Sierras in bloom and Jeff’s hope of a long life with Ann in a cabin there. We mostly know we’re in a noir because of Jeff’s overcoat and tart, arch narration that includes the line “we called ourselves detectives,” but the larger effect of beginning with light and lilacs and life is that as the film gets literally and figuratively darker, we feel and remember the home and heart and hearth that we hope Jeff can return to. Kathie shoots Whit in two different, crucial scenes, but we don’t see either because the film is less about violence and more about Jeff’s perspective. The movie puts shadows in the dialogue before we really see any, first when Ann and Jeff speak of coming clouds bringing more fish, and second when clouds are predicted to burst, and then do burst, in Mexico as Jeff and Kathie avoid them, foreshadowing the Fog City shadows. Jeff’s confessional flashback to Ann, taking up about 30 of the film’s first 40 minutes, forms a subtle geographic spiral, from New York to a brushed-over Florida to Mexico City to Acapulco to San Francisco to Tahoe, a spiral implying a tightening or a painting into a corner. The story’s writer, Daniel Mainwaring, had theretofore mostly written whodunnits, and Out of the Past was his departure into whydunit, why any of us do it, something Jeff eventually asks himself and Ann when he says “I don’t know why I let you back in my stinking life.” Out of the Past understands that noir is about setting and lighting, yes, but mostly character, specifically a battle-scarred person like Jeff who seems so close to losing the shadows and finding his safe well-lit Sierra small-town life until, as he predicted, he dies last.
One problem with a lot of films noir, including Chinatown, are the endings, because the central detective has to live to be available for more stories. Billy Wilder’s two great noirs, already covered by the AFI 100, kill their cynical protagonists, but they’re not detectives. Jeff’s the sort of detective who’s consistently sure of, yet vaguely tired of, his own dialogue, no matter how hardboiled and Hemingwayesque, no matter how persistently pared to its pith. I still don’t know how Robert Mitchum is 30 in Out of the Past; he acts at least 50 and isn’t unconvincing when he asks for money for his waning years or says he’s “It’s too late in life for me to start thinking.” Out of the Past postulates a hero/narrator as clever and bitter as any Spade or Marlowe, but his conclusion is triply satisfying, first that his femme fatale kills him, second that his wholesome girlfriend gets a final fib about Jeff to free her, and third, maybe most important, in the final frame, the (apparently ethnic) deaf-mute who told the final fib seems poised to preserve the positively best and eschew the worst of who Jeff was.
Influenced by: noir
Influenced: noir, great California films
“I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
For star Humphrey Bogart, the role of a did-he-or-didn’t-he scripter was an almost-too-clever comment on the fact that Bogart was then known as the star who had, to use a well-known Bogey phrase, “stuck his neck out” furthest for the blacklisted Hollywood Ten screenwriters. Bogart felt Warner Bros. was failing to sufficiently defend him during HUAC’s persecution, particularly considering he and John Huston and Warner Bros. together made two hits in 1948, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo. This was a key reason that Bogart set up his own Santana Productions, infuriating Jack Warner and intimidating the other moguls, who worried that stars would follow Bogart’s lead, and indeed many did, including Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. These upstart actor-producers still needed studios for distribution, and Bogart moved quickly to prove the viability of the new model by partnering with Columbia Pictures and Nicholas Ray to make Knock on Any Door in 1949 and then In a Lonely Place in 1950. However, Bogart’s stiffing the studios scrambled his plans to cast Lauren Bacall as his female lead; Warner Bros. understandably refused to loan her out. Instead, Nicholas Ray cast his wife Gloria Graham, even though the two fought so vociferously during the making of In a Lonely Place that Ray slept in a dressing room worried that Bogart or Columbia would fire one of them if they found out. Things got so frosty that Graham signed a contract obligating her to obey Ray during daytime hours.
Like Out of the Past, In a Lonely Place begins with the camera mounted in the back of, and facing the front of, a moving convertible car, but this one is being driven through Los Angeles at night by Humphrey Bogart, whose eyes we see in the rearview mirror. At a stop sign, a female passenger identifies Bogart as Dixon Steele, writer of movies she loves, but when her hubby berates Dixon, Dix challenges him to a brawl and the man drives away. Steele arrives at a nightclub, warmly hugs his agent Mel Lippman, sharply criticizes a fellow screenwriter who writes only fluff hits, and curtly dismisses the hat-check girl, Mildred Atkinson, for her limited understanding of “epic.” Because Mildred has read the book Lippman wants Steele to adapt, and Steele is exhausted, Steele hires her to come to his house and tell him the plot. At his bungalow, Mildred details the book’s plot, Dix’s mind wanders to the window and a beautiful neighbor in a negligee, and Dixon pays Mildred and gives her cab fare for home as Mildred confirms she’ll be fine to wait by herself at the nearby taxi stand. The next day, Steele’s old war buddy Officer Brub Nicolai awakens Steele and brings him downtown so that his superior, Captain Lochner, can grill Steele about Mildred’s murder. The negligee neighbor, named Laurel Gray, turns up and vouches for Steele’s alibi. Back at the bungalows, Dixon thanks Laurel for her help, one thing leads to another, and she begins dating him and clearing his writer’s block. At a dinner with Nicolai and his wife Sylvia, the lights go dim around most of Steele’s face and brighten his eyes as he describes in detail how Mildred’s murder must have happened. Lochner brings Laurel into his office to let her know about Steele’s violent, if not murderous, past; at Laurel’s bungalow, her masseuse lets her know about Steele’s checkered, if not adulterous, past. At a night beach party double-date, Mrs. Nicolai lets slip that Laurel met Lochner again, causing Dix to lividly leave. As he three-point turns his car, Laurel leaps into the passenger seat and becomes part of a taut, tight-lipped, terrifying, traumatic, torturous, ride around blind seaside curves until Dixon sideswipes another moving car, causing Dix to get out and beat the other driver nearly to death until Laurel stops him. Now calmly driving home, Dix tells Lauren a bit of dialogue that he wants to fit, but can’t, into the current script: I was born when I met you. I lived while I loved you. I died when you left me”. Next-day’s newspapers announce that a UCLA football star was found badly beaten. Steele goes to the police station to clear his name but meets Mildred’s boyfriend Harry Kesler, and remarks to Nicolai that Kesler makes a better suspect. After a few more twists of intrigue, Laurel finds that she can’t sleep without pills, yet when Dixon proposes marriage, Laurel accepts. While Steele is away, Lippman comes over to celebrate and learns Laurel only accepted out of fear of what he’d do if she refused and is now planning to escape to New York. At an engagement party at their favorite nightclub, one of Steele’s old flames reveals that Lippman leaked Dix’s new script, and when a waiter brings a phone for Laurel, Steele grabs it, hears Laurel’s skeptical masseuse on the line, and sucker-punches a pesky Lippman. Back at the bungalows, Steele at first says that’ll never happen again, and next wants to know where Laurel’s ring is and why she has kept a certain room locked. She calms him until Dixon answers a phone call to tell Laurel Flight 16 to New York has been cancelled. Laurel says “I love you, Dix, I’ll stay with you” as he grabs her, manhandles her, and bellows “you’d leave me the first chance you’d get.” Laurel says she can’t live with a maniac while Dix says “I’ll never let you go” as he strangles her, but one more ringing phone stops him. Nicolai and Lochner are calling to say that Mildred’s ex confessed and they’re very sorry for everything they put the couple through. Dix hands Laurel the phone who tells the cops that yesterday this news would have been great, but now it’s too late, and she goes to the door to watch Dix leave the bungalows.
The film’s original ending, filmed by Ray, had Dixon killing Lauren, Nicolai showing up to clear him of Mildred’s murder and arrest him for Lauren’s, and a final shot of a page in the typewriter with those lines that ended “I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Ray decided that he hated the ending he’d shot, and so he cleared the set of everyone except Bogart and Gloria Graham and basically improvised the ending as audiences know it. This wasn’t because of the Hays Code, which would have been fine with punishing Steele in the end, but instead a desire to play more to Steele’s ambiguity and guilt about Laurel…or perhaps Ray’s over Graham.
Influenced by: noir, mid-century writer’s problems
Influenced: fans of noir and ambiguous leading men
“Klaatu barada nicto.”
Robert Wise well knew that world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright (whose granddaughter Anne Baxter played Lucy) had visited the The Magnificent Ambersons set and announced it was unrealistic and unacceptable, but that didn’t stop Wise from hiring Wright to design the interior and exterior of the futuristic spaceship in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
While Wise was getting Wright on board, producer Julian Blaustein and writer Edmund H. North were going back and forth with Joseph Breen at the Hays Office because of Klaatu and the aliens’ limitless power. Later in the 50s, Breen would barely blink at the broadly supernatural, but in 1950, such sentiments staged in cinema were sacrilegious. Blaustein knew that it was better to negotiate with Breen than deal with the Legion of Decency, and so North added a bit of dialogue after an apparent resurrection, Klaatu saying “that power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit.” Nonetheless, whether blasphemous or in tune with the times, North’s script had plenty of allusions to the New Testament, not least having Klaatu adopt the name “John Carpenter,” with everything those initials and profession implied. Oh, did I mention Klaatu preaches peace, is killed by military authority, rises from the dead, and ascends into the sky. North and Blaustein took a page from world leaders, deflecting difficult questions by telling the press that their project was really more pro-United Nations.
The Day the Earth Stood Still begins in space and brings the camera down through the clouds. We run through a montage of broadcasters, politicians, and civilians anticipating the arrival of a flying saucer. The silvery chromatic Unidentified Flying Object arrives on the White House’s ellipse, marked by three baseball infields. The military surrounds the UFO which pops out a ramp to permit the appearance of a man wearing a glittery onesie and bubble helmet, stepping forward offering some kind of flashlight-sized widget, which opens to reveal a bunch of spikes, and with one bullet a soldier manages to both destroy the object and wound the spaceman, who keels over. Only ten minutes into the movie, then, aliens have arrived and Americans have proven ourselves too aggressive for authentic allyship. An eight-foot-robot emerges from the ship, flips his visor, and uses a laser-beam eye to disintegrate the army’s other weapons while leaving the humans untouched. As the spaceman rises to explain in perfect English that the contraption was a gift for the President to let him study life on other planets, the head honchos huddle and hustle the spaceman to the military’s Walter Reed Hospital. There, Klaatu introduces himself as such, changes into a Western suit, and defies medical science by curing his gunshot wound with a balm that he gives to the doctors. In a private chat with the President’s secretary, Klaatu explains that because he doesn’t want to “add to your jealousies and suspicions,” he needs to deliver a message to every leader at the same time, but the secretary declares this impossible even with the United Nations. Klaatu breaks out of the military hospital and strolls down Georgetown streets until he sees a sign that says “room for rent”; as radios squawk auguries regarding an escaped spaceman, Klaatu wanders into the house and introduces himself as John Carpenter to a large family that includes Helen Benson and her pre-teen son Bobby. Because Helen wants to date a man named Tom, she takes up “Mister Carpenter” on his offer to let Bobby escort him around D.C., and they visit Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, and the spaceship, where they see the military trying and failing to break into the UFO as the eight-foot robot, Gort, guards it motionlessly from the adjacent grass. At one point, Bobby trades Klaatu two American dollars for two perfectly formed diamonds so that Klaatu can take him to the movies, though we never learn what movie they saw (one presumes it was The Thing From Another World). Klaatu asks Bobby if they can meet a modern Lincoln, or perhaps the smartest man in the world, prompting Bobby to propose Professor Barnhardt, whose apartment they…break into, Klaatu helping elucidate an elaborate equation on Barnhardt’s blackboard. With Bobby back in bed, Klaatu bounces back to Barnhardt’s place and meets the man himself, who sports an Einstein- or Eraserhead-esque hairstyle. Klaatu explains that aliens weren’t worried during the millennia while humans were wrangling with each other, but now that they’re putting atomic power on space-bound rockets, Earthlings must evolve or be “eliminated.” Barnhardt replies that he will gather the world’s best scientists, while wondering if Klaatu can provide evidence of the existential threat through a power demonstration that wouldn’t hurt or damage anyone or anything, a notion Klaatu calls “quite an interesting problem.” Bobby secretly follows Klaatu to his spaceship and watches as Gort knocks out a couple of soldiers and Klaatu enters the ship, where we, but not Bobby, see the spaceman set off some switches and spinners. After Bobby tells everything to his mom and Tom gets more and more mistrustful of this mysterious man, Klaatu comes to Helen’s office to confide everything to her, and creepily gets her alone in an elevator at high noon when all electricity goes out all over the world except that of hospitals and airplanes in flight. A montage of arrested developments confirms the day the Earth is standing still. Tom arrives at Helen’s office to report that the diamond they found is out of this world, and putting two and two together, Tom summons the military despite Helen’s misgivings. As night falls, the army closes in and Helen gets into a taxi with Klaatu and he tells her that if anything happens to him, she must take him to Gort and say “Klaatu barada nicto,” words that he confirms she has memorized. Sure enough, at a military roadblock, the taxi is stopped, Klaatu runs, soldiers shoot him, and Klaatu bloodlessly dies. Helen takes a subway to the ellipse, where she fearfully and carefully tells Gort, twice, “Klaatu barada nicto.” Gort brings Helen inside the spaceship, locks her in there, walks to the military facility that bears Klaatu’s corpse, uses his laser eye to disintegrate some of the wall, takes Klaatu’s body, returns to the spaceship with Klaatu, and hooks him up to flickering beeping machine that revives Klaatu, though Klaatu tells Helen the revival is only temporary. The three of them emerge from the spaceship to see Barnhardt’s assembled scientists from seemingly every race and nationality. Klaatu tells them that there’s an interplanetary police force of invincible robots like Gort to whom they’ve given absolute power “in matters of aggression.” Klaatu perorates more pedantic platitudes, and concludes elliptically, “Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer.” Klaatu and Gort get in the saucer and leave this, ah, godforsaken planet.
When I watch The Day the Earth Stood Still, I’m struck by just how many of its tropes, motifs and plot twists were adopted, barely reconstructed, by dozens of Twilight Zone episodes and other media in the 50s, 60s, and beyond. You could make the case that 2001: A Space Odyssey basically has the same plot and message but with better effects. So if 2001 is the film most filmmakers cite as their favorite sci-fi film, well, who influenced the influencers? Certainly Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, although I’m fascinated at this American film’s next step in the evolution of cinematic robots, namely as an A.I.-driven, omnipotent police force.
Influenced by: pulp comics, sci-fi literature; the nascent Cold War
Influenced: the nascent Cold War; foundational for American science-fiction films
“So, so happy.”
When Dalton Trumbo and his wife arrived from Mexico City on their 1951 Roman holiday, they saw that Rome wasn’t all neo-realist ruin and rubble, and Trumbo reasoned that if he wrote something contemporary that showcased Rome’s glamour, Cinecitta might even pay for the privilege. The notion of a runaway European princess matched with a wise-guy American had a certain consonance with a lot of stories, not least several screwball comedies, though Trumbo and his writing partner John Dighton felt they could update the tropes with jokes about maintaining trade relations, royalty in a de-royal-izing world, and the somewhat pathetic passions and preoccupations of what Federico Fellini had not yet renamed the paparazzi. Paramount Pictures couldn’t credit Trumbo on screen, and so the film’s eventual Oscar was awarded to Dighton and Paramount staff writer Ian McLellan Hunter, an injustice that wasn’t rectified until 1993, when Trumbo’s widow received the long-delayed laurel.
After William Wyler became the first person to win the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars twice, thanks to Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, he had considerable latitude over his next moves, and he eventually signed a five-year or five-picture deal with Paramount that gave him first choice of any script on the lot. Wyler liked Trumbo’s script of Roman Holiday right away, though Paramount couldn’t give him everything; after the existential despair of neo-realism, Wyler wanted to bring modern Rome to life in Technicolor, but the budget was locked in at $1.5 million and so Wyler settled for black-and-white. Wyler offered the Joe Bradley role to Cary Grant, who refused not because he had already played a higher-ranking, faster-talking journalist in His Girl Friday, but because at the age of almost 50 he didn’t want to be double the age of whatever 25-year-old Wyler found to play the princess. (He would later play opposite her in Charade.) Wyler was drawn to the unknown Audrey Hepburn partly because she was utterly uncurvy, unlike Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Gina Lollabrigida, and other American and Italian stars of the period. Wyler didn’t attend Hepburn’s screen test, but told his assistant to keep the camera rolling even after he said cut, and this candid footage not only won Hepburn the role but was even featured in the trailer. Already an A-list star, Gregory Peck’s contract stipulated his name alone before the title and in the title cards’ largest font, but halfway through filming, Peck made an unprecedented request to put Hepburn’s name on an even keel with his own, because, he said, she was obviously going to become a pretty major star and at that point his billing would look majorly petty.
Roman Holiday begins with those successive title cards of Peck and Hepburn in equally large fonts as well as an avowal that all of the movie was made in Rome (as opposed to The Day the Earth Stood Still, which didn’t even film its actors in DC). A “Paramount News Flash” story tells us of a princess of an unnamed nation visiting capitals of Europe, giving a limp-wristed hand wave to thousands of enthusiastic throngs. In Rome, Princess Ann meets a series of diplomats, fidgets with her shoe, dances at a ball, and at bedtime, complains about her nightgowns and life having to smile and curtsy and improve trade relations. Despite a sedative, Ann covertly sneaks out of her country’s embassy on the covered bed of a supply truck and waves at a couple driving behind her on a Vespa. We meet Joe Bradley, of “American News Service,” who plays poker with his press-mates, leaves, discovers Ann asleep atop a low wall, puts her in a taxi, directs the driver to his dinky flat, and tries to stick the cabbie with her somnambulant self. When the driver refuses, Joe walks Ann upstairs as she mumbles “so happy” and puts her in his single bed. After sitting in a chair all night, Joe goes to work at his news office, learns that the princess is reportedly too ill to attend scheduled appearances, sees her picture in the paper, and realizes who’s really sleeping in his room. Joe asks his editor how much he’d theoretically pay for a story about a lost princess out on the town, and Joe commits five thousand dollars while also betting Joe five hundred dollars that he’ll never secure such a story. Joe hopes to earn enough to return to New York, hurries back to his flat, hides that he’s a reporter, hails “Anya,” offers to show her around, and jokes on his terrace that he could tell tales about all his neighbors, apparently inspiring Alfred Hitchcock to make Rear Window. However, “Anya” declines Joe’s offer, dresses in a sporty number, departs, drifts around the markets, and deviates from royal protocol by getting her hair cut short. Joe visits a Trevi Fountain that modern tourists have never seen, with kids crawling all over it, and after trying and failing to steal a camera from a girl Joe calls a photographer colleague, Irving, and insists that Irving drop everything and meet him for a story that “could blow wide open.” When Ann “just happens” to run into Joe at the Spanish Steps, she tells him that she’s on a break from “school” and all the things she’s always wanted to do, and he offers to do them together with her, starting with an outdoor café next to the Pantheon. Irving turns up, says “wow, you look just like…”, gets kicked by Joe, and gets pulled aside as Joe offers him 25% of the $5000 if he plays ball and takes lots of pictures. Ann sits behind Joe as he motors his Vespa and points out many, many highlights of Rome as Irving drives in front, and takes dangerous pictures, of them. Joe stops and asks directions, Ann starts the scooter, Joe jumps on the back just in time, and Ann drives around Rome fecklessly and recklessly, which rather implausibly attracts the attention of the local police who arrest them. After Joe and Irving’s supposedly “fake” press passes provide the privilege of freedom, Joe presents Ann the exaggerated bas-relief of the Mouth of Truth, or Bocca della Verita, which purportedly bites the hands of fabricators, and after Ann bravely places her hand in the mouth without incident, Joe follows suit, screams in agony, and reveals a missing hand…that he was hiding in his sleeve. That evening, Irving and Joe escort Ann to a boat party to which her barber had invited her, and everyone is having a delightful time until dark-suited government agents, notified by Ann’s embassy, try to forcibly drag her away. After a slippery scuffle-skirmish ensues, Joe winds up punched into the Tiber river and Ann follows him as they swim away from the goons, shiver on another bank, and kiss. At Joe’s apartment, they change into drier clothes, kiss and hug, and discuss the resumption of her royal responsibilities. The twosome take a taxi to the embassy gates, where Ann tells Joe not to follow her as she leaves; they share some final sappy sentiments. The royal family reprimands renegade Ann, and she reprimands them right back, saying that if she didn’t know her duties they’d never have seen again. At Joe’s apartment, his suspicious editor wants the real story, but Joe lies that there’s no story, feeling fine with foregoing the five thousand and frittering away the five hundred. Irving turns up with the photographs that Joe says Irving can still sell, but Irving knows they’ll sell better with Joe’s story, and they both imagine funny headlines for the many candid moments, like Ann gashing a goon with a guitar. The film’s final scene presents Princess Ann taking questions from the press, and when she sees Joe and Irving, we see her realize everything. Joe’s question, and Irving’s gift of candid shots, makes clear that she won’t have to worry about the story or the photos appearing in the press. Ann avers she’s been “so happy” to meet Joe and departs with her retinue, allowing Joe to be awkwardly alone.
Roman Holiday was a major hit in the U.K. because of the contemporaneous romance between Princess Margaret and “commoner” Peter Townsend – as the saying goes, you can’t buy that kind of publicity. I already told you Roman Holiday won Oscars for writing and costume design, but it also won a third, a debut award for Best Actress for Audrey Hepburn, who, as Peck predicted, became a major star and intended central character of countless scripts over the next decade. In a post-screwball era, Roman Holiday became the ur-film of urbane, utopian romantic comedy. The success of Quo Vadis and Roman Holiday inaugurated a period whose name was reflected in a later documentary’s title, “Hollywood on the Tiber,” as the studios frequented Cinecitta at least through Cleopatra in 1963. But when Wyler and Trumbo and Paramount precipitated a pivot from neo-realism to enchanted travelogue, the implications went beyond Italy; instead, Hollywood studios became international travel agents and leisure-peddlers, presenting people and places and possessions for newly peripatetic, airplane-aspirational audiences.
Influenced by: neo-realism, as contrast; other runaway princess stories
Influenced: romantic comedy; princess films; runaway production; ribbon-wrapped travelogue films; Audrey Hepburn’s effect on Hollywood (and all the scripts pitched to her)
“And he ain’t no preacher neither.”
Paul Gregory was an assistant who met legendary character actor Charles Laughton in Hollywood in the 40s and produced Laughton’s successful lecture tour in 1949 and 1950, leading to the two men leveraging the lectures into producing Broadway plays. One of these was “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” based on Herman Wouk’s successful 1951 novel, a play that Gregory produced and Laughton directed into a 1953 play that opened starring Henry Fonda. Around this time, there was a literary agent named Harold Matson who might have altered film history by sending a client’s book to Hitchcock or Wyler or Wilder or who knows, but instead he sent Davis Grubb’s brand-new novel The Night of the Hunter to Paul Gregory, who loved it and showed it to Laughton, and soon the producing pair was meeting with Grubb, an art major who began drawing sketches for a play or movie. Only one studio was edgy enough to make a serial killer into a lead character, so United Artists was approached with a Night of the Hunter movie idea with Laughton as director, Gregory as producer, and Grubb as sole writer, but United Artists demanded that at least one of these jobs be filled by someone who had done it for a studio feature, and so for the writing they hired James Agee, who had written The African Queen and well-received stories about the South during the Depression. Agee’s adaptation apparently ran 293 pages, enough for two (long) feature films. One reporter claimed that Laughton rewrote everything himself, but Laughton insisted that Agee agreed to, and made, all the changes, and further insisted that Agee’s sole credit as screenwriter was strictly accurate.
Laughton seriously considered casting his fifty-six-year-old self as Preacher Powell, but Gregory worried that Laughton couldn’t really direct and act, and that if they had to choose, they were more likely to get the film they wanted both with Laughton’s radical directorial vision and a star actor that would get United Artists to bestow a bigger budget. Also, in the mid-50s, the time of the actor-director seemed over, with Chaplin and Welles’ recent films struggling for critical and audience approval. Welles, who’d went from breaking barriers on Broadway to Hollywood to make Citizen Kane, remained an inspiration to Laughton, and with Kane’s cinematographer Gregg Toland dead, Laughton hired Welles’ second DP, Stanley Cortez, who lensed The Magnificent Ambersons. Laughton told Cortez he expected The Night of the Hunter, like Ambersons and Citizen Kane, to look like nothing so much as high-contrast Expressionist paintings, to “restore the power of silent films to talkies.” They both studied the sharpness of the silver nitrate prints of silents and strove for simulations of such. This was one reason Laughton approached Lillian Gish to play the savior Rachel; he told Gish that when she was a star, viewers “sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back, and eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again.” Laughton offered Powell to Gary Cooper, who said no to the seedy story, then to Laurence Olivier, who said yes but was busy for two years. Robert Mitchum wanted the role badly and got it, and when David Grubb protested that his predator-preacher was being presented as sexy, Laughton proclaimed to Grubb, “If you want to sell God, you have to be sexy.”
Laughton wouldn’t have said this to the Hays Office, whom Gregory negotiated with throughout 1954. Gregory and Agee ascertained that their central cleric never appeared as an actual ordained minister, and never referred to him as anything but “preacher,” because after all anyone could preach. As the filmmakers reckoned, however, religious reformists could never parse such a personable parson. They almost filmed on location in Wheeling, West Virginia, but ultimately decided the sets were easier to control in Los Angeles and at the Rowland Lee ranch in the San Fernando Valley, with stunning results.
The Night of the Hunter begins with the maternal Lillian Gish sermonizing about false prophets to the heads of children. We see God’s-eye shots of children playing hide and seek discovering, near the exterior doors of a storm cellar, a woman’s dead body. As Gish continues her sermon, the aerial view wanders to a convertible Model-T rolling down a river road, and we cut to a shot of the driver, who speaks to God about the 6, maybe 12 widows he’s killed for the money hid in a sugar bowl or likewise. Purported Preacher Harry Powell claims the Lord hates curly-haired perfumed persons, and we cut to a Marilyn Monroe-like performer in a 30s burlesque, whom Powell watches while clenching his fist that has H, A, T, E tattooed on his fingers above his knuckles. A policeman arrests Harry for a stolen car, and a judge with a portrait of Lincoln behind him sentences Powell to a month in Moundsville Penitentiary. Back to God’s-eye view to bring us in on John and Pearl, maybe 9 and 6, playing amidst a fusillade of fallen flowers and fixing her doll. Their father, Ben Harper, shows up frantic, bleeding, needing to hide $10,000. Ben hides the cash without us seeing where, swears both kids to secrecy, gets forcibly arrested, and appears before the same Lincoln-loyal judge who sentences him to a hanging. In his cell, Harper harps on in his sleep as Powell’s head descends, less from the heavens and more from the top bunk, begging Ben to blurt out the location of the money, prompting Ben to punch Powell and ask what he was talking about. Harper explains he stole because of his kids starving during the Depression and gets executed without revealing his secret, but Powell thanks the Lord for getting him this close as the executioner goes home and tucks in his children, who look like John and Pearl. The real John and Pearl listen to children singing praises of the hangman, go to a bakery called Spoon’s for a treat, and get waved off by their mother Willa, who works there. Icey Spoon, an older woman, works on Willa to find a husband as the film cuts to an approaching locomotive. Birdie Steptoe, an older man working a fishing outpost and keeping an eye on Ben’s small skiff, shares some coffee and sexism with John. John and Pearl arrive at Spoon’s and meet Preacher Powell, who charms the adults with stories of Ben Harper and his hand tattoos that are about love beating hate. At a Sunday town picnic, Harry sings “bringing in the sheaves” as Icey privately urges Willa to marry the Harry John finds scary, but Willa can’t stop worrying about the waylaid money. Willa watches Harry while Harry watches John as Harry claims Ben claimed he buried the money in the river. In the humble Harper hallway, Harry tells John that he and Willa will soon wed, and John says “I won’t tell, I won’t!” before clasping his own mouth. On their wedding night, Willa walks into their bedroom willingly, but Powell reprimands her, reminds her that her body is meant only to bear children that neither of them want, and redirects her to teaching fire and brimstone, something we soon see at an abstract-ified sermon complete with tirades, tarnation, and tiki torches. Pearl makes paper dolls of portions of the cash pile, and John promptly puts the paper back into Pearl’s Raggedy-Ann-ish doll, revealing itself to be the treasure repository. While Willa is away, Harry tries various forms of persuasion on the kids, threatening Pearl with violence just as Willa returns, and soon Willa lies prostrate in a very cantilevered, churchy bedroom doubting Harry’s word about the drowned money until Harry brings down a switchblade knife as though it’s the sword of Damocles. Harry appears at the Spoons store and lies that Willa has permanently run off, saying “The devil wins sometimes, Can’t nobody say I didn’t do my best to save her” as the camera cross-fades to one of the most remarkable shots in American cinema, flowing underwater reeds panning over to the flowing blonde hair of Willa’s corpse tied to her car as Birdie’s fishing line finds her. As the Preacher stands outside the Harper house hollering for the children, as in The Magnificent Ambersons, Cortez’s camera irises in on one fixture, this being a basement window where John and Pearl are hiding. Soon, Powell sets out a sumptuous feast in exchange for secrets, and when the babes won’t barter, he marches them into the basement and begins torturing John until Pearl finally confesses, “my doll, my doll!” John jostles loose a ledge of jars onto Powell’s head, leaving he and Pearl just enough time to escape to Uncle Birdie’s, who believes police will blame him for killing Willa, and is so drunk as to be useless. John puts Pearl in his father’s rowboat and pushes it out to the current just barely eluding Powell who is wielding a knife and wallowing in mud. As Pearl sings a creepy song, in stunning visuals, the kids’ boat drifts by a spider-web, an iguana, a turtle, rabbits, an owl, sheep, cows, a bird in a cage, and a fox. As Harry rides his horse sings “Leaning,” his silhouette resembles a paper cut-out as John sees him and says “Don’t he never sleep?” Finally, their skiff lands in reeds and the kids get whipped, cleaned, and adopted by Rachel Cooper, the tough woman from the opener who helps stray kids with housing, shopping, and a lecture about a boat landing in reeds; when the kids say it was John and Pearl, she corrects them no, it was Moses. In town, a Rachel adoptee, teenage Ruby, flirts with Harry, reveals John and Pearl have come with the doll, asks if she herself has pretty eyes, and causes Harry to hide his shivering “hate” hand in his pocket. Harry arrives at Rachel’s house, requests his two children, and gets grilled by Rachel, but when John arrives and says “he ain’t my dad” Rachel responds “and he ain’t no preacher neither.” Waving his blade, our devil dives for the doll as Rachel retrieves her shotgun and directs it at Powell, who promises to return and calls the household “whores of Babylon,” a possible reference to Gish’s Intolerance. Rachel and the Preacher sit still during the night of the hunter – but who is hunter and who is hunted, Rachel rocking her shotgun or the Preacher prowling nearby with his predatory knife? The two wind up harmonizing a duet of “Leaning on the everlasting arms,” but Rachel conspicuously sings “Leaning on Jesus” where Powell simply sings “Leaning.” Powell finally finds his way in, Rachel fires, Powell flees to a barn, and Rachel phones the police. As the police arrive and arrest Harry for the murder of Willa Harper, they throw him down as they did Ben Harper, causing a disconsolate John to offer the doll’s contents to Harry as the money flies aloft uselessly. Icey, once infatuated with Powell, now inflames a lynch mob to pull Powell out of the police station, and Rachel just barely escorts her children out of their way, including Ruby who remains inexplicably infatuated with the inmate. Snow covers the Cooper cottage in much the way it did the Ambersons manse, and as the kids exchange Christmas courtesies and charities, Rachel acclaims that children “abide and they endure.”
United Artists serialized the script in the Los Angeles Herald-Express in April 1955, andThe Night of the Hunter actually premiered in Paul Gregory’s hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, but…it never really caught on. One might have thought that religious groups would applaud the film’s frontal assault on false prophets, but…the Legion of Decency objected to its “degrading of marriage” and the Protestant Motion Picture Council said any religious person would be offended by it. Gregory asked United Artists to sue these groups, perhaps as publicity, but UA refused; one of its executives called the film “too arty.” Sometimes, we see audiences going ga-ga for a film going against the grain, and sometimes we don’t. The term “serial killer” wouldn’t be coined for decades, and furthermore few Americans knew of such a person; Ed Gein had yet to commit his worst crimes.
Influenced by: silent cinema; Citizen Kane
Influenced: later, everyone from Spike Lee to David Lynch to the Coen Brothers
“So let it be written, so let it be done.”
Cecil B. DeMille knew perfectly well what was happening in national religious life and in Hollywood in terms of spectacle-based differentiation from TV and productions in foreign countries – heck, we can suppose he saw Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor sing “Moses Supposes,” written for Singin’ in the Rain – and asked Paramount for Hollywood’s first-ever eight figure budget to remake his 1923 film The Ten Commandments.
At the time of DeMille’s pitch in 1953, several other Biblical/Roman/swords-and-sandals movies were in production, including Julius Caesar (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Attila (1954), The Egyptian (1954), The Silver Chalice (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Prodigal (1955), and Alexander the Great (1956). The difference would be Paramount Pictures paying for the best effects, film stock, cameras, actors, real Egyptian locations…Paramount swallowed hard realizing The Ten Commandments would cost at least a million per commandment. Tiny bonus: absolutely no interference from any meddling censorship group, especially considering this time DeMille wasn’t even bothering with implying sex. Ultimately the story of Exodus and Moses proved picture-worthy for its appeal to New Testament audiences and even American patriotism, resonating with the pro-abolition, promised-land story of The United States. As a general rule, scenes in The Ten Commandments tended to eschew well-established shot/reverse-shot conventions, and instead often followed what stage directors call “proscenium staging” on cavernous, ornately appointed sets, privileges a theatrical performative style. Vincent Canby wrote that Heston “prepared for the part of Moses by memorizing passages from the Old Testament. When filming began on the sun-baked slopes of Mount Sinai, he suggested to DeMille that he play the role barefoot — a decision that he felt lent an edge of truth to his performance.” According to Anton Karl Kozlovic, Heston chose to slow down his speech, apparently to seem more declamatory. For example, Heston says, “What…words…can I speak…that they…will heed?” instead of “what words can I speak that they will heed?” In Heston’s own book, “The Actor’s Life,” Heston claims that to play Moses, he sometimes tried to imitate Laurence Olivier’s more “imperious” moments, an actor with whom Heston had appeared on Broadway. In this context, I would point to one irony: Heston never sounds even slightly British in this or Ben-Hur, and those, along with Spartacusstarring a non-British-sounding Kirk Douglas, became far better-regarded than all the British-led swords-and-sandals cinema.
The Ten Commandments begins with an overture and a lot more than ten title cards, including one that reads “Those Who See This Motion Picture – Produced and Directed by Cecil B. DeMille – Will Make a Pilgrimage Over the very ground that Moses Trod More than 3,000 Years Ago,” before the narrator, DeMille, says “And God said, let there be light” as the film segues to clouds, dashes through half the scripture, and shows an abstract gold Pharaoh being pulled by rope lines made up of hundreds of slaves as the narrator says “freedom was gone from the world.” The court of Pharaoh Rameses I hears about a Jewish prophecy of a savior just born, and orders every Hebrew newborn killed as a result, saying “So let it be written, so let it be done.” One mom, Yochabel, puts her baby in a basket and pushes him off from the bullrushes; the Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah rescues the baby from the river, hears her servant Menmet identify the babe as Hebrew, and adopts him anyway and names him Moses. We meet Moses as an adult falling in love, and sharing suspiciously expository dialogue, with Nefretiri, and we learn that Nefretiri is Bithiah’s niece and daughter of Bithiah’s brother, Pharaoh Sethi, who has commissioned the building a city for his own jubilee. At the construction site, Moses meets a slave named Joshua who tells him of a Hebrew God, and also narrowly saves an older slave, Yochabel, from being crushed. When Moses reforms the construction procedures, Moses’ adoptive brother Rameses shows up and accuses Moses of planning an insurrection, to which Moses claims that he’s only making these slaves more productive. After Menmet shows Nefretiri a piece of Levite cloth from Moses’ basket, Nefretiri kills her but winds up telling Moses about the cloth, anyway. Rocking high Egyptian fashion, Moses follows Bithiah to a hovel where he sees the old woman he’d saved and grills her about his parentage, with her replying that her son wouldn’t be a courtier but instead a broken-handed slave until she finally admits yes, I’m your biological mother, and here are your siblings Aaron and Miriam. Moses is working with the slaves when Hebrew Joshua argues with his overseer Baka, and to save Joshua’s life, Moses winds up killing Baka. Arrested and shackled to an iron bar on his back, Moses tells Pharaoh Sethi he’s not the prophecied Deliverer but would free the slaves if he could. Sethi declares Rameses II his sole heir, who proceeds to banish Moses to the desert, telling him “Here is your kingdom, with the scorpion, the cobra, and the lizard for subjects. Free them, if you will.” Instead, Moses has other sorts of desert adventures, including defending sisters from Amalekites, living with a Bedouin sheik, marrying the sheik’s oldest daughter Sephora, reuniting with an escaped Joshua, and, on Mount Sinai, encountering a talking burning bush that tells Moses he must return to Egypt to free the Hebrews. Gray-bearded Moses returns to ageless Rameses, who is now Pharaoh, and commands him “Let my people go.” Rameses scoffs at Moses and demands proof of Moses’ God, and so Moses turns his staff into a fierce cobra, but Rameses calls this a magician’s trick and has an assistant turn two other staffs into snakes…which get eaten by Moses’ cobra…which we only know because Nefretiri narrates it. When Rameses retaliates by refusing to provide straw for Hebrew bricks, the city Hebrews begin to stone Moses to death…but Nefretiri saves him only to learn he’s married. Moses makes his way to a festival and turns the Nile water red with blood, brings burning hail onto the palace, and warns that the Pharaoh will instigate the next plague. Infuriated, Rameses orders all first-born Hebrews dead, but some weird cloud of death instead kills all the firstborn of Egypt, including Rameses and Nefretiri’s boy. Exasperated and enraged, Rameses exiles the Hebrews who begin an exodus out of Egypt. But after Nefretiri taunts Rameses, he decides to chase down the fleeing Hebrews and kill them anyway. In effects shots that still gets included in a lot of best-of-cinema montages, Moses works with God to create a pillar of fire that parts the Red Sea, hustles the Hebrews through the dry gap, and upon their safe crossing unwinds the walls of water which drown the soldiers. Wretched Rameses returns to Nefretiri and reluctantly admits that Moses’ God is God. Having brought the burning bush’s brief to bear, bedraggled Moses clambers back up Mount Sinai and sees God’s lightning create two stone tablets emblazoned with further instructions. While the Hebrews are waiting, Dathan and Aaron create a golden calf idol and many of them party and perpetrate an orgy until party-pooping Moses pops up and propels the tablets at the calf idol, which explodes, killing many, and apparently causing a wide swath of wastrel Hebrews to wander in a wilderness for four decades. Ancient Moses leads the remaining faithful to the Promised Land, demurs on entering it himself, names Joshua leader, and bids farewell.
The Ten Commandments, released with all the subtlety of a Red Sea parting in November 1956, became the highest-grossing film of all time in non-adjusted dollars. (In adjusted dollars, that’s still Gone with the Wind, even today.) On an unprecedented budget of about $13 million, The Ten Commandments earned an unprecedented $122 million. Whatever we may think today, it was clearly a Best Loved Film. And the lesson was a fateful one: size matters, from Best-of sets to Heston’s chest. More begets more. And not just amongst executives; UCLA scholar Vivian Sobchack felt that Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments communicated “an expansive, excessive, and multilayered temporality that can be experienced by the spectator as subjectively transcendent and objectively significant.” Maybe you know the feeling of paying for the latest hot blockbuster instead of the art film your arty friends like. Maybe you don’t. What Sobchack is saying is that movies like The Ten Commandments felt like something important in a way that, well, this episode’s final film today didn’t. Looking at the data from summer 1957, American viewers opted to pay for The Ten Commandments a tenth time instead of seeing 12 Angry Men…once.
Influenced by: the swords-and-sandals cycle up to that point; American religiosity in the Cold War
Influenced: the swords-and-sandals cycle after that; American religiosity in the Cold War; epics
“It’s always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we’re just gambling on probabilities – we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.”
The basic premise of 12 Angry Men almost had to begin as a teleplay or a stage play. As a movie concept, 12 jurors arguing in one static room would have been dismissed in a studio meeting as too boring. Early television was mostly live and desperate for content; if twelve actors could share a room and a story for 90 minutes, so much the better. On September 20, 1954, CBS aired the one-time-only live teleplay of Twelve Angry Men. Henry Fonda was captivated and so he contacted writer Reginald Rose, who had served on a jury case similar to the one in his story. Rose also served in World War II for more than three years, rising to the rank of Lieutenant…just like Henry Fonda. And yet, the obviously contemporary 12 Angry Men makes no reference to the war, and not one man claims to be a veteran. Ironically, this may have been part of its appeal to Fonda, who had been offered almost only war and western scripts since returning from service. In 1954, Fonda hadn’t been in a film for six years, instead doing stage work in New York in theaters next to the likes of Marlon Brando and Charles Laughton, even though Fonda didn’t see himself as the sort of actor-producers who controlled his material like Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas. After a year of phone calls with the studios during which he turned 50, Fonda realized that 12 Angry Men wasn’t going to become a film without him starring and he and Rose producing it and deferring their own salaries, keeping the budget around $300,000, or about 1/40th of the budget of The Ten Commandments. On the one hand, with United Artists’ approval, Fonda loved the idea of meting out meaty feature opportunities to some of the Broadway talent he’d come to know. On the other hand, after it was all over and the film failed, Fonda, not unlike Laughton after The Night of the Hunter, would swear never to take a producing or directing job again.
After Henry’s teenage kids Jane and Peter got the privilege of watching rehearsals at Fonda’s house, 12 Angry Men was shot on a tight three-week schedule at Fox’s (rented) New York Studio in the middle of summer 1956, with the opening and closing filmed at the real New York County Courthouse. As director, Rose and Fonda recruited Sidney Lumet, a TV director who hadn’t made the original teleplay but proved a clever craftsman on other projects. For this, Lumet’s feature film debut, he was fully on board with Fonda drafting Boris Kaufman, cinematographer of everything from Jean Vigo’s 1930s French Impressionist films to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, the latter having just earned Kaufman an Academy Award. (Another nominee from that film, Lee J. Cobb, agreed to play the crucial role of Juror #3 in exchange for second-billing and the film’s top individual salary, probably $50,000.) Working closely together, Lumet and Kaufman positioned wide-angle-lensed cameras above the subjects during the film’s first half-hour, graaaaaadually lowering the cameras and increasing their focal length to effectively diminish the depth of field to deepen and distend the claustrophobia as the close-ups correspond to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Lumet and Kaufman may well have mapped out their film better than the master of pre-storyboarding, Alfred Hitchcock, on his recent single-chamber thriller called Dial M for Murder. In Sidney Lumet’s fantastic book “Making Movies,” still a must-read for every aspiring filmmaker, Lumet remembers that of the 387 camera set-ups he and Kaufman did for 12 Angry Men, half were saved for the film’s final thirty minutes, turning the editing tempo into a torrent that reflected the rain outside.
12 Angry Men begins with chirpy voices echoing across the neo-classical hallways of New York County Courthouse, cutting to a courtroom where a judge thanks the jury for hearing testimony, reminds them that their verdict must be unanimous, and points out that in a murder trial a guilty decision means the defendant’s death. For the first and last time, the film shows us the defendant, clearly yet vaguely ethnic, in a muted, mournful close-up that cross-fades into a court sideroom as the jury convenes to decide his fate. The foreman seats the all-white-male jury around a table by juror number, and we will only ever know them by those numbers until the film’s second-to-last shot. Several, especially Juror 7, seem nervous to settle it up, and a preliminary vote results in eleven votes for guilty, all except Juror 8, wearing a distinctive white suit while saying a man’s life is worth a brief discussion. Despite much resistance from the room, Juror 8 laments the 18-year-old defendant’s rough upbringing and questions the behavior of the young prosecutor and the testimony of his only two witnesses, a woman who saw the defendant stab his father and a man who heard his dad slap his son, heard his son say “I’m going to kill you!,” and saw the son run out of the flat. Led by a cantankerous Juror 3, the room questions the defendant’s claim of buying then losing the fingerprint-free, unusually hilted switchblade found at the murder scene; debating it, Juror 4 sticks the evidence into the table. When Juror 8 stands, the camera remains on his torso, which seems a mistake until 8 withdraws a blade just like the murder weapon that 8 bought in the defendant’s neighborhood and 8 sticks it next to the other blade in the table, a stunt Juror 3 dismisses as proving nothing. 8 suggests a secret ballot that he’ll abstain from, saying that if it’s 11-0, he’ll stop standing alone and vote to convict, and as he bends over the water cooler the look on 8’s face almost says “they have to want to be saved.” Only one, Juror 9, an older sprightly man, votes not guilty, respecting 8’s carefully stated heterodoxy and wanting to hear more. In the bathroom, separately, salesman Juror 7 and working-man Juror 6 tell 8 he’s wasting their time. Juror 9 says that the very old male witness has never been quoted in the paper and so might have exaggerated. 8 notes that people say “I’m going to kill you” all the time, though not shouting it if they really mean to do it, and that the female witness was unlikely to see something through the tracks of the L train. Juror 11, the room’s only obvious immigrant, speaks up for the first time, saying you don’t return hours later to retrieve a knife if you’ve already wiped it clean of prints, and in a new vote, 11 and 5 switch to not guilty. 8 suspects 9 is right about the stroke-victim witness, summons a diagram from the bailiff, and stages a shuffle that falls short of testimony by 20 seconds. When Juror 3 says “you’re letting him slip through our fingers,” Juror 8 calls him biased and a sadist, causing 3 to lunge forward bellowing “I’ll kill you!” and 8 responding “you don’t really mean you’ll kill me.” In open ballot closeups, they go around the table in order, and are now deadlocked at a sweaty, sticky, stinky 6-6. Thunder cracks, rain pours heavily outside, 10 wants to tell the judge they’re a hung jury, 4 doubts the boy’s alibi, 8 grills 4 about his own moviegoing memories, 5 points out from his own life in the slums that no one stabs downward with a switchblade, and 7 changes to not guilty seemingly just to get to his baseball game, though not without an anti-immigrant swipe at 11 for telling him “how to run the place.” After another vote leaves only 3, 4, and 10 voting guilty, 10 explodes in a remarkable, racist rant, saying “that’s the way they are by nature” as the camera widens to the whole room as every other white man stands and turns their back on 10, except 4, who calmly tells 10 to “sit down and don’t open your mouth again,” causing 10 to move to the corner humiliated as the camera comes back to 8 giving civil-rights-worthy remarks about prejudice. 8 speaks of a reasonable doubt as the bespectacled 4 renews his commitment to the woman’s testimony until 9 remembers he watched her do 4’s sort of nose-rubbing on similar nose impressions, and everyone agrees she probably wears glasses and was unlikely to have been wearing them during the midnight murder. Now that 3 is alone, he acts like a caged tiger, snarling reasons and rationale, until he finally sees a photo of himself with his 16-year-old son whom he hasn’t seen in two years, barks “rotten kids, you work your life out!” and rips up the picture. 3 covers his face and breaks down whispering “no, no…not guilty…not guilty.” Almost everyone leaves; 8 dons his white coat but also helps 3 put on his black coat. Framed by Doric columns as he steps outside, 8 looks just a bit like a white angel as 9 approaches him, exchanges names with him, shakes hands, and they say “so long.” 8 looks up at the just-cleared sky as he almost skips down the stairs, and 3 trudges down other stairs as the card says “The End.”
12 Angry Men’s esteem has considerably risen since 1997, when it wasn’t on the AFI 100, to now when it’s IMDb’s fifth favorite film. Maybe this is because of QAnon voters who haven’t seen it – hey, we’re 12 angry men! – or maybe it’s because of liberals who want to recover the idea that 12 white guys could sometimes do the right thing for a non-white guy even back when Rosa Parks was refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Or maybe, just maybe, the Henry Fonda character is at the Last Supper? Counting the bailiff who helps them bring in props, there are 13 men here, but only one dressed all in white, only one who, after offering his best favored disciple some water, seems to…make it rain outside? This isn’t to take anything away from my preferred secular reading, just to say…there are other readings. The last thing we see Fonda/#8 do is look up at the clearing sky.
Influenced by: TV; dawning white awareness of inner-city problems and racism
Influenced: readers of Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies” (hopefully most filmmakers); anyone who looks at IMDb’s Top 5 to see what to watch
“I don’t speak Mexican. Let’s keep it in English, Vargas.”
The film engaged many of America’s then-current forms and themes, from religiosity to noir to civil rights to greaser kids playing rock-n-roll to border anxiety to white imperialism. It all might have gone very differently for Paul Monash’s adaptation of a book called “Badge of Evil,” written by two men under the single eponym of Whit Masterson. After eight epicurean years in Europe as the eminence behind Citizen Kane, making movies and hosting a radio show playing The Third Man’s Harry Lime, Orson Welles returned to America in 1956 to make movies (and TV cameos) for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, who had just taken over RKO. Orson Welles liked Monash’s script enough to sign on to play Hank Quinlan, one of the very few leads being offered to a star of his range, at that point ranging over 300 pounds. With the smash-hit November 1956 release of The Ten Commandments, every studio in town wanted to make Charlton Heston’s next picture, and Universal won the sweepstakes with the “Badge of Evil” script. In December 1956, when Universal nervously told Heston that Welles was already attached as Hank Quinlan, Heston asked if Welles could also direct it. At Heston’s prompting, Universal paid Welles $125,000 to star in, direct, and entirely rewrite Touch of Evil.
Heston and Welles well knew that Heston’s career needed whatever was the opposite of Cecil B. DeMille, and so during January Welles took the adaptation and his diet in dramatic new directions. Welles made the book’s lead, Mitch Holt, into Miguel Vargas, Mexican detective, on honeymoon with his white American wife, precisely to upend audience expectations by making a Mexican the manly mainstay and the asinine American the antagonist. (One wonders if Welles was also somehow channeling his new friendship Cuban-born Desi Arnaz and his white wife Lucy, seeing them as heroes and himself as the villain.) This is crucial context for Heston’s clear brownface, which could, by 1950s logic, be considered a radically progressive act; besides very few films with Sidney Poitier, no Hollywood hero had had skin of such a shadowy hue. Could Welles have cast a Mexican or other Latino? Of course, Anthony Quinn and Jose Ferrer and Ricardo Montalban and Welles’ friend Desi Arnaz were sitting right there. Now imagine The Avengers came out three months ago and is setting box-office records and you’re thinking of asking Universal, who just hired you, if you can replace Robert Downey Jr, how do you think that would have gone? That said, there’s no excusing Heston’s non-accent, unless maybe as a Mexican he only mastered English in a sort of methodical manner. Most of this mess melts away when you watch the movie, because Miguel Vargas is not just a Mexican hero the way that, say, John Gavin is in Imitation of Life; Vargas, repeatedly named and shamed as Mexican, clearly vouchsafes Mexican valor versus American villainy.
Beyond Welles’ delightful performance of decadence, American decline is a crucial aspect of Touch of Evil’s subtext; Aldous Huxley suggested to Welles that he use the Los Angeles suburb of Venice to substitute for the script’s made-up border town, and even in 1957 Venice was dilapidated enough to serve quite nicely. During scouting, Welles saw a worn-down bridge near some power towers and rewrote the ending around them. We’re told that the script rewriting was done in 10 days and finished February 5 of ’57; that the actors rehearsed for two weeks and finished February 18; and that the film was shot for two months and finished April 2. Despite or because of the compressed schedule, Janet Leigh, cast as Susan, wrote “You could feel the pulse growing as we rehearsed. You felt you were inventing something as you went along. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn’t want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes.” Working closely with cinematographer Russell Metty, Welles shot most of the close-ups with exaggerated wide-angles on newish, nearly-handheld cameras.
Touch of Evil begins with Welles and Metty’s legendary opening shot, three minutes and twenty seconds of a crane-dolly camera establishing a timer being activated, the border town of Los Robles, USA, and our central couple driving into it, namely Miguel Vargas and his new wife Susan, a shot that finishes with Miguel and Susan standing and kissing before cutting to a bomb explosion. As police gather, Miguel disappoints Susan by saying that they can’t leave the town before he learns more about why the bomb killed two people. As Susan walks to find a hotel, she’s followed way too closely by some louche locals loosely affiliated with the area’s notorious gangster guerrillas, the Grandi family. At the accident, authorities like Schwartz smile at the arrival of plus-sized police legend Hank Quinlan and his partner Pete Menzies. Quinlan meets Vargas saying “you don’t look Mexican,” probably referring more to his sharply tailored double-breasted suit than to a role not exactly tailored to Heston. After an accumulation of allegations, Quinlan accuses a man called Sanchez who is, perhaps, secretly married to the daughter of one of the bomb victims. Expeditiously, Miguel Vargas moves his wife to a more remote hotel and beats Quinlan to Sanchez’s apartment, partly because Quinlan stops by a brothel to blab with Tanya, who looks exactly like Marlene Dietrich. When Quinlan arrives at Sanchez’s, he takes up most of the frame and the room as he “finds” dynamite in Sanchez’s shoebox that Vargas had just found empty. When Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting evidence, Quinlan accuses Vargas of bias in favor of Mexicans. At the police station, Vargas studies records and reports Quinlan’s career of corruption to cops including Schwartz when Quinlan appears and threatens to resign. Instead, Vargas and Quinlan drive out of town to a construction site to inventory explosives, an encounter that ends inconclusively while invidious leather-clad greasers invade Susie’s apartment to the dissonant sounds of rock and roll. Wearing his new headpiece and acting on Quinlan’s orders, Grandi drugs Susie, who falls unconscious, but when Quinlan arrives he decides to strangle Grandi to make Vargas seem more like a criminal. Susie awakens, sees Grandi’s body and Quinlan’s carelessly forgotten cane, screams, and gets arrested for Grandi’s murder. Miguel Vargas stops uselessly calling and starts usefully running to the hotel, which he now learns is owned by Grandi and missing his wife and his handgun. Vargas finds Grandi’s thugs in a bar and shouts “Where is my wife?” as he beats them to a pulp. (After four hours of The Ten Commandments and an hour of this movie, Heston’s punishing pugilism represents a long-postponed palliative.) With the impressive Heston chest now manifest, one man tells Miguel that his mujer has been arrested for murder, and Miguel arrives at the police station to find her barely conscious. Officer Menzies admits that Hank Quinlan’s cane was found at the murder scene, and agrees to Vargas’s prompting that he, Menzies, wear a wire and try to prompt Hank’s impromptu confession. At the brothel, Tanya takes stock of Quinlan’s tarot cards and tells him he has no future. Menzies arrives in the loud parlor and asks Quinlan to quit the cathouse so they can acquaint somewhere quieter. In black night on a broken-down bridge, Quinlan brusquely admits to planting evidence only to nail guilty perps, as Vargas listens on a toaster-sized radio from atop a proximate power tower. Quinlan hears a microphone echo, shouts out for Vargas, and shoots Menzies, who stumbles onto the bridge’s broken balustrade. When Miguel asks Hank for his gun back, Hank cracks that they’ll find his gun’s bullet in Grandi, but Hank decides to shoot at him anyway, but not, Hank says, in the back…until Menzies rises from near-death to shoot Hank in the back. Schwartz shows up in a Chevrolet with Susan, who vehemently hugs her husband just before he drives their car away. Seeing Tanya, Schwartz says Quinlan’s confession exculpates Miguel and Susan from Grandi’s murder, and because Sanchez just admitted everything, Quinlan didn’t need to frame him. Watching Quinlan’s dead body float away, Schwartz says “Hank was a great detective, all right,” and Tanya answers, “and a lousy cop.” When Schwartz asks what she means, she replies with the film’s final line, “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
After wrapping Touch of Evil, Welles flew to Mexico City to make Don Quixote while producer Albert Zugsmith and a series of editors kept making unauthorized changes to the point where Zugsmith required reshoots from Heston and Leigh, who refused out of loyalty to Welles until Universal urged them to comply with their contracts. Zugsmith commissioned a body double for Welles’ character yet asked Welles to return to recording booth for re-dubbing, which he refused to do, leaving one to wonder which onscreen words are drawn from the Welles.
In any event, Touch of Evil was released widely in America in April and May of 1958 to mediocre earnings, much like another film then released that I reviewed on the A-list podcasts, Vertigo. Instead of paying for defective-detective masterworks by Welles and Hitchcock, audiences chose to see that year’s eventual Best Picture winner, Gigi, which begins with its hero, 70-year-old Maurice Chevalier, singing “Each time I see a little girl of five or six or seven, I can’t resist a joyous urge to smile and say Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Arguably, America was attentive to the wrong touch of evil; in Europe, Touch of Evil wound up winning a slew of awards. As for Welles, he wound up filming Don Quixote and other projects in Europe over the next dozen years, and quixotically enough, failed to finish his own Quixote.
Influenced by: camera innovations; noir; empathy with Mexico
Influenced: filmmakers who study Welles
“You want that gun? Pick it up. I wish you would.”
High Noon was written by the blacklisted Carl Foreman and meant as a not-so-subtle allegory against McCarthyism. Perhaps as a present to his non-partisan pal Gary Cooper, perhaps because praise for High Noon as a perfect western flourished for years after the film came out, John Wayne worked for years to fashion a response with his friend who had directed him in Red River, Howard Hawks, and Hawks’ oldest daughter, Barbara, who wanted to be a screenwriter. Wayne called High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” and hated the idea that an Old West sheriff might shirk his responsibilities or rely upon recruitment even when the town is experiencing an existential threat. Of course, High Noon’s Will Kane wasn’t wholly a shirker and, as Rio Bravo evolved under exemplary writers Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, John T. Chance wasn’t wholly a weather-beaten loner. Almost everyone on the A-list was considered for the roles of Dude and Colorado, but Hawks hoped less for rivals and more for rogues who appeared happy to be supporting Wayne. Hawks decided to build the supporting cast around two musicians who were relative newcomers to cinema, crooner and magazine staple Dean Martin, and teenage pop sensation Ricky Nelson, partly to bring two kinds of music together and channel that energy into a John Wayne Western. (Colorado was first offered to Elvis Presley, whose fans won’t be shocked to hear that Colonel Tom Parker prevented Elvis from hearing of the overture.) By the time of production in summer 1958, even Hawks was using the phrase “Hawksian woman,” and he and Angie Dickinson assured a laudable last call for Lauren Bacall-ism. The title Rio Bravo might have implied border maintenance – Rio Bravo is the Mexican name for the Rio Grande – but the screenwriters found it easier to make Latinos into droll supporting characters and the antagonists into white people, not unlike in the 21st century. By this time, the heyday of TV shows like Bonanzaand Gunsmoke, one might have thought that Americans were tired of characters looking like Woody in the flashbacks in Toy Story 2, but that’s why Warner Bros. was willing to pay for color, Cinemascope, conspicuous location shooting near Tuscon, and, uh, the composer of High Noon, Dimitri Tiomkin. Finally directing with a seven-figure budget, one can feel Hawks here stretching his legs even while making sure they’re coiled for action.
It’s not clear if Howard Hawks saw the unusually fluid openers of 12 Angry Men and Touch of Evil, but what is clear is that Rio Bravo starts with an unusual, few minutes of action that is silent or silent-film-esque. A mean man taunts a town drunk by tossing coins into a spittoon, a sheriff stops the drunk from gathering the coins, the drunk swings a stick and knocks the sheriff unconscious, and the mean man beats up the drunk, casually shoots dead a man who tries to stop him, and absconds to another bar where the entering sheriff, his head now bleeding, announces that he’s going to arrest this mean man named Joe. Joe’s allies seem to have outschemed the sheriff until the drunk slips in and surprisingly assists the sheriff in neutralizing Joe’s allies and arresting Joe. The next day, the drunk becomes a deputy named Dude who trades derisive japes with Pat Wheeler while he wheels into town with a wagon train of dynamite and a new recruit named the Colorado Kid who promises not to chase any trouble without first checking with Sheriff John T. Chance. Sheriff Chance shares with his old friend Pat that the town is bottled up by Nathan Burdette’s men because Nathan’s brother Joe is biding time in the local jail until the U.S. Marshall turns up. The local hotel’s Carlos jokes that Chance doesn’t know how to treat women and a lovely woman arrives and jokes about Chance wearing the red pantaloons Carlos has bought for his wife. Later, carrying a handbill that calls this woman a card-cheater, Chance accuses her of conning other card-players, but Colorado clears her character by uncovering the authentic cheater. Wheeler gets gunned down in the street causing Chance and Dude to bound into a bar and line up a bunch of fibbing bandits until Dude notices blood dripping into a beer glass, at which point Dude wheels around and kills Wheeler’s killer as Chance tells the liars to leave town. The next morning, Chance awakens to find that the woman, whom the credits (but no characters) call “Feathers,” has guarded his room all night, and Chance orders Feathers onto the next stage as she obliges him out of her room. After Nathan Burdette arrives and barters barbs with Dude and Stumpy, it becomes clear to them and Chance that Burdette has beckoned his men to bottle up the town while playing El Deguello, the same song that, Stumpy says, Mexican soldiers played outside the Alamo. Feathers has refused to flee and informs Chance she
has taken a job from Carlos which fires up her feud with Chance until they kiss…until the second kiss when she says “It’s nicer when two people do it.” On the street, the Dude gets ambushed and held hostage as the Burdette-ettes demand Chance free Joe, but at Colorado’s command, Feathers flings a flowerpot through a window distracting the desperadoes for due time for Chance and Colorado to wreck them and recover Dude. Back at the police station, Dude makes a show first of surrendering his star, second of pouring a shot of whiskey back into a bottle without losing a drop, and third resolving to help. Chance realizes that they’ve only been rushed on the road and resolves to stay indoors, and he and Dude enter the hotel…only to find Carlos and his wife Consuelo trapped by the Burdette-ettes. At gunpoint, Dude tells Chance they have no choice but to surrender and walk with these flunkies to the prison to free their friends, but when they arrive, as Dude knew, Stumpy opens fire, effecting a fracas during which the flunkies somehow again force Dude into capture. This time, though, Nathan and the know-nothings stow away way off near where Wheeler had stored his dynamite, and Nathan’s emissary demands that Chance bring Joe from jail to the joint and there trade him for Dude. As Chance and Colorado chaperone Joe near the hideout house, Colorado jokes that Chance may need Feathers to fling another flowerpot. Joe and Dude each approach no-man’s-land and are about to walk past each other…when Dude tackles Joe into a half-finished brick room where Dude beats Joe unconscious as Chance and Colorado trade gunfire with the Burdette-ettes. Stumpy begins throwing Wheeler’s old dynamite at the house, and Chance unerringly shoots it producing many booms. When Colorado throws Dude a rifle, Dude barely recovers it and uses it to shoot a stick of dynamite on his second attempt. After Chance and Stumpy wield words over who can do what when where, Stumpy throws a stick directly onto the porch, Chance shoots it, the explosion lights the hideout on fire, and Nathan and his men come out with hands up. With every Burdette-ette now behind bars, Chance returns to find Feathers in a one-piece and pantyhose preparing a performance, prompting plenty of pique from Chance that Feathers declares to be rationale for them to rise to romance as the film wraps up.
After Wheeler’s death, everything comes a little too easily in Rio Bravo, from Feathers’ amorousness to Dude’s talents to Colorado’s teenage wisdom to bad guys dumb enough to take refuge near loose boxes of dynamite. As counter-hypothesis to High Noon’s hitches and hindrances, Rio Bravo offers the full color fantasy that if friends maintain their fun and fellowship, everything will work out fine. Even John T. Chance’s name seems to imply that if you take a chance on this John, your faith will have no cause to Wayne. The fable proved profitable: on a budget of about 1.2 million dollars, Rio Bravo was a solid hit during 1959, earning Warner Bros. about 5 million in the United States. The following year, John Ford’s The Alamo, starring John Wayne, used the same Dimitri Tiomkin-inflected music supposedly suffered by soldiers under siege in San Antonio. Three years later, Sergio Leone told a young Ennio Morricone that he wanted Tiomkin-like music for a movie that would be called A Fistful of Dollars, and Rio Bravo is often called the first popular western in Italy and the inspiration for the spaghetti western cycle. Rio Bravo’s stars used it to springboard into successes in the 60s, Howard Hawks and John Wayne more or less remade Rio Bravo twice (as El Dorado and Rio Lobo), Robin Wood called it his favorite film of all time, it is the highest-ranked western on Sight and Sound’s 2012 list, and as of now, it has a 100 rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Influenced by: High Noon, the Hawksian style
Influenced: male buddy-buddy movies
“Miss Lora, we just come from a place where… where my color deviled my baby. Now, anything here has gotta be better.”
Fannie Hurst, author of the 1933 novel Imitation of Life, was what we would now call an ally, though Sirk and his white screenwriters, Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, knew Hurst’s story needed a little updating. Instead of white Lora building her fortune by, uh, borrowing black Delilah’s pancake recipe, Lora was rewritten into a successful Broadway star with Delilah, renamed Annie, as her faithful nanny. (The idea of Lana Turner in an aggregation of runway-ready dresses particularly appealed to producer Ross Hunter, who liked his pictures lavish, lush, and luxurious, whether he was producing Sirk’s films or the Doris Day-Rock Hudson cycle.) Imitation of Life isn’t A Raisin in the Sun; Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane are ultimately supporting characters seen from white perspectives. That said, the allyship here is mostly authentic, and perhaps made possible because the allies here are fellow marginalized women.
Imitation of Life begins on a crowded Coney Island beach as Lora Meredith shouts for her Susie over a sign saying “1947 Carnival.” Lora finds 6-year-old Susie under the boardwalk happily playing with 8-year-old Sarah Jane as a random handsome photographer snaps their pictures. When he asks for an address to advance the pics along, Susie politely gives hers, Sarah Jane says she lives nowhere, and Lora offers Sarah Jane and her mom, Annie, a night in a back room of her Manhattan apartment. When Annie volunteers to become Lora’s maid, aspiring actress Lora says she can’t afford a maid and besides Annie can work as one anywhere, but Annie says most won’t hire a woman who won’t live without her child, and when Lora looks alarmed to learn Sarah Jane is Annie’s daughter, Annie says she favors her “practically white” father who went away. The next morning, Annie answers a phone “Miss Meredith’s residence,” an agent offers Lora an audition, Annie takes over Lora’s envelope-addressing gig, and with that expedited explanation Annie becomes Lora’s maid. Steve the photographer arrives to share the beach photos with the squealing girls and share his dreams of exhibits in the Museum of Modern Art with Lora, who in turn shares her dreams of conquering the (acting) world. At an audition, agent Allen Loomis almost sexually harasses Lora who walks out in a huff; when Annie teaches the girls religion, Sarah Jane insists Jesus is “white, like me.” On a wintry December day, Annie comes to Sarah Jane’s elementary school to drop off warm clothes, causing Sarah Jane to hide her face, bolt out of the classroom into the icy snow, and insist that she is white and will never return to a school where kids think otherwise. In an extended tenement hallway scene, Steve proposes to Lora, who demurs as she refuses to rule out Loomis-like roads to acting success. Lora auditions for prestigious playwright David Edwards and puts down his play, which impresses him so much that he casts her and even dates her. In a classic classical-Hollywood montage, the years roll on and off the screen – 1948, 1949, all the way to 1958 – as audiences applaud and Lora assumes ample stardom. Backstage, Lora rejects David’s nuptial proposal, ponders a film offer from a famous Italian filmmaker named “Felluci,” and meets Steve for the first time in years and invites her to her country ranch. There, Steve admits to never getting over Lora and meets Sarah Jane and Susie as teens for the first time; when Susie invites him to her graduation Steve answers he wouldn’t miss it for the world. Sarah Jane confesses to Susie that she’s been dating a white boy and lying about her racial status. Feeling sick, Annie asks her daughter to bring a tray of shrimp to Lora’s party guests, and Sarah Jane sashays out sarcastically saying “No trick to toting, Miss Lora. I learned it from my mammy, and she learned it from ole massa ’fore she belonged to you.” One hour and 19 minutes in, the movie uses a particular word exactly once when we see Sarah Jane on a date with a white blonde jock, who says “Is it true? Is your mother a trigger?” only he actually says a word that rhymes with trigger. When Sarah Jane answers “No, I’m as white as you!” he beats her to a pulp, and when she comes home to the care and empathy of Annie, Lora, and Susie, Sarah Jane blames her mother for all her problems. At graduation, Lora learns Felluci wants her in Italy for the role and asks Steve to watch Susie while she’s gone. Annie calls the library where Sarah Jane had claimed to be working, puts two and two together, finds Sarah Jane on stage at a seedy club, approaches her backstage as her mother, and causes Sarah Jane to quit in embarrassment. Susie goes dancing with Steve and confesses to Annie that she tried to love other boys but couldn’t because they weren’t Steve. After Sarah Jane leaves her mother a note never to look for her again, Lora returns from Italy to tell Steve to find someone to find Sarah Jane, who does, and ailing Annie asserts she must take an airplane alone to California. At L.A.’s Moulin Rouge, Annie watches Sarah Jane do a burlesque and enters her dressing room insisting that no one saw her, and although Sarah Jane tries to dispatch her mother she does hug her and tell her she loves her. Another chorus girl interrupts, prompting Annie to aver that she always took care of “Miss Linda,” and after she goes the the girl guffaws, “Linda, you had a mammy!,” to which Sarah Jane sniffles, “All my life.” When Lora tells Susie of her impending wedding with Steve, the blondes battle it out, Susie breaking the news that Lora always gave her stuff instead of herself. Bedridden, Annie tells Lora and Steve her dying wishes, and Lora is selfishly shattered over surrendering her support system, uh, I mean best friend. The one and only Mahalia Jackson sings “Trouble of the World” as we are amidst a abundantly lavish African-American church funeral that Sarah Jane crashes, apologizing and admitting her love for her mother and announcing to Lora that she killed her own mother. Lora, Steve, Susie, and Sarah Jane sit in a limo and watch the coach carrying Annie’s coffin in the fashion she specified, drawn by four white “proud, high-stepping” horses, an image that I personally prefer over 1959’s more famous four white horses drawing a wagon belonging to the title character of Ben-Hur.
Imitation of Life preserves its potency partly because glossy production values so rarely appertain to female-centered stories of love, family, and happiness. Watching the film is like seeing a model ship in a bottle or a bouquet of peacock feathers: it’s a rare, precious item that requires respect. Of course, Susan Kohner as the grown-up Sarah Jane isn’t actually black, but she was mixed-race, being of Mexican and Irish heritage, a hybridity she had in common with John Gavin who played Steve. It may be too petulant to protest that Black persons face separate prejudices that many Latinos do not; the film is progressive and surprisingly without wince-worthy words from the lead women, except when such sentiments are supposed to be lessons.
Imitation of Life premiered in the spring of 1959 and became Universal Pictures’ highest-grossing film of the year, partly because of interest stimulated by the real-life scandal of Lana Turner’s daughter killing her, Turner’s, boyfriend. It would be nice to say that throughout the 50s, Douglas Sirk shone more and more light on marginalized persons up until Imitation of Life, when he went as far as he or the studios would go, and then Sirk left because he wasn’t permitted to go any further. However, the truth is that we don’t know exactly why Sirk decided to make Imitation of Life his final Hollywood film and return to Europe. Perhaps, like Orson Welles, he noticed that the studios were sclerotic and squashing of creativity, while vital films were blossoming out of Europe like mushrooms after rain, made by people like Fellini, Bresson, Bergman, Truffaut, Antonioni, Godard, and many others. Maybe.
Influenced by: Sirk’s decade-long refinement of his style; the civil rights movement
Influenced: filmmakers and audiences interested in the 50s, women, African-Americans, “sentimental pictures”
Kirk Douglas was very disappointed when his former director William Wyler chose Heston over him to head up Ben-Hur– unlike Heston, Douglas wouldn’t have had to “play” Jewish. After Wyler’s decision, Douglas directed his production company’s resources to developing another drama of an underdog taking on the Roman Empire, but Douglas’s leading lieutenant, Eddie Lewis, realized that the best idea was already under development at United Artists, a Spartacus to star Yul Brynner. 42-year-old Douglas didn’t want to remain in gladiator shape for five more years waiting for the right script; instead, he and Lewis approached the novelist, Howard Fast, who was belying his surname by slowly shaping his Spartacus novel into a script for UA. Fast’s deal with UA meant that if his script was actually made, he wouldn’t be actually paid any more than if a second studio gave him a second sum for his same material, and Fast took the extra money as Douglas traveled from Out of the Past to Out of the Fast. But Douglas and Lewis had to work, uh, fast to be the first Spartacus, so with promises of reams of sesterces, Douglas rounded up the rather remarkable Roman cast of Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton even as he also commissioned, as he would later say, the fastest writer he knew. This description may have been a strategically disingenuous deflection; Douglas wanted both Fast andTrumbo partly because both served time in prison for refusing to testify to HUAC. Throughout the 50s, the Otto Premingers had been fighting the John Waynes on behalf of freedom of expression; with this story about freedom of everything, Douglas, Olivier and Universal would be happy to make the blacklist enforcers look like the oppressors they were by putting Trumbo’s real name on its own title card in the opening credits. Trumbo was happy…until he arrived on set and fought with the director almost every day.
Anthony Mann is not that director, but instead a terrific director whose work deserves to be on more best-of lists, a story that I’ll pick up in the K-list. Douglas wrote in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son that he fired Anthony Mann a week into the Spartacus shoot because he “seemed scared of the scope of the picture.” The scoresheet on being scared of scope may not have significantly improved with the instatement of Douglas’ second choice, his young director from Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick, who fought with Universal to shoot as few shots per day as they’d let him. Spartacus isn’t a Stanley Kubrick film the way that later films were; the script was written, the spanking-new Technirama 70mm cameras were chosen, the shots were pre-storyboarded, the six-track sounds were set, and Stanley never had final cut. Perhaps that’s why Kubrick took so many frustrations out on Trumbo, or perhaps Kubrick was right that the Spartacus character didn’t have enough flaws. Kubrick was less justified in his fights with Russell Metty over lighting choices and amount of shots during scenes. When the 53-year-old DP of more than 100 Hollywood films (yes) threatened to quit, the 30-year-old director of five features informed Metty he should sit in a chair and get the DP credit while he, Kubrick, ran the lights. Kubrick also fought about locations with Universal; the studio wanted to curtail the trend of “runaway production” even while improving upon The Ten Commandments as much as Ben-Hur aspired to. In the end, Universal and Douglas’s $12 million budget paid for three weeks not in Italy but, as Hollywood preferred more and more, in Fascist-controlled Spain. As a story about an extended slave uprising, the parallels to the civil-rights movement were obvious; Spartacusrepresented allyship as much as any film could that was made in Francisco Franco’s Fascist nation with thousands of white extras being paid something similar to slave wages.
Spartacus begins with an overture, vigorously scored opening credits that end on a statue’s smashed visage, and title cards that situate us in the century before Christianity corrected the “pagan tyranny” of Roman civilization. Hundreds of mining slaves strain and struggle but one pushes back only to get pushed down a stony slope, upon which he bites his master’s ankle. This slave, Spartacus, gets slated to be slain but seen by Lentulus Batiatus (Buh-tie-uh-tus) who selects Spartacus for gladiator school. Slave women are lined up and assigned to individually quote-unquote “entertain” the students, but Spartacus is one gladiator who refuses to be, and is not, entertained. After shouting to Batiatus “I am not an animal!”, he and his virtuous vassal Varinia receive abuses and tortures. In training, Spartacus smashes wood swords with other slaves and jumps and ducks on top a wheel that rotates blades near his head and feet. Wealthy, ambitious Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus visits gladiator school, reclines on a lounge chair nibbling on olives, notices Varinia, learns she’s a slave from Britannia, buys her, and arranges to amuse his female associates by paying Batiatus 25,000 sesterces for a combat to the death. In the choosing of combatants, Crassus’ brunette companion says, “I want the most beautiful. I’ll take the big black one.” In the arena, after “those who are about to die salute,” “the big black one,” Draba, dramatically defeats Spartacus and is duty-bound to dispatch him, but instead defiantly delivers his trident toward the patricians – in one shot it sails from the arena past the plutocrats to plunk the lens – and ascends to the aristocrats only for Crassus to cut his throat. As Batiatus leaves for Rome with Varinia, the students stew over their circumstances, and at the mess hall, major Marcellus messes with Spartacus causing this slave to stick Marcellus’ head in a stew pot as the other slaves arise in a wide-ranging riot. In Rome, at Gracchus’ urging, the Senate appoints Glabrus and six cohorts of his garrison to extinguish the insurrection. The former slaves pillage, plunder, and grapple with each other until Spartacus convinces them to flit from Italy. Along the way, Spartacus sees Varinia, asks how she escaped, and they fat-shame Batiatus and declare their mutual skinny love. From a line of slaves, Crassus chooses a singer named Antoninus (Anto-nine-us) as his “body servant” who winds up bathing and “Yes master”ing Crassus in a rather homoerotic scene that vaguely justifies Antoninus’ escape and enlistment in the expanding army of former slaves, one of whom, an old woman, successfully censures Spartacus for his sexism regarding soldiers. Stalkacus, I mean, Spartacus sneaks up on Varinia while she’s naked bathing and she towels off and cheerfully reports they’re going to become parents. Spartacus’ army sets a night fire to Glabrus’ encampment, spells out their desire to escape to the sea, and sends Glabrus back to Rome as warning. Intermission. Particularly compared to The Ten Commandments, the movie features many, many shots of former slaves trudging through the treacherous tundra, tending to tempestuous tykes, and training to triumph over tyrants. In the resplendent Roman baths and elsewhere, Crassus and Gracchus maneuver for control of young Julius Caesar and Rome more generally, Gracchus bribing Cilicians to attack Spartacus’ army and Crassus counter-bribing pirates to prevent the slaves’ seabound escape and pincer them towards Rome. In cross-cutting, Crassus colloquializes while commandeering the Roman army as Spartacus speechifies to the slave-cum-soldiers that he’d rather be free with friends than fat on food he didn’t farm, but now they have to free every slave in Italy or go down fighting. Varinia begs Spartacus to live to meet their son; Spartacus is stoic. On a vast valley field, Crassus appears on horseback behind his mammoth militia, and in a massive, monumental melee, Spartacus’ soldiers roll flaming logs at the Romans, which works for a minute, until their well-fortified, formidable forces flood the former slaves. The camera pans over clusters and congeries of corpses and corpses, and we soon see Crassus approach hundreds of captured, chained soldiers with an offer to avoid crucifixion on one condition, that they single out the slave Spartacus. A moment passes, after which Antoninus and Spartacus and their nearby compatriot rise and declare, “I am Spartacus!” and many more sprout up saying “I am Spartacus!” Later, Crassus recognizes Varinia holding her new baby, confirms that she is Spartacus’s baby mama, and seizes her and the slight infant. Later still, Crassus recognizes Antoninus and singles out his own former slave and his new friend for eventual death by combat, but lines the Appian Way with most of the others, naming 6,000 slaves as there crucified. In Rome, Varinia is composed like nobility, but refuses Crassus’ seduction, telling him he’ll never be Spartacus. In that midnight moment, Crassus makes his way to a mess of prisoners to humiliate the man he suspects is Spartacus, but when Spartacus refuses to answer, Crassus opts to smack a cuss and Spartacus opts to spit at Cuss, I mean, Crassus. When Crassus commands his forces to force Antoninus and Spartacus into combat, both try to kill rather than let the other be crucified, but as Spartacus wins, the dying Antoninus says he loves Spartacus as a father and Spartacus says he loves Antoninus as a son. Crassus orders Spartacus crucified, not knowing that Gracchus, in his only possible revenge against the new Emperor, has bribed Batiatus to bribe pliable bouncers to buy Varinia’s freedom. As Varinia and Batiatus barely abscond out of the city, Varinia insists on showing the crucified, barely breathing Spartacus his free son, whom she promises to enlighten with his father’s legend.
The battle scenes are as impressive as in any of the swords-and-sandals films made before 1970, but the performances are a cut above most of them, especially those of Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, and Charles Laughton, who might have been onscreen channeling his offscreen frustration with Laurence Olivier for turning down The Night of the Hunter. Kirk Douglas is a fascinating case; on the one hand, Kubrick isn’t wrong that Spartacus plays in a rather restricted emotional range, but on the other hand, Douglas may have meant to emulate the stone-faced resistance expressions of civil-rights leaders. Stanley Kubrick always disavowed Spartacus, his final film for which he didn’t have final cut, and went on to more personal projects; personally, I wish more of those projects pursued the explicit civil-rights themes of Spartacus.
Spartacus premiered in the fall of 1960 and replaced Ben-Hur in about 100 of America’s nicest theaters for about the next year, eventually earning about half of Ben-Hur’s total, a healthy $60 million. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for the terrific Peter Ustinov and Best Color Cinematography for Russell Metty. Like its central character, the name Spartacus lingered well through the ages, enough to earn the film a place on the AFI 100 from 2007. Spartacus received predictable blowback from people like John Wayne and the National Legion of Decency which organized picket lines around theaters, including one in Boston that was broken by another John…the first Catholic President-elect of the United States, John Kennedy. That day, the blacklist basically ended, and the surviving Hollywood Ten who wanted to work under their own name began to do so.
Influenced by: epics
Influenced: better epics; the frequent cultural resonance of “I am Spartacus”
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
On the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford taunted Wayne that he was never a real football player like Woody Strode, formerly of the NFL. Whatever Ford’s exact intentions, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance played and plays as an extended encomium to the John Wayne archetype, to the hero we may not want but certainly need. Rio Bravo was a mere week in the life of such a sheriff; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was an entire two-hour eulogy delivered by no less than James Stewart, working with Wayne for the first time. In 1939, most movie audiences met Stewart and Wayne for the first time, one as the reluctant but effective politician in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the other as the reluctant but effective gunfighter in Stagecoach. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance introduces them in Ransom’s old age but most of the film is Ransom’s flashback of 25 years ago when Ransom was a so-called tenderfoot and Tom was tending to him. The effect is to sanctify the last quarter-century of Wayne’s questionable choices as sort of a lesson of How the West Was Won. Two other considerably more expensive John Wayne films from 1962 were The Longest Day, about how the Normandy invasion was won, and How the West Was Won, including a section directed by Ford where Wayne plays General Sherman in the Civil War. Compared to those plodding, overstuffed ensemble films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has a more admirable, more ambivalent third act, not unlike Spartacus’s, where the hero’s identity gets twisted for the sake of the greater good and larger legacy.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance begins with a train carrying Senator Ransom Stoddard and wife Hallie arriving in fictional Old West town Shinbone, where Stoddard agrees to an interview with a reporter only because he, Ranse, used to work at the local paper. Link Appleyard drives a coach with himself and Hallie to the long-abandoned, dilapidated home of one Tom Doniphon, where they lament its disrepair. Visiting the funeral home, Stoddard opens Doniphon’s coffin to see that the mortician has nicked a few items, and he instructs them returned to the pine box. Reporters and local officials demand to know why a Senator has come to town for such a minor figure’s funeral, so Senator Stoddard stands near a stilled stage and starts the story. Stoddard says that 25 years ago he heard Horace Greeley’s advice “Go west young man” and followed it as a young lawyer on just that stage, and Liberty Valance stopped the stage, robbed its passengers, and clobbered Ranse and left him bleeding on the rural road. In flashback, Tom Doniphon picks up Ranse and takes him to Shinbone where Hallie and others take care of him but warn him that the law, represented by Marshall Link Appleyard, can’t stop Liberty Valance. Tom Doniphon, who always calls Ranse “pilgrim,” tells this pilgrim that he’ll need a gun if he’s thinking to practice law anywhere near Shinbone. A few minutes after Hallie becomes clearly embarrassed that she can’t read, Ranse expresses his confidence in her and willingness to tutor her. Ranse works alongside Hallie in the kitchen at the local restaurant while Tom romances Hallie with gifts and compliments, but Liberty Valance shows up steak-knocking and fight-picking until Tom chases him off. In class, student teacher Hallie conducts the younger Mexican kids in their ABCs, student Pompey recites the Preamble, and teacher Stoddard reads a draft of Dutton Peabody’s new front page about cattlemen preventing statehood until Tom busts in, marches Pompey out, warns of guns if that front page goes out, causes the white Marshall to amscray his Mexican family with the other Mexican kids, and orders Hallie back to the kitchen, to which she replies her whereabouts are none of his business, to which he replies, “Gee Hallie, you’re awful pretty when you get mad.” Despite Ranse’s confidence in jurisprudence and non-confidence in just pistols, Ranse practices with a gun to Hallie’s chagrin, causing Tom to provoke Ranse’s feelings for Hallie, present to Ranse his new house meant for Hallie, prepare Ranse for Liberty’s treachery, and practice pistols by exploding white paint all over Ranse’s suit, this last one prompting Ranse’s punch of Tom’s puss. At a town meeting to nominate two delegates to a statehood convention, Tom nominates Ranse, Ranse nominates Tom, Tom refuses, Liberty crashes the meeting and insists on being nominated, Tom nominates newspaper editor Dutton Peabody, Dutton drunkenly demurs, the all white male crowd nominates him anyway, Liberty threatens this throng of “sodbusters” when they’re alone, but when they ignore him and vote for Stoddard and Peabody anyway, Valance summons Stoddard to a score-settling showdown on the street that night. Hallie and the kitchen staff beg Ranse to leave town as a drunk Dutton returns to the darkened offices of the Shinbone Star only to light an oil lamp that illuminates Liberty and his gang, who demolish Dutton and destroy his office. Later seeing Dutton’s bleeding, blanched face, Ranse becomes determined to keep his deadly date with Valance. On the street, Valance shouts for the dishwasher and hash-slinger, and Ranse appears wearing his apron and a pistol. Valance laughs as he shoots a flower-pot near Ranse’s head (not unlike the paint can Tom shot), and then shoots Ranse’s arm, and then waits for Ranse to pick up the gun with his left hand before firing his next shot, Liberty promises, “right between the eyes.” Stoddard shoots and Valance falls dead; Ranse returns to Hallie who repairs his wounded wing. At the statehood convention, knowing he killed Valance, Ranse withdraws his name from consideration and withdraws from the rowdy convention hall where he’s met by Tom Doniphon, who says “Besides, you didn’t kill Liberty Valance. Think back, pilgrim…” and in a flashback within a flashback, Tom shows how he’d hid in shadows and shot Liberty Valance and got drunk after seeing Hallie’s feelings for Ranse. (In the briefest of moments, as Woody Strode’s Pompey tries to remove Tom from the bar, the bartender refuses to serve Pompey and Tom/John Wayne says “What’s wrong with serving him?”) Drunk, Tom returns to his home and burns it down; now it hurts him to tell Ranse to make Hallie proud and stand for the nomination. Back in the present, the current reporter says Stoddard’s story won’t stand to be published, because “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In the final scene, on the train leaving town, Ranse asks Hallie if they might move back to Shinbone, and she surely agrees, wondering if he’s proud of changing it from a wilderness to a garden. Ranse thanks a rather thoughtful train conductor who answers, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.”
For us fans of Vertigo who know that Vera Miles was fully fitted in fashionable dresses to play Judy/Madeleine and only fired because of pregnancy, there’s something subversively satisfying about Vera Miles and James Stewart riding off in sync; better for Stewart to feel guilty about credit for killing an outlaw than feel guilt about…everything. In theory, another version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might have explored colonialist guilt, but Ford’s version did question myth-making in its own manner, which is why a more mistrustful generation of critics later lifted it into a long litany of best-of lists. That said, when it came out, a more typical reaction came from Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post, who said he was bothered by “the incredulous fact that the lively townsfolk of Shinbone didn’t polish off Valence for themselves. On TV he would have been dispatched by the second commercial and the villainy would have passed to some shadowy employer, some ruthless rancher who didn’t want statehood.” Lee Marvin’s terrific acting sells his presence onscreen, but Coe’s quote speaks to why the film only did okay business; especially because of its black-and-white, studio-bound appearance (because of Paramount’s budget cuts), the film didn’t look all that different from the latest episodes of Bonanza and Gunsmoke. By 1962, audiences and critics were keener for the combination of epic production values and forthright diversity of Lawrence of Arabia.
Influenced by: the John Ford oeuvre; evolving ideas about the West and inclusion
Influenced: list-makers looking for more Ford
“A drowning man takes down those nearest.”
Ernest Lehman was looking for more power over challenging material, and after seeing on stage the disputatious domestic drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he and Warners outbid all other comers for the film rights, handing its playwright Edward Albee $500,000 for absolute control in exchange for Albee’s name on its own title card before the film’s title in the credits. Much to Albee’s eventual frustration, Warner’s deal with Lehman named him sole screenwriter and producer; Warners set aside director as a possible enticement to make sure the project got the most famous stars available. As it happened, they were, and as it happened Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton did prefer a certain director who got to know Burton so well (while they were booked for season-long gigs at adjacent theaters) that Burton flew him over to the Cleopatra set to amuse Taylor while Burton flew to another gig. One reason for Taylor’s comfort level was that Mister Mike Nichols told her he’d seen A Place in the Sun more than 20 times; after getting the Woolf job he would watch it a few more to remind himself how well Taylor could act when she wanted to. Nichols was a stand-up comedy star, multiple-Tony-winning director of Neil Simon’s first plays, and a novice newbie nobody to filmmaking. Where Nichols excelled was portraying, and manipulating, human relations, and soon after Warners got him the gig he flew to L.A. and asked for filmmaking advice from Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Joseph Mankiewicz, director of Cleopatra.
By 1966, Alfred Hitchcock was famous, at least amongst filmmakers, for refusing to shoot “coverage,” meaning the studio could only choose the shots and edit the films the way he’d planned; Mike Nichols did something similar on the set of Virginia Woolf? so that Warners couldn’t disinfect the dirty dialogue. On seeing the first cut, 72-year-old Jack Warner said “My God, we’ve got a $7.5 million dirty movie on our hands,” and kicked Nichols out of the editing suite, Warner wielding the power over the Woolf-ian Room of One’s Own. Jack Warner had been accommodating censors for over three decades and perhaps didn’t appreciate that after a decade of well-received “obscene” foreign films the Hays Code had become a paper tiger, tame-able by a talent like Taylor’s if given the opportunity. The Hays Office had just been replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, and its new head, Lyndon Johnson apparatchik Jack Valenti, was looking to expand American possibilities if the right A-list film came along. Warner remained justifiably afraid of the Legion of Decency’s “C” for Condemned rating which had scuttled other films’ box office, but then Mike Nichols made Warner an offer that no mogul could refuse. In exchange for re-entering the editing room of Warner’s own, Nichols would persuade his very good friend, Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the slain Catholic President, to sit behind the Catholic censors during their screening (in 1966, absolutely no one on Planet Earth would dare stop Jackie Kennedy from sitting anywhere she wanted) and say as the picture ended, “What a beautiful movie. Jack would have loved it.” (Nichols later said he never asked another friend to do anything like that, but it’s hard to imagine how many more times he had that chance.) In 1966, Warner took that deal, Nichols preserved every word of Albee’s, Kennedy played her part to perfection, and the Woolf was unleashed, I mean, released, with the Legion’s A-IV rating, “morally unobjectionable for adults, with reservations,” and the MPAA’s tacit approval which effectively ended what was the Hays Code. The name of the movie became multitudinously meaningful: Who’s afraid, indeed, of filthy words, of feminism, or of foul females on film?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? begins on a college campus at 2:00am as fortysomethings George and Martha walk home from a university function. Inside their college home, Martha goes “What a dump!”, gnaws on a refrigerated chicken leg, gasps “good grief!.” and grills her husband about which Bette Davis picture features the “dump” quote. George and Martha cuddle on their bed where George is surprised to hear that Martha has invited guests from the party, and he warns her not to bring up their kid “bit,” a term she bites back against. Twentysomethings Nick and Honey arrive, the four drink together, and when the men and women pair off, Martha tells Honey that the next day is their son’s sixteenth birthday, followed by a scene in which George becomes upset at Martha’s reveal. As we learn that George teaches history, we also learn Martha’s history of George marrying the college President’s daughter, her, and how he humiliated her in front of her dad. To the clear discomfort of Nick, a new biology professor, Martha continues taunting George until George retreats during a relating of his “roundhouse right” and returns to the room with a rifle, points it at Martha’s head to Nick and Susan’s shock…until an umbrella is unveiled. Honey and Martha laugh and sing to a joke from the prior party “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, George smashes a bottle, and Martha moves to the kitchen to make coffee. George and Nick escape to an outdoor tree swing, where George tells the story of a group of young people repeatedly laughing at the story of a teenage boy who killed his parents. When George admits to seeing Nick as a threat, he responds by admitting to some George-like traits, like departmental ambition and marrying Honey partly for money, although Nick adds that Honey had a so-called “hysterical pregnancy” that went away after the wedding. When Nick insists that this party is over, George insists on (drunk) driving the couple home, Honey in the car insists that she loves dancing, and Martha insists that they stop at a roadhouse. As Nick drunk-dances with Martha, she accuses George of basing his novel about murdering his parents on his own real life, and he counters by characterizing his second novel as concerning a young couple and a hysterical pregnancy, causing Honey to realize Nick revealed too much as the two run from the roadhouse. In the parking lot, George and Martha double down on interdependent domestic abuse, including George shoving Martha hard and causing Martha to promise “total war” as she scoops up Nick and Honey and drives away. George walks home, finds his car crashed with an unhurt Honey inside, smashes his way through his chain-locked front door, sees Martha’s robe on the stairs, and stumbles sobbing onto his stoop. In her kitchen, Martha accuses Nick of poor priapic performance, and upon hearing the doorbell she orders her “houseboy” to open it. Someone says and presents “Flores, flores por los Muertos” and behind the snapdragons we see George, who saunters in and taunts the new twosome by tossing stems at their faces. George and Martha make dueling accusations about their runaway son, until George ups the ante by unveiling an unctuous telegram telling them their son has been killed in a car accident. When Martha begs George not to “kill” their son, Nick realizes the infertile Martha and George have been pretending to have an imaginary son, Martha broke their rule by mentioning him to an outsider, and George has retaliated by “killing” him causing Martha to collapse in wailing howls. As dawn breaks outside, Nick and Honey discreetly depart, George tenderly touches Martha whisper-singing “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Martha quietly says, “I am, George, I am.”
If we put this film with The Graduate as Mike Nichols’ first two films and two of the first films to express an edgy, European-ish sensibility in American filmmaking, it’s interesting to me that they’re both about what Time and Newsweek covers were starting to call “The Generation Gap” between forty-somethings (George calls himself that) and twenty-somethings, a subject that Mike Nichols himself, then in his mid-30s, claimed not to be interested in. Whatever he may have said, I do think films like contribute to what Raymond Williams called “structures of feelings,” suggesting where the battle-lines may be and may not be.To be specific, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? helped make melodrama more realistic and certainly more scabrous. Maybe the film was merely about the domestic love behind the hate behind the love, but several columnists perceived a wider-scale critique. The names George and Martha were obviously referring to the first First Couple, and the infertility plot may have alluded to George Washington’s impotence, perhaps suggesting that the Father of our Country fathered a dream that can no longer be sustained, an appropriate gateway to the bitterly alienated films to come. Not every critic saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? this way, but most of them loved Jack Warner’s “$7.5 million dirty movie” which wound up earning more than $30 million at the U.S. box office, 1966’s third-highest- grossing film after Doctor Zhivago and the fourth 007 film, Thunderball. Everyone involved had pulled it off, even and especially Elizabeth Taylor, who won her second Best Actress Oscar, one of five Oscars won by Woolf. (After the awards, Edward Albee maintained that George and Martha should have been James Mason and Bette Davis, who would have made a “deeper film.”)
Influenced by: trends in theater, trends in camerawork, willingness to push boundaries
Influenced: ended the Hays Code, paved the way for the Hollywood Renaissance
“They call me MISTER Tibbs!”
Norman Jewison came up through television and his first four features were all light comedies, two starring Doris Day. Jewison’s breakthrough was The Cincinnati Kid, a movie that saw The Hustler’s pool cues and Paul Newman and replaced them with poker cards and Steve McQueen; on this film Jewison forged a foundational friendship with editor Hal Ashby. Viewing Dr. Strangelove convinced both Jewison and Ashby to look for stronger material, and they found it in Stirling Silliphant’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel “In the Heat of the Night,” about a black cop helping white cops investigate a murder in a small Southern town. In his book “Pictures at a Revolution,” Mark Harris traces in granular detail the script’s metamorphosis as Silliphant wound up changing the screenplay during every day of 1966’s first six months, an era of evident evolution regarding representation of race relations and everything else in edgier movies. We also learn that masterful Method Actor Rod Steiger got deeply in touch with his Bull Connor impression, gaining generous tonnage and literally chomping through scenes with some gum Jewison encouraged. Sidney Poitier told Harris that Steiger was unlike any previous colleague, altering Poitier’s apperception of acting; the two of them turn in career-best work.
A motion picture called The Chase, despite an A-list cast, bombed in 1965 partly because its ostensible bayou ambience was fabricated on an L.A. backlot, and Norman Jewison was determined not to make the same mistake. Yet scouting Southern locations was a sweaty and scary exercise; Poitier wouldn’t be able to stay at the same hotels as most of the crew and could have become a target for racist idiots. In the end, In the Heat of the Night’s production took place in a real Southern Illinois town named Sparta as the story’s action was resettled to fictional Sparta, Mississippi, complete with water tower, sign welcoming people to town, and Steiger wearing the local “Sparta Police” uniform; perhaps the word would remind audiences of Spartacus. Jewison asked Poitier if they could film just a few days in Tennessee to get a traditional plantation home over cotton fields, and Poitier agreed, though so much trouble turned up that after 72 hours they hightailed it out of Tennessee. Jewison made the very wise decision to hire Quincy Jones for the soundtrack, and Jones’ contributions included commissioning the bluesy, backwoodsy ballad “In the Heat of the Night” sung and performed by no less than Ray Charles and Billy Preston.
Mark Harris well describes Wexler’s very first color feature: “In the Heat of the Night’s palette – inky black nighttime scene with patches of dull greenish or reddish illumination – was a violation of the shadowless, picturesque aesthetic that had ruled Hollywood color movies for decades. The visual motif Wexler created was harsh, murky, resolutely unscenic” and “heavy with intangible menace.” He goes on: “Unlike almost all of his colleagues at the time, Wexler knew that white and black actors shouldn’t be lit the same way. The low light he used throughout In the Heat of the Night was designed in part to make his star’s facial features completely clear…Wexler and Jewison made sure that every unspoken thought that played across his lips and eyes would read on camera and be visible to moviegoers.”
In the Heat of the Night begins with Wexler’s camera on vague colored dots pushing through a screen to see a train arriving in Sparta, Mississippi, and a black man in a suit disembarking. After ogling a naked young Delores Purdy in her house from his car, white police officer Sam Wood drives, finds a corpse, and calls local police chief Bill Gillespie, who arrives, chomps his gum, and wonders who would want dead the wealthy, wallet-less Phillip Colbert, who was building a factory in Sparta. After Gillespie orders Wood to search for any and all suspects, at the train station, Wood sees the suited black man, draws his gun, and puts the black man’s hands against the wall as he searches him and finds what Wood views as an unusually fat wallet. Hauled to the police station, Virgil Tibbs introduces himself, endures unfounded accusations, presents his police ID, and suggests that Sparta’s police chief place a confirmation call to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s police chief, who petitions Philadelphia’s premier homicide investigator to help Sparta’s police with their murder probe. Because Tibbs has heard his missed train and the next one isn’t scheduled until noon, Tibbs reluctantly agrees to check the corpse, and his forensic expertise clearly eclipses that of the room’s other examiners. In a somewhat sensational, even spectacular sequence by 60s standards, handheld cameras hound Harvey Oberst running from policemen until Chief Gillespie chases and catches him crossing a bridge over the Mississippi River. Back at the station, Tibbs touches Oberst’s cuffed hands to everyone’s evident discomfort before Oberst bends down before Mrs. Colbert confessing to only coming across her husband’s stray wallet. When Tibbs tells Gillespie and Mrs. Colbert that left-handed Harvey is almost certainly not Colbert’s murderer, a frustrated Gillespie sputters, and I’m using “trigger” instead of the word the chief actually says, “Virgil, that’s a pretty funny name for a trigger boy from Philadelphia, what do they call you up there?” to which Tibbs answers, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” Even more frustrated, Gillespie throws Tibbs in the small prison cell with Oberst, who says, “Why are you dressed in white man’s clothes?” before Tibbs learns more details confirming Oberst’s innocence. After Gillespie lets Tibbs out of prison to catch the noon train, Mrs. Colbert tells the Chief that if he doesn’t keep Tibbs on the case and if they don’t solve her husband’s murder, she’ll move their factory out of Sparta. Gillespie reluctantly meets Tibbs at the train station explaining that the town desperately needs the thousand jobs of the planned factory, half of which will go to colored people, and besides, Tibbs’ chief told him to stay and doesn’t Tibbs want to prove how much smarter he is than Sparta’s white police? After Tibbs finds fern root on the brake pedal of Colbert’s car, Tibbs and Gillespie drive past many black cotton-pickers on their way to visiting the head of the Endicott Cotton Company, Mr. Endicott, who greets them gregariously in his greenhouse. When Tibbs mentions that Endicott’s opposition to Colbert’s factory is well-known and asks Endicott if Colbert was in the greenhouse the night before, Endicott slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him right back, a moment that makes Endicott say “There was a time I could have had you shot” and makes Tibbs determined to, as he tells Gillespie minutes later, “pull this fat cat right off this hill.” The next minute that Tibbs is driving himself alone, he is pursued by four parlous rednecks with Confederate plates who run him off the road and, in dramatic handheld shots, corner him in an old warehouse until Gillespie rescues him. That night, after racist restauranteur Ralph refuses to serve Tibbs, Tibbs tells Officer Wood to drive himself and Gillespie on his previous night’s route, catches Wood lying to keep them from potentially seeing Delores Purdy, and wends his own way out of Wood’s car. The next day, Gillespie visits the bank, learns that Colbert just withdrew $900, and arrests his own officer Wood for Colbert’s murder because of Wood’s lie and his suspicious possession of cash. Lloyd Purdy drags his 16-year-old sister Delores into Chief Gillespie’s office, which Tibbs refuses to leave while Lloyd accuses Sam Wood of raping his sister and making her pregnant. Tibbs walks to the jails and asks Harvey Oberst where a guy goes if he gets a woman pregnant, and Harvey says he can’t say but his friend Paddy can and he’ll send Paddy to Tibbs. Tibbs locates the murder site and probable murder weapon, a pine stake, exonerating Wood, as he and Gillespie literally find some common ground. Paddy appears at the police station and accompanies Tibbs alone to the local abortionist, a black woman who warily admits Delores is coming tonight to pay her $100 for services, but when Delores shows up, she sees Tibbs and scrams. Tibbs catches up with Delores only to find a gun drawn on him, and Ralph comes out of the shadows only to find the rednecks returned including Lloyd brandishing a gun. Tibbs tells Lloyd to inspect his sister’s purse for $100 in abortion money, and when Lloyd finds it and turns his rifle on Ralph, Ralph kills him first. At the station, Ralph confesses that he struck Colbert without meaning to kill him, Gillespie escorts Tibbs to his train out of town, and they share warm looks just before the credits roll.
On the one hand, In the Heat of the Night is a kind of low-stakes whodunnit; on the other hand, Wexler’s neo-noir palette and the engagement with contemporary racial politics finds it holding up well. Robert Kennedy was genuinely enthusiastic about In the Heat of the Night even before it came out, after a chance encounter with Norman Jewison that had RFK sending Jewison magazine articles about black authorities south of the Mason-Dixon line. Jewison tells this story on the Criterion DVD commentary, concluding with the film winning the New York Critics Award at a dinner hosted by then-Senator Bobby Kennedy, who, according to Jewison, handed him the award saying “See I told you the timing was right!” Compared to Hollywood’s few extant films centralizing black persons, at least In the Heat of the Nightdidn’t seem behind the times, and later cultural historians would credit Poitier’s slap of a rich white man and his “They call me Mister Tibbs!” as breakthroughs that ratified less restrained representations of African-Americans in the next few years. In that year’s Oscar race, where Sidney Poitier’s more 1950s-progressive-style Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? squared off against counterculture darlings Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, the fact that In the Heat of the Nightemerged as the compromise winner was its own mild step forward, particularly as the award occurred a few days after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Like Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars, including the well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for Rod Steiger and Best Film Editing for Hal Ashby, an award that Ashby would avail into making some of the 1970s best films.
Influenced by: Bull Connor, civil rights, the South in the mid-1960s
Influenced: many consider this the pivot to more forceful mainstream African-American representation onscreen
“You don’t sell the dream of a lifetime.”
By 1967, Leone was wary of being called the father of the spaghetti western; he didn’t want credit for the many, many bad Italian- and Spanish-made westerns produced after A Fistful of Dollars. At the time, “spaghetti western” was used as a pejorative as often as not, and after The Good The Bad and the Ugly, Leone did NOT want to be restricted to that genre. However, Paramount Pictures, impressed with Leone’s westerns’ worldwide box office, used its purse and the possibility of a few dollars more to persuade Leone and his longtime favorite American actor to get back in the saddle. That actor, Henry Fonda, was also initially reluctant, but was persuaded by the money, Leone’s personal appeal, and Fonda’s former filmmate Eli Wallach (you may know him as El Tuco), who told Fonda he’d have the time of his life. One person Leone and Paramount could not persuade was Clint Eastwood, who’d said, on the set of The Good The Bad and The Ugly, “In the first film I was alone. In the second, we were two. Here we are three. If it goes on this way, in the next one I will be starring with the American cavalry.” Eastwood wasn’t wrong; after Claudia Cardinale communicated her interest, the script was evolving into a four-hander. At least two of Eastwood’s five biographers claim Clint was pitched the part that Charles Bronson played, and if that’s true, the script evolved progressively, because that character is clearly declared to be a Mexican boy in flashback, and it’s hard to believe that Leone would have presented that origin story for his “Blondie.”
When I see the title card that says story by Sergio Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, I imagine that card to be one reason so many critics put this picture in their Top 100s. This trio of Good, Bad and Ugly directors spent much of 1967 watching westerns like High Noon and The Searchers and The Tin Star and tried to refer to many of them, in a manner that was determinedly less melodious and more melancholic than in the Dollars trilogy. Henry Fonda showed up on set with a beard and brown contacts and Leone told him to eschew both; he wanted THE Henry Fonda, honest-hearted star of a wealth of well-known westerns, recalibrated as a man evil enough to shoot children and one of the first bad guys to lead any western. Paramount also paid Leone’s crucial crew of producer Fulvio Morsella, DP Tonino Delli Colli, complex editor Nino Baragli, and commanding composer Ennio Morricone.
Once Upon a Time in the West gloriously begins on the hand of an African-American cowboy whom we come to see is one of three tough dudes taking over a rural, broken-planked train station. After a prolonged interval in which one of them blows on a fly, a train finally arrives, departs, and a harmonica-playing man faces off with them and kills them all. 15 minutes in, we meet Brett McBain and his three kids, the youngest being about ten, just before a cowboy in black, Frank, appears and kills them all, making a show of even the 10-year-old. Just the way McBain had described her, Jill steps off a train into Flagstone station and a coachman drives her through picturesque Monument Valley on her way to Sweetwater. At a roadhouse, a degenerate called Cheyenne sizes up Jill but gets interrupted by the harmonica-playing man, whom Cheyenne dubs Harmonica as they argue over who really set up the station ambush. Jill discovers her new husband and step-children slain as local authorities saddle up; Jill fails to discover dollars or other valuables in McBain’s drawers and collapses on the bed in an overhead shot through a lovely lace-filled lens. Cheyenne shows up to warn Jill that when you’ve killed four, it’s easy to make it five, and she retorts that after he’s done with her she’ll pour some boiling water and be what she was before. Now more than an hour in, we finally dismount at Mr. Morton’s headquarters, an opulently decorared three-car train, where Morton chastises Frank for murdering the McBain family while sparing Mrs. McBain. As Cheyenne leaves Jill he says she reminds him of his mother, “the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman in the world.” Harmonica comes down from the attic and makes it clear he heard the whole thing as he holds off hurting her, walks with the woman to the well, and kills two of Frank’s men who try to shoot at her. Morton and Frank dispute tactics on the train as Frank takes sight of and captures a sneaky Harmonica who names himself some of Frank’s old victims, earning him mercy because Frank needs to know more but must now ride with his henchmen to the McBain house. After he’s gone, a sneakier Cheyenne slowly penetrates the train car and shoots dead Morton’s men. We see a flashback of a gorgeous Moab half-cavern as Frank argues with Morton over the McBain property and realize the two are not likely to remain loyal to each other. Workers show Jill an empty sign that she commands be engraved with “Station” and she dashes back into her house to find a previously noticed little model with a “Station” sign, but to her shock, Frank holds it up saying “Looking for this?” Back at Sweetwater, Harmonica explains to Cheyenne that McBain’s long wait will soon pay off with a valuable train station but a clause in the contract could, ahem, derail the plan if the station isn’t ready by the time the train arrives, information that drives Cheyenne’s dudes to dig ditches at double-time. After Cheyenne considered it and Harmonica got closer, Frank lies down with Jill in a threatening, rapey way while saying she’d do anything to save her skin, and indeed he seems right when we cut to her at a town auction where Frank’s goons keep anyone from bidding too high on her property. At the auction, Jill is about to settle for $500 when Harmonica shows up and offers $5000…in the promissory note that is Cheyenne, whose reward is worth that much despite the fact that his fellows will follow him and free him. After the auction hall clears out, Jill very implausibly goes upstairs to take a bath while Frank much more plausibly turns up and offers Harmonica $5000 and one dollar for the property, but Frank suddenly has to defend himself from Morton’s men…until Harmonica makes them muerte. When Jill upbraids Harmonica for saving Frank’s life, he responds, “I didn’t let them kill him, and that’s not the same thing.” Frank rides out to Morton’s train to find Morton and his gang dead because of Cheyenne’s gang and must ride on to Sweetwater. Cheyenne is already there telling Jill that at some point she should take water to the working men and not worry if one should pat her behind, because they’ve earned it. Jill and Cheyenne watch as Frank and Harmonica size up and we learn why we have been seeing Harmonica’s out-of-focus flashbacks now that they do focus and we see a younger Frank convivially coming out of a canyon. In flashback, the camera pulls back to show Frank savoring a Mexican standing on his younger brother’s shoulders hanging by a noose from an old brick arch with a distant view of the postcard parts of Monument Valley. In flashback, Frank sticks a harmonica in the boy’s mouth telling him to “keep your lovin’ brother happy,” but that brother shouts curses and kills himself by kicking over his own brother, who falls in the dirt with the harmonica falling out of his mouth. Back in the present, Frank and Harmonica draw and wound each other, but Harmonica gets the better of him and sticks a harmonica in Frank’s mouth so that dying Frank finally finds out who the F he is. Harmonica and Cheyenne say goodbye to Jill and ride off until Cheyenne falls, admitting he’d masked his mortal wound from Morton’s men. While Harmonica rides off with Cheyenne’s body, Jill brings out the water to the men just as Cheyenne had instructed as the camera pans out to suggest an eventually successful train station.
A lot of the film feels like waiting, which often turns out to be waiting to die. The many blurry flashback shots that finally reveal themselves to be Henry Fonda walking out of (what looks like) the Grand Canyon amount to no less than a radical reimagining of frontier myths, as from the depths of a gorge, the gorgeous, smiling young Fonda here signifies a barbarism and racism as massive as the Monument Valley monoliths in the distance. Leone’s artistry is unusual because it can be crowd-pleasing but can also be dissonant and post-modern. Christopher Frayling, responding to critics who prefer more self-critical filmmakers, writes that Leone “does not exactly ‘lay bare the device’ but he does draw attention to devices which have characteristically been understated or unobtrusive. And in this way he keeps the audience at arm’s length.” The best Leone films, like Once Upon a Time in the West, are not quite as self-reflexive as 8 ½ or some mid-60s Godard, but are not Rio Bravo, either. Pleasure is certainly insisted upon but also problematized. These films are fantasies of a world more exciting than ours, but the fantasies are recognized as often devolving into nightmares.
I’ll grant that Once Upon a Time in the West isn’t as all-out fun as The Good The Bad and the Ugly, but that’s the point: here, Leone goes for an often melancholic tone suiting the real sacrifices of our ancestors on their way to founding train stations. The combined legacy of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly alongside Once Upon a Time in the West go way beyond Quentin Tarantino. There are many, many spaghetti westerns by many directors, but above them all, Sergio Leone mastered a cynicism and alienation that was also stylized and spirited, the hectic, frenetic formal choices supporting the lives of men living on the edge.
Once Upon a Time in the West was one of the most popular films in France for years, and very successful elsewhere, but in the United States it was released in May 1969 and…didn’t achieve that French popularity. At first, this might have been ascribed to competing in theaters with Midnight Cowboy, a popular film that made cowboys look obsolete. But then, The Wild Bunch came out, another Leone-flavored anti-western or post-modern western that even starred a classical Hollywood icon “roughing up” his clean image, in that case William Holden, and The Wild Bunch did fine.
I’ll posit one other possible reason for the relative under-performance of Once Upon a Time in the West in the, uh, West during summer 1969: Easy Rider, a film sold to audiences on the back of Peter Fonda – literally, the poster was mostly Fonda’s face and back. It’s possible that audiences only wanted one Fonda at a time, or that after The Graduate, they were more interested in the ideas of the son than of the father. When reporters asked co-writer and producer Fonda if he and Dennis Hopper’s characters were named after Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, Fonda would say he conceived of Easy Rideras a “modern” or “existential” Western. If you ask me which one I would take to a desert island, I would take Once Upon a Time in the West, but everything we’ve ever read about Easy Rider suggests that it was a smash hit because it uniquely captured a moment in the zeitgeist. In summer of 1969, Americans preferred a collection of rock songs starting with “Born to Be Wild” over hearing a harmonica hymn again and again.
Influenced by: the many, many westerns it pays homage to, as well as the spirit of saying goodbye to them
Influenced: From Tarantine to Garrone, Leone’s jaunty, counter-intuitively complex style lingers over cinema
“Being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Gettin’ old.”
Even without Orson Welles or Mike Nichols, Bogdanovich might have chosen black-and-white for The Last Picture Show because the story was about a declining, desolate Texas town, much like Hud, for which James Wong Howe won the Oscar for Best Black-and-White cinematography back in 1963. In fact, Hud and The Last Picture Show were both based on stories by Larry McMurtry that Bogdanovich, a born-and-raised New Yorker, felt were entirely out of his wheelhouse. Sal Mineo pushed Platt to make it, and she pushed her husband to make it alongside herself and McMurtry. Sadly, Polly Platt is too-often remembered only as the “other woman,” or the cuckolded woman, during accounts of Bogdanovich beginning an affair with The Last Picture Show’s lead actress, Cybill Shepherd, whom Peter cast for her movie debut after seeing her on a magazine cover. Platt and Bogdanovich worked with BBS partly because of the Corman connection, but mostly because they trusted BBS not to re-edit their movie. Platt, Bogdanovich, and BBS assembled a first-rate cast and crew and traveled to McMurtry’s home town of Archer City, Texas in autumn 1970 to make the film. Bogdanovich called John Ford to get Ben Johnson to accept the eventually Oscar-winning role of Sam the Lion (Ford supposedly said “Do you want to be the Duke’s sidekick forever?”), and Bogdanovich repaid Ford in ways large and small, from putting a Ford-esque left-eye eyepatch on Sonny in Act 3 to changing the literal Last Picture Show from the novel’s B-film into a A-film directed by John Ford, Red River. Red River is set in Abilene, Kansas, and Bogdanovich renamed a character Abilene and chose the town’s name of Anarene to sound like Abilene, the real Anarene being a genuine ghost town well before the film’s events of 1951.
The Last Picture Show begins on a wind-swept, shuttered street in a small town that we learn is Anarene, Texas. Sonny Crawford barely starts his pickup, picks up a mentally disabled friend named Billy sweeping the street, and takes him into Sam’s pool hall, where they listen to Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and Sam becomes the first of seven adults to slam Sonny for his atrocious high-school football playing the night before. Wearing a hard hat, Duane shows up to stroll with Sonny to the local breakfast diner where they trade jokes with the sardonic waitress Genevieve. That night, Sonny and girlfriend Charlene linger in the dark balcony of the local movie house screening Father of the Bride, but Sonny is more interested in watching Duane kiss his girlfriend Jacy. Sonny and Charlene in a pickup becomes an argumentative blowup and a breakup, and Sonny wanders into the diner and tells Genevieve he wishes he could date Jacy. In high school, Sonny is bored with book-learning, bad at basketball, but boisterous at belting the school’s fight song while riding in a convertible with Duane and Jacy, whose mom Lois comes to corral her daughter home. In Jacy’s bedroom, Lois warns her not to get pregnant by or marry Duane if she doesn’t want a dreary life. Coach Popper sends Sonny to drive his wife Ruth to a clinic and back, and Ruth cries over her missing husband. At the town’s Christmas dance party, graceless but wealthy Lester Marlow invites Jacy to a pool party, who tells him to wait while she makes out with Duane in a back seat, receives from him a watch he’d long saved for, and lies to him that her mother is making her go with Lester to the pool party that night. Sonny helps Ruth clean up the town party and they kiss. At the indoor pool party, playboy-ish host Bobby Sheen greets Jacy by telling her she has to strip as naked as the other present young adults, and they all stop and awkwardly watch as she awkwardly does so. Back in town, the boys push Billy into a car with a prostitute who bonks Billy’s beak and conspicuously complains about Billy coming too quickly, a scene that ends on her stepping into a close up saying “I wouldn’t mess with him again for less than three and a half.” When the boys drop off Billy at the pool hall and Sam sees his bloody nose, he asks for the story and, upon hearing it, bans all them boys from all his businesses. When Sonny has sex with Ruth, she cries, but when they sit around post-coitally, she brushes his hair and considers buying new things he might like. Sam forgives Sonny as they fish at a turtle pond and Sam monologues about a long-lost lover that he’d love again if she alighted in town, because “being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do.” Jacy expresses interest in Bobby, but he tells her to come back after she’s lost her virginity. On a lark, Sonny and Duane leave for Mexico in their beatup pickup, and the film cuts to Duane wearing a sombrero as Sonny drives them back into town, where they meet a man who explains that Sam died and left Sonny the pool hall, among other bequests. After the somber funeral, Duane and Jacy meet in a hotel room, tell each other they love each other, and try to have sex, but he fails to get hard and she tosses him out with shame and anger. Jacy and Duane sing at graduation as he begs her for another chance, but after Jacy implies she’s now seeing Bobby, Duane leaves town to work on Odessa oil fields. After Jacy learns Bobby eloped, Jacy’s mother’s lover, fortysomething Abilene, takes Jacy into town and they make love on the pool table, but when he drops her off at home she cries in front of her mother. Jacy asks Sonny to drive her out of town, where they kiss, and soon they are regularly dating while Ruth sits alone in her bedroom in a pretty dress. Duane returns, confronts Sonny, fights, hits Sonny’s eye with a bottle, and decides to join the army to fight in Korea. Jacy doesn’t love the patch on Sonny’s eye but evidently elopes with him anyway; we don’t see a wedding, but we do see a state trooper pulling them over and routing them back to Anarene. Lois arranges the annulment and advises Sonny she was Sam the lion’s lover and Sonny would be better off with Ruth. In uniform, Duane returns home from training before shipping out, and he and Sonny join the small group at the movie house before it closes down. After Duane departs, Billy, while street-sweeping, is hit and killed by a bus. A disconsolate Sonny seeks comfort at Ruth’s house, who shouts at him that she’s tired of apologizing to him when he’s not even here and that he ruined her life…but then she finishes the movie by touching him tenderly saying, “Never you mind, honey. Never you mind.”
What I love about The Last Picture Show is that it achieves a tone that isn’t nostalgia but isn’t sad or mad at the past, either. It’s just a recognition that something like this was once something. Superficially, The Last Picture Show resembles 1963’s Hud or even some films made in 1951, but we know we’re in MPAA-rated Hollywood when we hear certain language and see certain parts of the female anatomy. For its partisans, The Last Picture Show is a poignant portrait of postwar provincial Texas. Some of these partisans write for Rotten Tomatoes, where it enjoys a score of 100; other partisans include most reviewers of the time, like Roger Ebert, who named it his favorite film of 1971 and said “It is about a town with no reason to exist, and people with no reason to live there. The only hope is in transgression.” One reason the film existed was to establish Bogdanovich, at 32, as a major filmmaker of the Hollywood Renaissance whom magazines could no longer pay to interview other filmmakers.
Influenced by: Bogdanovich’s close study of Hawks, Ford, and others
Influenced: Arguably, American Graffiti, and in that case, Grease, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Animal House, and a lot of formica diners
“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”
Harry Callahan was invented by Harry Fink and his wife Rita Fink for a script called Dead Right, about a New York cop determined to stop a serial killer in a story that asked how far a free society can go to protect itself. During development, the script was partially rewritten by Terrence Malick and John Milius, the latter of whom went on to praise the final product as “more important than the Godfather” because it’s not “so brilliantly written or brilliantly directed. Siegel can take more credit than anyone for it.” Like everyone not named John Milius, I wouldn’t call Dirty Harry more important than The Godfather, but Milius is right that Don Siegel made a sharply effective film, remarkable considering that for about thirty years, Warner Bros. and Universal had given Siegel mostly B- or C-projects. In retrospect, the breakup of the Hays Code was much better for Siegel than it was for most 1950s directors; allowing explicit language and sexuality into his efficacious, economical films had the effect of highlighting their somewhat tough, shrewd qualities. The second adaptation of Hemingway’s novel, The Killers from 1964, proved Siegel could do a film like Coogan’s Bluff, which was the crime film Eastwood decided to do in 1968 instead of Once Upon a Time in the West. This marked the first of five Siegel-Eastwood collaborations, followed by the westerns Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled, and fourth, Dirty Harry. In a post-Classical Hollywood, Siegel and Eastwood were coming to stand less for innovation and more for unsentimental getting the job done, and I’d say they got lucky, punks.
Dirty Harry begins with a voluptuous woman swimming in a rooftop pool where she is randomly shot in the back and drowns. In a wide shot of San Francisco Bay filmed from atop the highest building in town, police inspector Dirty Harry Callahan walks around the roof and finds the sniper’s note, and soon he and his superiors are reading that “Scorpio” will kill a person a day if not given $100,000. The mayor wants to pay him; this Harry wants to slay him. On Callahan’s lunch, he sees a robbery in progress and walks out of his downtown deli while dressed like a civilian, wields a weapon with wizardly accuracy, and shoots the getaway car into a fire hydrant. Harry approaches a black, bleeding recumbent bandit and says some rather memorable words about guns and punks. The bandit says he has to know, and Harry’s smile as he pulls the empty trigger suggests he was just joking? An African-American police doctor treats Harry saying “Us Potrero Hill kids gotta stick together,” possibly playing on the audience knowing that Heisman winner O.J. Simpson came from there. Harry strenuously objects when Police Chief Dacanelli assigns him an inexperienced partner named Chico Gonzalez, leading to another cop spelling out all the ethnic slurs that Harry hates, Chico asking “what about Mexicans?” and Harry answering “Especially Mexicans.” We see Scorpio on a rooftop reading the mayor’s coded message to him asking for more time, but when he sees a police helicopter above, he slips away. That night, a police crane raises Harry to a rooftop where he thwarts what turns out to be a suicide risk, punches the perp on the way down, and tells Chico that his name comes from doing dirty jobs like this one. After learning that Scorpio has killed a black boy, the police decide that Scorpio will return to his familiar roof, and he shocks Harry by showing up and shooting back at Chico and Harry and damaging the glowing rotating “Jesus Saves” sign above their heads. The next day, the Chief presents Chico and Harry a new message from Scorpio saying that because of last night, he has kidnapped a 14-year-old girl and now demands $200,000. The Chief makes Harry the bagman carrying a yellow bag full of cash, Harry defies the Chief by making Chico his clandestine backup, and Scorpio sends Harry all around the city before ultimately meeting him at the Mount Davidson cross. Scorpio commands this “pig” and “oinker” to pull his gun out of his jacket, and when he does, Scorpio says “wow, that’s a big one.” As Chico shoots, Scorpio shoots back, Harry shows a hidden switchblade and shivs it into Scorpio’s leg, and Scorpio runs away blasting, bleeding, bereft ransom. Chico and Harry get an anonymous tip about Scorpio living in Kezar Stadium and break in without a warrant; in a remarkable copter shot that begins in the middle of the field, Harry asks about the girl’s location and presses on Scorpio’s wounded leg as the camera drifts out of the stadium. After the girl is found dead, the district attorney brings in a Berkeley constitutional law professor to help Harry comprehend that because he tortures suspects, eschews warrants, and ignores the fourth amendment, they can’t admit Scorpio’s rifle as evidence nor charge Scorpio and will have to let him go. Harry follows Scorpio on his own time to various places, but not to an alley where an African-American gets paid to beat up Scorpio, who tells him, “Every penny’s worth, you black son of a bitch.” After Scorpio is hospitalized claiming Callahan crushed his face, Callahan’s supervisor tells him to stop following him, and Callahan’s partner Chico quits the case while his wife asks Harry why he bothers. Not unlike Duane to Sonny, Scorpio smashes a bottle into the left side of the face of a liquor store owner, and then takes his gun and uses it to hijack a San Francisco school bus, getting the kids to sing songs like “Old McDonald.” Scorpio pulls over the bus, uses a pay phone, and tells the mayor that he’s going to drive the bus along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Santa Rosa airport where he expects a plane waiting for him and the kids to get on. Officials including Callahan hear this on speaker phone as well as the mayor promising Scorpio won’t be molested, and when the mayor asks Harry to deliver the money, Harry tells the mayor he can find himself another delivery boy. As the school bus exits the freeway, Scorpio gulps as Harry stands darkly on a railway overpass, and then jumps onto the bus in a shot where Eastwood’s face is clearly visible. Scorpio shoots through the roof, commandeers the bus, drives erratically, and crashes into a pile of rocks at a quarry. With gunfire traded back and forth, Callahan pursues Scorpio through the quarry until Scorpio holds a boy hostage and tells Callahan to drop his gun. At the last moment, Harry pivots and shoots Scorpio’s shoulder anyway. Now that the killer is isolated, Harry gives him the same speech from the bank robbery, ending with “Well, do ya, punk?” but this time there is a sixth bullet, and Harry uses it to shoot the killer into the nearby pond where he floats with the rest of the scum. Harry throws his police badge into the same lagoon and walks away as the camera cranes out again.
Apparently Eastwood almost didn’t film the ending because he felt that Harry wouldn’t leave the force, but Siegel convinced him that Harry was reacting only to the SFPD’s inefficiency and bureaucracy. If Dirty Harry is a less-polished French Connection, it’s interesting to think how much America had changed in the four years between Best Picture winners In the Heat of the Night and The French Connection. In the Heat of the Night seems almost naively utopian, where a Northern black cop and a Bull Connor type could see past their differences and nail the perp. Four years later, after choppers dropping tear gas on Oakland, after the Chicago Convention, the Manson killings, Altamont, Kent State…forget utopia, forget alliances. Bring in Popeye Doyle or Harry Callahan to clean them all up, right? Is Dirty Harry a fascist film?
Dirty Harry is correctly not considered one of the greatest films ever made, but it easily belongs on any list of the most influential films ever made in America. Dirty Harry is less a movie than a mood, a mode, a motif, a motion, maybe a medley of attitudes against apparently anarchic criminals who, by 1971, called for considerable comeuppances. With his refusal to remain rule-bound, Dirty Harry basically put the “loose-cannon” cop in the canon, leading to a sub-genre of crime films led first by Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, later Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and many, many others. Dirty Harry also found its way into official Congressional speeches and innumerable mainstream-media articles about over-the-top tactics that trash cops as little better than the criminals they’re collaring. Less consequentially, Dirty Harry may or may not have left the SFPD, but Clint Eastwood stayed close to Warner Bros., who gave him a free hand for much of the next half-century as Eastwood wound up producing and directing many films that were less Harry and more humanist.
Influenced by: perceptions of out-of-control crime in the late 60s
Influenced: crime movies, action attitudes
“I may have my flaws, but I’m not gonna white-slave her to Latin America!”
Cabaret began as a memoir/novel by British author Christopher Isherwood about trying to live as an openly gay man in Berlin in the early 30s as the Nazis were coming into power. Isherwood changed his flatmate, friend, and cabaret performer Jean Ross into Sally Bowles for a 1937 short story that evolved into the 1955 film I Am a Camera and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1966 musical Cabaret that won many Tonys and ran for three years. The lewd, lustful, lascivious musical was so letter-perfect for the licentious filmmaking era that its eventual producers, ABC and Allied Artists, felt they needed an old-time experienced hand on the reins, and were happy to secure the enthusiastic 60-year-old multiple-Tony winner producing legend Cy Feuer. Feuer was happy to secure Joel Grey, as MC, reprising his role from the original production, and Liza Minnelli as Sally, who auditioned for and failed to get Sally on Broadway, but after 1970 had an Oscar nomination and an intangible credibility as the just-passed Judy Garland’s daughter. For director, Feuer and ABC and Allied Artists wanted an old Hollywood director, like Billy Wilder, Gene Kelly, or Vincent Minnelli, but they all passed, although Minnelli did consult his daughter Liza to model her look and behavior after silent screen legend Louise Brooks. As recounted, sort of, in the recent F/X series “Fosse/Verdon,” Bob Fosse campaigned hard for the job in the wake of his movie failure Sweet Charity. With that failure foremost in mind, Feuer laid down certain sine qua nons, like Grey, Minnelli, and their chosen cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, rejecting Fosse’s DP from Sweet Charity, Robert Surtees, which freed Surtees to shoot the heck out of last podcast’s The Last Picture Show. Eyeing the success of The Sound of Music and the many subsequent failures to imitate it, Feuer also insisted on filming in West Germany – yet mostly not in Berlin itself – at half of The Sound of Music’s budget, or about $4 million.
The F/X series never teaches you why Fosse chose to change the range of the stage musical to the trio of MC, Sally, and Brian, the latter British, no longer American as in Kander and Ebb’s show. Well, one factor was Fosse hiring a friend of Christopher Isherwood’s, Alan Wheeler, to move the material closer to Isherwood’s actual life, which meant deleting certain characters and songs but bringing “Brian” to at least bisexuality compared to his closeted counterpart on Broadway. By cutting all of the non-nightclub songs and all of the “let’s randomly break into a song” songs with the lone exception of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” Fosse gives that nationalist tune more trepidation and terror. My perspective on the restructuring is summarized by Fraulein Schneider’s stage sentiment that movie-only audiences don’t know: “So the sun will rise, and the moon will set, and you learn how to settle for what you get, it’ll all go on, if we’re here or not, so who cares, so what? So who cares, so what?” Instead, Kander and Ebb wrote two new songs for the movie version, “Mein Herr” and “Money, Money” as well as licensing their unrelated song “Maybe This Time” so that every song moves the drama forward, rendering the film’s relative realism resonant.
Cabaret might have begun with “Wilkommen” from the jump, but instead starts with credits, the sound of nightclub audience pitter-patter, and a refracted, fly-vision-like mirror that frames the fractious, fragmented world of Berlin in 1931. The white-powdered-face, gleamy-eyed MC seems to understand the fragmentation as he turns from looking at the mirror to you, the audience, and sings “Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome” to Cabaret. While the host croons, the film cuts to the train arrival of a clean-cut Brit we will know as academic and amateur author Brian Roberts. The MC belts out that Cabaret is beautiful and hot, where every night he has to fight to keep the clothes on his suite of shabbily, scantily dressed female Kit-Kat Club dancers, including one Sally Bowles. American Sally answers her front door to Brian, who is seeking a room to rent, and Sally happily welcomes him in, tours him around the boarding house, shows him his small room, and offers her larger one for the English lessons he plans to teach. At the cabaret, alongside a group of snapping, leg-crossing women on bentwood chairs minting a style that would later be expressed as the essence of Fosse, Sally performs “Farewell, Mein Herr.” While the MC sprays Kit-Kat mud wrestlers, in the audience, Brian recruits his first English pupil, Fritz Wendel. Sally tells Brian she’s going to be a great film star if booze and sex don’t get her first, seems surprised that she can’t shock Brian, shouts with him under train tracks, kisses his mouth, and asks “doesn’t my body drive you wild with desire?” Rejected, she suggests maybe he doesn’t sleep with girls; reluctant, he answers he went through the motions three times “all of them disastrous.” The streets and the stage are stuffed with irreverent references to Nazis, Jews, violence, class, and non-binary sexuality. Fritz begins falling in love with the posh Natalia as Sally uses the only German word she can pronounce perfectly to say she’s been bumsen-ing some old producer all afternoon. When Sally falls apart at her father’s rebuff, Brian kisses her as the film cross-cuts to her performing “Maybe This Time” onstage as the film cross-cuts to Brian and Sally in bed naked together deciding that the other affairs “were just the wrong three girls.” The wealthy Baron Maximilian picks up Sally in a shop and then in a nice car as Sally and MC appear together onstage for the one and only time to perform “Money, Money.” The Baron finds Sally literally sleeping with Brian and doesn’t seem to mind, though Brian does then and when Sally laughs again and again at everything the Baron does. Onstage, MC performs the threesome-positive “Two Ladies” as Sally and Brian frolic at the Baron’s country estate and the Baron suggests the three of them travel to Africa. The West German locations get a long look and conclude with the Baron and Brian at a biergarten awkwardly watching as a Nazi leads the crowd in an impromptu creepy “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Although Fritz clings to Natalia’s car’s running boards, she rejects him because of what’s happening in Germany, and “I am a Jew. You are not.” Back in Berlin bickering, Brian yells at Sally, “Screw Maximilian!” to which she says “I do,” to which he says “So do I.” Brian challenges street Nazis, gets beaten, reconciles with Sally, and learns that she’s pregnant. They decide the father is probably Brian and he comes to love the idea. Already big on bigamy, MC brings in the bestiality while performing a love song with a person in a tutu-clad-gorilla-costume, ending with the line “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all,” cross-cutting to Fritz converting to Judaism and a rabbi marrying him to Natalia. No onstage song gets paired with Sally’s offscreen abortion that Brian only learns of afterward, and Sally tries to calm his fury by saying “How long til we started hating each other? How long before you…” At the train station, Brian departs Berlin with a warm hug for Sally, and we cut to her on stage singing “Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret.” The MC appears in the fractured mirror of the opener, saying “See, your troubles? Forgotten” as the dancers join in a reprise. The curtain quietly falls, the camera pans over the audience, the frame freezes on a soft-focused man wearing a swastika, and the credits roll.
On its $4.5 million budget, Cabaret earned at least $40 million in North America in 1972. We think of it as surprising that The Godfather was released in March of 1972 but was well-remembered enough to win Best Picture almost a year later; Cabaret was released a month earlier than The Godfather and beat it in many categories, finishing with twice as many Oscars. I think both films benefit from marinating on them and seeing them two or three or ten times. The filmmaking of Cabaret well suits feelings felt and lives lived in fragments and shards, never really knowing if one’s best life and artistic dreams are enough especially against endemic despotism.
No musical looked like Cabaret before Cabaret, and Cabaret certainly wouldn’t have looked that way if it had been directed by, for example, Liza Minnelli’s father. (This gives a certain double-entendre to Sally’s rejection letter from her father.) Musicals were meant to show you all of the dancing to prove the performers had really done the steps. Cabaretwas edited less to be true to choreography and more to be true to the feelings of life. For what it’s worth, most performers in Cabaret really did do the steps, although descendants of Cabaret from MTV to Moulin Rouge might be a little less insistent on them. Compared to most musicals, Cabaret is both immersive and impressive: this seedy, cynical, queer-positive, burlesque paradise is all the more remarkable for pre-dating punk rock by five or ten or even 45 years, depending which Cabaret you mean. The sexual freedom and ambiguity of Cabaret was not something Hollywood had really done, and I believe most of that holds up as at least refreshing.
Friedkin began The French Connection with the idea of making the greatest car chase ever filmed; now he wanted to make the scariest, most obscene movie ever filmed. In this, he had a more than willing ally in novelist William Peter Blatty, who insisted on producing the film and writing the screenplay partly to assure that the film squeezed in every single scary anecdote from witnesses to the 1949 case on which Blatty based his book. Warner Bros. had other directors in mind, but Blatty loved The French Connection so much that he insisted on Friedkin, and after the Oscars, Warner Bros. capitulated and coughed up a considerable eight-figure budget. Gene Hackman and the cast of The French Connectionweren’t stars, and when a director does well without stars he (rarely she) tends to negotiate for a similar budget to make another starless film or a bigger budget to make a star-filled film; Friedkin opted for neither, but instead a big budget to make a starless film. Blatty wanted Shirley MacLaine, whom he befriended when Blatty was consulted on a film called The Possession of Joel Delaney, and indeed Blatty may have based the Chris MacNeil character on her (MacLaine’s daughter was 14 during the Delaney shoot), but Friedkin pushed back on Blatty, bearing in mind audiences might be reminded of the other film. Friedkin did consider some major stars to play Chris and Karras, but they all turned down the job for one reason or another, while Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller spoke of pursuing and accepting their roles in almost religious terms.
Casting 12-year-old Regan was difficult and borderline-unethical, causing Blatty and Friedkin to consider hiring a young-looking 18-year-old, but they met Linda Blair and were impressed with her sweetness, wisdom, and professionalism in having read the novel before the audition and understanding the material. Blair is an even better actress than most people realize because she reportedly hates being cold, and yet she wore little more than a nightgown in many scenes in Regan’s room, actually a rigorously refrigerated set made for us to regard the actors’ breath. Friedkin was apparently an abusive autocrat on set, truly making Blair’s neck spurt blood in the angiography scene, causing back injuries to Blair and Burstyn, slapping a real priest for effect, and lying to Jason Miller during setups so as to solicit shocked reactions. Also, the shoot was scheduled for 100 days in the fall of 1972 and wound up stretching its horrors to about 200, the film barely being released by Christmas 1973.
The Exorcist begins with Max Von Sydow as an archeologist traipsing around Northern Iraq unearthing an amulet, seeing a spooky statue, and hearing some ominous music. At the exact ten-minute mark, the film cuts to an aerial shot of a neighborhood in Washington D.C., shows the title card “Georgetown,” and introduces us to 40ish Chris MacNeil, up late in her house, hearing scratching noises from the attic and seeing her daughter’s window oddly open. During the day, we see Chris is an actress on a picture called “Crash Course” where she commands a megaphone at an anti-defense department protest and says that between human rights and education, “we have to work within the system!” Back in the beautiful Victorian rental home, Chris and her 12-year-old daughter Regan clearly love each other deeply, as they goof around, share tenderness at bedtime, and Regan finds a Ouija board and asks it, “Captain Howdy, is my mother pretty?” Walking off the college set, Chris smiles at trick-or-treaters and notices a priest, Father Damien Karras, whom we follow through his rounds, including comforting a ward of distressed women, thinking of quitting this area, punching a weight bag at a gym, and finding a church statue made up as a sexualized demon. Regan claims she can’t sleep because her bed is shaking; Chris comforts her. Chris hosts a cast party, during which her director Burke Dennings gets obnoxiously drunk, guests sing, one Father Dyer plays piano while describing his heaven as a white nightclub, and Regan appears in her nightgown, says cryptically “You’re gonna die up there,” and pees on the floor. Later, Chris asks Regan why she said that, but kisses her to sleep saying it’s just nerves…until Regan shouts “Help!” on top of a very, very violently shaking bed. Father Karras prays for his recently deceased mother whom we see in Karras’ dreams as Karras cannot stop her descending into a subway nor stop a descending diadem. At a hospital, after Regan tries to refuse an injection while calling a nurse a “fucking bastard,” a smoking doctor tells Chris that Regan has a lesion in her temporal lobe causing a chemical-electrical imbalance and likely hallucinations. Going where no Hollywood movie has gone before, doctors see Regan flip out on her bed, scream “he’s trying to kill me!”, roll her eyes into milky whiteness, slap a doc, say (deep voice) “the sow is mine!”, and touch her private parts saying “Fuck me! Fuck me!” as Chris’ assistant Sharon drags her away. Doctors find nothing again on a second EEG, ask Chris about drugs in the house, and recommend finding a psychiatrist. At night, Chris comes home to Regan’s open window and soon learns that Sharon asked Burke to stay with Regan while she went out for Thorazine, and Burke has been found dead. On Georgetown campus, the investigating officer tells Father Karras he loves to talk about and critique movies on his way to revealing that in fact Burke’s head was spun 180 degrees on his body, and the priest tells the cop to go bother the Dominicans. After the starstruck cop visits Chris, she hears her daughter screaming and enters her room to see dozens of objects flying and a bloody-faced Regan stabbing her vagina with a crucifix saying “Let Jesus fuck you!” As Chris tries to stop her, Regan pushes her face into her vagina saying “Lick me!” slaps her, tosses furniture around the room, and spins her head 180 degrees saying (evil British) “Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?” On campus, often saying “Jesus Christ!” and even “Judas Priest!” Chris finally meets Father Karras, asks about his psychological training, wonders if he can perform an exorcism, buries her head in his shoulder asking for help, and brings him to Regan. Bound in bed, intubated, and severely scarred, Regan demands that Karras loosen the straps, identifies herself as the devil, tells Karras his mother is down there, says “would you like to leave a message?” and projectile vomits green goo all over Karras, who later tells Chris the church wouldn’t yet authorize an exorcism. After recording Regan speaking Latin and what turns out to be backwards English, after Sharon shows Karras an impression on her stomach saying “help me,” Karras goes to the archbishop to ask for authority for an exorcism. High priests decide to contact a man with exorcism experience, Father Merrin at Woodstock, and his tall silhouette soon appears in a misty blue night outside the MacNeil house. As Merrin introduces himself to Chris and Karras we see that he is the archeologist we met in Iraq, and he and Karras enter Regan’s room and recite Biblical passages as she writhes in pain and says things like “Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras.” The bed rises, edifices crack, Merrin tosses holy water, Regan tells Karras he killed his mother, Merrin invokes Christ, Regan replies “Fuck him!”, and when Regan herself floats milky-eyed out of her still bed, Merrin and Karras chant “The power of Christ compels you” 14 times. After a break, Karras hears Regan speaking with his mother’s voice and freaks, and so Merrin kicks him out of the bedroom and continues the exorcism but minutes later Karras finds Merrin dead and his vial of holy water runnething over. Karras strangles Regan, says “take me instead!”, turns his eyes yellow, and leaps or gets thrown out of Regan’s window onto the M-street steps below, rolling and dying as he goes, with Father Dyer unable to extract a final confession. The next day, as Chris packs up her car, she sees Father Dyer, tells him Regan remembers nothing, and in one of the most relieving moments in cinema history, Regan appears with a barely damaged face and her old sunny disposition. Regan sees the priest’s collar and kisses his neck affectionately as Chris gives Dyer the diadem and drives her and her daughter away.
There was, at the time, a bit of a battle to break the most taboos, as evidenced by films like Deep Throat, Cabaret, and The Devil in Miss Jones, which starred a Kit-Kat dancer from Broadway’s Cabaret named Georgina Spelvin and engaged some of the themes of The Exorcist. All four of these films were discussed on the Tonight Show and reviewed by major newspapers and critics like Roger Ebert. I’m not sure if that context helps or hurts. Andrew Sarris wrote “The Exorcist succeeds on one level as an effectively excruciating entertainment, but on another, deeper level it is a thoroughly evil film.” On a secular level, I understand Sarris completely. Blatty’s story expresses gleeful contempt for much more than religion, for everything from female independence to early 70s films about campus activism. The Exorcist reminds me in some ways of South Park, where its defenders call it an equal-opportunity offender and its detractors show how the authors declined to give everyone equal time.
The Perils of Pauline, the 1910s series of short films that gave the English language the word “cliffhanger,” and the 1921 film The Sheik, which gave the world Rudolph Valentino and by extension the Latin Lover type, were directly premised on punishing a woman who has left home on some kind of adventure, on humiliating her and even physically torturing her to the point where she learns never to leave home again. In other words, this was a forceful filmic fantasy for a half-century before The Exorcist. As with Pauline and Lady Diana (yes, that’s her name) in those old silent films, there’s a sense that these women have used their money and power to some kind of excess – did Chris MacNeil really need such a big house on location, did she have to pull her daughter out of school for a film shoot 3000 miles from LA?
One fascinating thing I learned while researching this film for this podcast is that some film historians blame it for the end of blaxploitation. For the uninitiated, that word refers to a cycle of films begun by Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song, Shaft, and Superfly, in which all-black casts dealt with problems caused by crime, drugs, or “The Man.” The word blaxploitation came from African-American preachers who had marched with Martin Luther King and felt that the films were mostly demeaning and insulting to black people. Until recently, I thought the movement was stopped by those preachers and prejudiced moguls and the presumptive difficulties around any kind of filmmaking, but I just read that The Exorcist, which was in no way marketed to African-Americans, earned record fortunes at theatres in black communities and convinced studios that they didn’t need to fund all-black, or even part-black, casts to attract black audiences. I can’t verify that theory but it is fascinating.
Anyway, William Paul said that The Exorcist did for horror what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for science-fiction, and I think that observation holds up. There are simply too many imitators to name, although none of them ever get named as a favorite film by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, and Martin Scorsese the way that The Exorcist does.
The American Film Institute is more than a creator of lists; in the early 70s, they made Cassavetes their inaugural “filmmaker in residence” at their Center for Advanced Film Studies. To make A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes used that Center’s professionals and many of its students, an experience that apparently meant nothing to the expert list-makers at the AFI, who excluded this film and all of Cassavetes’ other films from their two Top 100 lists and their many Top 10 lists. Cassavetes may be too iconoclastic or independent-minded for the listers, although it’s possible that sexism and/or feminism prejudiced their perception of A Woman Under the Influence, probably his most accessible great film.
When I say “sexism and/or feminism,” I’m referring to the fact that after A Woman Under the Influence earned major Oscar nominations and audiences finally got to see it, liberals and conservatives distinctly disparaged the Mabel character for different reasons, but let’s leave that to elucidate at more length after the paragraph on the plot. Just to set that up, I should say that Cassavetes and Rowlands, married since 1954, were aware of the many taboo-breaking projects of the early 70s and chose to break the taboo about honest examinations of working-class lives. The couple first planned it as a play, but when Rowlands read what Cassavetes had written she knew she could never perform it eight times a week. Cassavetes shopped it to every studio in town, all of whom turned down this screenplay about what one called “a crazy middle-aged dame” before The Exorcist came out. Cassavetes might have compromised by surrendering final cut, but instead Cassavetes’ friend Peter Falk loved the script and offered the project most of what he’d just earned by starring on the new TV show “Columbo”, adding about $500,000 to the hundred thousand Cassavetes received by re-mortgaging he and Rowlands’ house. In adjusted dollars, A Woman Under the Influence is one of the cheapest films on the A-list or B-list and arguably one of the best.
A Woman Under the Influence begins with hard-hatted, blue-collar men crawling out of a watery ditch and getting drinks at a rural diner, where Nick discloses his date that evening with his wife. At the house, Mabel sends off her three small children with her mother, puts her bare feet up on tables, and listens to classical music. When a water main bursts, Nick pushes back on a co-worker who implies Mabel might be crazy, says she cooks cleans and maintains the house, deeply apologizes to her on the phone, and promises that he’ll take the next day off for them to spend together. Mabel goes to a bar, meets a guy named Garson, and sings to him the 1974 film version of “I Get a Kick Out of You” that isn’t in Blazing Saddles. After Garson drives her home and sleeps over, the next morning, she insists that Garson is Nick and Garson leaves. When Nick shows up with his hungry co-workers, Mabel says hi, cooks them spaghetti, feeds them around their table, and has trouble remembering whom she may have met before, or just now. When Mabel starts singing, dancing, and touching a black co-worker’s face, Nick shouts at her to stop it and sit down, breaking up the party. Alone, Nick calls her wacko, assures her she did nothing wrong, and claims not to mind being married to a lunatic, to which she says “I can be anything you want me to be, Nicky.” Mabel’s mother motors back the kids before school, who all pile up on Nick and Mabel’s sofa-bed, giving Nick cause to grab Grandma, who takes the kids to school. Out on a busy L.A. street, Mabel goes “pfft” at people who won’t tell her the time and celebrates “Vroom! Yay!” as the school bus arrives and drops off her children. After neighbor kids come over to play, their father Harold arrives to Mabel saying Swan Lake is perfect and “Die for Mr. Jensen, kids!” After Harold tells Mabel she is acting “erratic and strange,” they find the kids and house in a state of disrepair, and Harold freaks and argues with Nick and everything gets way too physical. After the Jensen family barely gets out the door, Nick slaps Mabel and warns her that she’s going to be committed. Doctor Zepp arrives with a bag and Nick’s mother Margaret asks “Doctor, aren’t ya gonna give her a shot?” Mabel’s veering between hope and despair can’t be described, only endured, as she says things like “Am I right, Nick? Am I right, Nick? Am I right, Nick?” Nick tells her “I love you”, hugs her, apologizes if this might be the wrong thing, and loses her to the kids, who hold her but can’t keep away Doctor Zepp and his authorizing paperwork. Cut to the rock quarry where Nick yells at fellow hard-hats who say things like “I heard your wife is in a nuthouse” and one man falls down a long cliff and, we later hear, “breaks all his bones.” Nick takes the kids to the beach and brings them home unbuckled in the flatbed of a co-worker’s truck while offering them beer, making it way too easy for me to rhyme “offering them beer” with “Father of the Year.” A title card says Six Months Later as Nick, at the quarry, organizes his co-workers and their wives to come to a whopping-big welcome-home party for Mabel at his house. In the pouring rain, Margaret picks on Nick to kick out of the party its dozens of non-family guests, although a few linger long enough to say a quick hi to Mabel as she gets out of the car. We feel tension as Mabel re-enters her home to the hugs of Margaret and Zepp who had hurried to have her committed. Mabel is quiet and fragile as Nick privately comforts her, then brings her out to the full extended family at the dinner table, saying “Things are gonna get better and better and then better than that.” Mabel asks her father to stand up for her and isn’t satisfied until he truly stands up, at which point he murmurs to Mabel’s mother, “Don’t you see what’s going on here?” and the extended family clears out. Left to only Nick, Mabel, and the three kids, Mabel stands on their living room couch and dances without music, waving her hands in almost Fosse-esque patterns. At first, Nick merely threatens her, but then he follows through, punches her off of the couch, and spits “I’ll kill ya, and I’ll kill these sons-o-bitchin kids.” Three times, Nick attempts to take the kids upstairs to bed so that he can really deal with Mabel, but each time, the three kids slip out of his grasp and run downstairs to cling to their mom, and Nick finally surrenders and stands by as Mabel tucks the tykes into their beds in a totally tender, loving way. Back downstairs, Mabel asks Nick if he loves her and he says, “I…I…let’s clean up this stuff” and they do during credit title cards.
One of the most important points of A Woman Under the Influence is that Mabel’s non-violent pathologies are stigmatized to the point of institutionalization, but Nick’s physical and verbal abuse is considered simply normal. As I was saying, after Rowlands and Cassavetes earned well-deserved Oscar nominations for Actress and Director, respectively, the film earned more distribution and more derision. Some conservative commentators felt frustrated that Mabel was representing a working-class wife as crazy or extreme, while some liberal commentators felt frustrated that Mabel didn’t seem to want any free or independent identity outside marriage and motherhood. As you might guess, neither of these critiques would have come up if it weren’t for the film’s advocates defending Gena Rowlands’ performance as a deeply insightful portrait of a mistreated housewife.
Ray Carney teaches film at Boston University and received tens of thousands of pages of unpublished material from Cassavetes before the artist’s untimely demise in 1989. Carney says that the various critiques of A Woman Under the Influence miss the point: Mabel is nothing like the real Gena Rowlands but Mabel is in fact based on John Cassavetes himself. Neither feminist nor anti-feminist, the film is instead deeply, harrowingly biographical, about Cassavetes’ real life as “eccentric, idiosyncratic, and emotionally demanding, as frustrating by understandings of what was and was not regarded as ‘normal’ behavior and expression.”
In case you’re wondering, after A Woman Under the Influence, Falk and Cassavetes starred together in the somewhat improvisational Mikey and Nicky, a film directed by Elaine May, who was more or less the only regularly working female director of the 70s and was and is roundly ignored by best-of lists. Speaking of roundly ignored, Cassavetes’ next directorial effort, a somewhat Exorcist-ish film called Opening Night, failed to get distribution and was hated by reviewers who did see it. Cassavetes continued acting and barely gathering enough financing for films, but never again broke through to Oscar-level attention. Cassavetes wasn’t close with Corman’s crowd or anyone else’s, and he died too early, 1989, to benefit from the burgeoning Sundance-promoted independent scene. Every year since 1999, the Independent Spirit Awards have given out the John Cassavetes Award for the best feature made under $500,000.
On one hand, Nashville makes sense as the Altman culmination, a sort of freeform composition combination of his actors and themes into the “let’s-make-a-film” spirit his open-ended, open-minded films generally implied. Altman recruited Jerry Weintraub as co-producer because he had specialized in team-troupe TV specials and tours for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. On the other hand, if Nashville has an auteur, it may not be Altman. Joan Tewkesbury was a screenwriter and creative partner of Robert Altman’s on excellent films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us. As early as 1971, Tewkesbury suggested a film set in Nashville because it represented a rarely seen, unparalleled area of Americana. Altman sent her there in 1973 and her journals turned into the screenplay, although, as with all Altman films, she allowed for improvisation as well as what she called Altman’s “penchant for the tragic denouement.” She never saw anyone killed; that was all an Altman abstraction.
Tewkesbury wrote the Opal character as her avatar and even cast Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine Chaplin to play her, who Altman even flew from her home in Switzerland to Nashville for the summer 1974 shoot. Many characters were based on real-life Nashville personalities like Loretta Lynn and Charley Pride, and many actors were cast based on prior relationships with Altman, like Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, and Gwen Welles. If you were willing to work cheap, spend summer in Nashville, vibe well with Altman, and your personality loosely fit Tewkesbury’s script, you had a good chance of appearing in a film that now looks like a white postcard from the 1970s with appearances by the likes of Lily Tomlin, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, and Ned Beatty. Remarkably, many of the actors composed many of the songs that their characters perform; the Winifred-like star-aspirant Ronee Blakely performed her songs “Tapedeck in His Tractor” and “My Idaho Home” (Blakely was from Idaho) as Barbara Jean; Karen Black performed her songs “Memphis” and “Rolling Stone” as Connie White; Keith Carradine performed his songs “I’m Easy” (which won him an Oscar) and “It Don’t Worry Me,” also performed by Barbara Harris and company in the finale. Almost as remarkably, many of the performances were recorded live and presented with minimal post-production alteration. If all or most of the songs in Nashville had been written by the same person, and if those songs advanced the plot, Nashville would probably be a hit Broadway musical by now, but then, its subversion of such standards is part of its point.
Nashville’s unusual opening credits look and sound like an album ad or a concert promotion, with spinning faces, rolling names, and breathless verbalizing of the film’s 24 stars a la The Magnificent Ambersons. A rolling van adorned with megaphone speakers and the words “Hal Philip Walker, Replacement Party” explains that politics pertains to un-political persons, for example, when you pay more for your car than Christopher Columbus paid to get to the New World, that’s politics. Country singer Haven Hamilton records “We must be doing something right to last 200 years” and kicks a reporter out of his studio, namely Opal of the BBC, who enters an adjacent studio and sees a white gospel singer, Linnea Reese, singing “Do you believe in Jesus?” to an enthusiastic black chorus responding “Yes I do!” An extensive high school band, along with dozens of cheerleaders, performs to celebrate the airport arrival of Nashville celebrity Barbara Jean as Haven Hamilton conducts a press conference introducing his Harvard-grad son Bud and then welcoming the waving, smiling, Barbara Jean, who collapses on the sidewalk. A fallen couch causes a concatenation of cars to crash and more to stop on the highway, including the Walker van, which continues its patriotic, populist, non-partisan platitudes even as people pile out of it. After the impromptu tailgate party, many of the tailgaters wind up at Barbara Jean’s bedside as she cheerfully greets visitors including singer Tommy Brown, saying “You look just like a big black butterfly”; that night, a uniformed private privately visits Barbara Jean but groupie wannabe L.A. Joan picks him up in the lobby. At a restaurant-bar, we hear a bluegrass band, see folk singer Tom Frank, listen to the atrocious singing of Sueleen Gay, and watch African-American Wade Cooley complain that Timothy Brown is the whitest black man in Nashville. Linnea hangs up on a caller trying to pick her up and instead enjoys, while her husband Delbert barely tolerates, listening to their two deaf children just before they host Walker apparatchik John Triplette for dinner. Raggedy, sloppy Winifred causes car accidents and fails to get backstage as she walks around town with little more than dreams of becoming a famous singer; her estranged husband gives a ride to the violin-case-carrying Kenny Frasier who rents a room from the older Mr. Green. Tom sleeps with Opal as we hear his voice singing “It don’t worry me.” Haven Hamilton hosts a country-home party where Linnea laments lots of low-riding, perilous motorcycles since Easy Rider, Haven’s wife Lady Pearl says only the Kennedys were special while reneging on Del’s promise of Haven helping Triplette with the Walker campaign, and Opal rushes away from Bud’s serenade when she sees the real Elliott Gould has arrived. At the Grand Old Opry, Tommy sings “If the bluebird flies why can’t I?,” Haven sings “For the sake of the children, we must say goodbye,” and “Keep a-goin,” and Connie White sings “Help keep me from sliding down some more,” the latter jealously observed by Barbara Jean from her bouquet-bedecked hospital room, becalmed by her husband/manager Barnett. On Sunday morning, cross-cutting contrasts Catholic mass, a black Baptist church complete with baptism, and the hospital chapel where Barbara Jean sings from her wheelchair. Opal walks through a dump of crushed cars and a parking lot of school buses speaking into her recorder trying to infuse the scenes with poetry and majesty. With much fanfare, the hospital discharges Barbara Jean; with no fanfare, doctors tell Mr. Green his wife has died before he could get his daughter, L.A. Joan, to stop chasing stars and come say goodbye. Opal jabbers with a visibly annoyed Private Kelly and Kenny while they intently watch Barbara Jean’s comeback show, during which Barbara Jean breaks down bawling and Barnett helps her offstage, promising the paying crowd a complimentary performance at the Parthenon. Tom plays the gentle, James Taylor-ish “I’m easy” as Opal, Linnea, Mary, and L.A. Joan stare on with love, contrasted to a men’s club where Sueleen sings “I’ll never get enough” terribly as Del and Bud watch with pity and lust until John promises her a spot singing in the Parthenon next to Barbara Jean if she finishes the show by stripping, so Sueleen strips, sulks and scrams. Del drives Sueleen home and tries to kiss her in her urban-grimy doorway, but Wade interrupts, prompts Del’s departure, warns Sueleen she can’t sing so this industry will only destroy her, and desires she depart for Detroit with him. We are told that the Parthenon was built for the previous centennial as Barnett chews out Triplette over the stage-dominating Walker campaign signs and stage seats that weren’t stipulated. As Barbara Jean sings “I still love Mama and Daddy best and my Idaho home” under the massive flag and the Walker banner, with the chairs gone, the camera pans over stage-standers Sueleen, Bill, Mary, and Tom, Norman, Bud, Lady Pearl, Haven, Del, John, Tommy, and African-American singers in gospel robes. Kenny unlocks his violin case and shoots Barbara Jean apparently mortally as Private Kelly collars Kenny and the stage devolves into chaos. His arm only wounded, Haven implores someone, anyone, to sing, and of all people, Winifred takes the mic and leads the gospel singers and eventually the crowd in “You may say I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me” as the camera pans up and out.
Neal Gabler spoke to its larger legacy in the LA Times: “the film’s fragmented storytelling, its nonstop intercutting among its characters, its improvisational approach and pioneering use of sound, in which each actor was separately miked and words keep overlapping (“That’s how people talk,” Altman said), broke the rules and showed the way for others willing to challenge the Hollywood verities.” Made for $2.2 million, it made about $10 million and was nominated for five Oscars. It was a success without being a big hit, but as with Cassavetes, Altman bequeathed styles and forms for future filmmakers. Much, much later, six years after Altman’s 2006 death, in 2012, the Oscar-winning writer of Thelma and Louise, Callie Khouri, created the TV show Nashville, but it wasn’t really based on anything Altman did…any more than every TV show is.
Paul Lauter compared Nashville to “a poststructuralist theoretical text”, adding that “it invites, indeed valorizes, contradiction and seems designed to resist closure.” As a result, he explained, “interpretations of the film have been wildly divergent and evaluations contradictory.”
To me, that’s a compliment. My favorite kinds of films invite individual interpretation and impart new insights on each viewing. My one problem with Altman in general and Nashville in particular is that it’s sometimes so literal, but I was happy to read Lauter and then read some of the alternate takes.
I noticed in the takes that the unseen Hal Philip Walker was generally read as George Wallace, whom many assumed would run third-party in 1976 and potentially poison politics with faux populism. I would argue that Tewkesbury’s Walker was meant, and holds up, as more of a longstanding criticism of both major parties who aren’t exactly addressing his many eminently logical statements. As far as the movie shows, the main problem with Walker’s platform was, well, that it was a literal platform, an advertisement for itself with a big fat flag on top and pop and country singers cheering it from below. Politics and show business were merged and mutually demeaned, a prediction that went back to Adorno and Horkheimer but got fully realized four decades after Nashville with the ascendancy of Donald Trump.
Maybe politics is only a sideshow of the film Nashville, or perhaps the point is that no matter how selfish and self-involved these people are, politics remains relevant, as the Walker van said early on. Set specifically in 1976, Nashvillewas always intended as commentary on the U.S.A. at the bicentennial.
In summer 1974, Woodward and Bernstein published “All the President’s Men” to blockbuster sales, President Nixon resigned, and Redford was voted by trade magazines as the country’s top star. Before the year was over, Redford paid Bernstein and Woodward and their publishers $450,000 to make a $5 million movie of All the President’s Men. Bob Redford was finding himself becoming de-facto producer, and looked for talent he trusted to let him focus on playing the role of Bob Woodward. Walter Koblenz had been a successful line producer and took over the project’s day-to-day problem solving. Dustin Hoffman was perfect for playing Bernstein in that he already had three Oscar nominations and was pretty much as big a star as Hoffman; neither would outshine the other onscreen or on the posters. Redford might have asked Mike Nichols to direct, considering Nichols had been instrumental in his and Hoffman’s careers, but Alan J. Pakula had impressed everyone on Klute and The Parallax View and Redford felt Pakula could reach the right rhythm of the reporters’ records. Pakula brought his DP from both of those films, who had also shot the two Godfather films, the prodigious Gordon Willis. Remembering his positive experience on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford hired that film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, William Goldman. The real Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee soon decided that the film would be made with or without his input, and so he offered it when asked.
Goldman had a harder time with Pakula and then with Bernstein, who was asked to provide notes on Goldman’s draft and wound up writing a whole new draft with his girlfriend, Nora Ephron. When Redford received it and passed it to Goldman as possible material, Goldman gagged on what he called a “gutless betrayal.” Goldman didn’t love how irresistible the Bernstein character had suddenly become, nor a fake scene of Bernstein faking out a secretary that found its way to the final film. Goldman only felt comfortable after he threw away the second half of the book and Redford and Pakula approved. Prior to the summer 1975 shoot, the Washington Post allowed Redford and Hoffman to witness months’ worth of workdays, but WaPo put the kibosh on production in the newsroom, and so Pakula’s team took hundreds of photographs and built a replica on Warners’ Burbank soundstages. Ben Bradlee heard rumors that his role had been entertained by every living Hollywood legend – think Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn, etc. – and felt a little disappointed upon meeting the somewhat less famous Jason Robards, wondering if Redford had only cast Robards based on physical resemblance. Redford has said he always wanted Robards, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for the role.
All the President’s Men begins with the loud sound and close-up sight of letters typing June 17, 1972 before cutting to news footage of President Richard Nixon triumphantly entering Congress for a joint session. We see rubber-gloved men break into a hotel room and a security guard seeing them and calling the police who arrive and arrest the scrambling men. Washington Post editor Harry Rosenfeld gets a tip and assigns the story to Bob Woodward who grills lawyers at the arraignment. Woodward returns to Rosenfeld’s office with a few pieces of information, and fellow reporter Carl Bernstein shares from his Miami contact that four of the five defendants are affiliated with the CIA. Woodward makes a lot of phone calls regarding various tips, and almost stumbles onto Howard Hunt working with the burglars while working for White House Special Counsel Charles Colson. Bernstein, a newsie since he was a teen, objects to Woodward having been on the paper nine months and modifies Woodward’s sloppy copy. After disparate splinters of stories from sources, Woodward and Bernstein go to the Library of Congress and check on thousands of cards of books Hunt may have checked out but come up with nothing. Woodward and Bernstein show Executive Editor Ben Bradlee their story on Hunt and Colson’s library lending, leading Bradlee to lament that they need more. Woodward meets Deep Throat in a garage, who tells a story of new suspect G. Gordon Liddy holding his hand over a candle saying “the trick is not minding,” and Deep Throat continues that he can only confirm information but that Woodward could “follow the money.” Bernstein flies to Miami to a Mr. Dardis’ office, fakes out his secretary, refuses to take no for an answer, fulminates that he’ll write a story one way or another, and fetches a look at Watergate burglar Bernard Barker’s canceled checks from Mexico City, including $25,000 paid by one Kenneth Dahlberg. On the phone with Woodward, Dahlberg remarks he didn’t want to carry around that much cash so he conveyed the money to Maurice Stans, and as Woodward’s eyes widen he whispers, “Maurice Stans, White House head of finance?” During a daily deliberation, Washington Post editors discuss the many stories they prefer to Watergate, a dangerous, unbelievable story dismissed by most papers, denied by the White House, and dependent upon anonymous contacts. When Woodward and Bernstein tell Bradlee they’re trying to get a list of employees of CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President) but they haven’t had any luck yet, Bradlee says, “Get some.” That happens when a woman at a strange man’s desk leaves a document on Woodward’s desk, a disassociated list of thousands of CREEP employees. Woodward and Bernstein use the list to knock on doors all over DC that get slammed in their faces and their car winds around DC streets as the camera rises and rises. Rosenfeld tells Woodward and Bernstein that The General Accounting Office is postponing its report until after Nixon’s renomination, but all indications are that only the 5 burglars, Hunt, and G. Gordon Liddy will be charged, “and that’s the end of your story.” Bernstein knocks on the door of the secretary to former CREEP treasurer Hugh Sloan, whom he carefully works on until she divulges information like Liddy extensively shredding documents and a slush fund receiving as much as $6 million a week, facts that Sloan himself confirms in a later scene. After former CREEP head John Mitchell threatens Kay Graham on a phone call with Bernstein, Bradlee authorizes the publication of a story that gets the FBI to also yell at Bernstein and the White House to issue what Bradlee dubs a factually dubious “non-denial denial,” redolent of Bob and Carl’s many metaphysical arguments over absence being presence. Another tip leads Bernstein to California to meet Donald Segretti, who admits to non-Watergate chicanery he calls “ratfucking,” which leads Woodward to talk to Deep Throat who confirms “ratfucking” as infiltration of Democrats and fake leaks and fake letters that would have to go beyond Segretti. As Bob walks out of the garage into a creepy, Exorcist-like night, he feels he’s being followed. Woodward and Bernstein use process of elimination to implicate White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, but Bradlee pushes back on that they need at least one more source, which Bernstein gets with a sort of non-confirmation confirmation, and the Post’s next day’s front page says “Testimony Ties Top Nixon Aide to Secret Funds.” Bradlee barks “WOODSTEIN!” and they come in to see Sloan on camera denying implicating Haldeman to the grand jury. After Woodward explodes at Deep Throat, he tells Woodward Haldeman controlled everything, everyone’s involved, and their lives are in danger. Woodward goes straight to Bernstein, cranks up the music, and types out the danger they’re in, leading Bernstein to type back that Sloan confirmed that he implicated Haldeman to the grand jury, leading both men to drive to Bradlee’s house, where he comes out in his robe, chats with the boys, and finishes by saying, “Nothing’s riding on this except the first amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Good night.” The film’s final proper shot is of the Post newsroom slowly coming to life as soft-focused Woodward and Bernstein, at separate desks, type away while a TV shows Nixon’s second inauguration. Lastly, typewriter keys on paper report subsequent major events through Nixon’s resignation.
All the President’s Men is a more influential and important film than it initially seems. Mark Harris’ recent biography of Mike Nichols explains how Silkwood, of 1983, barely got made because its villainous corporation sued the studio by claiming Hollywood didn’t make films that used the real names of its antagonists. (Despite this corporation maybe having killed Karen Silkwood, their opinion on docudrama etiquette was, as Harris shows, supported by many leading film writers.) Not only did All the President’s Men prove a pivotal precedent for docudrama, but it also pivoted some of the anti-establishment tendencies of the Hollywood Renaissance. Prior to 1976, Hoffman was known for alienated, insurgent films like Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, and Lenny; Redford’s characters had challenged the system in films like The Candidate and Three Days of the Condor. However, within four years after the soberer All the President’s Men, Hoffman and Redford had each transitioned to films that were less about fighting and resistance and more about families and repression; they spearheaded the consecutive Best Pictures Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People. First Hoffman and Redford brought down Nixon; then, to some degree, they brought down the Hollywood Renaissance.
All the President’s Men was released in April 1976 and earned good money all that summer, the $8 million film finishing with about $70 million and four Oscars. I began this episode with the 1972 Kit-Kat Club vs. Corleone Oscars, so maybe it makes sense to end with one of the most notorious races among Oscar fans, in which somehow Rocky won Best Picture over Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men. There was a 2015 Hollywood Reporter poll of Academy members who said that in retrospect, All the President’s Men should have beaten Rocky. I’m a little surprised Taxi Driver didn’t win that poll; to me, that’s the masterpiece that might have been a little too violent or edgy for voters of the time. I can see how Network and All the President’s Men might have canceled each other out; yes, I know their takes on the news business are about 180 degrees from each other, but they probably split the vote of the news-obsessed section of voters. I also think All the President’s Men might have had a better chance for the Best Picture Oscar had it waited for December, like Rocky did, but the election was in early November, and Redford wanted all of America to see his film before that. I somehow suspect that the election loss of Gerald Ford, who had pardoned Nixon, was all the victory Redford had hoped for.
In 1975, Harold Ramis was downhearted at not having been hired for the first class of Saturday Night Live…which is why Ivan Reitman reasoned Ramis was ready to help realize the first-ever feature film under the Lampoon banner and pitch it to his pals now performing on SNL. Ramis and Reitman reconnoitered with Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons and Lampoon writers Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, who had already lengthily, uh, lampooned the college experience. Everyone working on what became Animal House was an entitled white guy, a problem reflected in a script that featured a lot of rapey humor, plainly post-Exorcist projectile vomiting, and Black people mostly “represented” by an altogether awkward and almost racist scene. And so, studios weren’t any more stimulated than most of the cast of Saturday Night Live, despite the five male leads having been tailored to Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and John Belushi, only the latter of whom lasted as loyal to Ramis and liking playing Bluto.
Reitman and Simmons thought to stir up stars and/or studios by employing a name director, but everyone said no except the very non-name John Landis, who had somehow parlayed his very, very low-budget independent film Schlock into an appearance on The Tonight Show, leading to Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers hiring Landis to direct their debut digest of sketch comedies, The Kentucky Fried Movie. Landis claims that his key contribution to Animal House was giving the story a conflict between the good frat and the bad frat, but his actual key contribution was getting the movie made at all by saving money with unknowns except Belushi and Donald Sutherland, the latter of whom Landis met when Landis was a lowly flunky and babysitter of Kiefer on Donald’s 1970 film Kelly’s Heroes. On Animal House, Sutherland was paid more than anyone else in the cast, namely $50,000 for two days of filming; Sutherland could have signed for less and sought a percentage, but he assumed the film would fail, a decision Sutherland says lost him $14 million.
All during summer 1977, young male teens lined up around the block to see Star Wars a second or tenth time, causing studio executives to consider for the first time trying to attract a young male demographic, or consider for the first time saying the word “demographic.” After many, many negotiations, after The Kentucky Fried Movie was released in August 1977 to decent business, after Belushi and Sutherland signed on, Universal committed a bare-bones $3 million that September, which turned out to be entirely terrible timing. Reitman and Simmons and Landis needed a real college, and every campus had just reconvened; they hoped for more members of SNL, and the cast had all just begun Season 3, except Chase who was shooting his lead debut in Foul Play. Reitman and Landis might have waited a year for everyone in the cast to look even less college-age, but there was no way to know how hip SNL would still be by 1978 or if Universal would still be interested. Almost every college passed on the tacky, crass, crude script, but the President of the University of Oregon had been a senior admin at Berkeley when that school passed on providing places for The Graduate, and he made sure not to twice make the same mistake. U of O didn’t stand for Optimal for Belushi, who kept his SNL schedule by flying into Eugene every week for Monday through Wednesday and returning to New York every Thursday through Saturday. This added up to fewer takes for Blutarsky and more trusting the untested talent.
Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, National Lampoon’s Animal House begins with two people walking at night through a campus that, in this case, we are told is Faber College in 1962. The two men enter the prestigious Omega fraternity, introduce themselves as Kroger and Dorfman, get called a “wimp and a blimp” by a snooty blonde, and end up escorted by effete Greg Marmalard to the ethnic and handicapped students, understating their status as unwanted outsiders. Kroger and Dorfman are better disposed toward the dilapidated, disheveled Delta frat, where Bluto sprays them with the keg tap, mannequins crash through windows, “Louie Louie” resounds loudly, Kroger meets a neck-playing D-Day, and Dorfman’s tie is mocked by the frat’s leaders, Otter and Boon. When Marmalard conspires with commandante-like College Dean Vernon Wormer to enact discipline on disordered Delta, the Dean designates Delta with “double secret probation.” Boon’s girlfriend Katy wants him to shape up while Delta rechristens Kroger and Dorfman as “Pinto” and “Flounder” as they pledge allegiance to the frat. At a college military exercise, a totalitarian Niedermeyer taunts Pinto and Flounder which tips Boon and Otter to launch golf balls until Niedermeyer’s horse Trooper takes off toting Niedermeyer behind him. Professor Dave Jennings listlessly lectures on Paradise Lost and later lights up a joint with Pinto, Katy and Boon, telling them he’s only teaching while trying to complete a tome he’s been tinkering on for four-and-a-half years. Now neck-braced Niedermeyer forces Flounder to fall and do push-ups in horse dung, causing D-Day and Bluto to help Flounder retaliate by leading that horse not to water but to the Dean’s office. At the cafeteria, Otter hits on Mandy, the Omegas gather to confront him, and offensive Bluto plops down his tray full of carbs. Bluto fills his mouth with a matzoh ball, punches it, splatters the preppies, says “I’m a zit!”, gets chased, and bellows, “Food fight!” After an unsuccessful date, Greg takes Mandy home to her sorority, where Bluto hoists and scales a ladder, somehow stays unseen while ogling an oddly underwear-optional pillow fight and in the next window, Mandy undressing, and falls backwards onto the grass with pleasure. Bluto and D-Day dumpster-dive and dig up an exam that turns out to be the wrong exam, leading to what a Delta-visiting Dean Vernon reveals as Faber’s worst-ever grades, so “one more slip-up, one more mistake, and this fraternity of yours has had it at Faber.” The boys react with Bluto bellowing “toga, toga, toga, toga” which Boon later tells Katy does NOT mean orgy. The frat brothers shoplift at a supermarket where Otter hits on an older woman and Pinto hits on a younger one, both of whom turn up at the toga party where the film’s only featured black people play “Shout” to the shimmying of the sheet-wearers. As music sweetens the sarcasm, Otter and Pinto retreat to rooms with their romantic partners, although Pinto’s playmate falls asleep before anything happens and he leaves her in a shopping cart outside the house of her father the mayor. With new pressure on Dean Wormer, he and Omega convene a sort of mock trial of Delta, which Otter mocks with a sort of preening, pedantic panegyric that fails to free the frat. Delta is disbanded right down to the removal of livestock and alcohol, but Otter has been reading local periodicals and recommends a road trip. At Emily Dickinson College, Otter oscillates over to Emily Dickinson Hall and lies that he was engaged to be engaged to a “Fawn Liebowitz,” getting Fawn’s former roommate to offer him, well, anything, even a date and three friends for his friends. The eight become very nervous in an all-African-American club where the same “Shout” singers sing on stage and soon the racist, buffoonish boys bounce into the car where Otter is on top of the obligating roommate. The boys drive off, stranding the women, as Boon finds Katy sleeping with Professor Dave. Dean Wormer receives Delta’s dire grades, delightfully directs the Deltas into his office, and dumps them from Faber with phrases like “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” At the disconsolate, disenfranchised Delta house, Bluto attempts a rousing “when the going gets tough” speech which fails…then works as Bluto says “Let’s do it!!!!!” Pinto reunites with his party date, lies with her on a football field, and admits lying to her that he wasn’t a virgin which leads her to admit lying about her age: she’s actually 13. The final scene is the annual homecoming parade that anoints Dean Wormer as the parade marshal just before the Deltas, led by D-Day dangerously driving a cake-shaped float that says “Eat Me,” cause chaos throughout the parade as freeze-frames reveal the students’ farcical futures.
The final minutes of Animal House remind us of the film’s debt to George Lucas’s American Graffiti, another almost all-white-male soundtrack-dependent nostalgia-fest set in 1962. Animal House almost plays as a sequel to American Graffiti, but Animal House is more (chrono)logically a sequel to a film set in high school in 1958, Grease, that was 1978’s #1 film. Animal House was 1978’s #2 film; Superman was #3. In a sense, all three films owed something to American Graffiti and America’s then #1 and #2 shows, “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days,” for showing the profits that period could produce.
Animal House was highly praised by the likes of Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Sun-Times, whose critic, Roger Ebert, gave it four out of four stars; some of these writers may have reconsidered these reviews in retrospect. Speaking of retrospect, Rolling Stone later praised its “anarchical, biting, and brilliantly infantile non-stop hedonism” and “the collegiate id come to life, lashing out against order (the dean, military, stuffed-shirt types) while luxuriating in booze, sex, and rock’n’roll” from toga to topless, from four-letter words to food fights.
Let me make it clear one more time for the cheap seats. National Lampoon’s Animal House is not one of the 200 greatest films Hollywood ever made. However, it is easily one of the 100 or maybe even the 50 most important. With all due respect to John Waters’ little-seen 70s films, Animal House basically created the gross-out “raunch” genre, and Hollywood rushed to imitate it with puerile R-rated comedies that were sometimes called sexcapades or sexploitation, with more sophomoric morons ogling bosomy ornaments in movies like Porky’s, Hardbodies, Spring Break, Zapped, and then, twisting the formula to appeal to females, films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Revenge of the Nerds, The Sure Thing, and the hallowed John Hughes oeuvre. Raunch retreated in the AIDS-paranoid late 80s and early 90s, but roared back in the late 90s via ribald rapscallions like Adam Sandler, the Farrelly Brothers, Todd Browning, and Judd Apatow, all of whose admirable mansions can be traced to the architecture of Animal House.
Paramount Pictures provided Bert Schneider a $3 million budget if Schneider would personally cover any overages, a deal for Days of Heaven that Schneider and Terrence Malick would later regard as a deal for Years of Hell. Malick’s first and foremost find was the cinematographer who had composed contemporary Francois Truffaut films so colorfully, Nestor Almendros. After Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon became celebrated amongst filmmakers for being filmed in candlelight and framed based on William Hogarth paintings, Malick and Almendros studied certain silents as well as paintings by Johannes Vermeer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth. Malick’s audacious plan was to one-up Kubrick by filming most, or at least half, of Days of Heaven during the magic hour, that period when sepia light casts long shadows in the half-hour after sunrise and the half-hour before sunset. As production gathered in the ghost town of Whiskey Gap, Alberta during the late summer of ’76, actors and crew members were often asked to wait around all day or all night for the right light. If that wasn’t enough, Almendros was losing his eyesight and relying upon his high-contrast glasses for assessing his assistants’ 1976-quality Polaroids of the set-ups. If that wasn’t enough, Almendros, a citizen of Spain, was unable to join a union of Canada or the United States, wasn’t actually allowed to handle the cameras, and was instead forced to direct assistants how and what to shoot. If that wasn’t enough, Almendros and Malick repeatedly insisted on natural lighting, again and again turning off lights and light crew to the point of leaving the production. Malick hated the dailies, and as Peter Biskind put it in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Malick “decided to toss the script, go Leo Tolstoy instead of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wide instead of deep [and] shoot miles of film with the hope of solving the problems in the editing room.”
The shoot went so deeply into autumn that magic hour grew dimmer and Almendros had to depart for a preceding commitment to Francois Truffaut, and somehow Schneider seduced the superlative cinematographer Haskell Wexler, fresh off the set of Bound for Glory, where Wexler’s work with the first feature-film-fitted Steadicam would win Wexler his second Academy Award. In Whiskey Gap, Wexler wound up shooting more of Days of Heaven than Almendros had, at least according to Wexler’s stopwatch. Wexler wasn’t expecting his Academy Award to be used against him, but during post-production, Schneider wheedled Wexler as an award-winner to let Almendros have what would likely be, and indeed was, an Oscar, while Wexler settled for a credit that said “additional photography.” As for solving problems in the editing room, Malick took, uh, two protracted years, long enough for the director of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Richard Brooks, to see the footage of brand-new film actor Richard Gere, cast him, film him, and release Looking for Mr. Goodbar in October 1977 while Malick was still editing Days of Heaven, Bert Schneider was re-re-mortgaging his house, and Animal House was being shot in Oregon. Finally, finally, Malick compressed his epic into a tight ninety minutes by bridging moments with Ennio Morricone’s music and Linda Manz’s voice-over, but the movie’s premiere in September 1978 was much too late for Malick, Schneider, or Paramount to emerge from this thing unscathed.
Days of Heaven opens with credits on sepia photos of pre-World War I America. At a Chicago steel mill, manual laborer Bill argues inaudibly with, then decks, his bowler-bedecked boss and bolts from the mill. Bill’s sister Linda narrates about hell and heaven as she and Bill and Bill’s girlfriend Abby ride the top of a train all the way to the Texas panhandle, where they see an overseer soliciting seasonal “sackers” to reap sheared wheat for a landowning farmer whose name we never learn. Although this isn’t The Night of the Hunter, we watch workers “bringing in the sheaves” in long, languorous, lemon-lit tableaus as the farmer eyes and eventually chatters with Abby. Bill believes he hears a doctor diagnose the farmer with a lone year to live as Linda laconically narrates that because we only have one life to live, it ought to be nice. As the harvest concludes, the farmer asks Abby if she’d like to abide there and make the same money, and her subsequent creek conversation with Bill clarifies that they’re lovers pretending to be siblings. As the sackers sing, swing, and strum music around a final-night bonfire, Abby informs the Farmer she’ll stay if her brother and sister can remain as well. In a heart-breakingly beautiful wide pan shot, a blonde worker cries, waves goodbye to Linda, and boards a departing train with dozens of other sackers. As the Farmer’s intentions get clearer, Abby and Bill have a cutting, clandestine conversation where Bill asserts his abhorrence and acceptance of the situation because the farmer will soon be dead and in a couple of years it won’t matter how they acted. The farmer and Abby are married in a pastoral ceremony as Bill meanders around the farmer’s ornate Queen Anne house that he means to someday manage. Linda voice-overs that the filthy rich have it figured out as she, Bill, and Abby frolic on the farmer’s wheat-filled acres. Abby sneaks off with Bill to the farmer’s suspicions, but to her he only expresses his love and care, even when his credible overseer calls Abby and Bill a couple of con men. Linda narrates that the farmer never sickened as predicted. Out quail-hunting, Bill almost blasts buckshot at the Farmer, but when they return home to discuss it, they are interrupted by arriving airplanes bearing alluring circus performers much to Linda’s pleasure over a weekslong period. The farmer confronts Abby about her absorbing affection for Bill, leading to her confronting Bill, leading to Bill accusing Abby of loving the farmer, leading to Bill leaving “just like that.” After months of pastoral splendor, Bill returns, locusts descend upon the crops, and Abby, Bill, Linda, the farmer, and dozens of hired bums burn the bugs in a series of sumptuous shots. The farmer confronts Abby as a liar and approaches Bill with intent to kill, causing Bill to shank the farmer’s chest and run, remindful of Bill’s behavior in the film’s first scene. After Bill tells Abby they have to go, Linda soon narrates about her, Abby and Bill’s bold bohemian boat life on and off a skiff. However, the overseer corrals the local constables who locate the parked skiff, leading to a crazy cat-and-mouse chase that concludes with cops shooting Bill dead. Abby dresses like a lady, drops off Linda at an orphanage, and drags herself onto a train of soldiers presumably shipping off to war. The long-lost lachrymose blonde worker sneaks Linda out of the orphanage and, in one final twilight shot, the two of them walk down an empty train track as Linda voice-overs, “This girl, she didn’t know where she was going or what she was gonna do. She didn’t have no money on her. Maybe she’d meet up with a character. I was hoping things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.”
I think we should all be grateful that Paramount-funded a magic-hour-heavy film in the 1970s, because any 21st-century studio film’s lighting is too likely to have been recalibrated. Days of Heaven is a rarefied, rapturous experience redolent of an Andrew Wyeth art gallery come to life. Yet it also misses several chances to be weightier; Linda’s narration suggests getting all the people together and the Farmer reads of Bill’s activism in Chicago, but those are almost the only mentions of a world beyond the four leads. Days of Heaven has lingered like a lissome Liebfraumilch, for example in 2011, when pre-eminent film author David Thomson asked “Is Days of Heaven the most beautiful film ever made?” However, in 1978, Thomson and his fellow critics weren’t exactly rushing to put Days of Heaven on their Top 10 lists. Like 1978 audiences, they were more likely to favor Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, a fantasy-comedy that came out three months before Days of Heaven, finished as the year’s fifth-highest grossing film, and did Days of Heaven no favors of heavenly providence. The director of that year’s The Deer Hunter saw this situation and decided that America needed another auteur-driven original (not book-based) competitive-men love-triangle set in scenic frontier America near the turn of the century with the very different title of Heaven’s Gate. That film caused United Artists to declare bankruptcy and, per most histories, ended the Hollywood Renaissance, but the hellish mishaps around Days of Heaven had already halted the careers of one of its greatest producers, Bert Schneider, who only had one more imdb credit, and Terrence Malick, who went into something like exile for 20 years.
At University of Southern California in the early 70s under the tutelage of filmmakers like Irvin Kershner, Dan O’Bannon collaborated with John Carpenter and Ron Cobb on a sci-fi comedy called Dark Star, which O’Bannon wanted remade as a horror movie with astronauts. O’Bannon moved to Paris for a while to work on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, where he learned of the work of Swiss artist H.R. Geeger, and later said “I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.” O’Bannon was in fact inspired by innumerable stories, later saying “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” including some whom the studio eventually settled with out of court. During the Gerald Ford presidency, O’Bannon’s most valuable ally on Alien was his co-screenwriter Ron Shusett, who conceived of an alien leaving its seed in a crew member only to have the young alien pop out of it, and who, with O’Bannon, pitched the script as “Jaws in space”…only to watch as no studio bit.
O’Bannon and Shusett were about to sign a deal to make Alien with Roger Corman’s company when they got connected with Brandywine, a production team with a deal with 20th Century Fox, then kicking itself for giving a blank check to the wunderkind director of American Graffiti because he was squandering it on some space opera called Star Wars…which came out and soon surpassed Jaws as history’s most successful movie. O’Bannon, Shusett, and Brandywine didn’t even have to pitch Alien as “Jaws meets Star Wars” because, as O’Bannon put it, Fox “wanted to follow through fast, and the only spaceship script they had sitting on their desk was Alien.” However, O’Bannon had always pitched Alien as though he would direct it and got perplexed when Fox offered the job to Brandywine’s more experienced Walter Hill, who didn’t want the job. O’Bannon went from perplexed to vexed when Fox next suggested several C-listers before Brandywine branched out to Ridley Scott, who drafted detailed storyboards and designs for spacesuits and spaceships that saluted 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. Scott certainly benefitted from those films’ Anglo-American alliances and both having been made in the U.K., because Fox didn’t think it strange to shoot Alien on the same sets and hire a British director. In fact, Fox loved Scott’s storyboards so much that it doubled the budget, morphing this Alien to A-list-ien level.
O’Bannon introduced H.R. Giger’s work to Scott and the production hurriedly hired him. Giger, Scott, O’Bannon, Shusett, and the Brandywine producing team all agreed that in comparison with too much sleek, antiseptic, pristine science-fiction, Star Wars’ “used future” aesthetic represented a leap forward as well as an opportunity to reflect years of erotic or risqué art around science-fiction. If Star Wars was determined to be PG, Alien was determined to be R, and that dovetailed with O’Bannon and Shusett’s themes of defilement, degradation, and desecration. Furthermore, the script embraced androgyny – the alien and the humans weren’t assigned genders – and Giger and Ron Cobb’s and Scott’s designs followed suit, with creatures and crevasses and contraptions that looked and even dripped like penises, vaginas, or parts in-between. In another aspect, Alien flipped Star Trek’s script: instead of seven clean-cut adventurers who were probably looking for trouble, here were seven workers hoping not to get screwed by their company. (In 1978, the year of Convoy and Every Which Way But Loose, one Fox executive called the Alien cast “truckers in space.”) The cast’s only under-40-year-olds were the two women, both about 30, one of whom, in her first major film role, role modeled new strength and tenacity for women in horror and science-fiction.
Alien opens with ominous credits in space and a title card telling us that the commercial towing vehicle “Nostromo” is returning 20 million tons of ore to Earth. The seven crew members – first Kane, then Captain Dallas, Ripley, Lambert, Ash, Brett and Parker – come out of hibernation and discuss “the bonus situation” at their ship’s common table. The crew calls their craft Mother, and Mother makes Dallas aware of a mysterious transmission that may indicate alien life, something that Dallas tells the crew they must stop and investigate or forfeit all of their pay. Despite Parker’s protests, Dallas steers Nostromo onto a moon, sustains damage, and instructs Brett and Parker to fix said damage. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert slip on spacesuits, search the signal-sending area, soldier into a gorgeously androgynous, long-abandoned spaceship, and somehow lose contact with Ripley on the Nostromo. Kane comes upon a chamber full of dinosaur-egg-sized, uh, eggs, approaches one that seems to flower its top, peers into its postules, and pulls back as a porcupine-sized alien pops out of the egg. Back at Nostromo, Dallas reports a creature must be removed from Kane’s face and requires the hatch be opened, but Ripley refuses because of quarantine protocol…that Ash violates by letting them in. While four crew members watch from behind a window, Ash and Dallas attempt to remove the creature from the face of the unconscious Kane, but its acidic blood is so corrosive that it melts through three floors of Nostromo before the crew can cut it off. While Ash runs tests on both bodies, Ripley boldly confronts him about his baldly dangerous protocol violations. After time passes, Dallas, Ash, and Ripley enter the infirmary to find Kane’s face alien-free, Ripley gets jump-scared by the dying slimy yellow face-hugger, and Ash insists over Ripley’s objections that they transport its corpse to our world. When Ripley confronts Dallas over his capitulation, Dallas carps that he only craves home, and soon Nostromo soars off of this moon. Kane awakens and whoops it up with his workmates during one ultimate meal before hibernation, but then Kane collapses on the common table as an arm-sized alien alarmingly comes out of his chest in a moment now canonized as the “chestburster scene.” Ash keeps Parker from killing the alien as it skitters into the cooling ducts. Dallas asks his team if anyone wants to say anything, and no one does, as Dallas delivers Kane’s dead body into space. Brett goes looking for the ship’s cat – here, Jonesy, Jonesy – and comes upon the now raptor-sized alien, who kills Brett while Jonesy watches. At a crew meeting, Dallas commands them to cordon off the ducts, create flame-throwers, and contrive to corral the alien into space. Dallas enters Mother’s octagonal, thousand-points-of-lighty control center and types “What are my chances?” to which Mother replies “Unable to compute.” Armed with a flamethrower, Dallas creeps carefully across a cramped corridor until the alien appears and annihilates him. When Lambert contends they must take their chances in the shuttle, Ripley counters that it can’t hold four and they must continue with Dallas’ plan. Ripley enters Mother’s command center, overrides security, and learns that the company has prioritized organism recovery over human occupants. Appearing from nowhere, Ash reflects on this until Ripley roughs him up and reveals Ash to be a robot…who roundhouses Ripley and almost asphyxiates her when Parker appears and pulverizes Ash with receptacles. Ash’s severed robot head, covered in white goo, refuses to ascertain how to assassinate the alien. After Ash compliments the creature’s purity and perfection, Ripley punches out this Ash-hole and proceeds with Lambert’s shuttle plan. We only get a few minutes to enjoy the first horror movie to leave three non-white-males as the final three survivors, because, with its pointy-teethed, drooly-smiley mouth coming out of its other pointy-teethed, drooly-smiley mouth, the alien kills Lambert and Parker. Ripley takes too much time to collect the cat and initiate Nostromo’s self-destruct sequence, at one point saying “Mother!” Finally, Ripley rigs and rides off in the shuttle to watch as Nostromo explodes not once, not twice, but three times, the third leaving a 2001 stargate-ish after-burn. Ripley relaxes until realizing that the alien, while crippled, has stowed aboard her shuttle, and she shivers as she shimmies into a spacesuit. Ripley gasses out the room and the alien lunges; Ripley opens the airlock and the alien clings; Ripley hits it with a harpoon and the alien uses the tether to pull itself to the engine exhaust; Ripley fires the engine and finally fries this fiendish infiltrator. The final shot seems to salute 2001’s star-child as Ripley and Jonesy settle into an oval-windowed, beatific hibernation just before dissolving into space credits.
In Gallardo and Smith’s book Alien Woman, they write, “Ripley’s confrontation with, and final destruction of, the Alien, the object of desire of the military-industrial complex, becomes the major theme of the film (and the series), and thereby gives voice to the contemporary feminist goal of saving humanity from the destructive impulses of the patriarchy.”
20th Century Fox promoted Alien everywhere in summer of 1979 with an ominously dark cracking egg and the immortal tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Alien received reasonable-if-not-rapturous reviews and became a runaway hit. Cobb and Giger’s biomechanical designs, in which men run around erotically lethal designs of what David Cronenberg deemed “new flesh,” represent relentless, even rancid transgression between man, machine, and monster from another world. Alien obviously made possible its own feminist sequels and the career of Sigourney Weaver, but it also became the first referent for R-rated science-fiction as well as the apotheosis of so-called “body horror,” in which the horror contaminates you, gestates inside you, probably transforms you, and busts out – in the case of Alien, through a forcible impregnation and a bursting forth of a penis-like object sporting a vagina dentata. O’Bannon may have ripped off everyone to make Alien, but now everyone just rips off Alien.
“Never tell me the odds.”
Sequels to great successes were almost impossible to get right, and the only one George Lucas knew of, The Godfather Part II, wound up a financial disappointment for himself, his fraternal friend Francis Coppola, and Paramount. Plus, Star Wars had meant four years of salary wars with Fox, an experience Lucas promised himself he would never revisit. As unprecedented profits piled up throughout 1977, though, Fox threw up signs it was ready to make almost any sequel deal. Lucas would get final cut, start production by January 1979, premiere the film in May 1980, finance 80% of the sequel himself, and therefore earn 80% of all merchandise profits and 80% of box office over $100 million. Lucas thus contravened decades of Hollywood wisdom about never spending your own money and real profit would now require cinema’s most successful sequel. When Lucas set up a company for his sequel called the Chapter II company, several wags saw Lucas’ roman numeral 2 and scoffed that we’d soon be seeing Chapter 11.
Well, the company kept its name but the movie didn’t. Dealing with Fox was one thing, but for Lucas, the Dark Side was Forcing himself to write and rewrite and rewrite as he did to create from scratch the intricate universe of Star Wars; having never quite told the story he really wanted, a sequel just might support smoother adventures on screen and off as Lucas sloughed off the screenwriting. In November 1977, Lucas happily hired Leigh Brackett, legendarily the Queen of the Space Opera, the expert of novelistic interplanetary romance, and Howard Hawks’ most hallowed writer. Lucas and Brackett together developed snowy Hoth, froggy Yoda, a cloudy city, an Emperor pulling Darth Vader’s strings, and Han, Leia, and Luke in a love triangle like Rhett, Scarlett, and Ashley, respectively. Brackett wrote all this into a draft where Luke has a non-Leia sister and non-Vader father, the latter of whom we meet as a ghost, and left it to Lucas just before we lost her to cancer on March 18, 1978. Seeing it in writing, Lucas knew what he wanted to change, and he wrote as backstory what would become forestory in a film 27 years later: Anakin was Ben’s brilliant student swayed by a Sithian pre-Emperor to the dark side, a new name of Vader, and a new job of Jedi-hunter causing Ben to hide Luke on Tatooine. With all this backstory, Lucas began calling the script Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. As I told you during the A-list podcasts, that summer Lawrence Kasdan used Steven Spielberg’s office to finish a script for Spielberg and Lucas that would be called Raiders of the Lost Ark, and as soon as he finished, Lucas foisted upon him Episode V to fix. One question was whether they could really afford an open-ended “ending” implying an eventual Episode VI; ultimately, Lucas decided to trust the future.
After losing his Star Wars team to other projects, George Lucas had to re-create both Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic, which he envisioned as provide pioneering special effects for not only Empire but all F/X-heavy films. Thus Lucas felt too busy to write or direct his Episode V, but he also liked giving jobs to hard-working people he liked, and he liked his USC professor Irvin Kershner who had recently made Raid at Entebbe and The Eyes of Laura Mars. Together, Kershner, Kasdan, and Lucas worked out the kinks of the script throughout 1978, planning to shoot about 60 scenes in 100 minutes. The Empire Strikes Back was filmed over most of 1979 in Norway and Elstree Studios in the U.K. after the facility recovered from a fire during the making of The Shining. (The Shining has no onscreen flames; The Empire Strikes Back has plenty.) Lucas, Kasdan, and Kershner kept secret the twist about Luke’s real father from everyone else right up until the day they filmed the scene, when they told only Mark Hamill, who claims to have kept the secret through opening night, even from his wife.
The Empire Strikes Back begins with familiar titles and a spacey, starry scrawl telling us this is Episode Five and that despite the Death Star’s destruction, Imperial forces are following the fleet-footed rebels through the galaxy’s far reaches. On the snow planet Hoth, Luke Skywalker controls a sort of polar-raptor beast called a tauntaun, combs the snow for a mysterious meteorite, calls in his frustration, and gets clocked by a yeti-like wampa. At the rebel base, Han Solo and Princess Leia argue over why she cares that he has to leave…until Han learns that Luke is missing and rides his own tauntaun after his friend. Luke hangs by his feet in the wampa’s cave, sees his light saber lying in the snow, uses the Force to, uh, force the device into his fingers, cuts himself down, cleaves off the wampa’s arm, and crawls out into the snow. Luke sees an illusion of long-dead Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to travel to Dagobah and train with Yoda just before Han and his Tauntaun turn up, but when the Tauntaun dies and is gone, Han slices him like a prawn to keep Luke balmy until rebel ravens rescue them both. At base, Luke reheats in a water tank, re-emerges to hear more bickering between Leia and Han, and receives a kiss from Leia to prove to Han how horribly he apprehends women. The rebels make out that the mystery meteor is an Empire monitor machine, Darth Vader uses the Force to kill a clumsy commander, and Leia assembles her aviators for an all-out assault on the arriving army of AT-AT walkers, something like skyscraper-sized, silver-metal elephants. Launching loose cables, Luke and the rebels bring down the AT-ATs but lose the base to the invasive Vader and the Empire, leading to the rebels disbanding in different directions. Luke and robot R2D2 fly their X-Wing Fighter to Dagobah while Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C3PO fly the Millennium Falcon away from Imperial Tie Fighters to where C3PO warns Han of the odds of surviving an asteroid field and Han barks “Never tell me the odds.” We see the exposed, desiccated back of Darth Vader’s head before he clicks down his helmet, orders his helpmates to keep hunting rebels, and chats with an Emperor in a holo-convo that later versions will really really retcon. Landed inside an asteroid, Han works on his ship’s hyperdrive and Leia, who calls him a scoundrel as he kisses her and C3PO cuts in on this caustic couple. Suspicious life forms cause Han to launch the Falcon before it’s fully fixed and the Falcon just barely flies out of the mouth of a suspension-bridge-sized eyeless space worm that, as it abates back into its asteroid, achieves tribute to the cartoon Pinocchio, the film Alien and the novel Dune at the same time. Luke lands on swampy, soupy Dagobah, libels the small green creature who greets Luke and his droid, learns from Ben’s disembodied voice that this is actually Yoda, and implores the old master to train him as a Jedi. Yoda eventually rides Luke like Luke rode the blizzard lizard and, uh, forces Buddhist wisdom upon Luke like “Size matters not” and “Anger, fear, aggression: the dark side of the Force are they” and “Do or do not. There is no try.” The Imperial Fleet catches up to the Millennium Falcon, shoots at it, watches it pull a 180 and shoot straight at the star destroyer, and then…somehow loses it as Vader’s latest lieutenant steels himself to lose his life. Luke tells Yoda “You ask the impossible,” Yoda levitates Luke’s X-wing out of the swamp, Luke says “I don’t believe it,” and Yoda says “That is why you fail.” Han somehow slips the Falcon onto an outcropping of the star destroyer, and when the ship releases its cargo, the rebels, as Leia puts it, “float away with the other garbage”…except that bounty hunter Boba Fett boldly follows Solo solo all the way to the Cloud City of Bespin, administered by Han’s old frenemy Lando Calrissian. Yoda and Obi-Wan’s ghost try to discourage Luke from leaving to help Han and Leia before he’s done with training, but after he and R2D2 leave anyway, Obi-Wan mutters that boy is our last hope and Yoda responds, “No, there is another.” While Lando’s people are fixing Han’s ship, Lando announces a deal that will keep the Empire out of Bespin forever and delivers Han and Leia straight to a waiting Darth Vader who was brought to Bespin by Boba Fett. Chewbacca stares at C3PO’s distended helmet in a Hamlet-esque moment before fixing his voice, strapping the droid’s parts to his back, and reuniting with the imprisoned Han and Leia as they all yell at Lando about being betrayed. Vader wants Bespin’s primitive carbon-freezing machine to deliver Luke to the Emperor unharmed, and so he tests it on Han Solo, who gives Leia what may be a final kiss, prompting her to say “I love you” and him to reply “I know” before he freezes, alive, into a carbon slab that Vader gives to Boba Fett to give to Jabba the Hutt. Luke arrives and fights Vader in a somewhat epic light-saber battle as Lando, switching sides again, shoots at stormtroopers as he helps Leia, C3PO, R2D2, and Chewbacca escape in the Millennium Falcon. Vader’s saber severs Skywalker’s right hand in the midst of a lecture about releasing anger, and when Luke says Obi-Wan said Darth killed Luke’s father, Vader says, “No, I am your father.” Instead of dealing with that, Luke jumps hundreds of feet into a trash chute, falls out of the Cloud City, clings to a sort of antenna, and apparently communicates Leia telepathically who turns around the Falcon and picks up Luke. As the Empire bears down on the Falcon, Vader abuses Luke through telepathy and at the last minute R2D2 manages to fix the hyperdrive and the Falcon warps away. As our heroes rejoin the rebel fleet, Luke acquires a new prosthetic hand that can wave goodbye to Lando and Chewbacca as they take the Falcon to find Han.
Charles Champlin at the L.A. Times wrote, “What can you say about The Empire Strikes Back that has not already been said about the Acropolis, the cotton gin, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, and Star Wars?” I will say that everyone did exceptional work on The Empire Strikes Back, but John Williams deserves special praise for the Imperial March, which gave the film a sort of zero-g gravitas. As Sheerly Avni put it, “it was lively, warm, and funny, but it was also in many ways a much darker movie.” According to Avni, Lucas consulted psychiatrists to make sure his film wasn’t too dark for kids. FollowingStar Wars with The Empire Strikes Back did for the Star Wars franchise what following Snow White with Pinocchio did for Disney: establishing the possibility of painting in darker colors.
The Empire Strikes Back became the highest-grossing film of 1980. Star Wars was no single-film fluke on the level of Gone with the Wind, and in terms of franchises, could maybe only be compared to the popularity and ubiquity of the mid-1960s 007 films. Yet James Bond hadn’t spawned a universe of merchandise, of toys, clothes, mugs, bedding, and dozens of other products indicative of audiences’ love for Jedis and the Force. Together, Jaws, Rocky, and Star Wars had turned Hollywood toward optimism and myths, but The Empire Strikes Back layered on top of all that the possibility of a tech-savvy sequel that could be the #1 movie of a year.
Even if IMDb fans hadn’t voted The Empire Strikes Back as one of their 20 favorite films, it would arguably belong on this list because of its role in promoting FX shop Industrial Light and Magic. While most of Star Wars’ effects concerned aircraft in dark space, Empire required wire-work for day-lit X-wing fighters plus swamp telepathy plus massive AT-AT machines and more. After Empire, ILM set the industry standard for FX and, indeed, occupied George Lucas’ interest more than his own movies for the better part of the next two decades.
Critics and audiences were not kind to Barry Lyndon and Kubrick reacted to its pedestrian reception by researching, uh, revenge. After two future-set films and one 18th-century film, of all the films Kubrick might have made in the late 1970s – that’s literally all films – Kubrick wanted some kind of contemporary horror story that would express his rage, scandalize the critics, and make a fortune. Since Kubrick became America’s most famous respected director, The Shiningwas the first time he followed conventional wisdom instead of spearhead his own muse. He did this by one, hiring America’s most famous respected star, Jack Nicholson; two, extensively using Garrett Brown’s brand-new invention of the Steadicam; three, choosing child-possession-style horror after The Exorcist had made it hot; four, importuning the cast and crew to view David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead. Kubrick would have been unlikely to make up a film from his own head like Eraserhead; Kubrick preferred literary adaptations, and after the success of Brian DePalma’s film Carriethat DePalma adapted from a book by 30-year-old Stephen King, King was the hottest author of transgressive (not Agatha Christie-like) horror. However, King came to curse the contract that gave Kubrick carte blanche, not realizing how many liberties Stanley would allow he and his screenwriter, Diane Johnson. Some of these changes included diminished interiority and increased initial insanity for the Jack Torrance character, the near-elimination of a crucial scrapbook and water boiler, the reduction of Wendy to a horrifically harpying harridan, and the excision of enchanted exigencies like a weirdly bewitched wasps’ nest, a fire hose that becomes a snake, a self-motivated elevator, a croquet court from which Jack procures his killing club, and a trickily ambulatory topiary. The latter was replaced by a hedge maze that helped serve as a handy thematic symbol of both enclosure and escape, a doubling effect consonant with much of the rest of the film.
I’ll stop right here to recommend Thomas Allen Nelson’s book “Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze” which analyzes all of Kubrick’s films but, as its title suggests, pays particular attention to the paths and permutations of the Overlook Hotel, with more insight than anything in the film Room 237. Interest in the shindigs surrounding The Shining has barely slackened in the decades since its release, and so it’s not hard to find information about the stultifying yearlong shoot, Stanley Kubrick’s abuse of Shelley Duvall, the Steadicam innovations, the studio fire, and DP John Alcott’s stated desire to conjure horror without cobwebs, shadows, skeletons, jump scares, or many of the genre’s other trappings…as it happens, long slow dissolves between scenes probably do a lot of the same work. The Overlook Hotel was set in rural Colorado, filmed as a long-shot exterior near Mount Hood, Oregon, based on the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, California, and mostly filmed in Elstree Studios in England. Enthusiasts will tell you so, so, much more; I will leave that to them.
The Shining begins with a very smoothly tilting, lilting crane camera following a yellow Volkswagen bug driving past a large lake into the high Rocky Mountains. Jack Torrance arrives at the sensational Overlook Hotel to secure the job of winter caretaker and sit with its manager, Stuart Ullman, who signals Jack that snowed roads will make the hotel impassable and impossible for skiers, oh and confidentially, a caretaker called Grady got so agitated and isolated that he chopped his family into pieces and killed himself. In a hotel in Boulder, Colorado, Danny Torrance’s finger, whom Danny calls Tony, warns Danny that the Overlook Hotel spells trouble for all three Torrances. Wendy Torrance watches a doctor investigate Danny and find nothing physically wrong, though Wendy later confesses to the doctor that Jack injured their son and later gave up drinking. Inside the VW bug, ascending again, Danny declares knowing the Donner Party, and Jack tells Wendy to trust tales of survival from television. Stuart Ullman walks Jack and Wendy around the grounds of the hotel, highlighting its extensive hedge maze, bodacious ballroom, and the fact that the hotel was built in 1909 on top of an Indian burial ground. The family meets African-American cook Dick Halloran, who takes Danny for ice cream, calls him “Doc,” names his own and Danny’s telepathic, past- and future-telling ability “shining,” expresses surprise that Danny refuses to use it, and warns Danny that the hotel has its own “shine” and he must avoid Room 237. A title card says “One month later” and we see Wendy wheeling a cart of breakfast to a recumbent Jack while Danny recumbently rides an awesome Big Wheel around the hotel halls, contrasting the noise of rugs and floor. When Danny isn’t playing with his mother in the hedge maze, he sees visions of rivers of blood pouring out of the hotel elevators and two sisters in twin dresses holding hands that become bloody axe-murdered girls. Wendy interrupts Jack while he types, causing Jack to freak out at him; Danny interrupts Jack while he stares out the window, causing Jack to say “You know I would never do anything to hurt you, don’t you?” The next day, Wendy finds Jack waking at his typewriter deeply disturbed that he dreamed of dismembering Danny and Wendy, when Danny enters with bruises that Wendy blame on Jack’s abuse. Jack enters the ballroom (called The Gold Room), sees a ghostly bartender, orders a drink, cites “white man’s burden, Lloyd, white man’s burden,” and explains the injury he once caused Danny as “a momentary loss of muscular coordination.” Wendy enters unnerved that Danny said someone in Room 237 strangled him, causing Jack to enter the tasteful mid-century room, see a naked woman come out of the bath, kiss her, watch her transform into an old desiccated woman, run from the room, return to Wendy, lie to her that he saw nothing, claim that Danny caused his own injuries, and blow up at her when she suggests they leave the hotel. In assonant close-ups, Danny seems to sense their session as does Dick Halloran in an awesomely decorated Miami hotel room that he leaves to unsuccessfully phone the hotel. Jack broods aggressively through an anteroom now strewn with balloons, enters the Gold Room now full of apparent 1920s partygoers, and chats in the cherry-red bathroom with a chilling Grady who tells him Jack’s son has a “great talent” but is bringing an outsider cook into the situation, using a word that rhymes with trigger, and that Jack, like him, must “correct” his wife and child. Not unlike Regan in The Exorcist, Danny tells Wendy that he, Danny, is no longer there. We watch Dick on an airplane, in an airport, in a chain-enabled car, and in a snowcat trying to return to the hotel. A baseball-bat-bearing Wendy discovers that Jack has only been typing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” thousands of times, gets into a psychotic conversation with Jack about his obligations, swats him as he lunges at her, and drags his unconscious body into the kitchen freezer. When Jack requests to be released, Wendy replies she’ll get a doctor, prompting Jack to promise a prominent surprise when Wendy sees the radio and the snowcat, which she soon finds disabled. Napping, Jack hears Grady’s hectoring voice outside the freezer, begs for one more chance, and smiles to hear the latch turning. Danny, as “Tony,” repeats and repeats “redrum,” uses Wendy’s lipstick to write it on a door, and wakes Wendy, who sees the wet word in a mirror spelling “murder,” hears Jack’s axe breaking down her door, picks up a long knife, scrambles into and locks the bathroom, pushes Danny out the window down a snow slide, but fails to similarly squeeze herself. Swinging an axe, Jack breaks open enough of a gap in the bathroom door for him to put his face through it, say “Heeere’s Johnny!”, and reach for the doorknob causing Wendy to cut his hand as they both hear Dick’s snowcat arriving. In the wide hotel halls, Dick and Jack each try to find the other first and Jack jumps out and kills Dick with one axe swing to his chest, causing an assonant close-up of Danny screaming that Jack somehow hears. Axe-brandishing Jack follows Danny’s snowy footprints into the hedge maze and runs around yelling “Danny!” until Danny retraces his footsteps and covers over his side path retreat while knife-wielding Wendy witnesses the hotel’s ghosts and the elevator belching buckets of blood. Danny runs out of the hedge maze, reunites with Wendy, takes off with her in the snowcat, and leaves Jack to become a frozen figure of frustration. The film finishes by closing up on one of the lobby’s scores of framed photos, a July 4th ball from 1921 crowded with people including, apparently, Jack Torrance.
Maybe Jack should never have left the hotel; until the denouement, we never saw Jack leave it during the film’s previous two hours. Or maybe Jack never did leave it, and he’s frozen not only in the hedge maze but forever in a photo from 1921. Speaking of doubles, Jack seems to do his own Shining on two occasions, one speaking to Lloyd and one speaking to Delbert Grady, both times maybe only looking in a mirror. A mirror enables Jack’s revelation of some kind of double madness in room 237; the same mirror views Jack’s heart-to-heart chat with Danny as well as Wendy’s discovery that her son wrote REDRUM which, backwards, reads MURDER. Although Ullman calls the Grady daughters ten and eight years old, Kubrick cast twins, and Ullman bids farewell to two sets of departing young women, at least two of whom Jack seems attracted to. The film contains four bathrooms, two associated with the Torrances and murder (in Boulder during Tony’s warning, and later during “Here’s Johnny!”), and two, the hotel’s very red and very green, with Jack’s descent into delirium and derangement. Jack throws a tennis ball that lands where he will later kill Dick and, on Danny’s toy-car-strewn section of a maze-like rug, a second tennis ball beckons the boy into Room 237, about as big in the frame as the yellow VW bug Jack was driving in the film’s second shot. This is all a long way of saying that The Shining stimulates several associative responses, that the hotel and the film are each a hedge maze that upon satisfactory assembly seems to suggest more potential interpretations and intentional or unintentional inconsistencies.
Some people feel that the film is about the genocide of Native Americans, as evidenced by the Ahwahnee-like décor, the blood from the elevators, the line about the “white man’s burden,” and the final shot’s date, the Fourth of July, an infamously unindependent day for indigenous. African-American Dick Halloran is killed on a Navajo rug (in the novel, he’s only wounded, not on any rug), and the film may be commenting on, or conversely, employing, the racism that sidelines the film’s only reliable narrator to oblivion. Or perhaps Dick, using his Shining, knew he would, and wanted to, join the hotel’s ghosts? In an interview about the film, Kubrick said, “Ghost stories appeal to our craving for immortality. If you can be afraid of a ghost, then you have to believe that a ghost may exist. And if a ghost exists then oblivion might not be the end.” Maybe, but I’m going to give the final word to Stephen King, who countered that Kubrick “looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones. That was the basic flaw: because he couldn’t believe, he couldn’t make the film believable to others. What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining is that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little.”
After the relatively low-budget Halloween and The Fog, an Alien-ish project represented upgrades for all concerned, including John Carpenter’s crack cinematographer Dean Cundey, who lobbied for and acquired an anamorphic-lens format to increase the negative space around the characters.
John Carpenter rendezvoused with scripter Bill Lancaster, reread John Campbell’s 1938 source novella Who Goes There?, and realized Hawks’ version never really went there with the monster and other details. Carpenter appreciated Lancaster’s ardent adaptations but also his alterations, like the fibrillation chest chomp, the blood-test scene, and the removal of two-thirds of the novel’s characters. Filming would take place in Alaska, but the characters would move from that place to Antarctica, to make the film less about The Cold War and more about any existential peril, e.g. the environmental emergency. Antarctica was also somewhere Hollywood hadn’t really been, a sort of mini-United Nations of constrained cooperation that the characters continue when they cautiously help the Norwegians. Antarctica-based research stations in the 1970s were apparently all-male, that being The Thing’s excuse for its all-male cast three years after the more integrated cast of Alien. As with Alien, the Thing is never assigned a gender and may be read as a disruptive threat to broader masculinity. Alien cast such a large shadow that Lancaster made sure never to include the word “alien” in the script, only “thing,” although Universal’s promotion department couldn’t resist invoking it, changing the tagline from “Man is the warmest place to hide” to “The ultimate in alien terror.”
The first half-hour of Alien moves slowly, while The Thing represents a pivot to horror that hits the ground running…in fact, the film begins with the dog/Thing running. In a post-Alien, post-Jaws landscape, Lancaster elected to keep the monster hidden for as long as possible, but makeup supervisor Rob Bottin somehow convinced Carpenter to come out with it quicker. Carpenter basically committed to Bottin carte blanche, as long as The Thing didn’t wind up as a guy in a suit, an old B-movie cliché Carpenter sought to eschew. Rob Bottin’s work on The Thing, in which internal organs of immense mammals seem to morph human faces into funhouse mirror forms, is a major reason for the Thing’s inclusion on this list. Legend has it that Bottin worked every single day, often into the night, for more than a year on the creature effects of The Thing, eventually ending up in a hospital with exhaustion. Along with Stan Winston, who helped Bottin with the dogs, and Bottin’s mentor Rick Baker, who may have composed his masterpiece the year before with An American Werewolf in London, Bottin established the pre-eminent possibilities of practical prosthetics. Baker, Bottin, and Winston’s wild work is entirely obsolete in our current 21st century that relies upon computer graphics, and so I pause here for a gnarled, contorted salute.
A spaceship hurtles toward the bottom of Earth as titles rip through the screen saying The Thing. A title card tells us Antarctica, Winter 1982 and cuts to a helicopter hunting a huskie running through a frozen, mountain-lined landscape until arriving at the multi-building compound of National Science Institute Station 4. Inside, shaggy pilot MacReady loses at computer chess, opens up the panel, pours his drink into the computer, shorts it, calls the film’s only female voice a “cheating bitch,” and hears the helicopter and runs outside with the station’s other men. After the hunters leave their helicopter, one fumbles his grenade and blows himself up while the other fires at the huskie, shoots a man’s leg, yells in Norwegian about this dangerous dog, and gets shot and killed by Garry. We get to know the rough-and-ready researchers at Station 4, including Windows, whose radio hasn’t reached anyone for weeks, and Doctor Copper, who barely convinces MacReady to fly an hour in foggy weather to Norway’s station. There, Mac and Copper find the bloody remains of eight researchers as well as a refrigerator-sized block of ice that once held…perhaps a fossil? Mac and Copper return to their American camp with videos and a pile of contiguous entrails and stretched-out human remains for their biologist, Blair, to vivisect. Clark locks the orphaned huskie in the caged kennel with other dogs, who sense trouble and bark as their visitor sprouts red tentacles, cracks open its own head, and reveals another rancid red snake-like head. The men enter the hall next to the kennel cage and shoot bullets and throw flame on the creature until it dies. Blair calls it a life-form that perfectly imitates other life-forms to “digest them, absorb them, and in the process, shape its own cells to imitate them.” Clued by one of the Norwegian videos, Mac and Garry fly to a crater six miles beyond the Norwegian station where they find a convention-center-wide spaceship that had been buried for at least 100,000 years. Blair enters data in a computer, which gives him a 75% chance that someone else at camp is infected, as well as a projection that the entire world population will be infected 27,000 hours after the organism “reaches civilized areas.” When someone suggests burning all remains, someone else says that the twisted human remains will lead to someone getting a Nobel Prize, but what they lead to is something morphing into Bennings but with a barky voice. Realizing that the alien survives in remains and makes itself into perfect imitations, they burn Ben-Things and every other bloody entrail in a bonfire. They find the copter and radio made useless and contemplate waiting months for rescue, but Mac says by then it will have killed each of them and turned into them. Doc Copper suggests they compare stored blood with every apparent human’s blood as a test, but they find that the stored blood has all been drained, casting suspicion on the only two with access, Garry and Copper. As guns point around, to Childs’ chary chagrin, MacReady takes charge of all the weaponry and tells his audio journal that the Thing tends to rip through clothes. When Nauls finds a ripped piece of Mac’s clothing he locks him outside in the freezing cold, but Mac breaks in through a supply window and uses a flamethrower held to a batch of dynamite fuses to warn the others he’ll blow everyone up if he has to. Norris has an apparent heart attack, but when Copper tries to defibrillate Norris, his chest becomes a large mouth and bites off Copper’s arms as its creepy distended Norris head rises by entrails above what was Norris. Mac incinerates most of it, although its head breaks off and grows legs that he also incinerates. This gives Mac the idea to tie up most of the remaining men (to Childs’ chary chagrin), draw blood from them into individuated dishes, and poke each pool of blood with a hot needle to see if it shows Norris’s skull’s survival skills. Even as most of the men dismiss the experiment, Mac touches his hot needle to Palmer’s pool of blood which screams and morphs while the Thing pops out of Palmer and attacks and eats Windows before Mac fixes his flamethrower and burns down all atrocious alien attachments. Now that everyone alive other than Blair has been proven human, Mac, Garry and Nauls search for Blair and find, underground, a mini-UFO jerry-rigged from parts they had needed. Mac tells the other two the Thing would rather freeze and wait for rescue to begin this process all over again, and they decide to demolish all of the damn station to destroy the Thing. As Mac sets explosives, a Frank Herbert-like creature rolls under the ice between him, emerges as an enormous composite monster, and hears “yeah, fuck you too” as MacReady blows it up along with the rest of the base. Mac settles in to freeze to death as Childs appears saying he was lost looking for Blair. Neither trusts the other, neither can do much about it, and both know that they’ll be lucky if their sacrifice comes close to having its intended world-saving effect.
Several endings were imagined and filmed, with Universal having already agreed that Carpenter had final cut. The novella ended with the thing dead yet some concern that birds might take it to the mainland. The 1951 film had ended less ambiguously with the monster dead but “keep watching the skies!” One of Lancaster’s endings, which wasn’t filmed, had both MacReady and Childs turning into the Thing and rescued in spring, about to infect everything. Another ending that was filmed, as a call-back to the blood-test scene, had MacReady alone and rescued and blood-tested and proven uninfected. Carpenter filmed it but hated it for being cheesy. Universal head Sidney Sheinberg told Carpenter, “Think about how the audience will react if we see The Thing die with a giant orchestra playing,” and sent his best editor, Verna Fields, to post-production to possibly piece together or shoot a new ending. Carpenter and Fields ultimately presented test audiences two versions, one that we now know, the other where MacReady is alone without Childs. Because the latter tested slightly better, Carpenter gave it his green-light, but just as the prints were about to go to theaters, he changed his mind and restored the version we know with Childs. Apparently, Sheinberg attached the sound of a monster dying, but I don’t hear that in what I see now, and even if I did I’m not sure if it would mean a dying monster or a surviving one.
I like the current ending because I feel it echoes the American situation well. I see a black man and a white man who clearly do not trust each other but are also barely clinging to the current status quo because it’s probably their best chance at a sacrifice for a greater good. Sheinberg thought this ending was too nihilist; I would argue it reflects an earned hopefulness. I do think Ennio Morricone’s synthesizer-based score is sublime enough to suit the ending Sheinberg suggested, but I’m glad I never had to see it.
Kurt Russell has said that The Thing is ultimately about paranoia, and he’s not wrong, although I would say it’s just as much about the temptations of toxic masculinity in the face of a non-masculine threat; Kurt Russell’s character forms the fewest attachments and for a while seems to perform best, but he winds up alone or at best in a very tentative alliance. His character rejects the computer’s initial checkmate and that spirit animates the film: we believe Mac will light up the dynamite if the others get too close, we believe he will burn this village to save it or even not to save it, a sort of post-Vietnam bitterness that didn’t exist at the time of Campbell’s novella. The creature’s gender dysphoria may also be related to the blood-test scene and its associations with early-80s paranoia about AIDS. Apparently, the actors kept asking if a mutated imitation would know after it was taken over. I feel this was intentionally left vague for maximal symbolism, but the film might have been stronger with a clearer choice there.
The Thing famously did very, very poorly with critics and at the box office. We often hear that it was negatively compared with contemporary release E.T. The Extra Terrestrial; we less often hear that both films came from the same studio, giving Universal little incentive to keep backing the one horse when the other got galloping so gloriously. This was an ironic turn of events, because Universal was known as the scary creature-feature studio, and had only reluctantly signed onto E.T. after Spielberg failed to convince other studios to make what they saw as a Disney movie. (Disney itself was impossible because after his friend George Lucas made a mint on merchandise, Spielberg wanted all of E.T.’s intellectual property rights, a non-starter for Disney then, now, and in all notional futures.) But it’s not just E.T.: after The Empire Strikes Back struck gold in 1980 with a promise of more striking in 1983, every studio had fantastic fantasy ideas for 1982, including Blade Runner, Star Trek II, Mad Max 2, Tron, and Poltergeist. So The Thing got lost in the shuffle, and Carpenter lost his multi-film contract with Universal.
The Thing is on this B-list because it is now often considered history’s greatest B-movie. More than almost any critically reviled film, The Thing was revived and re-venerated by later generations and is now acclaimed alongside Alien as themajor influence on R-rated science-fiction/horror.
After directing Alien, Ridley Scott might have gone back to a project like The Duellists, but studios always want you to simultaneously repeat and change your big success. In this case, studios and Scott were on the same page, and Scott first signed on to the long-gestating Dune before deciding that production would take at least two years of, or off, his life. Scott left Dune and looked around for any latent “used-future” project was almost ready to be directed, and he found two: one called Blade Runner that he mostly liked for its title and one called “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” that he mostly liked for its noirish story. Warner Bros. wound up paying for the rights to both, putting the Blade Runner title on Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples’ sterling adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel. Michael Deeley went above and beyond the work of most producers, fending off creditors and finding funding even after the film’s original production company pulled out just before principal photography.
It’s strange to think that Ridley Scott was attracted to Blade Runner as a quick job, because the production design feels anything but rushed. One inspiration was Metropolis; another was the French comic magazine Metal Hurlant; another was the work of Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia; another was “Hong Kong on a very bad day.” Syd Mead served as the concept artist, Lawrence G. Paull became the production designer, David Snyder was the art director, and Warners somehow got Douglas Trumbull, of 2001 and Close Encounters, to supervise the special effects. The novel’s author, Philip K. Dick, felt that the 20-minute reel he saw was true to his vision; he died at the age of 53 four months before the film was released. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Blade Runner, considering its many sets, suggestions, and significances, is that the flying-car-noir-industrial-cyberpunk-steampunk-street-market-televised-billboard-corporate-pyramid-behemoth-ism feels all part of one dystopia that is both out of our world and way, way, too close to it.
Blade Runner begins with title cards explaining that in this world, blade runners track down and “retire” replicants, a euphemism for extermination. Another title card says “Los Angeles November 2019.” cutting to what looks like a city-wide power plant at night, cutting to an interview room where a blade runner, Holden, empathy-tests a suspected replicant who shoots him dead. In the rainy downtown, a skyscraper-sized TV presents a geisha happily eating a pill and a loudspeaker extols the benefits of off-world colonies as we meet Rick Deckard getting and gorging on street food as he is grabbed by Gaff for a new gig. In a hovercar, Gaff drives Deckard away from the street food district and into the top of an octagonal police building. There, Chief Bryant explains that four replicants killed 23 people off-world on their way to Earth to infiltrate the Tyrell corporation, which is why Holden empathy-tested new employees and, as Bryant and Deckard examine on video, got shot by one named Leon. On a yellow day, Deckard drives his hovercar to the magisterially pyramidic Tyrell Corporation and meets its director, Eldon Tyrell, who demands that Deckard empathy-test his secretary Rachel so that Tyrell can see the workings of this specialized exam. After 100 questions and Rachel’s departure, Deckard declares to Tyrell that twenty questions are normally enough but Rachel’s a replicant who doesn’t know she’s a replicant, and Tyrell tells him that’s because she’s been given false memories to make her, as their motto has it, “more human than human.” While Deckard searches Leon’s flat, Leon meets his blond, athletic leader replicant, Roy Batty, who along with Leon chews out Chew, the Chinese designer of synthetic eyes, who reluctantly reveals they can reckon with Tyrell through J.F. Sebastian. Rachel waits at Deckard’s apartment to prove she’s no replicant only to hear Deckard recite several of her implanted memories, causing her to cry and leave. Pretty replicant Pris pretends to be homeless and hungry and hornswoggles J.F. Sebastian. Deckard’s home computer analyzes a clue from Leon’s flat and brings up a photo of Zhora, whom Bryant had IDd as a replicant, and Deckard traces her to a Chinatown strip club. Deckard puts on a geek voice and pretends to be inspecting her dressing room for pervert-poked peepholes, but she gets wise to him, knocks him out, runs, and gets chased by Deckard through the teeming masses of Chinatown until Deckard shoots her dead, dispatching the woman through a wall-sized window. Deckard departs the demented scene only to be deflected by Leon, who asks him how long he has to live, hears “four years,” tells Deckard “more than you” and “wake up, time to die” before he, Leon, is surprisingly shot and killed by Rachel. After the two return to his flat, Deckard makes clear he’s less interested in hunting and snaring her and more interested in sneaking in a snog while lit and darkened by Venetian blinds. Pris presents her puss in whiteface with raccoon eyes to an admiring Sebastian as Roy sneaks up behind Sebastian, admires his toys including a chess set and an imprisoned gagged man, and tells Pris that they’re the only two remaining renegade replicants. Learning that Sebastian has Methuselah syndrome, a condition of premature aging that prevents him emigrating to colonies, Roy colloquializes on their common interests as they conspire to take the funicular to Tyrell’s office. Arriving in Tyrell’s sumptuous saffron-colored suite, Sebastian says he brought a “friend,” Roy, who demands longer life only to be told that brighter lights burn shorter. Roy Batty kisses and then and kills Tyrell by shoving his thumbs through Tyrell’s eyes. Gun drawn, Deckard arrives at Sebastian’s strobe-lit studio and stares at the many oddball tchotchkes…one of whom, Pris, comes to life, kicks Deckard to the wall, does backflips, strangles him with her legs…until Deckard shoots her and she epileptic-seizes to death. Roy arrives to cat-and-mouse Deckard through the noirish, steamy, rainy, pipey, blue broken building. Deckard leaps to another building but only catches and clings to an outcropping as Roy easily leaps over and lectures Deckard about living in fear like a slave. In front of a massive neon TDK sign, Deckard almost loses his grip and falls to his death but Roy hoists him up and tells him some amazing memories which “will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Gaff arrives and roars, re Rachel, “it’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” (Olmos has spoken of trying to use a somehow pan-ethnic accent for this film.) Back at his flat, Deckard sees a sleeping Rachel and one of Gaff’s origami unicorns. In the original theatrical release, Deckard drives them out of L.A. into a sunny mountain landscape looking like the lilting beginning of the Shining.
Scott hated the idea of a sunlit, postcard-ready ending even or especially while he was asking Stanley Kubrick to use outtakes from his opener of The Shining. I’m going to say something radical: I like that original ending. After two hours in that rainy, dark place, full of Vangelis’ appropriate but disquieting synthesizers, I like the idea that the audience and Deckard and Rachel have earned a sort of break.
Blade Runner is one of the films that comes closest to a cinematic version of the floating signifier, a term or sign that means so many things in so many different contexts that it may have lost the ability to mean any particular thing. However, I don’t quite feel that Blade Runner is a floating signifier, and I can give a few reasons.
Blade Runner is one of the very rare films that may be more important for what it inhibited than for what it influenced. As Mike Davis explained in his book “City of Quartz,” for Los Angeles’ urban planners in the 1980s, Blade Runner became an example of what not to do. Instead of the almost Eastern European brutalism that was then in vogue, urban architects became more concerned with whimsy and letting in light, leading to fanciful cafeterias with exposed pipes and the mainstreaming of innovations we now associate with the Pompidou museum and the work of Frank Gehry. The battle cry was Don’t Become Blade Runner, and the battle was won.
But then, what about the war? During the 21st century, more “Ridleyvilles” began to crop up all over the world. David Vetter wrote that ever since, “Critics have dubbed the Blade Runner aesthetic ‘Ridleyville’ – characterised by urban grit intertwined with extreme, high-tech modernity; a profusion of neon and huge video billboards; quasi-Asian design elements rubbing up against American commercial motifs.”
Commenting on Ridleyvilles, Hugh Davies wrote, ‘This visage is replete with dualities: East and West, technology and tradition, affluence and destitution, all connected in space and time.’
Wong Kin Yuen described Ridleyville as ‘A bewildering collage of signs and patterns with enough anarchic elements remaining (a small part of the market and old style shops) to create a sense of pastiche. Yet nothing unusual or uncanny is felt by the people who live there.’
Ridleyville survives as a mode and a method and a madness, whether avoided or embraced.
There are at least three books devoted to Blade Runner, and these trace the long shadows Blade Runner casts (ha ha) over other science fiction films. I could, like those books, list some of the many polls and sources that consider it the best science-fiction film; I could cite various video games and anime, cyberpunk, biopunk, and so-called future-noir. I read on something called sloth.org that the dialogue and music in Blade Runner has been sampled in music more than any other film of the 20th century. Hard to believe, but what a statistic. Floating signifier or not, Blade Runner is not getting lost like tears in the rain.
When Universal looked for someone to adapt and direct William Styron’s 1980 National Book Award-winning novel Sophie’s Choice, Pakula was almost a Sophist’s Choice as both a great director of vulnerable-yet-tough women and the descendent of Polish Jewish parents. Ironically, Pakula may have avoided a few hard choices when he decided to keep enough of the novel to make a 2 ½ hour film. One excellent choice was cinematographer Nestor Almendros, whom I discussed last podcast as one of the lead creatives on Days of Heaven. After that film earned him an Oscar and established his American career, he went on to excellent lenswork on many films including the Best Picture-winner Kramer vs. Kramer, where he met one Meryl Streep. Supposedly, Streep threw herself at Pakula, begging to be cast as the title character in Sophie’s Choice. If so, casting Streep was one of the smartest things anyone has been implored to do.
Sophie’s Choice begins with Stingo, voice-over-ing why he is moving from the post-World-War II South to become a writer, renting an apartment in Brooklyn from Yetta, receiving a neighborly welcome note from Nathan and Sophie, and recognizing his shaking chandelier as evidence of their passion. In the apartment stairwell, Nathan shoves Sophie, tells her to go back to Krakow, and slights Stingo’s surveillance and Southern accent. Separately, Sophie and Nathan return to Stingo’s flat to apologize, and that Sunday, the three dress up together and dance to records. Chatting, Stingo learns Sophie learned at least a half-dozen languages from her father, whom she calls a “learned man,” law professor, and laudable advocate for Jews. Through a montage of mid-century Coney Island rides and Stingo spying on the couple’s intimacy in and around their pink Queen Anne home that resembles the central houses in The Magnificent Ambersons, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Days of Heaven, Stingo narrates that, as Sophie predicted, the three of them became best friends. Stingo recounts Sophie’s recounting of the day she met Nathan in an American library after she fainted after a curator excoriated her for bad English. In flashback, Nathan takes Sophie back to his Brooklyn home and addresses her anemia with ample aliments, alcohol, and affection. To Stingo, Sophie confesses losing her parents and husband to war, stealing a ham for her mother and getting sent to Auschwitz, and attempting suicide while living in Sweden with postwar guilt. Nathan comes home from hard work at Pfizer to intense jealousy of Sophie and Stingo that subsides with Sophie’s supplications. In a culmination of their frequent admiration of writers like Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Wolfe, Nathan walks them to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, pours drinks, and announces Stingo’s ascension to that authorly association. Nathan comes home to Stingo and Sophie set to celebrate Nathan’s work with his favorite wine and a new watch, and Nathan drops the watch in his wine to honor “my disassociation from you, the coony chiropractic cunt of King’s county, and you, the dreary dregs of Dixie.” Jewish Nathan grills Catholic Sophie by reading the tattooed number on her arm, calling her “old lucky number 11379,” and demanding to know why she survived the concentration camps while so many Jews didn’t. After Sophie and Nathan separately flee, Stingo’s search takes him to a Dr. Blackstock who confounds Stingo with the information that contrary to Sophie’s story, her father loved Nazis and was only killed as part of a purge of professors. Stingo confronts Sophie, who explains that every day she loved and felt unworthy of her father until the day she came to hate him as she was typing up his speech about “the Jewish problem.” Sophie heard him recommend extermination, went to the Ghetto to stare at Jews, and riddled her speech with errors to the point where her father, after giving it, told Sophie her intelligence was “pulp.” Sophie flashes back to waving off her Warsaw wartime lover and his sister when they ask for help translating Gestapo documents and tell her of a Lebensborn program to transfer Aryan-appearing Polish kids to Germany; two weeks later, they’re slaughtered while she is shipped to Auschwitz with her son and daughter, the latter of whom is somehow selected for extermination. In color-desaturated Auschwitz, Sophie walks by a monstrous Block 25 that looks like the part of the opening of 8 ½ when the arms are all stuck out of the bus. Sophie becomes Commandante Hess’s secretary, Hess falls ill, Sophie revives him, Hess reveals his attraction to Sophie, Sophie begs that Hess transfer her son Jan into the Lebensborn program, and Sophie later learns that despite Hess’ promise, the transfer never happened. In the present, Nathan’s brother, a doctor, pulls aside Stingo to reveal that, contrary to what he says, Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic with a drug problem and a menial job at Pfizer who needs to be spied upon for his own health. In fin-de-siecle costumes next to lakeside lights, Nathan proposes to Sophie and keeps Stingo close. On another day, Stingo finds Sophie with a near-broken arm and they use Yetta’s pay phone to call Nathan who freaks out and fires a gun that spurs Sophie and Stingo to flee the flat. In a hotel, Stingo proposes to Sophie that they move to his family’s farm as husband and wife, because of the region’s traditionalism and also because he deeply loves her and she would make a great mother to their future kids. Sophie says she has never told anyone this, then flashes back to Auschwitz when an officer tells Sophie to choose which of her children will live and which will die. When she refuses to choose, she begins to lose both, causing her to let him take her daughter whose screams cut us, and Sophie, as a permanent scar. As Sophie and Stingo have sex, he narrates about her fulfilling his infinite fantasies and her pushing away grief and death, the past and the future. In the morning, he finds her goodbye note; in the afternoon, at Yetta’s, he finds her and Nathan together dead from cyanide to their heads. He reads aloud Emily Dickinson’s “Ample Make This Bed” and walks across the Brooklyn Bridge to a new dawn as the camera dissolves to one more close-up of Sophie as she looked when informing Stingo of her fateful, fatal choice.
Styron’s novel was controversial when it was published in 1979, and it became even more controversial upon the December 1982 release of the film version. Sophie’s Choice was considered by some critics, notably Alvin Rosenfeld, as a sort of universalizing reaction to the Holocaust, minimizing the Shoah’s specifically anti-Semitic character and re-situating it as a more general evil. Some consider the film version profane because it portrayed the Holocaust at all, folding it into a fictional narrative. The unprecedented, almost unimaginable success of the 1977 mini-series Roots – 85% of all American homes with televisions watched some or all of the series, and well over half watched most of it – led to many things including NBC’s documentary Holocaust, which removed some of the long-standing stigma surrounding visual representations of the Shoah. Sophie’s Choice is a more influential film than it may appear, because it was a studio breakthrough in presenting Auschwitz as part of a made-up narrative.
I consider Sophie’s Choice no more problematic than, say, Cabaret. In that play and film, often set in domestic spaces, we don’t know any of the three leads to be Jewish, but they seem empathetic to the Jewish plight. In Sophie’s Choice, Nathan is of course Jewish, and he often confronts Sophie about her possible complicity with Nazis. This might be Styron’s, or Pakula’s, way of working through issues raised by the narrative.
When I think of Sophie’s Choice on this list, I think of the final image, a hazy one of Streep as Sophie burning herself into Stingo’s memory, into the memory of Holocaust deniers and rememberers, into the memory of the list-makers that mostly ignore performances like Streep’s, into the memory of people of good conscience everywhere. There were women like Sophie; they existed. Working with Styron and Pakula, Streep made the world’s Sophies unhateable and unforgettable.
Pauline Kael claimed that Sophie’s actual choice between her kids is “garish rather than illuminating, and too particular to demonstrate anything general.” I’m not sure I agree; certainly I’ve heard people use “Sophie’s Choice” in vernacular somewhat like “Hobson’s Choice,” shorthand for an impossible decision. Granted, comparing oneself to Nazi victims isgarish, but I think Kael’s wrong to say it wasn’t generalized.
Sophie’s Choice was nominated for five Oscars, including one for Pakula’s script, and won one, Best Actress. Many people consider her performance one of the greatest pieces of acting ever committed to cinema. It’s hard to quantify the level of influence of Meryl Streep or what is often called her greatest portrayal; certainly, one would think that many actors would have studied it.
Sergio Leone read Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods in the mid-60s and met with the author after Grey saw and enjoyed the Dollars trilogy. However, after Coppola’s first two Godfather films and Bertolucci’s five-hour film 1900, Leone sought a certain scope, scale, and lead actor, that being Robert DeNiro. When Leone first approached DeNiro in 1975, DeNiro felt uncomfortable playing a rapist and a gangster so soon after playing Vito Corleone. For his part, Leone never felt comfortable with any other actor who could look 25 on camera. After winning his second Oscar in 1981, DeNiro felt ready for the role, and, as with The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull, DeNiro was very actively involved in choosing his castmates. DeNiro and Leone landed a laudable, even incredible American cast which was not quite as impressive as Leone had imagined: he had hoped for gangster-era stars like Henry Fonda, James Stewart, or James Cagney. The film pays direct homage to many classical-Hollywood crime films, including Little Caesar, Bullets or Ballots, Dead End, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, The Lady from Shanghai, Cry of the City, White Heat, The Big Heat, and The Killing. In many ways, Once Upon a Time in America is meant as an elegy to all of them, a looking back that’s less nostalgic and more hard-won knowledge. By 1981, producer Arnon Milchan managed to convince a considerably large consortium of investors that the return of Leone to epic territory was a very big deal, and actualized by far Leone’s largest budget as well as location shooting in Italy, France, and the United States which ran almost a year, from June 1982 to April 1983.
Leone well knew his film would be compared with The Godfather Part II, but Noodles isn’t exactly an American success story like Vito or Michael Corleone; he’s closer to Luca Brasi, or maybe Tom Hagen in exile. Still, Leone knew that his World War I-era Lower East Side squalor needed to look even more realistic than Coppola’s, and working with his usual crucial contributors, especially Delli Colli on camera and Carlo Simi on production design, I would argue that Leone accomplished this at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. I want to circle back to Godfather and Hollywood references after explaining the plot, like so:
Once Upon a Time in America begins with the distantly heard radio of Kate Bush singing “God Bless America” in a midcentury apartment as a blond woman discovers her sheet perforated in the shape of a man, turns to see thugs who ask her “where is he?”, resists, and is shot dead. The same thugs interrogate the bloody-faced Fat Moe with a chain and a weight bag who admits that he can be found at Chun Low’s Wayang Theater. In an opium den, we meet Noodles, recumbent, smoking opium, seeing a headline about three of his friends, flashing back through the sound of a ringing phone to police removing three disfigured corpses and to knowing his friends in a speakeasy. The thugs enter the theater which causes a Chinese man to retire to the back opium den and tip off Noodles to escape, which he does, returning to Fat Moe’s apartment and killing a thug who had circled back. Fat Moe tells Noodles that his girlfriend was already killed, and so Noodles takes a key, uses it to unlock a bus depot locker (where we now are in a jump cut), withdraws a suitcase, opens it to find nothing but papers, and buys the next bus ticket anywhere, to Buffalo. Noodles looks at the bus depot mural of Coney Island which transitions to a painting of “Love” and an aged Noodles, telling us we’re now in the 60s. Noodles returns to aged Moe because of a letter indicating the thugs have found him, and the two men realize the other never had a certain million dollars. Noodles says the suitcase was empty, making the money’s whereabouts a 35-year mystery. Noodles looks through Fat Moe’s peephole and flashes back to when he was using it as a street kid to spy on ballet-dancing Deborah, who compares him to a roach on his later approach. In a vividly realized Jewish Lower East Side of roughly 1919, teenage Noodles and his three friends, Patsy, Cockeye, and Dominic, commit petty crimes like burning a newspaper stand and robbing drunks. Noodles confronts another teen thief named Max, but they find a shared interest in foiling a police officer whom they find and photograph in flagrante with a minor named Peggy. In exchange for the plate, Max and Noodles negotiate the no-good cop paying for their virginity being lost to Peggy as well as the same blind eye this bozo gives to local boss Bugsy. On Pesach, Noodles follows Deborah to her now-empty store, chats, hears her poetry, kisses her, and gets interrupted by Max, who brings him into an alley to criticize him kissing Deborah when they might be stealing from empty stores. In that alley, Bugsy and his boys corner the two teens, beat the crap out of them for infringing on his territory, and leave a bloody-faced Noodles futilely begging Deborah to reopen the door. The five-kid gang set up a scheme to smuggle goods across the Hudson using sealed salt bags, and after it works like a charm, they put their profits in a shared suitcase, establish their gang fund, swear to give 50% of proceeds to the case, lock it in the bus depot locker we’ve seen, and swear to give the key to Deborah’s brother, straight arrow Fat Moe, who will know only to give it to them when they’re all together. Under an end of the Brooklyn Bridge, Bugsy finds them and shoots Dominic who says “I slipped” and dies in the arms of Noodles, who goes nuts, stabs Bugsy to death, stabs an intervening cop, and gets hauled off to prison. Back in the 60s, Noodles visits an elaborate crypt for Max, Patsy, and Cockeye, whose plaques reveal they died in 1933, next to a plaque that reveals Noodles paid for the crypt in 1967 and also holds…a key? Noodles takes the plaque’s key to a bus depot, unlocks its locker, and finds a suitcase with a million dollars and a note that this is an advance payment on his next job. Noodles walks the precious suitcase under a modern underpass as a Frisbee flies over his head to match cut to adult Max meeting Noodles coming out of jail and showing him their mortician car representing their successful shared bootlegging business which includes a young naked female “stiff” who comes to available life. At their speakeasy, Noodles meets with Peggy, Patsy, Cockeye, a new colonel named Frankie Minaldi, and even the successfully dancing Deborah, who upon Max’s “Hey Noodles,” says as she did 12 years before, “your mother’s calling.” On a bank job, their double agent, Carol, asks to be slapped and smacked around, and Noodles bends her over and hurts her. Out at the muddy riverbed, Max and Noodles suddenly betray Joe and his gang, and as Noodles drives them away he says if he’d known, he would have said no, because if Frankie can ask for Joe dead, soon they’ll be asked to betray each other. Gangsters torture union boss Jimmy Conway O’Donnell with gasoline and hoses but Max’s gang gets the guns and the jump on them, and they effect a successful trade. In an extended sequence, Danny Aiello plays Police Chief Aiello, sexist father of four girls and a newborn son who gets snatched from the local hospital by the gang including Noodles, who over the phone successfully threatens the Chief to remove his scabs and allow union strikers to resume their jobs. The gang realizes they scrambled the babies, joke about playing God, and reunite with and show all their penises to Carol, who chooses Max. Noodles rents an estuary’s entire extravagant restaurant for Deborah, who worries that he would lock her up and throw away the key and insists on leaving for Hollywood, and then, in maybe the most disturbing scene on this B-list, Noodles rapes Deborah in a backseat. Jimmy calls Noodles for help, an urban battle rages, the gang convenes in Jimmy’s hospital room, and Jimmy’s lieutenant offers them jobs as muscle for teamsters, an idea Max loves and Noodles hates and walks out on. With blonde girlfriends along, Max and Noodles vacation to Miami and learn Prohibition is ending, causing Max to suggest they rob the Federal Reserve, Noodles to answer that he’s crazy, and Max to throw a carapace in Noodles’ face and pace on the seashore. Back in New York, Carol privately asks Noodles to tip the cops to a minor offense rather than let Max attempt the suicide mission of attacking the Fed, and at the speakeasy’s big farewell-to-Prohibition party, Noodles slips into a room and calls police officer Halloran. In 1968, at the Bailey Foundation, Noodles visits the elderly Carol who says Max gave her the idea of calling the cops so that he could die in a hail of gunfire rather than die in an asylum like his father. Noodles meets Deborah in her dressing room, tells her she was right to pursue an acting career, asks about an invitation from Secretary Bailey, hears a teen knocking on Deborah’s door, opens it, and meets David, named after Noodles’ real name, looking like Max as he first met him. Noodles goes to Bailey’s party and goes into the back room where Max, now Bailey, confirms that he faked his death, stole his girl, let him live with guilt for 35 years, and now wants his old friend to exact revenge and kill him before the Teamsters do. However, Noodles says nobody owes nothing and nods out of the Bailey estate, though as he does, a strange garbage truck passes him grinding…just garbage? The film returns to Noodles’ first scene in the opium den, and the final shot, echoing one of Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West, shows Noodles from above, through lace, lying down and blithely grinning.
Once Upon a Time in America can be read as a sort of hidden history of Jews in America, not only in the obvious ways, but also in that Noodles’ friends die or go into hiding in 1933, the year Hitler comes to power, and only really take control of the past during 1967-68, after the events of the Six-Day War and the annexation of the Sinai. In this reading, the 30 year period that leads up to, lives, and then reflects on the Holocaust is denied, elided, ignored in favor of other glories. With its many filmic references, Once Upon a Time in America can also be apprehended as a hidden history of Hollywood gangster films, which started during the inchoate silent era, reached fruition in 1931, 1932, and 1933 with Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface, and then were “killed” by the Hays Code or at least forced to become more respectable for about 34 years, until Bonnie and Clyde came out in 1967 and the rules were ready to be remade again. As with The Public Enemy and The Godfather Part II in particular, Leone insists on the deprivation of the World War I years so that we know why these desperados were so, well, desperate. Setting aside the bookends of 1901 and 1941, The Godfather Part II mostly takes place in two eras, the 19teens and late 1950s; Once Upon a Time in America is remarkable for fluidly moving between three eras and spending about the same amount of time in each. We always know The Godfather Part II will end where it began, with Michael’s later Lake Tahoe choices, but Once Upon a Time in America is intentionally less linear, almost implying life is less an arrow from youth to old age and more a series of incidents, maybe even more of a floating signifier. The Godfather Part II asks us what we owe our ancestors and descendants; Once Upon a Time in America asks us the value of treasuring our youth, of living outside our best selves for 35 years.
One interviewer asked Sergio Leone if the ending meant that all of the 1960s segments were merely a vision or a fever dream of Noodles, perhaps his way of dealing with the guilt of raping, and Leone allowed that it was possible. Perhaps he said that after realizing his rape scenes went too far or didn’t really address rape’s after-effects.
After the excellent Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, Lynch may have seen Dune as his Spartacus, a way of proving he could create art calibrated to higher costs; well, Dune is no Spartacus. However, the production did introduce him to young American actor Kyle MacLachlan and Italian producer Dino DeLaurentiis, the latter of whom began his Hollywood career by firing John Carpenter off of Firestarter after the poor box office of The Thing. DeLaurentiis lost a lot on Dune (though not as much as Universal) and he might have treated Lynch as he did Carpenter, except that Firestarter started a certain fire for Dino, namely the North Carolina Film Corporation. Firestarter was filmed in North Carolina because its then-governor, Jim Hunt, felt that films increased economic activity, and with tax incentives and loans, DeLaurentiis soon converted a local warehouse into what Governor Hunt hoped would be Hollywood-in-Wilmington. However, DeLaurentiis needed product, and so he took a second look at a script that Lynch had been shopping since the late 1970s called Blue Velvet. DeLaurentiis certainly knew why every studio had passed on the difficult material, but maybe DeLaurentiis’ new brand could be more edgy, so he made Lynch an offer he couldn’t refuse: Lynch could have final cut on a 2-hour Blue Velvet as long as he kept the budget under $5 million, got a few names, and filmed and set his movie in North Carolina. In the mid-80s, studios weren’t investing in independent films as they had in the 70s or would do in the 90s; Lynch well knew that DeLaurentiis’ offer was likely his last chance to leverage Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Lynch met all of DeLaurentiis conditions except one, never clarifying that the film takes place in North Carolina, but that was just as well for Governor Hunt, who didn’t need to see his state associated with the seedy, seamy story.
Blue Velvet was filmed in Wilmington from August to November of 1985. Despite the efforts of Lynch and his producer Fred Caruso, locals gathered with picnic blankets and rugs to watch the night-time filming of a naked and apparently beaten Isabella Rossellini. This resulted in local police forbidding Lynch from filming in any more public areas of Wilmington. It also resulted in ICM Partners dropping Rossellini as a client and public prayers from her nuns at the Roman school where she’d been raised. The then 34-year-old daughter of Ingrid Bergman took all this in stride; after all, her mother had also scandalized the press when she was about the same age. When Lynch approached Rossellini in 1984, she had never been in an American film, though she was known from Lancome ads and certainly known to DeLaurentiis and his foreign investors. Rossellini helped to get Blue Velvet made along with its most established name, Dennis Hopper, who read the script and told Lynch “I’ve got to play Frank! I am Frank!” At the time, Hopper was on the outs in Hollywood, but that made him fit even better into Lynch’s aesthetic. Along with Dean Stockwell, Hopper was a known quantity from the 1950s, and the film was in many ways a twist on the 50s, showing the disguised sickness that was always there slinking surreptitiously through its suburban shadows.
Blue Velvet begins with credits over blue velvet curtains cutting to a conspicuously perfect suburbia, with roses blooming near bleached-white fenceposts, crossing guards hard at work, firefighters hardly working, and a man watering his lawn…who collapses of a stroke as the camera brings us into the beastly black beetles below the grassline. A billboard says Welcome to Lumberton as a radio encourages loggers to get out their chainsaws. College student Jeffrey Beaumont visits his dad in the hospital, finds a human ear in a grassy vacant lot, brings the ear to the office of police detective John Williams, watches people scourge the vacant lot, feels haunted by the image of the ant-ridden ear, visits Williams’ private house, leaves and sees, emerging from darkness to the sound of cicadas, the detective’s blonde, pink-clad teenage daughter Sandy, who walks with Jeffrey long enough to show him the apartment of a sultry singer who is a lead suspect. In a large American convertible, Jeffrey picks up Sandy outside her high school, gets noticed by catty girls, takes Sandy to Arlene’s Diner, and suggests a screwy scheme: he will pose as the building exterminator while Sandy distracts the dame at the door long enough for Jeffrey to jimmy a janky window. Singer Dorothy Vallens allows Jeffrey’s entry, but the knock at the door comes from a swarthy, suspicious man in a yellow coat, leaving Jeffrey only time to swipe a key. Jeffrey and Sandy see the singer’s nightclub act, in which Vallens belts “Blue Velvet,” but leave early for Jeffrey to try the key at her flat. Jeffrey gets in, Dorothy gets home early, Jeffrey gets in the closet and peers out the blinds, Dorothy gets into a phone argument, Jeffrey gets to making a noise, Dorothy gets a long knife and flings open the closet door, Jeffrey gets threatened with death, Dorothy gets his clothes off, Jeffrey gets head, and they both get interrupted by a knock at the door. Jeffrey watches from the closet as Frank Booth breathes from an oxygen tank, beats Dorothy, bleats “Don’t you fucking look at me!” and berates her with dry humping, humiliation, and a parting exhortation to stay alive for Van Gogh. With Frank gone, Jeffrey emerges to comfort Dorothy, who calls him Don and opens her blue velvet bathrobe to beckon Jeffrey to her breast. But then she asks to be hit, repelling Jeffrey, who dresses, detects her marriage certificate to Don, and departs. The next night, Jeffrey shares with Sandy his sentiments about this “strange world” and speculation that Frank sent Don’s ear to Dorothy as a threat, but warns her not to tell her father because he learned this illegally and she could get in trouble. Jeffrey asks why this world is so troubled and why it has men like Frank, and Sandy shares a dream about a dark world where robins return and restore light. Jeffrey knocks on Dorothy’s door, enters, and they kiss behind burgundy velvet curtains. Jeffrey picks up Sandy at high school again in view of her boyfriend Mike, takes her back to Arlene’s Diner, admits he loves learning what was once hidden, and explains how he stalked Frank to his apartment, saw him laughing with the once-yellow-coated man, and followed them to the bloody remains of what the police called a drug deal gone wrong. During love-making, Dorothy insists that Jeffrey hit her, and he reluctantly does; after, she says she knows the difference between right and wrong and she still has him inside her which helps her. As Jeffrey leaves her flat, Frank finds him and, along with his awkward associates, Frank abducts Jeffrey and Dorothy to the house of Ben, who has even more oddball goons. Frank commands “let tits see her kid,” leading Dorothy into another room, as well as “candy-colored clown they call the sandman,” leading to Ben lip-synching Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” which Frank loves, then stops in order to continue Dorothy and Jeffrey’s “joyride.” Deep at night, the crowded car stops near a lumber mill where Frank hits Dorothy, Jeffrey hits Frank, and Frank sucks oxygen, demands his goons bring Jeffrey out of the car, kisses Jeffrey, yells at Jeffrey, and beats the crap out of him while Dorothy wails and another woman dances to “In Dreams.” In the morning at the mill, Jeffrey awakens alone, walks home, calls Sandy, and brings her father photos of Frank with the “Yellow Man” and a third, mustachioed man. When Jeffrey picks up Sandy for a Friday date, he sees that the “Yellow Man” is Mr. Williams’ partner as Mr. Williams warns him “Don’t blow it.” At their date party, Sandy and Jeffrey slow dance, she says “I love you,” and he says “I love you too.” Driving home, a car is running them off of the road that Jeffrey believes is being driven by Frank, but when they arrive at Jeffrey’s house the driver turns out to be Mike, who is about to batter Jeffrey but gets bothered by a badly beaten, naked Dorothy appearing out of nowhere. As Jeffrey drives Dorothy and Sandy to the Williams house to get her an ambulance, Dorothy declares Jeffrey her “secret lover” and delights in his disease being inside her. As the ambulance arrives at the Williamses and assists out Dorothy, Sandy slaps Jeffrey for his betrayal, although later, on the phone, they do declare their ongoing affection. Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s flat to see the “Yellow Man” bleeding and somehow standing dead next to the ear-less apparent Don, and leaves…only to recognize Frank, in the fake mustache, coming up the building stairs to kill him. Jeffrey locks himself in Dorothy’s and uses the Yellow Man’s radio to call Williams for help, but then remembers that he’d seen a police radio in Frank’s car, and so he tells the device he’s hiding in Dorothy’s back bedroom and leaves the radio there. Frank busts in, fires off a lot of bullets and “you fuck”s, gets fooled, and finally gets shot by Jeffrey. When Jeffrey gets reunited with a faithful Sandy, they see a robin alighting on their window with a dead beetle in its mouth as the film cuts to Dorothy reuniting with her son amidst sentimentalized suburban splendor.
Blue Velvet is called neo-noir because Dorothy is considered a femme fatale, Frank is an amoral villain, and Jeffrey is a more moral hero who nonetheless entertains becoming less moral in order to have what Frank seems to have. The recurrent shots of Jeffrey looking through Venetian-blind-like slats seems to comment on noir and ourselves, curious and detached and maybe in the closet? In Jeffrey’s memory, the camera goes into the ear and only comes back out of Jeffrey’s healthy ear at the very end, perhaps suggesting that most of the movie is in Jeffrey’s head? Laura Mulvey and others have read the film as an Oedipal triangle with Frank as the abusive father, Dorothy as the abused mother, and Jeffrey as the son that loves the mother and kills the father.
No doubt, the film functions as comment on the false-front 50s, but I appreciate that it isn’t actually set in the 50s; if it is exposing rot, the rot also clearly belongs to the 80s. The 50s did bring us the movies Them! (about ants) and The Fly, and bugs are a major motif of Blue Velvet: right away, Lynch takes us below the grassline to see the beetles; a bug seems to attack Jeffrey’s father to begin the story; Sandy seems to emerge from cicadian rhythms; the ear is overrun with ants, recalling Salvador Dali paintings; one man is known by his yellow jacket; the robin proudly presents a pretty bug in the end; Frank uses a gas-mask that makes him resemble a bug; and of course, Jeffrey just happens to have a bug exterminator uniform in his trunk and successfully pretends to be one before he finally does, well, exterminate Frank.
Blue Velvet represents and establishes the Lynchian or Lynchesque world view, often described as askew, surreal, oddball, demented, off-kilter, dreamlike, or just weird. He was hardly the first, and I give credit to John Waters and Jonathan Demme and others, but Lynch certainly proved it could work at medium-scale. Lynch extended and expanded this style in other films as well as on the TV show “Twin Peaks,” and Lynch has been copied and imitated by way too many filmmakers to name, and besides, naming them might be rude.
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