Search This Blog


Monday, September 19, 2016

Answering fun film questions -- Liebster Award Edition!

If random but revealing observations from a movie fan will entertain you for fifteen minutes of your time, then please keep reading.  For anyone who is reading this I strongly encourage you to leave one or more comments in the comments section, and anyone who wishes, consider yourself tagged!
First, thank you!! to my new blogging friend Hamlette from Hamlette's Soliloquy for tagging me with the 'Liebster Award'.  This blogging award challenges me to answer 11 questions about my movie passions.  Alright, let's go!

1.  Is there a movie that has really yummy-looking food in it that you'd love to eat?
Well, I can eat anytime and anyplace, so there are very few movie meals that don't look good to me!  That said, I have to perhaps go with something obvious:  the meal in BABETTE'S FEAST (1987).  This is a lovely quiet Danish film about two unmarried sisters in a remote 19th century Danish village who take in a French expatriate down on her luck to be their servant. It turns out she is a gourmet chef and in the final scenes of the film, she prepares a meal that all the villagers will never forget.  The irony is that they have no idea what they're eating!
This is just the first course!
One of the most memorable scenes in the film for me was when a French opera singer comes to give lessons to one of the sisters in her younger years, and the two have a connection while singing Mozart's luscious duet 'La ci darem la mano' from Don Giovanni (in French).  The singer was portrayed by actual opera star Jean-Philippe Lafont. Below is the scene from the film .  I can remember when this film came out, rewinding and watching this scene over and over on my poor VHS tape.  
2.  What era do most of your favorite movies take place in?
Oh my gosh, this is a tough one, as my favorite films span many decades. If I think about those classic films that I recommend to people, probably more of them are set in the 1930s than any other single decade.  So much art deco loveliness, and class comedies, screwball comedies, and melodramas.  Think MY MAN GODFREY, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, UNION DEPOT.

3. What two actors/actresses have you always hoped would make a movie together, but didn't/haven't yet?
Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham in 'Downton Abbey' would give George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in ALL ABOUT EVE a run for his money in the snark department.  Both of these British actors dominated the big and small screen whenever they appeared and I would have loved to see them co-star in a film.

4.  If money, time, and supplies (and crafting ability) were not considerations, what movie character would you love to cosplay or dress up like for Halloween?
One rarely gets a chance to dress like a 18th century French queen, and so why not take the opportunity to be the center of attention by being Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette in the lavish 1938 production?  If as a bonus Ty Power becomes infatuated with you, I would probably never take that outfit off.
Wondering how much that headdress weighs!
5.  Have you ever cosplayed or dressed up like a movie or TV character for Halloween?  
OK, once in graduate school I dressed up as Winnie the Pooh.  (Yeah, OK, it's lame.)  Dressing up isn't really my thing, and because Halloween usually falls during the World Series I've been known to impersonate my favorite baseball player.  This year it might have to be David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, the Red Sox slugger who is retiring after this season.
Good excuse to post a Big Papi pic, right here.
6.  What movie would your family/friends be surprised to learn you truly enjoyed?
My family and friends have been trained to expect any number of varied film recommendations from me.  From Russian silent films to modern Westerns, I enjoy so many.  I'm not a huge fan of Action/Sci Fi blend pictures, so perhaps it might be a surprise that I enjoyed BLADE RUNNER.  Then again, it's been seen as a Western in disguise, young Harrison Ford is in it (woo!), and now it's considered a classic of sorts, so I suppose wouldn't be a complete surprise that I loved it.  I probably can cite many more films that others loved and I didn't (I sense a new topic for a blog post!).

7.  What's one book you hope no one ever makes into a film?
I think most any good book, in the hands of the right director and production, could a good movie make.  I think the question is more about what book do I love so much that I would hate to have my own imagining of the tale ruined by assigning a real production to it.  As a child I adored the 'Little House' books and hated how the TV series distorted that universe.  The illustrator, Garth Williams, was so good in capturing the mood of Ingalls Wilder's text, that I would have a hard time appreciating a film version even if the story was not altered.  That said, I might enjoy a biopic about Laura Ingalls Wilder, or her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, both of whom had very interesting lives.
Garth Williams' illustration of 'Pa' fiddling for his daughters Laura and Mary
in Little House in the Big Woods.
8.  Do you know the Wilhelm Scream when you hear it?  Google is my friend.  The Wilhelm Scream is new to me.  So, the answer to this question WAS: no.  I'm feeling a little sheepish here.  However, believe me, I'll be sensitized to this for ever and ever, you can bet on it.  In the comments section, please let me know what your most memorable 'Wilhelm Scream' is -- I will learn from you!

9.  When a character onscreen has to hold their breath, do you try to hold your breath to match theirs?  I honestly can't remember ever doing this.  However, I suppose one can do it completely unawares!  I believe my breath was coming raggedly for the entire 92-minute running time of the ultra-suspenseful Western, the original 3:10 TO YUMA, and especially in the scene in the hotel where Glenn Ford and Van Heflin are holed up together.  If you've never seen it, watch watch watch!
Van Heflin tries to keep Glenn Ford at bay during 3:10 TO YUMA
I haven't yet seen the remake, but I can almost guarantee: it isn't better.
10.  What upcoming movies (or TV series) are you excited about?
Speaking about remakes, I just read in the Boston Globe here about the upcoming release of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN -- a 2016 remake with Denzel Washington and other assorted modern stars.  While advance reviews have been mixed, I am excited about this for the sheer fact that it may make people who haven't watched the original film, or the earlier Japanese film it's based on (SEVEN SAMURAI by Kurosawa) discover these films and become classic film lovers themselves.   What may be most fascinating is Peter Sarsgaard as the villain.  Check out the trailer below.  (In the comments section -- who wants to see this, and who wants to avoid it like the proverbial plague??)

11.  What are your favorite movie blogs?  I've listed these in my 'Recommended sites and blogs' list on the lower right side of my blog home page, but I want to also call out the wonderful writers at two of my local cinemas: Brattle Blog and Harvard Film Archive series pages -- check out the latest here about Russian Silent cinema.

So, I will ask anyone who is interested to answer one or more of the questions below, either in the comments section or as a separate post.
1. Who was your first movie crush that you can remember?
2. Who is your current or most recent movie crush?
3. Is there a film you refuse to see?  If yes, why.
4. If you could travel back in time to visit the set of one of your favorite films and tell the director in real time to change something, what would it be?
5. What is a comedy that most everyone loves and that you don't find the least bit funny?
6. What is the classic film stereotype that you hate the most?
7.  How do you attempt to debunk said stereotype?
8. Provide a link to one blog post that you really enjoyed and think others would, too.
9. Name a film director that should be better known, and your favorite film of theirs.
10. What upcoming film or TV series are *you* most excited about?
11.  What keeps you motivated to continue blogging?

Monday, September 5, 2016

Highlights from Capitolfest 2016

For the second time in three years, on a muggy August weekend I made a road trip to Rome, New York to attend the very unique classic film festival known as 'Capitolfest', after the Capitol Theater, the old movie palace downtown playing host to the event.  The festival's tag line is "a vacation, not a marathon!" Well, with just two and a half days to watch over two dozen movies, and with assorted special presentations mixed in, if that doesn't meet the criteria for a marathon, I'm not sure I share the same working definition of the word. That said, here in Rome the experience was relaxed, and lacked major downsides of bigger festivals, such as rushing from one theater to another, standing in lines, fighting to secure a seat in smaller venues, and choosing between eating and seeing a film.  Here, it was also a great pleasure to spend many hours exploring film history in the presence of other classic film enthusiasts and in such an historic place.
The Capitol Theatre on W. Dominick St.. in Rome, NY
This was the 14th annual edition of the film festival, and it is one of the most unique around, because it concentrates on hard-to-find films from the silent and early talking era.  (This is NOT a greatest hits parade of classic film.)  Yet, festival organizers, led by Art Pierce, theatre Executive Director, and Assistant Manager Jack Theakston, look at the critical reviews of the time and ensure they are generally positive before choosing a film to screen at Capitolfest.  The films are often coming off restoration projects by the George Eastman House & Museum or the Library of Congress, and many haven't been seen since their original run in the 1920s or 30s.  The festival also includes special presentations highlighting developments in film history.  Tremendously affordable, a weekend pass (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) will put you out exactly $60. 
Interior view of the Capitol Theatre, from
About half the films screened are from the silent era, and accompanying them live on their original restored theater organ, were musicians Dr. Philip C. Carli, Avery Tunningley, and Bernie Anderson.  And in the 'can it GET any better?' category, the 'featured star' this year was Gary Cooper, who was at his most smoldering and attractive early in his career. 
Young Gary Cooper -- it may not get any better than this, folks.
The FilmsAs a relative newbie to film history appreciation, I really enjoyed the special presentations of the Dawn of Technicolor, by James Layton, and a sampling of Edison Kinetoscope shorts (with recorded soundtracks) from 1913, presented by George Willeman, .... these proving that color film didn't just emerge in the late thirties, or that sound films didn't just magically appear in 1927.  Film history is much more complicated, with trials, errors, hard work, and more trials.  I also wonder what the stars of those 1913 shorts would think if they knew, 103 years later, that live audiences would re-discover their work.

I'm proud to say I saw every film presented at the festival (!)  While I can't claim I was completely awake for every last minute of them, I was there.  The late film on Friday evening was the sci-fi-adventure-comedy mash-up JUST IMAGINE (1930), which could have garnered the award for oddest film possibly ever made in the 1930s.  With it's look at what life might be like in the (gasp) 1980s (!) we all had fun with this one wondering what the heck was going on and I'm sure festival organizers did too.
The cast of JUST IMAGINE.  Yeah, most of us didn't quite get this one, either.
My favorite films were, in no particular order:

Beautiful  Florence Vidor
DOOMSDAY (Rowland Lee, 1928) opened the festival on Friday at 11:30 AM.  A silent love triangle set in England with Cooper as the lower class rival for Florence Vidor's hand.  While she loves him she balks at the hard farm work she'd be required to do.  Complications ensue.  Despite the somewhat anti-feminist themes in the film, I enjoyed it because it was my first exposure to Florence Vidor, and she was a fascinating, strong actress who was a good match for Cooper.  Her career was launched thanks to her husband, director King Vidor, who cast her in many of the films he produced in the era.  She eventually divorced him, and retired from films at the end of the silent era.  She also later married violinist Jascha Heifetz. 

WOLF SONG (Victor Fleming 1929):  This was the concluding film of the festival, a silent Western melodrama directed by Victor Fleming with a script written by John Farrow.  Cooper plays a rugged 'mountain man' who in his travels meets and falls in love with beautiful Mexican ingĂ©nue Lupe Velez. The struggle to maintain their relationship in face of Cooper's character's reluctance to be tied down creates the primary drama.  This one had terrific acting by the leads, and solid support comes from Louis Wolheim as his sidekick.  What distinguished this film for me was the emotional resonance and the final payoff, when Cooper had to literally crawl on his knees back to his love to gain her forgiveness.  It was working on this film that Cooper and Velez started a romantic relationship that lasted a few years.  Their chemistry in the film oozes from the screen. 

DUDE RANCH (Frank Tuttle, 1931)-- This was a farce in which enterprising business owners run a fake 'Dude Ranch' as a tourist attraction. The trouble?  Not enough going on threatens business.  So they hire a family of traveling circus performers to impersonate cowboys to liven things up with horses, gunfights and the like.  This showcases the comic skill of Jack Oakie who was in his element here with his double takes and 'aw shucks' charm-oozing persona.  Eugene Pallette is also tremendously entertaining with and also despite his totally un-PC act as a Native American.  Great example of verbal and physical comedy at a breakneck pace. I'd love to see this movie discussed in TCM's Slapstick course! 

THE POOR RICH (Edward Sedgwick, 1934):  Another rousing comedy with some of the best character actors to grace the screen in the 1930s, or any era. The cast is composed of Edna May Oliver, Edward Everett Horton, Andy Devine, Thelma Todd, Una O'Connor, Leila Hyams and Grant Mitchell.  All contribute in what is a master class of comic timing, both verbal and physical.  The plot concerns a brother and sister (Oliver and Horton), late of the landed upper class but now completely destitute, who return to their family home in ruins, and attempt to try to rebuild while keeping up the ruse of their class for important and class-conscious visitors.  My only complaint with this one was Thelma Todd has too little to do and didn't get to showcase her natural ebullience as a comedienne.

Honorable Mention:  THE TEXAN, also with Cooper, and the short silent drama starring Norma Talmadge called UNDER THE DAISIES

The Extras
A huge 'dealers room' in a neighboring space provided much browsing pleasure.  Original film stills and magazines in great shape, hundreds of books on film at low prices, and DVDs galore, added to the vintage feel of the festival, and I must say I enhanced my collection just a bit :

Making the festival for me was the opportunity to get to know some new film friends, some of whom I met at the Turner Classic Film Festival, and others only online.   They inspire me with their passion, knowledge, and ability to express their love for film across multiple online platforms. 

A few blogged about their experience, and @classicmoviehub and @citizenscreen created a video log:

Check out these other first-person accounts from film friends:
Raquel Strecher's account

I'm already looking forward to Capitolfest 2017 in August 2017!  The featured star will be Fay Wray.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

September Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston

After August delivered an abundance of classic film screening riches in the Boston area, with a bit of a chill in the air fast approaching, September is 'cooling down' on the number of options for cinephiles.  However, there are some exciting and notable offerings to report.

Somerville Theatre  -- Sept 16-24
The Somerville in Davis Square celebrates the start of fall with a Festival of screenings mostly devoted to the 70 mm format -- this includes both classic film in the era of epics shot originally on 70 mm, in addition to some more modern films adopted this format.  Films in this format are weightier, and in many cases offer more detail than even you'll see on your home Blu-Ray.  This is what makes these films ideal for big screens, as film-makers in the 1950s and 1960s learned, to compete with the increasing popularity of television.  Today, film-makers use this format to draw people to cinemas in the age of advancing home video technology and the proliferation of quality visual media offerings.
For those interested in attending most or all screenings, you can buy a festival pass for $200 (adult); individual features will cost $15.00 (The cost of making or restoring 70mm prints is higher than digital or 35 mm).  

Great classic & modern titles will be screened, including: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), BEN-HUR (1959), WEST SIDE STORY (1961), SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959), just to name a few.  I'm particularly excited to see THE WILD BUNCH (1969) on Monday Sept 19 & SPARTACUS (1960) on Saturday Sept 24.

Shockingly, both these well-regarded films have yet to be seen by me.  THE WILD BUNCH would continue my exploration of the Western film, and is directed by Sam Peckinpah and showcases aging classic actors known to apparently good effect:  William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and two personal favorites, Ben Johnson and Edmond O'Brien.  In a film that is more than mildly influenced by Vietnam War politics, if I can tolerate the violence, I'm sure I'll enjoy it.
SPARTACUS is a picture known for Kirk Douglas showing off his pecs, and more seriously defying the blacklist by hiring famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo back under his own name.  Stanley Kubrick directed this period epic, and if I load up on caffeine for the 3+ hour running time, I'm sure the 70mm presentation on the big screen will provide quite the experience, indeed.
The retrospective of the films of Rouben Mamoulian finishes up Friday Sept 2 with BLOOD AND SAND (1941) starting at 7PM and THE SONG OF SONGS (1933) to follow.  I'm thrilled to be attending these screenings. Again, neither film I've seen, but I did see the 1922 Valentino version of the famous tale of the ill-fated love triangle in 19th century Spain, which was nothing if not entertaining.  In the 1941 technicolor version we get three of the brightest and most gorgeous stars to feast our eyes on: Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth, and Linda Darnell.  The mise-en-scene created by Mamoulian is said to take on 'painterly dimensions' with masterful use of color and noir shadows (HFA website).
Rita Hayworth and Tyrone Power throw sparks in BLOOD AND SAND
Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi as lovers in the earlier BLOOD AND SAND
THE SONG OF SONGS is a lesser-known film made in the pre-code era (1933), and it stars Marlene Dietrich coming off of her apex with director Josef von Sternberg.  Here she apparently starts out as a naive young country girl but rapidly changes her character after getting involved with Brian Aherne. It seems to be an interesting melodrama with 'touches of humor.'  If I can stay awake I will definitely catch this one (in 35 mm)!
Brian Aherne & Marlene Dietrich in THE SONG OF SONGS
Coolidge Corner Theatre
The Coolidge is presenting their perennial favorite JAWS (1975) on Monday Sept 5 (Labor Day), which is a great choice of a date because I doubt anyone is planning to return to the beach after that date anyway(!).  It will no doubt be a fun crowd.
Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Schneider and Robert Shaw in JAWS
It's not my favorite Hitchcock, but it is for many and deserves a shout-out for Sunday Sept 25 -- REAR WINDOW (1954) screens in 35 mm film format at the Brattle.  Starring a mostly immobile James Stewart character and the lovely Grace Kelly playing amateur sleuth.  
Sat Sept 24 deserves special mention here as it is the first annual "Art House Theater Day" -- in which over 160 theaters around the country have joined on to take part in showcasing their role in "celebrating the legacy of independent theaters as advocates for cinema arts."  For participating theaters there will be special screenings and giveaways.  In the Boston area both the Coolidge and the Brattle are taking part.  The Brattle is even extending the celebration to 'Art House Theater Week' from Sept 16-24, for which their screening of REAR WINDOW is a part.  Sounds like the start of a great tradition.  

A final 'special mention' for New Englanders is the weekend Telluride-by-the-Sea film festival Sept 16-18 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  This quaint seaside town and its historic theater 'Music Hall' bring patrons a selection of 6 films that are screened at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado earlier in the month.  This is a lot of fun and a nice way to welcome in fall while seeing some newer films making the festival rounds -- highly recommended!

Friday, August 26, 2016

James Garner in HOUR OF THE GUN - Western Movie Summer Part 4

HOUR OF THE GUN (John Sturges, 1967) is in the lineup Saturday Aug 27th for TCM's "Summer Under the Stars" tribute to James Garner, and I'm pleased to contribute this post to the "Summer Under the Stars" blogathon hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film.  

James Garner (left) as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in HOUR OF THE GUN

Doc Holliday:  "I hear that the Chamber of Commerce has put up $20,000 reward money (for the Clanton gang)."
Wyatt Earp: "For arrest and conviction, not 'dead or alive.'  Not your style, Doc."
Doc Holliday:  "For that kind of money I can be as law-abiding are."

It's fitting that in the summer in which I've devoted to watching and studying Westerns, I write my final post of the season on this late Western, when filmmakers have begun to deconstruct its vaunted heroes.  In a few short years the genre would be almost entirely given over to the 'revisionist' or 'anti'-Western, in response to the Vietnam War and the political and societal disillusionment replacing what was typically glorification of American optimism and romanticism in the classic Western.   In HOUR OF THE GUN, audiences are, at least on the surface, in familiar territory with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and their cohort, the historical western figures whose story had been told and retold throughout the 20th century.  But we are clued in at once that this one will be a bit different:  the film starts with the Earp cohort marching down a dusty main street toward the infamous OK Corral, punctuated with a pounding drum in the soundtrack.  The legendary gunfight just initiates the action, and the film's narrative is all about what happens after.  
Doomed members of the Clanton gang wait to meet Earp & Co.
For a legendary 1881 occurrence in Tombstone, Arizona that has been the subject of dozens of films and television episodes, it's hard to imagine a time when no one knew about Earp & Co. Yet the 'gunfight at OK Corral' had only become part of American lore in 1920, when the real Wyatt Earp, retired from his life as a lawman, began to hang around Hollywood and tell his story to anyone who would listen. Among others, John Ford listened.  In fact, one of the best, albeit fictionalized, account of Wyatt Earp's adventures is John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) starring Henry Fonda.  Fonda as an actor was an early inspiration for James Garner, when the two shared the stage in Garner's first professional acting appearance in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Speaking about Fonda in his memoir, Garner said, "I admired him so much I even mimicked him.  In MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, he did a little seated two-step in place by leaning back in a chair and pushing off a post....I stole it for SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (Burt Kennedy, 1969).

When Garner made this film, he was already a big star, playing the leading role in the Western humor series 'Maverick', and in films such as DUEL AT DIABLO (1966).  He had the experience of working with director John Sturges in THE GREAT ESCAPE. A full decade earlier Western specialist Sturges made the more conventional movie about the gunfight, unsurprisingly named GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL, starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday.  HOUR OF THE GUN was the sequel, and quite different in tone and theme. Garner jumped at the chance to work with Sturges again, and accepted the role without having read the script, and years later acknowledged it was a different sort of a Western.  Here, Earp is a conflicted lawman who first must endure being put on trial for murder after the gunfight, supported by Ike Clanton, played by the inimitable Robert Ryan, in a unfortunately small role. Then when one brother is maimed and another murdered, he begins to step outside the law in an increasing vendetta on Clanton and his gang.  The film narrative follows closely the pursuer and the pursued until the inevitable end -- Earp riding to new adventures and doomed Holliday left in a sanitarium.
Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton (seated) as a witness for the prosecution in Earp's trial
Garner is a steely presence here, embodying Earp with a quiet desperation without ever bending that backbone.  To me, he is a more believable, and human, Earp than Lancaster, who seems a bit stiff, and blustery in the role in the earlier film.  Garner does a good job with Edward Anhalt's script that asks us to look at our heroes more realistically, with motives not entirely pure or actions not always justifiable.  Yet as good as Garner is, Jason Robards was just so much fun to watch in the showier role of Doc Holliday.  He sunk his teeth into the scenery, staggered around the set, emitted witticisms and contributed wry humor to what is overall a dark picture.  Apparently Robards off screen was not unlike Holliday.  In his memoir Garner revealed that Robards enjoyed being on location in Mexico a bit too much (a local bar and whorehouse were implicated) and "was never on the set when you needed him." Sturges, however, knew where to find him, and one day, after another late appearance, dressed Robards down publicly, after which he improved his behavior.  

In another departure from the classic Western formula, there are no women characters.  Literally, none, among the credited cast.  Does anyone know if there is another Western in the classic era without the good woman from back East, or the fallen woman who seeks redemption, or a noble native American woman to redeem the male hero?  I'd be interested.  The film is solid, and Garner and Robards are terrific, but the lack of development of the minor characters makes the narrative drag at times and I found it easy to lose track of who is pursuing whom.   Lucien Ballard's cinematography is fine, and the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith has a perfectly-suited mournful, elegiac quality.  

As an epilogue, I was reminded of a personal connection to this film from many years ago.  As a Star Trek devotee I remember as a child watching, and being freaked out by, a rerun of the original series' third season episode called "Spectre of the Gun".  This aired in 1968, one year after the movie, and the show's producers were inspired enough by the Sturges film to give their episode almost the same name.  They succeeded in crafting a spooky, surreal retelling of the legendary gunfight in which the main crew of the Starship Enterprise are forced into embodying the Clanton gang against the ghosts of Earp and Holliday, thus facing mortal danger.   This might be the creepiest presentation of the famous gunfight ever recorded -- watch the final few minutes here:

Don't forget to check out the others posts for the "Summer Under the Stars" blogathon, all conveniently collected here.

James Garner, with Jon Winokur, The Garner Files, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, Atheneum Press, 1992.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Oscar for Ethel: NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART Film Review

It is an unusual film in many ways: the directorial debut of author and playwright Clifford Odets (and only one of two for him), an unusual dramatic role for Cary Grant, and the return to Hollywood of stage queen Ethel Barrymore after a twelve-year hiatus.  The film, of course, is NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (1944). In celebration of Ethel's 137th birthday, I'm pleased to present this post as part of the 2nd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
Ethel is someone that I will admit to putting on a pedestal.  Whenever I'm having a bad day, or need to calm my nervousness and take a risk, I think of her.  That's because my mother told me that, when  she was young, her father encouraged her to 'do her best Ethel Barrymore' in face of trying circumstances.  That stuck with me.  For my grandfather's generation, there was probably no other actress who so embodied excellence in the art of acting.  For those who haven't seen any of her films, I can attest--she was the real thing.
Young Ethel Barrymore
Clifford Odets
I eagerly approached NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART precisely because it was Ms. Barrymore's only Oscar.  I found it often moving, with complex, well-drawn characters, if not wholly satisfying.  The filmmakers went to great lengths to ensure Barrymore would star.  In fact, David Hempstead, producer at RKO Pictures, bought the rights to the novel by Richard Llewellyn, and offered the role of 'Ma Mott' to Barrymore, who turned it down, thinking the novel wouldn't make a good film.  She was reluctant also because her previous film, RASPUTIN & THE EMPRESS, was not a happy experience, despite starring along with both brothers, Lionel & John.  When Clifford Odets was given the job to adapt the novel for the screen, Barrymore softened.  The problem then was her commitment to a touring production of the stage play The Corn is Green during the time filming would commence.  So RKO simply paid the play's producer to take a six-week hiatus.

Barrymore felt comfortable with Odets as director, because of his stage credentials and his deference to her.  Despite its studio production, the film was set in 1930s London, in the working class East End. As widow "Ma" Mott, Barrymore owns a junk shop and barely gets by, no thanks to her vagabond and often AWOL son, Ernie Mott, played by Grant.  Ernie can't seem to stay long enough to take charge of the shop, and there is an uncomfortable truce between mother and son.  Having recently returned from a jaunt to who knows where, this time Ernie is facing for the first time some very unpleasant consequences of leaving again -- Ma is now dying of cancer, and he falls in love with beautiful Ada, as a vulnerable young woman trying to make up for some bad decisions but not quite succeeding.  Things get even more complicated when both Ma and Ernie separately get mixed up with the criminal element.  We wonder if anyone in the film will have a happy ending.
Barrymore as 'Ma Mott' has not had an easy life.  
Grant in an early scene
I've read some commentary claiming that Grant didn't fit the part of a young cockney wastrel, or that he was too old (at just over 40) for the part.  In fact, in Richard Schickel's biography of Grant, the author quotes Grant as feeling that way himself, although he loved playing the role.  For me, he was perfect; the years wore on him well, convincing us he really had thrown away half of his life and it was beginning to catch up to him psychologically. There was never any doubt that underneath his obvious immaturity and indecision he was a good guy--when he first appears on the scene all the neighbors are truly thrilled to see him.  Grant used his (natural) cockney accent to good effect, and was quite subtle and powerful in the more emotional scenes.  Ultimately if he didn't realize the full impact of the character, as Schickel suggests, due to holding back a bit too much, he was believable as a flawed hero.
Luminous June Duprez in NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART
The cast of supporting actors was also mostly very good - Barry Fitzgerald as the crusty aging fellow who lost a son in WWI; June Duprez, the English-born actress as Ada, lovely, vulnerable, but tough.  Jane Wyatt was a bit too angelic in her self-sacrificing love for Grant. I was disappointed that normally supremely interesting and reliable Dan Duryea had a throwaway part as a shopkeeper and had a cringe-worthy accent in the few lines he uttered.
Barry Fitzgerald and Grant have a pint together
With the Salvation Army hat
Barrymore's screen presence was a good match for Grant.  Her accent, at least to my ear, was just right, and considering her acting chops and experience, not surprising.  Having been away from the screen so long she apparently was very nervous, nailing rehearsals but losing confidence during actual filming.  She regained the confidence she needed when in secret, Odets starting filming the rehearsals and playing them back to her to show her how good she was.  She relished disappearing into the role, and wearing a 75 cent hat from the Salvation Army that Odets trampled on to make it all the more 'lived in.'  The final scene in which Barrymore and Grant appear together was so convincing that I couldn't hold back the tears.
A heart-rending scene with Grant
What didn't completely work for me was the journey into film noir territory in the second half of the film with the gangsters, car chases and dimly lit scenes, when the film seemed to be going along quite well as a character-driven melodrama.  The film also got quite 'preachy' about values associated with wartime sacrifice and morality, with the clouds of WWII ominously and quite obviously appearing near the end.  More liberal editing and shorter overall run time would have been welcome.

The film received good reviews, and the normally snarky Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was effusive with his praise: "The poignant and wistful story of the Cockney wanderer, Ernie Mott, and his sad and wonderful mother and their ever-hungry search for some sort of spiritual fulfillment has been rendered in this film with all of the beauty and feeling that one could hopefully expect.".(NY Times, 11/18/1944). The film eventually lost money -- it was apparently too much of a downer for mass audiences -- but won Barrymore her Oscar, which stunned her.  When asked if she thought it was fair for her to have won when others had gone to Hollywood earlier and toiled longer there, she paused, and then replied, "Perhaps they shouldn't have gone."  Her success prompted her to move to Hollywood and devote many more years to the medium--and we are the better for it.
Barrymore with her Oscar and Broderick Crawford (1945)
James Kotsilibas-Davis, The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood, 1981, Crown Publishers.
Richard Schickel, Cary Grant--A Celebration, 1999, Applause Books.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Carey Family in the John Ford Western Universe

In 1947 Harry Carey Jr. had just finished his first picture with director John 'Uncle Jack' Ford.  He was hanging around the set when he saw a surprising sight -- his father's horse Sunny, and actor / stuntman Cliff Lyons dressed in his father's iconic black western attire.  Ford said to young Carey, "Go home, kid, you're not supposed to see this."  As Carey left the set to go home, he broke down in sobs.  This was the filming of the picture's dedication to the recently passed Harry Carey Senior. As shown after the opening credits of 3 GODFATHERS, with the tune 'Goodbye, Old Paint, I'm Leaving Cheyenne" playing in reference to Carey's iconic screen character 'Cheyenne Harry', I doubt there is a more elegant and meaningful torch passing from one generation to the next in film:

[This post celebrates the history of cinema as part of the 'Movie History Project' blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Fritzi of Movies Silently.  Check out their blogs from Aug 5-10th for a rich, diverse and entertaining look at Hollywood history.]

I was first introduced to Harry Carey Sr. by accident -- one of the 'extras' on the Criterion issue of STAGECOACH that I purchased was the silent film thought lost:  BUCKING BROADWAY, with John Ford directing Carey.  Initially thinking I wouldn't enjoy it, I couldn't turn away.  The combined genius of Ford, a director learning his craft, and Carey, who had as compelling, natural and nuanced screen presence as any of the silent greats, made it.  Sadly, of over 20 films they made together, there is only one other Ford-Carey silent film existing, STRAIGHT SHOOTING, their first feature.  As I learned more about Carey, I came to appreciate that there may not a John Ford as we know him today without him.  The intersection of the Carey family's lives and careers with that of Ford, is one of the fascinating and fruitful contribution to the Western film genre, spanning six decades of history.
Harry Carey Sr.
Young Olive Golden Carey
Henry DeWitt Carey II got his start far from the west -- he was born in Harlem, NY in 1878 into an upper middle class family.  He attended law school at NYU, but was kicked out for a prank involving female underwear (!).  He turned to acting and writing plays, and was hired by D.W. Griffith, and eventually by Carl Laemmle at Universal, where he spent several years making Westerns, which were very much in vogue in the early silent era.  According to Scott Eyman's Ford bio, in 1916 Carey met Ford at Universal, and was instantly impressed with his imagination and proficiency with the camera.  Ford was only 21.  Carey requested of Laemmle that Ford direct his next picture, and the collaboration was born.  Ford said of Carey at that time "Carey tutored me in those early years, sort of brought me along." They made 16 shorts together, with Carey starring as adventurous, somewhat dangerous, cowboy "Cheyenne Harry."  Carey often shared directing duties as well.  About this time actress Olive Golden, 18 years his junior, came into his life, and they married in 1916.  The newlyweds and Ford shared a small apartment initially, as their working relationship and friendship grew, and then fraternized in the Carey ranch in Newhall, California as Careys began to live a truly Western lifestyle.  According to Olive, many ideas for the Ford-Carey pictures were 'dreamed up around the wood stove in the kitchen' at Newhall.  As Olive was giving birth to Harry Carey Jr., the two got drunk on Mellwood brand whiskey waiting on the successful delivery.  (Later, Ford, when in one of his cantankerous moods, would call Jr."Mellwood").
Harry Carey with Harry Carey Jr.
Harry Carey's acting style was very natural -- in contrast to the more typical theatrical style of the early silent era.  His personality was tough, his looks rugged and dark.  But he projected a natural warmth and depth of emotion beneath that Ford tapped into. STRAIGHT SHOOTING showed Carey tormented over his potential role in dispatching the family of farmers who interfere with the ranching hegemony, and after some bloodshed, ultimately he changes sides and confronts the threat.
Carey in STRAIGHT SHOOTING with his iconic arm pose.
John Ford
He was a star, although a less popular one at the time compared with the likes of Tom Mix and William S. Hart.  A falling out with Ford around 1920 ended their professional collaboration.  The origins of the split seem to be buried forever; Carey Jr. said his father refused to talk about it, although he admitted in his later years his father would occasionally 'rant' about Ford's less admirable qualities.  Eyman references a potential issue about pay and equity, and mentioned that they did maintain an off-again/on-again friendship.  While Ford's star continued to rise, Carey's seemed to stagnate, and although he transitioned into the talking era well, his voice an authoritative deep baritone, he mainly starred in distinctly low-budget B westerns.  In a couple of those that I've seen, WAGON TRAIL and THE NIGHT RIDER, he adds interest and gravitas to the often melodramatic goings on.

Harry Carey Sr. in
In bigger budget pictures, he won mostly secondary roles.  A notable exception was MGM's first 'on-location' blockbuster TRADER HORN (1931), where he plays the lead.  (I admit to not being able to watch this one, because of the reported rampant mistreatment of animals during filming). Olive Carey, who had taken a long break from acting to raise her two children, appeared in a small role, but only made $300 for her work in horrific conditions (Star Edwina Booth contracted malaria and nearly died).  Carey later won an Oscar for his small role as quietly supportive Senate President in the Frank Capra/James Stewart classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939).  Long-time friend and collaborator George Hively said about Carey "He was a warm, warm man. Remember the character he portrayed in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON? That was Harry Carey."

Harry Carey Jr.
Despite the continued friendship, Ford was not initially an encouraging influence on young Carey Jr., whose red hair earned him the lifelong nickname 'Dobe.'  Ironically the young man's first film appearance was with Howard Hawks, in the classic RED RIVER, a film in which Carey Sr. also had a small role near the end.  The two did not share a scene.

John Ford is best known today for his classic sound Westerns beginning with the 1939 Best Picture Oscar nominee STAGECOACH, which gave John Wayne his shot at stardom.  Ford told complex tales with breathtaking beauty, using stunning outdoor shots and well-drawn characters, emphasizing community, honor and heroism, often with healthy doses of humor. He used a group of actors he liked and trusted, referred to as the 'John Ford Stock Company' and did not give allegiance to any one studio.  He relished the independence often accorded him.  When Harry Carey died in 1947 of lung cancer and its complications, Ford, and also John Wayne, who had become an admirer and friend of the elder Carey, were both present.  Not too long before he died, Carey Jr., recalled, his father told him that Ford would only hire young Carey in a film after he died " will (work for Ford)...--not till after I croak-- but then you will.  You can bet on it."  Shortly thereafter came 3 GODFATHERS -- and sure enough, Jr. was offered a starring role, along with Wayne and Pedro Armendariz.  As a film it's not in Ford's top echelon, but it's stirring in its Christian allegorical themes, appropriate somehow for the film that signaled the passing of the acting baton from the father to the son.

That association with Ford, built on many years of family friendship and loyalty, cemented the Western career of the younger Carey.  He had initially hoped on being a singer, but that didn't turn out. (You can hear him sing in 3 GODFATHERS, a pleasant enough voice). While 'Dobe' worked in the same film genre as his father, he projected a starkly contrasting screen character. Carey Sr. was dark, Jr. was a very light red-head.  All boyish enthusiasm and naivete, he rarely stole a scene and was more or less content with his supporting roles.  He was fearful of Ford, who was well known for his eccentric and tyrannical ways on and off set, yet he grew to love him.  His memoir brims with humorous exploits with the Ford crew, including Wayne, friend Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, and the rest.  Despite working with young Carey on a few pictures, it took Ford time to trust his acting abilities, and for SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, he hired actor Arthur Shields to coach him, and ultimately help him get into the character of the secondary role he played.
Carey Jr. with Wayne in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
Carey Jr. did not only make Westerns with Ford -- he relished his roles in two non-Westerns, MISTER ROBERTS, with Henry Fonda, and THE LONG GRAY LINE, with Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara.  The last Ford film he appeared in he wasn't even credited -- it was CHEYENNE AUTUMN, and he and Ben Johnson were apparently paid mostly to ride their horses together on location at critical moments.  Both he and his mother Olive transitioned into television roles, often in the Western genre, and both lived into their early nineties.  Harry Carey Jr. died in December 2012, approximately 100 years after his father broke into the picture business.

In Ford's Western masterpiece from the 1950s, THE SEARCHERS, the entire Carey family had their time in the spotlight.  'Dobe' Carey was on hand again playing a young man from the village, Brad Jorgenson, who is full of hate for the Comanches who murdered his sweetheart.  His mom Mrs. Jorgenson is played by Olive Carey.  Harry Carey Sr. made an 'appearance' through the assistance of an old friend:  At the very end of the film, after John Wayne brings his lost niece home to the loving arms of Olive's 'Mrs. Jorgenson' and family, he was filled with emotion thinking of Harry Sr.  As Olive looked on off camera, in the famous shot framed in the dark doorway, Wayne reached over with his left arm and held his right above the elbow, in the way Harry Carey often did, in a poignant tribute, before walking slowly away.

The Carey family collaborations with Ford yielded among the best of the Western genre over 50 years in Hollywood.  Their legacy remains alive in that genre, which still is pertinent today.  As Robert Warshow wrote:  "The movies in which the Westerner played out his role preserve for us the pleasures of a complete and self-contained drama--and one which still effortlessly crosses the boundaries which divide our culture."

Many of Harry Carey Sr.'s  films are on Youtube, here's a few:

For further perspective on the Careys, check out this terrific post by blogger Caftan Woman.

(1) Carey, Harry Jr. Company of Heroes -- my Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company.  Taylor Publishing, 2013.
(2) Eyman, Scott, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
(3) Bogdanovich, Peter, 'Directed by John Ford', documentary from 1971.
(4) Kitses, Jim, Horizons West, British Film Institute Publishing, 2004.
(5) Warshow, Robert, "The Westerner" in The Immediate Experience, Harvard University Press, latest edition 2001.