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Sunday, November 19, 2017

The film collaborations of Luis Buñuel and Hugo Butler in Mexico

The 'Hollywood blacklist', composed of prominent film personnel that were presumed in the 1940s and 1950s to have ties to the Communist Party, had repercussions well beyond Tinseltown, or the U.S. for that matter.  Despite this being a decidedly dark period of U.S. and Hollywood history, those who made their livelihood from the craft of film-making often still worked to produce films of considerable interest in whatever way they could. One way was to leave the U.S.

In Mexico, two exiles, Spanish-born surrealist Luis Buñuel and blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Hugo Butler, formed an unlikely partnership and produced two unique and divergent films: Robinson Crusoe and The Young Onethe only ones Buñuel made in English.  Both challenged the structures of society that made the blacklist possible.

This post is my contribution to the "Banned and Blacklisted" CMBA Fall Blogathon.  For links to all posts, click on the image below.

Director and writer Buñuel was not a Hollywood filmmaker, and was not included on the official Hollywood blacklist, but had he had a substantive U.S. career, he may very well have been.  He was born in 1900 in Spain, and while, or because, he had a strict Jesuit education, in his younger years was already developing an irreverent, experimental style of film-making in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that was often counter-establishment.  His penetration into surrealism happened alongside his growing friendship with painter Salvador Dalí and playwright/poet Federico García Lorca.  He did find himself on the wrong side of Fascist Spain for his unabashed anti-Fascist and anti-clerical views.  And to Hollywood he did come, after establishing himself in France as a filmmaker, but the studio system did not warm to him. His friend, producer Denise Tual, was more or less kicked out of Louis B. Mayer's office in 1944 trying to recommend he hire Buñuel. Then persona non grata, Tual decided to restart her career in Mexico, and because of the increasing pressure on left-leaning filmmakers in Hollywood, Buñuel was convinced to go with her.  In Mexico he had more options, and began to make complete films again when connected to powerful producers Óscar Dancigers and George Pepper.  Pepper, also 'exiled' in Mexico as a result of the blacklist, had established his own production company under the pseudonym George P. Werker (!).
Buñuel (left) with Hugo Butler working on a script
The pressure on screenwriter Hugo Butler to leave Hollywood was considerably more intense.  While originating from Canada, the writer of Lassie Come Home and The Southerner and his American screenwriter wife Jean Rouverol had been members of the Communist party for a time, and were expecting a call to testify by the unfriendly House Un-American Activities Committee. Rather than submitting to that, they left Hollywood for Mexico in 1951.  There, they joined fellow blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, and other 'exiles'.  The film-making industry in Mexico in the 1950s was protectionist, though, and artists such as Butler and Buñuel did not find it easy at first to gain a foothold.  The state-funded 'Asociación de Productores y Directores de Películas Mexicanas' put heavy restrictions on non-Mexicans in getting work permits.  As a result, working with Dancigers and Pepper, Butler and Buñuel became part of a 'cinematic crosscurrent'.  Exiles from their own countries, and feeling somewhat exiled within Mexico, they perhaps unsurprisingly explored the experience of 'the exile' in their work during this phase. 

Robinson Crusoe was their first joint project together.  The screenplay based on the famed novel by Daniel Defoe had been drafted first by Butler, and was sold to producer Pepper, who reached out to Buñuel to direct.  Buñuel was initially reluctant, but when he had the opportunity to contribute to the developing script the deal was sealed.  Irish actor Daniel O'Herlihy was cast as the title character, and filming commenced in color, in Mexico.  The dialogue was in English, although in the first part of the film it was minimal, with O'Herlihy dominating the screen as the castaway with no other humans.  His thoughts are related, when necessary, with voice-over narration. This version focused on the psychological struggle of Crusoe's fight to survive without any human interaction, rather than the more traditional 'man conquers nature' arc.  While he does come to dominate his surroundings, and the 'imperial' right order is restored, he questions the power dynamic of his relationship with his 'native' companion Friday.  As Ed Gonzalez says in Slant Magazine, "Buñuel dares his audience to question everything they've come to know about morality, savagery, and everything in between.” 

Butler's horizons were expanded working with Buñuel, collaborating to incorporate more non-traditional, including surrealist elements, into the script.  A famous fever-dream sequence inserts a vision of Crusoe's father, chastising Crusoe.  At one point his father is submerged eerily underwater:

Robinson Crusoe was released in 1954 through United Artists, and screenwriting credits were given to Buñuel, and Butler under the pseudonym Phillip Ansel Roll.  It got enough attention that O'Herlihy was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.  Watching it on Filmstruck, I found it a highly captivating film, and one I'll return to.

Bernie Hamilton and Key Meersman in The Young One
The Young One (1960) was the second of the Butler-Buñuel collaborations, with a distinctly different tone, at least on the surface.  Butler, this time taking the name H. B. Addis, wrote the script from a short story by Peter Matthiessen called Travellin' Man.  It's a contemporary story of a falsely-accused African-American fugitive from justice, Traver, played by Bernie Hamilton, who retreats to a small South Carolina island inhabited only by tyrannical, racist rancher Miller (Zachary Scott) and his ailing father.  He also has living with him a young ward, Evalyn (Key Meersman).  Ultimately, Scott decides to assert himself with Evalyn a bit too much, and Traver befriends both of them while the family politics disintegrate.  Ultimately Miller is forced to confront his own racism as he loses what is dear to him.  It shares with Crusoe, though, the themes of isolation, living in exile, and redemption only by real human connection as equals.

It's filmed in black-and-white with almost no soundtrack except a spiritual "Oh Sinner-Man" at the beginning and end, giving it a harsh, lower-budget feel. Scott disappears into Miller's skin, and is so repulsive at every turn, that his semi-redemption at the end leaves us with not a small amount of doubt.  It's not an easy watch, and there are times when it veers into unreal, if not surreal.  This may because the portrayals were not exactly what Buñuel wanted.  According to his biographer, the director was thrilled to have Zachary Scott, a veteran talent, but was unhappy about what he got from Hamilton and Meersman, the former getting 'carried away' and the latter having no acting experience.  To compensate, he asked Scott to abandon his underplaying, and he then was at least relatively satisfied with the result.  The finished product is a gritty, and pessimistic take on contemporary American society, which was seething with the scourge of racism as well as the culture of fear emanating from the communist witch hunts.
Key Meersman and Zachary Scott in The Young One
Stream the film here:
Ironically, the positive reception of this film at Cannes in 1960 was Buñuel's ticket out of Mexico and back to making 'European' films. Three of his most remembered films, The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Belle du Jour came later in the 1960s.  Sadly, Butler did not live to see his writing credits returned to the films he penned while blacklisted--he died at age 53 in 1968 from heart disease.

1) Baxter, John. Buñuel 
2) Wood, Michael. The Fierce Imagination of Luis Buñuel, in Great Film Directors, Leo Brandy, editor.
3) Schrieber, Rebecca M., Cold War Exiles in Mexico
4) Pepper, Margot. For George Pepper, the Blacklist Isn't Over.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

William Wellman - Part 1: Four early films

William Wellman and friend (IMDb)
My love for the Harvard Film Archive* just gets stronger and stronger. Exhibit A: Their current William Wellman retrospective.  Wellman is one of those Hollywood directors that lacks the name recognition of a Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra and the like.  But his talent produced some of the best and/or most entertaining films made in Hollywood over four decades, including a film I wrote about last year, The Ox-Bow Incident.  And, as I discovered, he's a native of my current town, Brookline, Massachusetts, and for that alone, this retrospective grabbed my attention.  [Go here for the full list of films in the retrospective.]

Sadly, I can't attend all the screenings, despite my efforts to look for ways to camp out on the grass at Harvard Yard(!)  But, in the first ten days of the series, I got to four of his early films.  This post is simply my appreciation for Wellman's craft as shown in these films, all of which were first-time viewings for me.  In a later post, I'll write about some of his later films.

First, some facts--and/or legends--about William Wellman:
  • He was born in Brookline but attended high school in Newton, Mass., down the road, where he apparently got expelled for dropping a stink-bomb on the principal's head.
  • He played professional ice hockey.
  • He became a fighter pilot in WWI.
  • He piloted his airplane onto the grounds of Pickfair (the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford Hollywood estate) when given a casual invitation to "drop by" after Fairbanks saw him play in a hockey match.
  • He got his start as an actor in films in the silent era, due to his connection with Fairbanks, but quickly became much more interested in directing.
  • He directed Fairbanks' son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in Love is a Racket (1932).
  • For his escapades before and during his film career, he earned the nickname "Wild Bill" Wellman.  The picture above tells it all, doesn't it?!
  • His film Wings was the first, in 1928, to win what is now known as the 'Best Picture' Oscar.
  • His 1931 film The Public Enemy made a star of James Cagney and helped propel Jean Harlow out of obscurity.
  • He directed the first-ever version of A Star is Born (1937).
  • His directing style was wide-ranging, with an emphasis on action and movement, as well as on realistic settings.  His pre-code output in the early 30s was the greatest of his career. 
Battle scenes in Wings (IMDb)
Wings (Paramount, 1927 -- silent).
This is the first film in history to win the best picture Oscar. It tells the story of two friends in small town America who become fighter pilots in WWI. Their friendship is strengthened, but also is their rivalry, which stems from their love for the same woman back home.  There are heroic scenes aplenty, and some moments of tragedy.

The Wellman touch:  It's part action/war flick and part melodrama.  Wellman clearly put his flying expertise into this--the action shots were made by mounting cameras on actual airplanes and capturing real planes, carrying the real stars (!), flying up and down and over in the great skies. The film obviously was a huge success and played in some cinemas continually for over a year.

l-r: Charles Rogers, Clara  Bow,
Richard Arlen (HFA)
What impressed me:  The star power in this film is top caliber for the day, and oh my, the stars were stunningly gorgeous.  Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston in particular, but also Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Clara Bow, the 'IT' girl of the day, who unfortunately had a tendency to overplay in this one. Gary Cooper makes a brief appearance, but he would shortly eclipse all these stars in the popularity department.  Even El Brendel, as the comic relief, looked good here(!).

It's no secret that the action sequences are jaw-dropping, but seeing them on the big screen elicited gasps from me, and others, on more than one occasion.  The scope of the battlefield scenes reminds us that the silent era did not necessarily skimp on craft or quality compared to the sound era--directors like Wellman made the most of what was available to them, and often dreamed big.  Watch below for one of the big aerial scenes.

Beggars of Life (Paramount, 1928-silent).  
Richard Arlen again was the star in this one, but rather than a war story, this film shows the adventures of two young down-on-their-luck vagrants, the other being silent legend Louise Brooks.  The two fall in love while trying to run from the law, and get entangled with a dangerous gang.  This film was recently restored and released on Kino Lorber.

The Wellman touch:  Silent film melodrama works well when the emotions of the film's characters, the backbone of the film, are done justice by the choices the actors and director make.  The best directors work with the glory of the 'faces' they had back then to draw us in.  Wellman was terrific at this, using powerful close-ups in key moments.  But true to form, he also kept the pace moving quickly, with action sequences in this case on and around moving trains.

Louise Brooks sees Richard Arlen's character for the first time
What impressed me:  This film is a perfect demonstration of how great silent cinematic melodrama, like opera, often focuses on no more than three central characters confronting life-altering circumstances or choices.  Regardless of how realistic the scenarios are, the art is in us finding the universal feelings of the human condition and losing ourselves in the experience.  

Wellman was able to get his actors to be the best they could be: Louise Brooks, both androgynous and stunning, and Richard Arlen, handsome, virile, and yet sensitive. And for the "villain" Wallace Beery, an oafish presence in most of his films, but here his talent is inarguable.  There is a scene toward the end of the movie where his character goes through a change of heart.  With only pantomime and facial expression - Beery is so so good. I gained a new respect for Beery as an actor. 
Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life 
Beau Geste (Paramount, 1939)
The British colonial adventure novel, Beau Geste, by Percival Christopher Wren, was filmed so many times that a parody in 1977 was called The Last Remake of Beau Geste (note to self - I need to watch that sometime.) The basic story is that of the three Geste brothers, Beau, John, and Digby; they join the foreign legion and have to defend a fort in the Sahara under attack by Arabs.  In the meantime, one of them, unknown to the others, has stolen a jewel from his adoptive mother in order to protect her from scandal and bankruptcy.  Adventures ensue.  This particular film was the first 'talking' version, coming 13 years after the highly successful silent version starring Ronald Colman.

Robert Preston, Gary Cooper, and Ray Milland as the
Geste brothers, in civilian dress. (photo from HFA).
The brothers in their uniforms (IMDb)

The Wellman touch:  Here Wellman again used his love of realistic locales, and arranged for the filming of this in real sand dunes in 'Buttercup Valley' California, near the Arizona border, the same location as the 1926 film.  As usual he put his actors through the rugged treatment, but they all gained respect for him, as, according to Preston, on an off night in a Mexican border town, a character came to their table and reminded Wellman he served as his airplane mechanic in the war (from Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939, by Mark Vieira).
Brian Donlevy (from

What impressed me:
  I was pretty sure I had not seen this version going in, but when it started, it looked so familiar I began to question if I indeed had seen it. It turns out, it was the silent version I had seen, but this one adhered so closely to the that the deja vu feeling was strong and understandable.  Despite being familiar with the story, I particularly loved the commitment and zest that Brian Donlevy put into his role as the sadistic commander of the troops at the fort.  He deservedly won the Oscar for supporting actor as a result.  Apparently, he was not popular on the set, having immersed himself a bit too deeply as Sgt. Markoff.

At the beginning, the camera pans over the fort, where men are stationed one per lookout point, across the top. It is creepy, in that all of the men are staring out at us, but we realize with horror that every face is that of a dead man, killed in action, but propped up to look like he is at his post.  This was also a choice made by the director of the 1926 version, Herbert Brenon.

Overall, the film won't be on my favorites list, but it is worth seeing if you're a fan of Wellman's, or any of the actors.

Nothing Sacred (Selznick International Pictures, 1937)

As a classic 'screwball comedy', starring Carole Lombard, the screwball queen, Nothing Sacred was a departure for Wellman. In this depression-era genre, typically a dizzy female heroine involves her male companions in a farcical situation that allows them to play off one another in an early Hollywood 'battle of the sexes'.  In this one, Lombard is Hazel Flagg, a young woman in a small Vermont town who is presumably dying of radium poisoning. A down-on-his-luck New York City reporter Wally Cook, played by Fredric March, sees an angle to exploit, and brings Hazel to the big city to be a one-woman human interest story, to impress his beleagured boss, played by Walter Connolly.  Little do they know, and Hazel isn't about to reveal, that she's just been declared healthy.  And, of course, as she tries harder to conceal this fact, she and Wally fall in love.  This 'battle of the sexes' becomes a real battle, when the two don boxing gloves and literally duke it out for several minutes near the end of the film!

The Wellman touch:  The pace of the film was perfect, with the farcical situations gaining momentum without the action ever rising to the level of the maniacal. There were many scenes in which the actors were placed in a perfectly symmetrical position, and I consciously appreciated the image composition while I was enjoying the performances.  
Fredric March and Carole Lombard (Wikipedia)
What impressed me:  While Lombard is dependably wonderful, I was surprised by how well Fredric March pulled off his role. I consider him as mostly a serious actor - think The Best Years of Our Lives, The Barretts of Wimple Street.  Come to think of it, he played in two other comedies that I've seen: I Married a Witch, and Design for Living, so perhaps not as much a stretch as I originally thought.  However, I learned that the role was written for John Barrymore, but at this point in his career, his alcoholism prevented him from getting the part.

It was a little jarring to see a 1930s screwball comedy in color, but once I settled into this, I could appreciate the top production values accorded the film, as was common for Selznick, including the music by Oscar Levant and the screenplay by Ben Hecht. Also, with Lombard's reddish hair, I kept thinking about the similarities between her and Lucille Ball, who idolized Lombard as a comedienne.  You can see how Ball adopted some of Lombard's facial expressions and kinetic acting style in her Lucy Ricardo character.  

Stay tuned for more of my Wellman experience, in the next couple of months.

*Sad note: The HFA lost programmer David Pendleton, this past week.  RIP David.  I enjoyed hearing him offer his tremendous insights introducing films over the last several years.  Here is a recent appreciation by critic Ty Burr.