Saturday, September 26, 2009
“If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a perfect kid…and SIX of them…yecch!”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Forty years ago on this date in 1969, ABC-TV premiered a brand new family situation comedy that was inspired by a 1965 Los Angeles Times article creator Sherwood Schwartz read noting that nearly 40 percent of marriages in the United States had at least one child (and sometimes more) from a previous union. Schwartz, a veteran comedy scribe who at the time was reaping the benefits of his comic creation Gilligan’s Island, devised a pilot (entitled Yours and Mine) about such a family and passed it around to all three of the major networks — who insisted that major changes be made to the show’s concept before agreeing to airing the series…something that didn’t set well with the notoriously stubborn Schwartz. He held onto the script, but with the success of Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) — a movie starring Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball as a pair of newlyweds with multiple kids — the American Broadcasting Company contacted Schwartz to let him know they were interested in a second look.
The premise was devastatingly simple: Here’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls. All of them had hair of gold — like their mother — the youngest one in curls. Then there’s the story of a man named Brady, who was busy with three boys of his own. They were four men, living all together…but they were all alone.
Till the one day when the lady met this fellow — and they knew that it was much more than a hunch. That this group would somehow form a family…that’s the way they all became The Brady Bunch.
The “blended” family concept was “daring” for its time (but by no means new — Make Room for Daddy predates Bunch by several years), though in retrospect it hardly seems so since the only thing about the show that seemed remotely risqué was that Mike (Robert Reed) and Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) slept in the same bed — and even they weren’t the first, despite what you may have read. Formulaic family-oriented comedies have dotted the television landscape ever since the early cathode ray tube days of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — whose radio incarnation once employed Brady creator Schwartz among its writing staff. The family shows of the 1950s, 1960s and beyond possess a tremendous nostalgic appeal to those who vegetated in front of a TV set back then, and while many of the shows have dated horribly, they are still beloved for their “wholesomeness” by their original fans. At one time, I thought My Three Sons was the most “white bread” of these TV families — but the Douglas clan had nothing on the Bradys, who were so square their idea of balls-out entertainment was vanilla ice cream for dessert. (At least Ozzie & Harriet flirted with tutti frutti every now and then.)
Bunch was a simplistic show; a warm-and-fuzzy half-hour whose sugary-sweet themes still resonate today with families, “blended” or no. Self-esteem was a recurring topic in many of the episodes, usually involving the jealousy emanating from disgruntled middle child Jan (Eve Plumb) over her sister Marcia’s good looks and popularity (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”). (My sister Kat, the middle sibling in my family, had a strong tendency to identify with Jan.) Relationships were another oft-dramatized subject; it seemed as if every week one of the kids was having boy or girl trouble — with the exception of Bobby (Mike Lookinland), who never seemed interested much in women…and when he did, he made out with some dame who later dropped the bombshell that she might have mono. (That’s about as daring as it got on Bunch — unless you consider the “controversial” episode where Carol was convinced that Greg [Barry Williams] was smoking cigarettes…Marlboros, naturally — not the other kind.)
During its five-year-run on ABC from 1969 to 1974, The Brady Bunch never managed to rank among the top 30 television shows each season — and yet the series was a huge success among young viewers for the network, anchoring a Friday night line-up that could very well be called the original “TGIF” alongside youth-oriented hits such as The Partridge Family, Nanny and the Professor and Room 222. Despite its many detractors, the series continues to flourish in syndication — and in fact, was awarded with a marathon this week on the retro repeats channel TV Land in celebration of its 40th anniversary. Its continuing success is attributed to the fact that because the series was a smash among teenage audiences at the time it aired, many of those individuals have taken their affection for the show and transferred it to their kids, creating a whole new generation of Brady devotees.
The critical reaction to Bunch was pretty much the same as the brickbats tossed at Sherwood Schwartz’s Gilligan’s Island — but Schwartz had the last laugh, and it was usually on his way to the bank. “I honestly think I could sit down and write a show tonight that the critics would love, and I know it would be cancelled within four weeks,” Schwartz once said in an interview, responding to the negative reaction awarded to both shows over the years. “I know what the critics love. [I] write and produce for people, not for critics.” If H.L. Mencken was right — that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public”—then Schwartz is truly deserving of the title “genius.” He was able to turn an unassuming series into a true pop-culture phenomenon: while the original series was on the air, a Saturday morning cartoon version (The Brady Kids) also ran concurrently (1972-74), which featured the voices of the kids in the cast. When The Partridge Family became successful with its series debut in the fall of 1970, Schwartz got the idea to put the Brady kids (often called The Brady Six) into the music business in several episodes, which led to a series of albums showcasing their (somewhat limited) talent. And after Brady’s cancellation, numerous Brady follow-ups continued in the show’s wake: The Brady Bunch Hour (1977; a series that featured the entire cast in a variety show — a new book on this series has just been published, co-authored by former Brady Susan “Cindy” Olsen), The Brady Brides (1981), The Bradys (1990) — not to mention two successful adaptations to the silver screen, The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) and A Very Brady Sequel (1986).
As a young kidlet, I devoured The Brady Bunch in both first-run episodes and reruns…and the jaded individual that I am today continues to convince himself it’s because I simply didn’t know any better. But I’m really only fooling myself; if I happen to come across a Bunch rerun I’ll watch it to the end of the half-hour because I’m thoroughly fascinated by the family — a clan who never had any of the real knock-down, drag-out squabbles or fights that constantly sprung up between my sisters and I but instead agreed at the end of each episode that it was all a “simple misunderstanding.” Oh, and one other burning question — if Mike Brady was such a super architect…why would he design a house that had only one bathroom for six kids?
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. is solely responsible for Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, a nostalgia blog that covers many family comedy series like The Brady Bunch and his attempts to figure out why he spent so much time as a youth watching them. Though he considers himself a Brady fan, he must demur to his sister Debbie’s obsession with the show—she has been known to be able to describe the plot of any Brady episode within the first 20 seconds.
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Monday, September 21, 2009
A modern tale set in a time gone by
By Edward Copeland
Being a former journalist, even if I was never a reporter, sticking more with copy editing with a side order of criticism, it's always nice to see a film that focuses on a veteran reporter (Russell Crowe) as its hero, even as it acknowledges the financial problems of the industry, the constant corporate changeovers and the ignoring of the bread and butter of the operation, the newspaper itself, as it fumbles around in the Internet age.
However, those are just asides in State of Play, which really is a thriller about solving a mystery and the risks, especially in a place like Washington, of being too friendly with people you might have to cover.
The film is based on a British miniseries and directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray (who wrote and directed an excellent film about journalism, Shattered Glass).
Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, a shaggy journalist who drives bosses nuts but comes up with the goods when the chips are down. He immediately causes friction with a rookie reporter Della Frye whose blog is rising on the paper's attempt to cause some Web ripples (Rachel McAdams).
The paper's editor (Helen Mirren) tries to steer them both in the right direction as she copes with yet another new corporate owner. At the film's outset, McAffrey is investigating what appears to be a routine street drug shooting while Della's more gossipy column is working the apparent suicide by subway train of a congressional staffer of a Pennsylvania representative (Ben Affleck).
Not only was the late aide having an affair with the married Affleck, he is the good friend and former college roommate of McAffrey. Of course, nothing is quite what it seems. Rep. Stephen Collins (Affleck) had been vocally trying to expose a Blackwater-type private mercenary force and evidence points toward the affair story being leaked in an effort to silence him.
There are several twists along the way, so to divulge much more of the plot wouldn't be fair. Macdonald moves State of Play along at a very good pace, but I wish it had slowed down at times to ruminate over the many issues it passes fleetingly on the way. The film doesn't stop long to seriously look at the ethical conflict between Collins and McAffrey's friendship and McAffrey's duty to the story nor to the paper's duty itself to tell the truth and not protect corporate friends of the owners and cast ethical clouds on the entire paper.
Perhaps the saddest part of State of Play is knowing that it lives in somewhat of a fantasyland of the past where veteran reporters like McAffrey can actually tutor rookies like Della so they can learn the ropes. In the environment of today's newspaper industry, most of the experienced journalists with institutional memory are pushed into early buyouts and young reporters never gain from their insights, left to their own devices and overseen by editors too preoccupied to offer much professional guidance, further diminishing the product as a whole.
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Saturday, September 19, 2009
Just the right amount of notes
“Your God who tortures men with longings they can never fulfill…”
“That was God laughing at me through that obscene giggle.”
By Ali Arikan
The tragedy of Antonio Salieri is the driving force behind Miloš Forman’s film version of Peter Shaffer’s seminal play. Here is a pious man, in complete devotion to what he believes to be a God of Grace and Mercy. Salieri has rejected almost all of life’s earthly pleasures, has offered God his undying love, “his industry, his deepest humility,” and, of course, his chastity. All he’s ever asked for in return is a soupçon of that divine Grace to manifest itself in the form of talent. God, however, has picked as a favourite not Salieri, but instead a vulgar ninny, who is not only anathema to all that Salieri believes in, but, through whom, his lack of talent is only made more explicit. God has given Salieri deranged ambition for, and an infinite love of, music, but withheld from him the elements required to realise it. This contumelious God has shared with the world a part of himself, all the while making a mockery of his faithful servant Salieri by rejecting his piety. Knowing his predilection for irony, there’s no wonder Peter Shaffer called his play not Mozart, not even Salieri, but Amadeus.
Released 25 years ago today, Amadeus has not only held up well in the past quarter century, but, like a fine wine, or in fact a grandiose piece of classical music, has grown even more glorious. As in the case of the play from which it was spawned (in fact, the two are at times so vastly different that Shaffer likes to refer to them as parallel pieces), the film was widely popular and a huge critical hit, and winner of 8 Oscars, including best film. Since it came out around the time the Academy Awards had started getting increasingly less relevant, I was pleasantly surprised to find it was still as effective today as when I had first watched it in that darkened theater in Ankara almost a lifetime ago.
A sequence struck me in particular, in which Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) recalls the first time he had ever glanced at Mozart’s (Tom “Pinto” Hulce) sheet music, and I could not help but make an Armond Whitesque comparison with another Oscar winner for best film:
“Extraordinary! On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse — bassoons and basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly — high above it — an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God.”
Abraham’s delivery is delicate, a wrong note, an incongruous cadence, and the whole speech would be ruined. Forman’s direction is equally subtle, cutting back and forth between the old Salieri recounting the event, and his young self reading the music, all the while the adagio from "Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments" plays blissfully in the background. It’s cinema at its best.
Now, remember, the floating plastic bag in American Beauty, and Wes Bentley’s rambling, ridiculous, monologue. Regardless of the differences in writing (I will not stoop to making tawdry comparisons between Peter Shaffer and Alan Ball), both sequences are similar, in that the characters recall their first encounter with what they perceive to be a divine force. Yet where one merely hints at the notes, the other approaches them with the subtlety of a steamroller driven by a drunk. 1984 was definitely not a vintage year, and film, in general, hasn’t grown worse in the past 25 years. But the Oscars have. And the contrasting duality of the sheer awesome power of Amadeus and the anemic mediocrity of American Beauty only served to remind me of one of the motifs of Amadeus itself.
In a film of such layered richness, a few key elements stand out. The first is, of course, Mozart’s transcendental, marvelous music, ably conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and performed by his Academy of St Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra. Naturally, it’s there from the start. After the company credits (Orion, alas), the screen is left in complete darkness. Suddenly, the opening bass of the Overture to Don Giovanni, and a scream, a cry in the dark: “Mozart!” We follow two men in night gowns (one of them Vincent Schiavelli, Fredrickson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) rush toward the guttural roar, as they stop in front of a bedroom in a stately home to urge their master, Antonio Salieri, the erstwhile court composer to “The Musical King” Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones, in the finest performance of his career), to open the door. When we eventually barge into the room with them, we are confronted with a ghastly view: Salieri has tried to kill himself by slitting his own throat, convinced as he is that it was he, who, more than 30 years previously, killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Hulce), the young musical upstart, an uproarious, quirky, vulgar former child prodigy, from Salzburg who took the Hapsburg Empire by storm. As Salieri collapses on his back, blood gushing from his neck, Mozart’s "Symphony No. 25 in G minor" burst into the soundtrack. While he is hurried to hospital on a wheelbarrow, it is his rival’s enduring music, still being played in Viennese ballrooms, that torments him.
Salieri is summarily committed to an insane asylum, a setting not unfamiliar to Forman, and a young priest comes to visit him to hear his confession. The old man is unreceptive at first, but eventually decides to play with this most unwelcome caller for a while. Discovering that the young priest had studied music in his youth, Salieri plays a little melody on the forte-piano in his hospital room. The priest doesn’t recognise it. Salieri is annoyed, says it was a very popular tune in its day, and then proceeds to play a few notes from the finale to his opera Axur, Re D'ormus (as the scene shifts abruptly to show Salieri’s recollection of the opera's opening night). Again, the priest is nescient, and Salieri is unhappy.
Finally, the old man starts to play a few notes from the first movement of Mozart’s "Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major," better known as "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." He doesn’t have to play too long before the priest recognizes the tune and starts singing it, and expresses his delight in being in the company of the very man who had composed such a famous piece. Having won his little game, Salieri corrects him, smugly, that the piece is not his — it was written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
In the first ten or so minutes, Forman introduces his chief antagonist through nothing but that character’s first person narration. He is old, decrepit, and consumed with malice. Contrast that with the way Mozart is introduced. Although we never see him, his music is omnipresent, from the opening darkness to the way it mocks Salieri in the form of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."
Later, in probably the film’s most famous scene, Mozart humiliates Salieri in the presence of the Emperor by “improving” a march the court composer had written in Mozart’s honor. In his fingers, the constipated melody turns into a proto medley of "Non più andrai" from Le nozze di Figaro, and the secondary melody of "Rondo alla Turca." Watch as F. Murray Abraham tries to hide his contempt behind a façade of forced equanimity.
And it is F. Murray Abraham who is perhaps the second most crucial ingredient to the film’s ultimate success. Abraham brings a plethora of emotions to Salieri — he is consumed, at various times, by malice, contempt, or envy, but he is always in complete awe of Mozart and his music. Salieri’s repudiation of God as dismissive of his pious subjects can never overshadow his elemental admiration of God’s work. Salieri’s only desire is to be loved -- by god and by the public. There's an implication that Salieri never thought he was all that great to begin with. Definitely, his exasperation with his fellow courtiers or musicians hint at an underlying awareness — as if he had always known that he was never that good, but could live it down, perhaps subconsciously, as long as he was never upstaged. It is when the love he longs for the most is abruptly ripped away from him by this new cynosure of the Viennese music scene that his envy finally consumes him. Abraham creates in Salieri one of the true tragic antiheroes of the Western canon, and utters him in the same breath as Cain, whose piety was also refused by God, and of Iago, whose jealousy of Cassio in being promoted to lieutenant by Othello (like with Shakespeare’s villain, there is a hint of homoerotic undercurrent to Salieri, as well) was equally palpable (another parallel is, of course, Aglaya’s feelings towards Natasya in The Idiot). His true tragedy is that Salieri’s only role in this world is to be the proverbial second fiddle.
In contrast to Abraham, Hulce plays Mozart as a perennial child. Certainly, his neighing is unnerving and ever so slightly annoying (for some reason, I kept thinking of Nathan Lane in The Birdcage — then again, when am I not thinking of Nathan Lane in The Birdcage). But he conveys natural genius so easily that it’s easy to overlook the shrieking. As Roger Ebert wrote in his Great Films review of the film, “This is not a vulgarization of Mozart, but a way of dramatizing that true geniuses rarely take their own work seriously, because it comes so easily for them… Salieri could strain and moan and bring forth tinkling jingles; Mozart could compose so joyously that he seemed … to be "taking dictation from God.”
Despite the protean wigs and masks, Hulce’s childlike approach to the role remains constant in depicting unparalleled genius. While being dressed down by his shrill mother-in-law, Mozart hears not the woman’s berating, but instead the coloratura of the Queen of the Night’s aria from Die Zauberflöte. Juggling work on his Requiem and the aforementioned Die Zauberflöte, he hears a few notes from one, and suddenly an aria from the other. Even on his deathbed, as he dictates the final notes of the Requiem to Salieri, his mind is still so active that the latter is unable to keep up with Mozart’s celerity. Hulce’s childlike demeanor makes Mozart’s genius more understandable, and down to earth.
Not unlike Salieri, Mozart is also constantly tortured. He was raised to be a musician by his disciplinarian father Leopold (Roy Dotrice), and in adulthood, Mozart grapples with loyalty to him, and, well, having fun. His father’s gaze is constantly upon Mozart, even after he dies, a portrait hangs on the wall, Leopold’s vituperative gaze perpetually judging his prodigal son. But Mozart is relentless. Hulce's performance reminds me of the controversial Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley's famous words: "I have one aim — the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing."
Of course, historically, this is all hogwash. Salieri was married, for one thing, and, he and Mozart were almost contemporaries, with merely a seven year age difference, though in the film it seems much wider, and is also played for that effect. In fact, Simon Callow, who plays the vaudeville impresario Emanuel Schikaneder (with a wholly unconvincing American accent), had played the titular role at the National Theatre, and I would be interested to see his chemistry with Paul Scofield who had assayed Salieri. Also, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of such huge animosity between the two characters, or that Salieri had indeed caused Mozart’s death. But one can hardly blame Shaffer. As early as 1830, apocrypha abounded that Salieri had murdered Mozart, then Pushkin wrote a play about it, Rimsky-Korsakov adapted it to an opera, and the greatest of all musical urban legends was born (well, until, at least, Scotland Yard raided Redlands in 1967).
Like Mozart in Salzburg, Forman also was a formidable talent at home, and in the composer’s desire to relocate to Vienna, to be at the hub of contemporary music, one senses something almost autobiographical in the way Forman moved to Hollywood. Of course, the way Forman had to relocate to the United States followed the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets, but his initial success by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was followed by, what many believed to be, lesser films (Hair kicks ass, by the way), and in the reaction to some of Mozart’s later works in the film by the Viennese musical establishment, there is a hint of pathos on the part of the director that seeps through. Most certainly, Forman has always felt like an outsider, and Mozart, like McMurphy, Andy Kaufman or Larry Flynt, is one of history’s most well-known outsiders.
Miloš Forman’s awareness of Eastern and Central Europe helps the film immensely. He is attuned to the sense of history, and makes wonderful use of the Czech locales. Miroslav Ondrícek’s photography lovingly captures the classical architecture, and the production design by Patrizia Von Brandenstein (such a gloriously Old Europe name), and art direction by Karel Cerný recreates the rococo period with a cheeky modern twist.
But back to the music. As previously stated, the film starts off with the Overture to Don Giovanni. In that opera’s final scene, Forman finds yet another parallel with Mozart’s life. (In fact, Salieri's plot to "murder" Mozart is straight out of an opera — or an episode of Scooby-Doo) As the Commandatore’s ghost rises from the dead, he asks Don Giovanni to repent, but he refuses and is forever consumed by hellfire. By making the Commandatore a substitute for Mozart’s father, and Don Giovanni for Mozart, the composer makes his final stand against his father, refusing his call to obey the laws of society, and vowing to go his own way, even if that might mean damnation. Certainly, when Mozart’s body is thrown into a communal grave and quick lime is thrown upon him, the final shot looks like smoke and ash rising from the grave.
As he is slowly wheeled away from his room, Salieri lifts his hand in benediction, and starts to absolve his fellow inmates. And as the screen goes dark once more, as we hear Mozart get the last laugh, it is then that we fully grasp what has happened. Salieri has tricked us. It wasn’t a confession that we had just witnessed, it was a sermon by the “patron saint of mediocrity.”
Salieri is us.
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Friday, September 18, 2009
The light goes out
By Edward Copeland
I'm not going to pretend to be a regular, or even sporadic, viewer, of Guiding Light , but my mom is and my grandma was. At times in my life, I did. Summers as a child, bored afternoons as I waited to go work as a nighttime copy editor. Still, any drama that lasts a combined 72 years on radio and television deserves some notice when its time comes to an end, as the CBS soap opera will today. 72 years. That simply will never be equaled no matter how many times Law & Order refreshes its cast. Guiding Light began as a radio drama in 1937, at the beginning of FDR's second term. It began its television version in 1952 and kept the radio version as well for the first six years. The first few years of the radio version featured the voice talents of none other than future Oscar winner and future voice of the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Mercedes McCambridge. The title came from the central character, a reverend who tried to advise and give strength to his town's citzens and he was voiced by Arthur Peterson (seen on left), who would be noticed 40 years later as The Major on Soap. Another of the radio voices belonged to Betty Lou Gerson, better known as Cruella De Vil. Guiding Light boasts an impressive lists of actors who either served time on the show as characters or appeared as guests, among them: Sandy Dennis, Christopher Walken, Barnard Hughes, Joseph Campanella, Blythe Danner, Kevin Bacon, Sherry Stringfield, Melina Kankaredes, Teresa Wright, Joan Bennett, Dick Cavett, James Coco, Dorothy Loudon, Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, Tammy Grimes, Cindy Adams, Joan Collins, Philip Bosco, Jan Sterling, Allison Janney, Ruth Warrick (before All My Children), Chris Sarandon, Ed Begley Sr., Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs, Sorrell Booke, Everett McGill (Big Ed of Twin Peaks), Giancarlo Esposito and Adolph Caesar. The B-52s even dropped by once. Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton acted on the show from 1952-1962. James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson played a couple and when they left were replaced by Billy Dee Williams and Ruby Dee. Both of the Sopranos' neighbors the Cusamanos, Robert LuPone and Saundra Santiago, appeared at different times, though Santiago had the far more significant role as vindictive mobster Carmen Santos who, at last word, was still lying in a coma. She was deliciously bad, though you always had to blame her for killing off the great character of Ben (Hunt Block), which may have been one of the show's final, fatal missteps. The late Larry Gates had a long run as oil patriarch H.B. Lewis after a long career that included the films In the Heat of the Night, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Some Came Running and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Really, whether or not you ever watched any daytime drama, and if you don't soon you may not get the chance, because it's a dying breed in the expanded television universe, two paycheck households being the norm and the ratings of the survivors not justifying their costs, they are an amazing achievement. Some time they are bad, then they rebound. Some display some of the best television acting you'll see. Some also display the most awful amateurish acting you'll witness. However, when you consider they are on year-round for decades, the quality control is pretty remarkable. Some prime time shows have a hard time coming up with 22 good episodes in a season and run out of steam after a few seasons. Soap operas jump the shark, rise again, jump the shark again and repeat the whole cycle over and over again. That was the certainly the case with Guiding Light, at least with the times I watched. It had one of the best daytime villains (and actors) ever in the late Michael Zaslow as the nefarious Roger Thorpe. As with any good villain, he was thought dead and came back but he was a bit different that he was never a cartoony bad guy as some soap villains become. As dastardly as he could be, he also was defiantly human. You could hate him, but at times you could understand and even sympathize with him without the character doing a complete 180 from where he started. He was even part of a landmark soap storyline of the 1970s when his wife Holly (Maureen Garrett) accused him of marital rape. Zaslow was far from the only great actor/character to grace the show. Justin Deas will be on until today's last episode as blue collar good guy with rough edges Buzz Cooper who originally arrived as a Vietnam vet who had faked his death in that war. Between Guiding Light, As the World Turns and the canceled Santa Barbara, Deas has been the recipient of six Daytime Emmy Awards. Of course, one of the most fabled of all the show's characters is Reva (Kim Zimmer), herself the winner of four Emmys despite being stuck in some of the show's most ridiculous storylines. She was cloned. She had amnesia and became Amish after spending life in an island nation as its princess and having a secret child. After "dying," she came back as a ghost. There was a time traveling storyline, a period when she was suddenly psychic. She went through menopause and then years later became pregnant. It's a credit to Zimmer that she managed to keep Reva having any credibility at all. One of the best performances I ever witnessed on the show (which earned an Emmy) was Cynthia Watros as Annie, a nurse who became a woman scorned when her husband's former wife (Reva) came back from the dead and she slowly transformed into a double-barrelled psycho. It wasn't an abrupt change and included addiction to pills and drink that precipitated her fall but Watros was so great I often wonder why we don't see her in other venues. The character was so great, Annie even went so far as to kidnap a policewoman from another town and have plastic surgery to look like her to insinuate herself back into Springfield anonymously. Unfortunately, the face change meant no Watros. While soaps are often thought of mostly for the romance and trial and tribulations, not enough is made of their humor and Guiding Light was often very good at it, especially during the years Nola Reardon (Lisa Brown) was around with her crazy fantasies. So, even if you've never watched a soap and never plan to, raise a toast today to the passing of Guiding Light. The Bauers, the Spauldings, the Shaynes, the Coopers, the Lewises and the Reardons (are any of them left?) will live on in memories and an unaired Springfield after today and 72 years is one helluva broadcasting achievement. Replacing the show? A new version of Let's Make a Deal hosted by Wayne Brady. Now, that's depressing.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Henry Gibson (1935-2009)
To paraphrase Haven Hamilton's anthem "200 Years" in Robert Altman's Nashville, Henry Gibson must have been doing something right to last as long as he did. Unfortunately, Gibson didn't make it 200 years, dying five days short of his 74th birthday. Not only did Gibson star as Haven, my favorite role of his, he also wrote the songs Haven sang as most of the actors in the Nashvile cast did. Gibson's TV and film career both began the same year in 1963, with roles in several episodic TV series and in Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor. His real entry into the public consciousness came in 1968 as a member of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. He delivered a hilarious fake public service announcement in Kentucky Fried Movie on behalf of the dead. Nashville was far from his only work with Altman, working with the director in The Long Goodbye, A Perfect Couple and HealtH. Pretender to the Altman throne Paul Thomas Anderson even cast him as a barfly (named Thurston Howell no less) in Magnolia. He led the Illinois Nazis chasing Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers. He was the evil doctor conducting experiments and holding former Laugh-In co-star Lily Tomlin hostage in The Incredible Shrinking Woman. He was a member of the supremely odd family living across the street from Tom Hanks in The 'burbs. He did recurring voicework as Bob Jenkins on King of the Hill. His last role turned out to be his frequent appearances as the exasperated judge who frequently saw Alan Shore and Denny Crane (James Spader, William Shatner) in his courtroom on Boston Legal. However, of all his prolific work, he'll always be Haven Hamilton to me. R.I.P. Mr. Gibson.
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Monday, September 07, 2009
Centennial Tributes: Elia Kazan
By Edward Copeland
I can hear the grumbling already. Why does Elia Kazan deserve a tribute? He named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings under Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. It was the same cry that greeted him when he was given an honorary Oscar in 1998. (My own objection was that he didn't need one since he'd already won two Oscars competitively and there were plenty of film artists who'd received none who deserved honoring.) Was what he did honorable? No, but I was not in his position. Who knows what anyone would do in a similar position concerned about their family and their career? It also seems that he takes a worse beating than others involved in that despicable piece of American history. When Budd Schulberg recently died, little was made of his testimony. Jerome Robbins got a pass since Ed Sullivan basically blackmailed him into testifying by threatening to expose his homosexuality if he didn't. To me though, the greatest example of whitewashing is that of Robert Kennedy. He didn't testify, but he worked for McCarthy, believed in his cause and liked the man so much that he made McCarthy godfather to his daughter Kathleen. No one was pressuring him to do any of that and he never renounced McCarthy and only broke with the committee because he hated Roy Cohn. Anyway, let's face it: The true cowards were the studio heads and producers who didn't have the stones to stand up to intimidation and actually enforced the blacklist. Therefore, this tribute is not here to pass judgment on Kazan's character, because I didn't know him so I can't say. However, I do know Kazan as an artist and he made a lot of fine films and did a lot of legendary stage work I wish I could have seen. His work is what this tribute is about. So let's restrict the comments to that.
Kazan was born in Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire before it became Istanbul, Turkey. Kazan began his Broadway career as an actor, but once he became a director, that's when his career and legend took off. To read the list of plays that Kazan was the first to stage on the Great White Way is astounding. Works by Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth. Works by Arthur Miller: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and After the Fall. There also was Tea and Sympathy, J.B., The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and The Skin of Our Teeth, to name but a few. If only I could have seen any of those, but not having been born yet does present that problem when it comes to live theater. His Broadway career began before the Tony Award did but he eventually earned nine nominations and won three for directing.
As for his Hollywood career, Kazan made a short documentary called The People of the Cumberland in 1937 but didn't really get things going until he made his first feature in 1945 with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a well-made melodrama about a young woman (Dorothy McGuire) and her dream growing up in the poverty of a Brooklyn tenement in the early 20th century. It also set the course for the great success Kazan had with his film actors and Oscar, winning James Dunn the supporting actor award for playing the girl's happy-go-lucky if undependable and alcoholic father. In 1947, Kazan helmed three films and won his first Oscar. He made the lesser Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle The Sea of Grass, the noir courtroom drama Boomerang! and the year's best picture winner, Gentleman's Agreement. Gregory Peck starred as a reporter going undercover to investigate anti-Semitism. While certainly a noble topic, the film has not aged well and its best attributes today are Celeste Holm's Oscar-winning supporting performance and John Garfield. Ironically, one of the other best picture nominees that year, Crossfire, also dealt with anti-Semitism and holds up as a better film, though in the the story Crossfire was based on the murder victim wasn't Jewish, he was gay.
Two years later, Kazan returned with the overly melodramatic Pinky, the tale of a light-skinned African-American woman who has passed for white but who returns home to her grandmother's home, engaged to a white doctor who didn't know the truth of her racial identity. As in most Kazan's films, it has solid performances, particularly from Oscar nominees Ethel Waters as Pinky's grandmother and Ethel Barrymore as a wealthy woman that Pinky cares for as a nurse. The part that is hard to get past is that Pinky is played by Jeanne Crain (who also was nominated). No wonder it was so easy for her to pass. Whenever Hollywood either in its Golden Age or as recently as its adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain casts a white actor to play an African American passing for white, it just can't help but feel off. The next year came Panic in the Streets, which I haven't seen, which starred Richard Widmark and Jack Palance in a suspense tale about a 48 hour search for a killer infected with the plague.
In 1951, Kazan got to re-create one of his Broadway triumphs when A Streetcar Named Desire came to the big screen with most of the Broadway cast, with the exception of Vivien Leigh replacing Jessica Tandy in the role of Blanche Du Bois. It made Marlon Brando a sensation as his stage triumph of Stanley Kowalski lit up movie theaters around the world. Ironically, of the four principles in the cast (Brando, Leigh, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter), Brando was the only member of the acting quartet to go home empty handed. Kazan had to tone down some of the sexuality due to the censors' restrictions of the day, though some of the moments were restored later and the version of the film you can see today is usually more daring than 1951 moviegoers were allowed to see.
Brando and Kazan teamed again the following year in quite a different setting with Viva Zapata! Brando played Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who led an uprising against the corrupt dictator Diaz in the early 20th century. Kazan's Oscar luck for actors continued as Anthony Quinn won his first supporting actor Oscar for the film. I haven't seen Kazan's next film, 1953's Man on a Tightrope starring Fredric March, but by the descriptions of it I could find, it would seem to line up with the change in his outlook on the Communist Party, coming the same year as his HUAC testimony. It details a circus trying to escape the oppressive boot of the Soviet Union by making an escape to Bavaria.
The following year brought what many consider to be Kazan's masterpiece, his film of Budd Schulberg's screenplay for On the Waterfront. With its story of a man standing up to the rackets running the waterfront, Kazan and Schulberg were obviously making an allegory for the McCarthy hearings, only making the person who named names (as Kazan and Schulberg both did) the hero who suffers for doing it. Even those who disapproved of their real-life actions, couldn't dispute the power of Kazan's images, Schulberg's words and that cast, led by Brando's Oscar-winning Terry Malloy and supported by Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and, most especially, Lee J. Cobb. It took the Oscar for best picture and earned Kazan his second directing Oscar.
In 1955, Kazan tackled the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden which turned out to be one of the three feature films made by the legendary James Dean and, in my opinion, his best performance. It earned Dean the first of his two consecutive posthumous Oscar nominations for best actor and won the supporting actress honor for Jo Van Fleet. It's truly Dean who powers the film, which can be a bit plodding.
Next up, Kazan teamed with Tennessee Williams again as Williams reworked two of his one-act plays into one of the most bizarre and, for its time, controversial films of his career, Baby Doll. A steamy Southern gothic tale with Karl Malden in a rare unsympathetic role playing a failed businessman who weds a 19-year-old virgin temptress (Carroll Baker) who sucks her thumb and sleeps in a crib with the condition that the marriage cannot be consummated until "she is ready for marriage." Complicating matters is a rival cotton gin owner (Eli Wallach), out for revenge because Malden burned his gin down, blaming him for the loss of his business. Wallach's sleazy Sicilian sees Baker as the perfect vehicle for him to bring about Malden's comeuppance.
1957 brought the other Kazan/Schulberg collaboration, A Face in the Crowd, a decidedly underrated film that so wowed me upon re-watching it that I decided it deserves a separate review today. Kazan's film output slowed after that, directing only six more features between 1960 and 1976 of which I've only seen two. In 1961, there was the somewhat silly Natalie Wood-Warren Beatty vehicle Splendor in the Grass, which seems to send the message that sex makes young women CRAZY. In 1963, he adapted his own book about his uncle's 19th century immigrant experience in America, America, a filmwatching journey that's nearly as arduous as the real trip must have been except for Haskell Wexler's glorious cinematography. Kazan's final feature was an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel of Hollywood, The Last Tycoon, with a script by Harold Pinter and starring Robert De Niro, Robert Mitchum and Jack Nicholson, among others. Ever the actor's director to the end, he directed performers to 24 Oscar nominations and nine Oscar wins.
Labels: Arthur Miller, blacklist, Brando, De Niro, Finney, Fitzgerald, Gregory Peck, Harold Pinter, James Dean, K. Hepburn, Lee J. Cobb, Malden, Mitchum, Nicholson, Tandy, Tennessee Williams, V. Leigh, W. Beatty, Wallach, Wexler
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The greatest instrument of mass persuasion in history
By Edward Copeland
When Budd Schulberg died last month, I felt bad that I didn't have time to write an appreciation. Then again, what would I have written? I've never read What Makes Sammy Run? and it had been quite some time since I'd seen A Face in the Crowd. Did I want to write solely about On the Waterfront? However, Elia Kazan's centennial was approaching, so I was planning to revisit A Face in the Crowd anyway. It was worth waiting, because the second teaming of Kazan and Schulberg may be the film both men will end up being remembered for or, at any rate, it should be. Schulberg not only wrote the screenplay for A Face in the Crowd, which was based on one of his short stories, "Arkansas Traveler," he even composed some of the songs Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) sings in the films. Yes, any Keith Olbermann watchers out there confused when he refers to Glenn Beck as Lonesome Rhodes, this is the film from which the reference and the character originated. Patricia Neal plays Marcia Jeffries, host of an Arkansas radio program called "A Face in the Crowd" who believes, "People are fascinating wherever you find them." As the film opens, she takes her show into the county jail where she finds Rhodes, a surly man spending the night in the drunk tank with his guitar which he says "beats a woman any time." After being encouraged to entertain listeners with a tune, Rhodes makes an impression on Marcia and listeners and Marcia decides that Rhodes could be a sensation, giving him the nickname Lonesome. Marcia tracks Rhodes down as he's heading out of town following his release from jail and persuades him to delay his planned journey to Florida to try radio as a regular gig. It doesn't take long for Rhodes to realize the influence he can wield from his audio soapbox and he has a blast, attracting national attention and, before too long, an offer to transfer his show to television in Memphis. Rhodes acts sheepish and uncertain, but he knows exactly what he's doing and before long his audience and his stage is larger as he and Marcia make the move to Tennessee and he even inherits a a staff that includes writers such as Mel Miller (a great early turn by Walter Matthau), a well-educated cynic who soon recognizes Rhodes for what he really is and that he's selling out by working for him, but does it just the same. Marcia can't share Mel's opinion because she's found herself smitten with Rhodes, who's developed a dependency on her though he's a world class womanizer. Of course with television comes sponsors, and Rhodes doesn't take kindly to the on-air commercials he's supposed to do for a mattress company. Rhodes does do them, but in such a mocking, down home way that the business's owner goes ballistic and wants him fired, despite the fact that his silly attempts at "ads" crack up his audience and boost the mattress company's sales anyway. Besides, Rhodes has an ulterior motive at play. He's enlisted a sleazy New York agent (a spot-on turn by Anthony Franciosa who seems as if he's stepped off the set of the same year's Sweet Smell of Success) to secretly shop him around the Big Apple to find a national outlet. Sure enough, his ploy works and Rhodes is on his way to having a national following. The bigger he gets, the more he feels it's his place to tell his viewer how to think. As Matthau's character remarks at another point in the movie, "He has the courage of his ignorance." Rhodes is soon rubbing shoulders with corporate bigwigs, enthusiastically endorsing their products (the commercial they make for a product called Vitajax is priceless and like nothing you'd ever expect to see in an Elia Kazan film) and soon advising a right-wing Republican senator how to remake his image for a presidential run to make his isolationist and anti-Social Security ideas more palatable. He's introducing the concept of the political soundbite. In its own way, A Face in the Crowd is an ancestor to Paddy Chayefsky's Network. While funny, Crowd isn't as satirical or prescient as Network was in 1976. It's more straight-forward and of the moment, even if people weren't ready to admit it in 1957, despite cameos by real-life media figures such as John Cameron Swayze, Walter Winchell and Mike Wallace. "You have to be a saint to stand up to the power that little box can give you," Matthau tells Neal early on, but Rhodes was never a saint. He's not like Howard Beale, a good newsman who goes psychotic and is corrupted by television; Rhodes is corrupt to begin with. Still, A Face in the Crowd is pretty groundbreaking in its depiction of the convergence and intermingling of the media, corporate and political worlds. People who are only familiar with Andy Griffith as good old Sheriff Andy Taylor or Matlock are in for a shock when they meet Lonesome Rhodes. At one point, Rhodes says he puts his "whole self into everything he does" and that's what Griffith does with this performance. With a maniacal laugh which Kazan zooms into for closeups of its devilish grin, Griffith creates a funny charmer but never lets you forget the fraudulent asshole who lurks below. In fact, if you didn't see Kazan's credit, you might not even recognize A Face in the Crowd as a film he would have made. It's one of his loosest and least formal and moves with a fleetness often absent in most of his films. It's also funny which is an adjective that doesn't usually come to mind when describing Kazan's films. The film itself has a noirish look with crisp black and white cinematography by Gayne Rescher and Harry Stradling. After re-watching A Face in the Crowd, I was ready to watch it again and that's not something I can say about even Kazan's best films. Perhaps it's just because the media, particularly television news, has become such a joke capable of producing only sadness and anger knowing what a force for education and good it could be that makes films such as A Face in the Crowd and Network appeal to me in such a deep, profound way. Then again, it could just be that they are both examples of damn great movies with two of the best screenplays ever written and some of the most memorable performances ever placed on celluloid.
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Wednesday, September 02, 2009
“Made it, Ma — top of the world!”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
(Warning: possible spoilers contained within)
In “The Bells Toll at Noon,” a classic Hawaii Five-O outing from 1977, Rich Little portrays an impressionist (darn that typecasting!) who vows revenge on the individuals responsible for the death of a young girl from a drug overdose. His vengeance is meted out in the form of emulating death scenes from classic films; one victim (Milton Selzer) is even trussed up like a mummy like James Cagney at the conclusion of The Public Enemy (1931). The climax of the episode takes its cue from the fiery “blaze of glory” demise of another Cagney protagonist, Cody Jarrett, from the 1949 gangster classic White Heat (1949) — there’s even a choice moment when Steve McGarrett must view Heat on a movieola because he’s never seen the movie.
This was my introduction to what many Cagney devotees consider his finest hour onscreen. I didn’t see Heat until several years after the Five-O episode (at a time when you didn’t need channels like TCM or AMC to see classic movies), but the homage presented on the legendary crime drama has never left me…and continues to this very day, its 60th anniversary.
In White Heat, gangster Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (Cagney) successfully pulls off a $300,000 heist of Treasury money from a mail train even though a rookie named Zuckie (Ford Rainey) is scalded with third-degree burns after one of the engineers falls on the steam release lever, having been shot in cold blood by Jarrett. Holed up in a desolate mountain cabin, Jarrett takes advantage of an impending snowstorm to move his gang — including devoted mother (Margaret Wycherly) and slutty wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) — out of the area and towards freedom. Though he’s promised the injured man that he’ll get him medical attention, Jarrett orders an underling named “Cotton” (Wally Cassell) to terminate Zuckie with extreme prejudice—but the soft-hearted goon spares the “crispy critter” and in doing so, allows Treasury agents to find his fingerprints on a pack of cigarettes at the scene, effectively tying Jarrett’s gang to the robbery.
The T-Men close in on Jarrett at a trailer court in California, and after exchanging gunfire with Agent Philip Evans (John Archer), Cody successfully hides out at a drive-in movie theater, where he informs Ma and Verna that in order to beat the robbery rap he’ll cop to a lesser charge of a hotel robbery committed by a friend of his the same day the mail train was hit. The Treasury Department know Jarrett is full of it, but they arrange to work with the state of Illinois to keep Cody on ice and send special agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) undercover to become Jarrett’s bunkmate; as Vic Pardo, Fallon’s assignment is to find out how Cody managed to launder the $300,000…and who’s doing his laundry.
Fallon has a close call or two while in the joint (he’s almost recognized by an ex-convict named “Bo” Creel [Ian MacDonald], who’d “know me in the dark”) but he’s able to gain Jarrett’s trust when Cody succumbs to one of his “episodes” (a splitting headache that, according to him, is “like a red-hot buzz saw going through my head”) and Fallon covers for him, massaging his temples in the same manner as Ma Jarrett. Cody takes Hank into his confidence and announces that he’s planning to “crash out” of the prison, and Fallon is able to relay this information to Evans and his men when he gets a visit from a “memory expert” posing as his wife.
Unfortunately, things do not quite go as smoothly as planned. Learning of his mother’s death, Jarrett goes berserk in the prison cafeteria and has to be restrained in a strait jacket; the governor then informs Evans that since Cody will be sent to a mental institution the plans for learning Jarrett’s methods and contact have been scotched. But Cody isn’t down for the count; he arranges a breakout anyway and takes Fallon and a couple of other inmates along for the ride. Once on the outside, Cody’s new gang mingles with his old one as the men make plans to rob the payroll office of a chemical plant by being smuggled in via a tanker truck,; a plan devised by Jarrett’s “laundryman,” known only to his associates as “Trader” (Fred Clark). Inside the plant, the truck’s driver — none other than the previously introduced Mr. Creel — recognizes Fallon as a T-man and an exchange of gunfire between the Jarrett gang and the feds ensues. Jarrett, by this time completely insane, ends up on top of a large gas tank and blows himself to kingdom come by randomly firing his gun, leading Fallon to philosophize: “He finally got to the top of the world... and it blew right up in his face.”
Of the 61 feature films that credit James Cagney with an appearance during his lengthy movie career, only a small percentage feature him as a gangster or gangster-type; Cagney wasn’t particularly fond of the genre — no actor likes being typecast — but it was hard to deny a grudging respect for those movies that made him a household name among theatergoers…particularly since Cagney was so damned good in them. His silver screen breakthrough occurred when he was cast in the lead role in the aforementioned The Public Enemy. After quarreling with Warner Bros. in 1936 and embarking on a two-picture sojourn with the newly formed Grand National he returned back to his stomping grounds for one of his biggest box-office (and gangster-themed) successes, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Four years later, having copped his only Best Actor Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Cagney was afforded another opportunity to leave Warner’s stable of stars—but when his stint with independent production (partnered with brother William) produced duds like Johnny Come Lately (1943) and The Time of Your Life (1948), he returned again to the Warners’ fold…and his first smash success was, not surprisingly, White Heat.
When Heat first hit movie screens 60 years ago on this date, audiences were introduced to an older and paunchier Cagney — but by no means less effective. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is every bit as ruthless (if not more so) than the characters he portrayed in Enemy, Angels and The Roaring Twenties (1939); he’s also more cunning, energetic, humorous and violent. But while the villains Cagney played in these '30s’ films were motivated largely by economic concerns (it was the height of the Depression, when times where tough and good jobs were hard to come by) Cody Jarrett’s primary driving force is that he is literally batshit-crazy. The subject of psychiatry was just getting a foothold in the movies at this time, and while the Jarrett character wasn’t the first seriously disturbed criminal (Chester Morris was having problems ten years earlier in Blind Alley) in the flickers, he was certainly the most unforgettable.
Jarrett’s insanity can be traced to what psychiatrists describe as an Oedipus complex; he lavishes affection on his doting mother, who in many ways is the root cause of his “episodes” (which some have attributed to migraines, others epileptic seizures) since the only explanation for those spasms are attributed by agent Evans as a series of psychosomatic attempts to get his mother’s intention (and that later became all too real). (Another explanation is that Jarrett’s insanity may be a hereditable condition; his father spent his final days in a mental institution as well.) Indeed, Ma Jarrett (who never blinks) is a real closet case, allowing her son to curl up in her lap as she helps him through another one of his “twinges” (I suspect the only reason this got past the censors was that the Jarrett character also had a wife).
The most memorable scene in Heat (its blazing conclusion not withstanding) is that moment when Cody, learning of his beloved Ma’s demise through the cafeteria grapevine, scrambles up on top of the tables and begins mewing and moaning in agony while various screws attempt to subdue him. Guards rush at him and he casually knocks them down like bowling pins until he is finally overcome by their greater numbers. If the extras at the beginning of all this look a bit surprised, it’s because they were — they didn’t expect Cagney to carry on in that fashion, the actor having received a stamp of approval from director Raoul Walsh to improvise after several approaches to the scene simply weren’t working.
Throughout the film, many of those in Cody’s employ remark about his instability (which kind of makes you wonder why they hooked up with him in the first place), particularly Big Ed (Steve Cochran), who appears to be biding his time, waiting for an opportunity to usurp Cody’s position on the throne. Ed gets his chance when Cody begins his prison vacation, but makes the fatal mistake of having tried to snuff out Jarrett while he was still in the joint; Cody gets his revenge by emptying his gun into Ed’s back at his hideout (Cody’s wife convinces him that Ed was responsible for his mom’s death—but Cody never learns that it was actually Verna who did the shooting) and cavalierly dispatching Ed’s lackey Parker (Paul Guilfoyle) by pumping more slugs into a car trunk that’s become Parker’s temporary residence. (I love how Cagney does this with all the nonchalance of a simple household chore, gnawing on a chicken leg in the process.) Jarrett gets crazier and crazier as the film rushes to its classic climax, until Cagney drives home the point of how much Jarrett is ready for the booby hatch when he’s surrounded at the end and remarks with a giggle to his man Ryley (Robert Osterloh): “They think they got Cody Jarrett…they haven’t got Cody Jarrett.”
Edmond O’Brien — known to readers at my blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear as “the sweatiest man in noir” — handles an interesting and complex role as agent Fallon, who in many ways is presented by director Walsh as the real villain; a fellow convict who gains Cody’s trust and in the end is revealed to be an unrepentant fink (“A copper…a copper…how do you like that boys? A copper and his name is Fallon…and we went for it…I went for it…treated him like a kid brother…and I was gonna split fifty-fifty with a copper!”). Virginia Mayo — a favorite of Walsh’s — is equally top-notch; a dame struggling to act classy but unable to hide her trailer-trash origins (I love the bit where she spits out her gum before she kisses Cagney). It’s also hard to believe that the woman who plays Ma Jarrett is the same woman who played Gary Cooper’s sainted matriarch in Sergeant York (1941), but Wycherly’s performance is one for the ages.
Add to this a first-rate screenplay composed by scribes Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (from a story by Virginia Kellogg), and that unforgettable score by Max Steiner, and it’s no wonder that this picture continues to hold audiences in its thrall 60 years after it was first shown at a theater near you. Toward the end, as the T-Men continue to air-condition Cody Jarrett with bullets, Fallon asks: “What’s holding him up?” All you have to do is sit down with Heat for the first — or even 31st — time and the answer will become all too clear.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. is responsible for the weblog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, which doesn’t pay him a great deal but keeps him out of the pool halls. He had no trouble remembering the deadline for this essay as it is the same date as his natal anniversary.
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Tuesday, September 01, 2009
From the Vault: Hard-Boiled
Forget Jean-Claude Van Damme. If you want to see a movie that exemplifies how John Woo earned his reputation as an ace action director, see Hard-Boiled, an extremely violent but utterly fun example of his Hong Kong work. Even an experienced connoisseur of American action films should be blown away by the mind-numbing set pieces that Woo cooks up in Hard-Boiled. He's as much choreographer as director.
Just when you think he's reached a pinnacle of wow-inducing gunplay and fighting, he produces another sequence that tops what came before. By the end, when the protagonists search one corridor after another for each other, it's become less a film than a live-action video game.
The plot, really just a skeletal excuse for the action, concerns rival gun runners in Hong Kong, a duplicitous gangster caught between the two groups and the cop who wants to stop them all.
Chow Yun-Fat stars as Tequila, the crusading law officer who makes Dirty Harry look like a model of restraint in comparison. He doesn't leave the precinct without grabbing a healthy supply of weapons first.
The other main character is Tony, the gangster with divided loyalties played by Tony Leung (full name Tony Leung Chiu Wai to avoid confusion with Tony Leung Ka Fai who starred in the recent film The Lover).
In addition to the absurdly entertaining violence, Hard-Boiled provides an added comic kick by putting Hong Kong spins on American genre cliches.
A word of warning: Hard-Boiled is not for the squeamish. The violence and blood reaches such a high level that you probably would need someone schooled in higher mathematics to calculate the film's body count.
However, if you can enjoy it on its comic book level, Hard-Boiled takes the viewer on an incredibly fun thrill ride.
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