Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #6

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Uncategorized, Westerns with tags , , , , on July 19, 2016 by travsd

Even as we speak we are in the midst of  Day #5 of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to the Hollywood western (see yesterday’s post here). Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will  be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up.  I think you’ll find that in the daytime, it’s lots of Glenn Ford and in the evening lots of John Wayne. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers. And the first few are new to me.

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6:45am: Heaven with a Gun (1969)

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8:30am: Day of the Evil Gun (1968)

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10:15am: The Last Challenge (1967)

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12:00pm: The Rounders (1965)

A latter day western, written and directed by Burt Kennedy. It’s kind of a comedy lark.  Stars Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda as a couple of modern day bronc busters. Chill Wills hires them to break in some horses. In lieu of payment he gives them a roan who proves to be unbreakable. To earn money they decide to take the horse around to rodeos and bet riders they can’t stay on him. The scheme works until the horse falls ill and they spend all their money on vet bills and wind up right where they started, as cowboys always do. Also in the are cast Edgar Buchanan, Kathleen Freeman, and Doodles Weaver. 

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3:00pm: Cowboy (1958)

A Delmer Daves effort, very uncertain in tone. The opening and closing acts feel like light comedy, but the in-between is deadly serious. Jack Lemmon is a Chicago hotel clerk who buys his way into a cattle drive by loaning $3,800 to ranch man Glenn Ford so he can continue his card game. Lemmon’s motivation is a Mexican senorita he wants to marry. Ford gives Lemmon a more than a tough time all the way down, treating him like dirt. These scenes need more nunance, they don’t pave the way for Ford’s eventual journey (he softens by the end and the two become friends). Likewise, Lemmon becomes hard as the film progresses, but again he hates his boss too much, needs more nuance. The cowboys are loathsome, don’t care about each other, don’t protect each other. Strother Martin is one of the ranchhands, who is killed by a rattlesnake. No one sheds a tear. Dick York is in the film as one of the cowpokes who likes the ladies. The film is  apparently based on a true story.

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4:45pm: 3:10 to Yuma (1957)

Elmore Leonard wrote the story this film was based on and it’s far superior to the 2007 remake. Directed by Daves. Bears certain similarities to High Noon, released five years earlier. It asks the question, what do you do when you’re torn between duty to your community, duty to your family, and duty to yourself? Van Heflin is a failing rancher. He and his two boys come upon Glenn Ford and his gang robbing a stagecoach and see him murder the coachman. Heflin feels impotent, ashamed that he can’t do anything about it. Later, when the townspeople catch Ford, Heflin takes a job transporting the prisoner to jail in Yuma on the titular 3:10…but he has to get there first. Tense waiting for the gang to to come and spring Ford, without anyone to back Heflin up. Very good casting. Ford, usually known for playing straight arrows, sometimes has a James Dean like quality in a lot of his 50s pictures; here he’s so cool he rattles Heflin—who, in turn is very good as an actor at sweating and snapping. Like Heflin, we don’t know how to read Ford. At moments he seems to have a heart. More often it seems more like diabolical charm, which he can use to manipulate anyone he pleases. In the end the gang shows up…Heflin almost makes it on the train with Ford, but then the whole gang is there and he’s sure to be killed. But then Ford volunteers to go on train, saving Heflin’s life. (Heflin had earlier saved ford’s life, making it tit for tat).

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6:30pm: The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)

A “Method” western! Adapted from a successful television script (the ultimate Method medium). Full of Freudian stuff. Glenn Ford, while older, seems to be channeling James Dean. The premise is that Ford is the fastest gun alive, but he is secretly living a double life. He has been living in this small western town with his beautiful wife for four years. As far as anyone knows he is a meek storekeeper. We see him chafe and squirm in this metaphorical straight-jacket. He is jumpy and irritable. Hides his gun, which has six notches in the handle. There are hints in arguments with his wife that gunfights have caused them to move all over the country. Finally, his customers are driving him up a wall, he blows a gasket and runs over to the saloon, gets a drink, and reveals to all the men that he is a fast gun, and demonstrates that fact by shooting two thrown silver dollars out in the street. Meanwhile, we have been watching Broderick Crawford as a mean outlaw who needs to be the fastest man alive — we have already seen him shoot a man just so that could make the claim. (An earlier scene seems to echo both Oedipus and Snow White: a blind soothsayer tells Crawford: “There is ANOTHER, faster than you”). Crawford and his gang (John Dehner and Noah Beery Jr) ride into town just as the entire town is pledging before God in church never to reveal Ford’s secret (otherwise he and his wife were prepared to move on since he has told his secret and trouble has followed such admissions in the past). But it’s too late. A kid tells Crawford that Ford is the fastest gun alive. Crawford demands to see Ford for a showdown. The town won’t say who he is.  Crawford holds the kid hostage, then starts to burn down the town. Then the twist: Ford has never fought a man. He simply has a reputation for being the fastest. He is actually scared. He goes out and has the showdown with Crawford. We see a funeral and a tombstone for each of them. But it is a great device. Ford is alive, he is simply burying his reputation. Now maybe he and his wife can finally live in peace.

Inserted gratuitously into all of this is a spectacular dance by Russ Tamblyn, set at the barn dance. Mighty entertaining but grafted into the thing with maximum inorganic crudity. Ah, Hollywood!

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8:00pm: Red River (1948)

Howard Hawks’ best western without a doubt, and one that would rate inclusion on a very short list of best westerns ever. It is an epic, “true story” describing the first cattle drive along the Chisholm trail.  John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, an Ahab-like figure (one of many he played in his career) insanely driven to finish the drive. Montgomery Clift is his adopted son Matt. Walter Brennan is of course the sidekick — in a characterization so out-there and indelible it would remain hugely in demand for the next quarter century.

The three are the sole survivors of an Indian attack on a wagon train. They get to Texas and usurp some land from its rightful Mexican owner and start a ranch. 15 years pass. Much has changed. Dunson has built a huge ranch. Matt has just returned from the Civil War where he fought for the Confederacy. Since the South is destroyed, Dunson is cash poor and has no place to sell his beef. He decides on a cattle drive all the way to the railhead in Missouri: 1000 miles. Many have tried but no one has succeeded. But he is uniquely driven. He has changed. he is no longer the young man who loved a girl in the wagon train. He is hard, relentless, uncompromising. A couple of things jar us right away. One is his relationship with Walter Brennan. In the earlier scenes they seemed to be partners of a kind. Now the status has changed dramatically. Brennan is now just the cook for the huge ranch. To him, the John Wayne character is now “Mr. Dunson”. The gulf between them now seems huge. Second, Dunson’s new ruthlessness becomes apparent when we see him brand cows belonging to other ranches that have gotten mixed up with his herd — an expediency of unqualified moral dubiousness. Its just plain theft. The meat of the story seems influenced by Mutiny on the Bounty. Dunson as the cruel Captain Bly figure. Matt as the Fletcher Christian figure or the Brutus. Eventually Matt ousts Dunson, who vows revenge — and tries to get it. It was Hawks’ trusting of this serious part to Wayne that convinced Ford to start devising much better roles for him.

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10:30pm: Rio Bravo (1959)

In essence this is Howard Hawks’s last truly great film. The next one, the African safari picture Hatari (1962) is okay, but badly dated, and his last two westerns El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970) give diminishing returns.

Rio Bravo isn’t perfect either, but what it lacks in formal perfection it makes up for in chemistry. This is the ultimate multi-generational male bonding picture, with Wayne as a sheriff, Dean Martin as his alcoholic deputy, Walter Brennan as his old, gimpy other deputy and Ricky Nelson as a kid named “Colorado”, a hired gun who comes in to help out when his boss Ward Bond is murdered. Angie Dickinson is Wayne’s naughty love interest, so all the bonding isn’t male (really, without her the picture would be downright gay).

Claude Akins is a bad guy whom Wayne has placed in the pokey. The bulk of the movie is spent in preparation for a showdown with Akins gang, which is going to come free him. The easiest thing for Wayne to do would be to let his prisoner go free. But well, he’s the Duke. He just can’t do that. The majority of the film is about the tension of waiting for the big showdown, with our small handful of heroes hunkered down in the tiny jail, waiting for an army of bad guys to ride in.

And while they wait, they have conversations. This is the aspect its hard to have patience with. To the modern sensibility it feels way too talky, the film feels downright padded with talk. I’ve heard it said that Hawks was responding to the challenge of television and its more intimate aesthetics. TV, with its smaller screen is much more dialogue based than cinema. A lot of the dialogue feels sparkling and magical, and kind of the capper on the Hawksian tradition of playful screen banter, but I still find myself wanting to snip about a half hour out.

At any rate, can these four dudes and one lady (each with their own vulnerabilities) take on ten times their number and emerge victorious? What do you think?

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1:00am: Rio Lobo (1970)

This is the last movie Howard Hawks directed and the law of diminishing returns applies. The first act is okay:  John Wayne is a civil war colonel on the Union side. A gold shipment he is responsible for is stolen off a train by a band of Confederates (the train heist is fascinating and the best part of the picture). Wayne chases them down, is kidnapped by them and then ingeniously tricks them into getting near his own troops, freeing himself, and taking their officers prisoner. Then the war is over.

Now the film just gets to be bad.  It’s just a bad, rambling screenplay. Wayne and those Confederates have developed a mutual respect, even a rapport. He enlists two of them to help him locate the Union traitors in his unit who had helped the Confederates (and killed his young lieutenant). The trail leads to Rio Lobo, Texas. Coincidentally, these bad guys are now involved with a crooked sheriff and a  rapacious cattle baron. There are three nearly identical but absolutely gorgeous damsels in distress, all of whom are terrible actors. (although one them is nearly topless in one scene, one of the few modern touches in the film, along with the close up of a hand playing a guitar in the opening credits).  Jack Elam is an ornery guy who holds out against the cattle baron. As in Hawks’ previous films, there are endless, aimless scenes of people waiting, talking, wondering what to do, then planning what to do without much conviction about the outcome. There is no mystery to it. For the third time in a row in a western (Rio Bravo, El Dorado), he has a scene of John Wayne and his group of friends barricaded in a jailhouse. (what is it with this?). Interesting trivia: George Plimpton is an extra in this movie.

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3:00am: Chisum (1970)

Wayne’s deification, percolating for three decades, has finally become complete. The picture begins and ends with Wayne actually posed in tableau on a horse like a Remington sculpture. He doesn’t have to do anything to be admired but EXIST.  Set in New Mexico, 1878. John Chisum (Wayne) is a mighty independent rancher. Ben Johnson is his mumbling right hand man. Forest Tucker is the requisite crook who schemes to take over the whole territory: not just ranch land but the bank and the store too. Chisum and his friends fight him, legally at first, by starting their own bank and store. But finally it’s an all out war including a fistfight finale between the hero and the villain, in which the latter ultimately gets gored on a pair of ornamental bullhorns. The plot is paint by numbers, except for the interesting if ridiculous gimmick of introducing Pat Garret and Billy the Kid as characters and making the story partially theirs. But for a couple of tiny touches (the phrase “son of a bitch” and a couple of graphic deaths) the movie could have been made in 1955.

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5:00am: McLintock! (1963)

I am tempted to call this movie best non-spoof comedy western ever. It’s definitely John Wayne’s best comic performance, although that’s not saying much. His comic scenes in John Ford’s and his own movies are usually irritatingly bad, just self-conscious and clumsy. Here it’s a bit of self-mockery and works really well. His comical foil is Maureen O’Hara, his traditional leading lady, also here at her best. Like Wayne, she is not really an actress but more a force of nature. Very little real subtlety.  But neither does a freight train possess much subtlety and it can be beautiful nonetheless. O’Hara seems to me the person the phrase “you’re beautiful when you’re angry” was devised for.

In the film, Wayne plays the title character, and the founder of the fictional town that also bears his name. He is a big man in every sense of the word. The whole town loves him, not just because he is the most powerful man in town but because he is a straight up guy to boot — and nice.  He lets Mexican kids climb up his trellis. His best friend is the Jewish merchant from town. His ranch is in the Cherokee Strip and they are about to let settlers in (it’s the 1895 run), but his run-ins with them are all humanitarian. Unlike a neighboring rancher he doesn’t vow to “run ‘em out”. He explains to them that the land they’ll be getting is bad. And he stops the lynching of an Indian by settlers. He even hires one of the young settlers (played by his actual son Patrick Wayne) for a cowhand, and his beautiful mother (Yvonne DeCarlo, va va voom) for a cook.

McLintock’s utopia is upset when his wife (O’Hara), from whom he has been separated for two years, returns to town from back east. She wishes to prevent their daughter (Stephanie Powers, again with the va va voom) from moving back home. The wife and daughter are both snobs, despite the wife coming from the same upbringing as McLintock did it. She puts on airs, bosses people around. The fact of the couple’s separation seems to recall their earlier film together Rio Grande, as does the fact that they really love one another. Bit by bit O’Hara starts to melt as she begins to remember who she is. (This is egged along by an astounding Taming of the Shrew scene, where McLintock pursues his wife through the town in her underwear. She and one of the town prostitutes are dunked in a water trough, in a somewhat problematic and sexist scene that climaxes with a good, hard spanking. Meanwhile the daughter falls in love with the ranch hand and they live happy ever after. There must be ten recognizable character actors from westerns in the film, including Strother Martin as a dude Indian agent in spectacles. Jerry Van Dyke as the daughter’s dude boyfriend from college who does a hilarious cakewalk “it’s the latest thing!” A minor classic of the genre.

The Fascinating Background of Arthur Rankin of Rankin-Bass

Posted in Hollywood (History), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Television, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late Arthur Rankin, Jr (1924-2014), one half of the famous animation production duo Rankin-Bass. I would have blogged about him anyway, being such a huge fan of their perennial holiday classics, but I discovered added layers of fascination that plug in with other areas of interest of this blog that make his background doubly significant here.

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Come now, Herbie, the world has plenty of dentists

Rankin-Bass is of course known for such productions as Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (1964), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), The Jackson 5ive (1971), The Osmonds (1972), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), and The Hobbit (1977). It’s inevitable that I shall blog about these programs at such point, I think, which made such a mark on me in my childhood.

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But today I wanted to share my recent revelation that Rankin comes from America’s foremost acting dynasty, one that begins way back in the mid 19th-century and continues all the way to the present day. I’m going to unpack this in greater detail at a future date (I’m about to leave on vacation) but I wanted to sketch in the bold outlines.

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It begins with Rankin’s great grandfather McKee Rankin, one of 19th century America’s greatest stage stars starting in the 1860s. Rankin had three daughters, all of whom were actors themselves, and all of whom married actors. The oldest, Gladys Rankin, married Sidney Drew (himself of a great acting dynasty), thus becoming the first “Mrs.” in the stage and screen team of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. The youngest, Doris Rankin, married Lionel Barrymore. (This adds to the delightful knot, for Barrymore’s mother was also a Drew).

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The middle Rankin daughter Phyllis Rankin married Harry Davenport, a stage and screen star best remembered today for playing Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind (1939). Phyllis and Harry had a son, named Arthur Rankin, who was a (very minor) movie actor himself (he chose his mother’s surname —  it had better marquee value). And HIS son, Arthur Rankin Jr. was the animator.

Like I say, MUCH more on this topic to follow. I find this remarkable extended family too seductive not to jump down the rabbit hole, and there are many other notable relatives in their tree I haven’t mentioned yet. Drew Barrymore, anyone? ‘Til then.

Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #5

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by travsd

Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will  be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that in full movie descriptions I always include spoilers.

Tomorrow’s line-up is focused on spaghetti westerns. While I have seen scores of Italian westerns, most of the classics of the genre, I am astonished to observe that I’ve only seen one  of the films they are showing in the daytime (the soporific Guns for San Sebastian. You’ll quickly find I am not a huge fan of most Italian westerns). Several of the daytime films seem to be TCM premieres. As we go into prime time though, we get into Leone, etc and we’ll have a few squibs about those.

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6:15am: Hate for Hate (1967)

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8:00am: Guns for San Sebastian (1968)

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10:00am: The Stranger Returns (1968)

 

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12:00pm: The Silent Stranger (1968)

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2:00pm: The Five Man Army (1970)

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4:00pm: A Bullet for Sandoval (1970)

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6:00pm: Red Sun (1971)

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8:00: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Italian director Sergio Leone based this founding spaghetti western on Kurasawa’s Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood, as The Man with No Name, wearing a poncho and with a cigar clenched in his teeth, wanders into a desolate town where he somehow decides there’s money to be made. There are two rival gangs, the Baxters and the Rojas. Clint, a supernaturally good shot (he kills everyone he shoots at in one shot and no even gets a chance to shoot back) goes to work for both gangs. In the end he kills everyone from both gangs (which amounts to the entire town) and takes home twice the money. But he’s a little better morally than the gang — at a certain point, he helps a young couple and their child escape. The film is less a story that one follows and more like a collection of memorable scenes and images. Such as Clint making a bunch of guys apologize for insulting his mule, then killing all four of them in about a second. “Make that four coffins,” he says to the coffin maker. Clint accidentally punching a woman in the face. Clint propping up two dead bodies in the graveyard to stand in for a couple of soldiers. A bunch of U.S. soldiers stopping Mexican cavalry that is transporting a coach full of gold; they turn out to be Rojas’ gang. Rojas’ gang setting a house on fire and then shooting everyone who runs out, including the matriarch, laughing all the while. Clint, all of his bones broken, killing two pursuers by crushing them with a wine barrel, and then crawling across town on his belly to safety. Appearing like a magician in the end through a haze of dynamite smoke and then spooking his enemies by seeming impervious to bullets (he has sheet metal under his poncho). And it’s all for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

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9:45pm: For a Few Dollars More (1965)

This sequel to A Fistful of Dollars has Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty hunters, after a crook named Indio, a guy so evil his wanted poster depicts him laughing. Van Cleef, known as The Colonel, smokes a pipe, and uses a strange gun, a pistol that is adaptable into a rifle. He’s also the kind of guy who pulls the emergency brake to make an unscheduled stop on the train and then terrorizes the conductor when he dares to complain. The bounty hunters decide to team up  after a contest in which they shoot each others’ hats.  One of them must go undercover with the gang as they prepare to rob the bank in El Paso. Indio once killed his friend then raped his friend’s girlfriend (who shot herself while he was doing it). Maybe that’s why he keeps smoking grass to calm down but it only makes him more insane. He plays music in a little watch whenever he fights a duel. The film climaxes with a three-way duel. Of course Indio loses. It turns out the girl he had raped was The Colonel’s sister. This explains why the Colonel turns down the bounty in the end. The Colonel only wanted revenge. Whereas Clint wanted A FEW DOLLARS MORE.

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12:00am: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1968)

Leone’s third and last film in the Eastwood trilogy. When I first saw it I was alternately bored and scornfully amused by it. Now I think it’s amazing, though merely stylistically. Its cleverness is all directed at aesthetic elements. It doesn’t analyze or critique the human condition or America’s role in history or anything like that. I think the influence of many Italian film-makers on westerns has been in the main deleterious in this respect. Their storytelling makes no judgment between good or bad behavior. Revenge and vendetta are represented as legitimate human pursuits. We are occasionally invited to laugh at the pain and distress of others. It is a cruel universe. Yet many of the details and plot twists remind me of fairy tales: extremely fanciful, almost magical. At any rate, to the film at hand:

The film’s most indelible element is its justly celebrated soundtrack (Ennio Morricone), and the stylish way we are introduced to Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the titular characters. Essentially it’s the same story as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World! The title characters are in mad pursuit of a cache of gold they didn’t even steal themselves (although these guys are plenty crooked already). Their paths keep crossing, the alliances keep shifting. Starts in New Mexico during the Civil War.  “Angel Eyes” (Van Cleef) learns about the gold when hired by one of the robbers to track down one of the others. He kills a guy who knows the name his quarry is traveling under (and his son) and the man who hired him. “When I have a job, I always follow through”.  Meanwhile, enter “Blondie” (Eastwood) and “Tuco” i.e., The Rat” (Wallach in Mexican mode). Tuco is a shifty eyed weasel, the cousin of Wallach’s character in The Magnificent Seven. These  two are partners. Blondie brings Tuco into the authorities for the price on his head, and then shoots the rope when they are about to hang him (shooting everybody’s hats off in the bargain). When Wallach annoys him one too many times, Eastwood takes all the money and leaves him in the desert.

Wallach makes it back to town, washes his face, and goes directly to the gun store, where he gets a gun, whiskey, and a sombrero — and robs the til. Wallach catches up to Eastwood while he is “rescuing” his next partner.  Wallach walks Eastwood through the desert now with no water and no hat, until he is seriously injured by the sun. He is about to put a bullet in his head when a wagon rides up. Everyone inside (they’re all wearing Confederate uniforms) seems to be dead. However, one is alive. He turns out to be the missing robber from the gold heist. He manages to give part of the location to Wallach, who then goes to get him some water and meanwhile he gives the rest of the clue to Eastwood. Then he expires. The two men are now bound together whether they want to be or not. Wallach brings Eastwood to recuperate at a hospital run by his brother, a priest. (They’re wearing confederate uniforms; they’ve disguised themselves as the dead soldiers, since they are actually wanted criminals). They’re then caught by Union soldiers, whom they mistook for Confederates, since they’re covered head to toe in grey dust. That’s one fairy tale twist. Another is that a major figure at the prison camp is Angel Eyes, who tortures Wallach for information, while Confederate prisoners play sweet music to cover the sound. Angel Eyes brings Blondie with him to get the gold. Meanwhile Wallach leaps off a prison train, handcuffed to a guard, knifing him on the way. Unable to get out of the handcuffs, he lays the chain across the railroad track, and waits for next train, which frees him. He catches up with the other two in a fantastic, dreamlike village that has been destroyed by cannon. Someone tries to kill Wallach while he takes a bath. He shoots from under the suds, saying one of my favorite lines: “If you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Wallach and Blondie team up, shoot several of Angel Eyes’ men, but Angel Eyes escapes.

Their next episode is a digression, perhaps it is only there to bring the characters’ redemption. They encounter a Union battalion that is at a stalemate with their Confederate counterparts. They fight and lose men every day over a bridge they are not allowed to destroy. The two men blow up the bridge. Finally they make it to the graveyard. Wallach, through trickery, gets there first. The other two show up. there is a three way shootout. Angel Eyes dies of course. Eastwood shoots him, having emptied Wallach’s gun earlier. Wallach digs uo the gold. Eastwood makes him put his head in a noose, standing on a very shaky headstone. He then rides away, waiting until the last possible second to shoot the rope.

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3:00am: Hang ‘Em High (1968)

A kind of American tribute to the spaghetti western, also starring Clint Eastwood. I think of this movie as The Ox-Bow Incident squared. It’s supposed to be Oklahoma, 1889, but it really takes place in some weird parallel universe that might be called “Hanging Land”. All anyone has anything to do with in this world involves stringin’ ‘em up. An unjust and botched hanging of Eastwood (definitely based on the one in The Oxbow Incident) launches the story. Then Eastwood goes to work for a hangin’ judge (Pat Hingle), to bring back all them guys who almost hung Eastwood so they can hang ‘em! Meanwhile, the judge does a whole bunch of other hangings, and the whole town gathers in the town square to watch this enormous gallows that dominates the entire town in a manner that seems to echo the guillotine in Paris. (The prisoners are also kept in a huge dungeon that evokes the Bastille). Though American, the film has a strong flavor of spaghetti westerns, including the stylized hyper violence; lengthy shots where nothing in particular is happening, and a cool soundtrack. Other side benefits: Alan Hale Jr is one of the bad guys (exceedingly surreal and weird to see Skipper in this context) as are Bruce Dern and Ed Begley, Sr. who are right in their element.

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5:00am: The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)

I’m very much looking forward to seeing this light western comedy starring Ginger Rogers for the first time!

 

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the “Mexican Spitfire” Comedies

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Lupe Velez (read more about the talented and gorgeous Latin star here). A fitting day, we think to do this little post on her last (and today, best known) career phase, her “Mexican Spitfire” comedies.

While worth watching as historical curiosities, to the modern sensibility these films seem both sexist and racist. The Spitfire character is a sort of combination of Lucy and Desi, hot tempered, fast talking, and trouble prone, like some sort of wild animal. The only way you would be prone to find it amusing is if you were by default poised to laugh at the idiocy of women and Mexicans. Leon Eroll as Uncle Matt (and his alter ego Lord Epping) is a bit of welcome relief. Essentially these are cheapie B pictures on every level, forgettable, disposable, and very much representative of the times.

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The Girl from Mexico (1939)

The first “Mexican Spitfire” movie, although no one knew at the time that a series of films would transpire. Lupe Velez plays an unknown singer in a small Mexican village brought north of the border by a radio scout (Donald Woods) who is affianced to a scheming phony. Lupe will of course win him for her own.

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Mexican Spitfire (1940)

The first official one in the series. They settle into the formula. The couple are now married and its all about the culture clash of being a Latina in America. The comedy is much broader than in the previous one. This also introduces the recurring motif of the British distiller Lord Epping, played also by Leon Erroll. So Uncle Matt (also Errol) has several bits where he goes in disguise as the English gentleman (this was one of Eroll’s stage specialties, in addition to his famous drunk routine).

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Mexican Spitfire Out West (1940)

This one doesn’t quite deliver what the title promises.  It’s not a western comedy. Carmelita goes to Reno to pretend to be seeking a divorce from her boring husband because she thinks he is being unfaithful (someone turned on the radio to a peppy station while they were on the phone). And Lord Epping returns. So there is an irritating subplot of Dennis (the husband) having to outscheme some rivals for the attentions of Lord Epping, who is sometimes Uncle Matt in disguise. But the main question is “Who cares”? Who cares whether he has a coup at work or if their marriage breaks up?” On the positive side,  Tom Kennedy has a funny bit as a cab driver.

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Mexican Spitfire’s Baby (1941)

The title of this film so badly makes me want to do a comedy mash-up sketch of this and the Mia Farrow/ Roman Polanski horror picture. The production values in this one seem to have improved over the previous one a little. The anonymous Donald Woods is now replaced by Buddy Rogers as Carmelita’s husband and he is much better at playing comedy than his soporific predecessor. Velez now sports a fashionable 40s haircut.  And Zasu Pitts is in the cast as prissy hotel manager Miss Emily Pepper, and Fritz Feld does his patented Frenchman routine. This improved cast makes it a vastly more watchable movie, even if the script is as tedious as the previous ones.  It opens on an anniversary party at a fancy night club. Dennis and Carmelita are still troubled. Uncle Matt suggests they adopt a “baby”. Unfortunately Dennis gets a “baby” – a gorgeous blonde French girl named “Fifi” whom he somehow has to host for work. Much misunderstanding and yelling in Spanish ensues.

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Mexican Spitfire at Sea (1942)

The couple takes a ship to Honolulu to get away from work and have a second honeymoon. And who’s on board but Fifi and Miss Emily Pepper from the previous film? And Uncle Matt and his snobby wife? And it all becomes about Uncle Matt masquerading as Lord Epping to help Dennis land a business deal with a gent who is traveling on the same tub. Endless permutations of the various characters having conversations in different staterooms or on deck. Can there by anything more disposable?

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Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942)

The inevitable spook comedy. The Carmelita character gets even more demeaning in this one. When we first see her she is having fun riding a painters scaffolding apparatus on the outside of a skyscraper oblivious to her safety. Dennis and his aunt go to Lord Epping’s country mansion to go hunting (for business reasons). They leave Carmelita behind because she lacks class; Uncle Matt takes her to a boxing match. But they show up anyway…after all they are the stars of the film.and it’s a good thing too. Lord Epping doesn’t arrive to clinch the business deal so Uncle Matt masquerades as him for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately the house is also haunted! (Naturally the explanation is the usual thing—crooks are hiding in the basement making explosives, and are faking the ghosts to scare them off.) One of the other guests is the irritating Donald McBride (the “jumping butterballs” guy from Room Service. And naturally the servants are Mantan Moreland and Lillian Randolph. It wouldn’t be a ghost comedy without some stereotyped eye popping and superstition.

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Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant (1942)

We are initially disappointed to learn it’s not a circus elephant, but a statuette carved out of a gem (much like the titular rock in The Pink Panther). Lyle Talbot is the crook who is smuggling it. But thanks to a misunderstanding of Carmelita’s we do eventually get our live elephant. As if to provedthat the character of Dennis is a tedious cog, the actor playing him has been replaced yet again, this time by the mustachioed Walter Reed, who’s so unappealing he looks precisely like the sort of guys who normally play villains in movies like this . This one is also burdened with wartime propaganda nonsense…Uncle Matt is working for civil defense on air raid drills etc.

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 Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943)

This one, the last in the series, achieves new levels of inconsequentiality. Confusingly, unlike Mexican Spitfire Out West, this one actually has a “western” setting and theme. It’s set at an Arizona resort. When we first see Carmelita she is dressed in a little cowgirl outfit. The main plot of the film is actually similar toMexican Spitfire’s Baby. Dennis thinks Carmelita is pregnant but in reality its just that her cat is going to have kittens (apparently this is a world where even married people can’t have sex – particularly sex with Mexicans). The usual boring shit about business deals with Lord Epping, now with a bunch of guys in army uniforms running around, shoving the war down our throats. Hugh Beaumont and Alan Carney play minor roles.

The following year, Velez would be expecting her own “blessed event”. Unmarried at the the time, she took her own life rather than suffer the public humiliation of such a predicament given the mores of that day. Whether there would have been more Spitfire movies after that is academic. The popularity of the series had begun to wane, and she had resumed making other sorts of films.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Stars of Vaudeville #999: Jane Frazee/ The Frazee Sisters

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc., Westerns, Women on July 18, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jane Frazee (Mary Jane Frehse, 1918-1985). Jane started out in show business at age six in a vaudeville act with her older sister Ruth called the Frazee Sisters. In addition to vaudeville, the pair appeared together in nightclubs, on radio, and in several movie shorts released between 1935 and 1939. At this juncture, the pair both took screen tests. Jane passed; Ruth didn’t.

In 1940, Jane began her career as a solo movie actress in the B movie musical Melody and Moonlight.  She appeared in around 40 feature length pictures through the end of the 1940s, including several more Moonlight musicals, the Abbott and Costello hit Buck Privates (1941), Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin (1941), and numerous western musicals with the like likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. After this she appeared on television for a few years, and co-starred in the “Joe McDoakes” shorts from 1954 through 1956.

Jane Frazee was married four times; the best known of her husbands was silent movie star and director Glenn Tryon. 

For more on vaudeville history, consulNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Stars of Vaudeville #998: Hy Mayer

Posted in German, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc., VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of illustrator, cartoonist and animator Henry “Hy” Mayer (1868-1954). Originally from Germany, he began his career as an illustrator in Munich, then worked his way west to Paris, then London, then finally New York, moving to the U.S. in 1886. He illustrated several children’s books, became a political cartoonist for the New York Times in 1904, and chief cartoonist at Puck starting in 1914.

Starting in 1909 he began contributing animations for films to Universal Studios, where he turned out several popular series for over a decade. From 1920 through 1926 he created the “Such is Life” Series for Film Book Offices of America (later to be part of RKO).

Like many cartoonists, Mayer also played big time vaudeville and revues. He was on the very first bill at the Palace in 1913, and was also featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913. His personal appearances seem limited however. Much more often, his popular films would be incorporated into vaudeville bills as attractions themselves.

Here he is at work!

For more on vaudeville  historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Tomorrow on TCM: Comedies of Red Skelton

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Red Skelton with tags , , , , on July 17, 2016 by travsd

Tomorrow is comedian Red Skelton’s birthday. Turner Movie Classics will mark the occasion by screening his films throughout the day. I am grateful for this particular line-up, as it contains four films I haven’t yet seen, bringing me close to having seen the entire Red canon. Times below are all eastern Standard. On the menu are:

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6:00am: The Show-Off (1946)

Skelton makes a bang-up Aubrey Piper in this fairly excellent remake of the old George Kelly vehicle. It’s been tweaked and updated somewhat from earlier versions, but the casting is excellent, with Skelton’s brash cluelessness butting up against mother in law Marjorie Main’s icy stare. Marilyn Maxwell plays his wide-eyed wife, whom he nicknames “Turner” after Lana Turner, a sort of in-joke.

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7:30am: Merton of the Movies (1947)

The umpteenth version of this old warhorse (although many of the versions simply steal the plot and call it something else). First a short story by Harry Leon Wilson, than a 1922 Broadway hit by George S. Kaufman, then a 1924 silent comedy. And see Mabel Normand’s The Extra Girl and Lloyd’s Movie Crazy for uncredited piracies! Red plays a bumpkin from Kansas who’s just dying to get into movies. By accident he becomes a big comedy star — only he doesn’t know that people are laughing at him. Virginia O’Brien plays his guardian angel and love interest.

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9:00am: A Southern Yankee (1948)

This might be my favorite Red Skelton movie. The hand of Buster Keaton (a gag man on many Skelton features) is all over it, and it is just FULL of good stuff, almost every second. Red is a bellboy in a Missouri hotel who wants to get in on the Civil War. By a series of accidents he identifies and captures a notorious Rebel spy. Now he is given a truly dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Along the way of course he falls for a Rebel girl, the daughter of a Confederate general. Even that impossible predicament works itself out. Brian Donlevy is one of the villains.

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10:45am: The Yellow Cab Man (1950)

Many of Skelton’s plots were borrowed from old Keaton and Lloyd comedies; the premise of this one bears more than passing resemblance to the W.C. Fields features So’s Your Old Man (1926) and You’re Telling Me (1934). In this movies Fields invents an unpoppable tire and tries to sell it to companies. Here, Red is a cabbie who has invented an unbreakable windshield. Lots of stars in this one: Gloria DeHaven (we’ve blogged about her father), Edward Arnold, James Gleason, Walter Slezak, Jay C. Flippen and Polly Moran. 

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12;15pm: Excuse My Dust (1951)

Red plays a misfit inventor in the gay 90s. It has a Meet Me in St Louis vibe, and the color in the movie is just gorgeous. It’s all about his drive to invent an automobile. Everyone thinks he’s crazy and silly (there’s even a musical number called “Get a Horse”.) His prinicipal opposition includes the father of his girlfriend (William Demarest) who owns a livery stable, and the rival for the girl, college boy MacDonald Carey. It’s a pleasant enough movie…but it would be so much funnier in the hands of someone like Keaton. The plot is so much the emphasis that it plays like a drama for the most part. And it stops dead constantly for songs. Several jokes about the near-sightedness of people at the time and resistence to change, and several fantasy sequences about the future. The whole movie is just about completely by the numbers.

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1;45pm: Texas Carnival (1951)

Red and frequent co-star Esther Williams run at a dunk tank at the carnival, until a series of mix-ups have them masquerading as a couple of Texas millionaires and occupying some dude’s ranch. This one seems to cobble together elements of Maisie was a Lady and City Lights. The cast also features Ann Miller, Howard Keel and Keenan Wynn.

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3:15pm: Lovely to Look At (1952)

A remake of the musical Roberta, with Red playing the Bob Hope role.

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5:00pm: The Clown (1953)

The Clown is a remake of The Champ essentially, more of a drama than a comedy. In scale it seems sort of a comedown for Red after all his lavish MGM vehicles of the 40s and early 50s. But it also feels like a much more personal work…his clown character is the one we know well from television. He works at Steeplechase Park! He gets fired for harassing customers (and for  drinking).  Has a kid (Tim Considine). He is a former Ziegfeld star, now he’s a bottom feeding clown scrapping for gigs (and losing them). After bottoming out, his old agent gets him a shot on TV and he collapses and dies. The kid goes back with his mother. It’s a heartbreaker! Red was a real artist — he ought to be better remembered.

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6:45pm: The Great Diamond Robbery (1953)

Red is a ne’er-do-well assistant diamond cutter; James Whitmore is a crooked lawyer who recruits con artists to play his long lost family so they can get their hands on a big hunk of ice.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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