Archive for May, 2016

Wanda Nevada

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on May 31, 2016 by travsd


Wanda Nevada (1979)

Today is the birthday of Brooke Shields (b. 1965). Today we talk about her 1979 buddy picture with Peter FondaWanda Nevada. 

In the cinema, Fonda is best known for producing, co-writing and starring in the 1969 hippie motorcycle epic Easy Rider. It’s lesser known that he directed three movies, as well: the 1971 western The Hired Hand, the 1973 science fiction tale Idaho Transfer, and 1979’s Wanda Nevada. 

Wanda Nevada is an interesting animal and no mistake. It has much in common with Paper Moon (1973), and the yet to be released Butterfly (1982) in that it centers around an iffy borderline relationship between a roguish father figure (Fonda) and an underage girl on the fringes of society. Here, the girl is played by the already sexualized 13 year old Shields, fresh from the previous years’ Pretty Baby and The King of the Gypsies, although her notorious Calvin Klein ad, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love were still ahead of her.

Set in the American southwest of the 1950s, con man and gambler Fonda wins the precocious but still innocent Shields in a card game.Though she is clearly intended for immoral purposes, Fonda doesn’t use her that way: he treats her well, though the two constantly bicker. She’s the typical smart-mouthed kid from ’70s movies. She says she wants to be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry (“Wanda Nevada” is her stage name) but that plot point rapidly vanishes as the duo get deep into their adventures.

The pair learn about a possible gold mine in the Grand Canyon so they head there, riding into the rim on mules. Along the way they meet Peter’s dad Henry Fonda in one of his last roles as a crazy, eccentric old prospector.


They meet with up with an English ornithologist in a pith helmet. And they are pursued by some bad guys who are after the gold themselves. The pedophiliac birdwatcher tries to kidnap Wanda but she puts paid to that. She knows how to take care of herself.  Then from out of nowhere a gorgeous female photographer shows up and she becomes briefly becomes the love interest for Fonda, so now the girl is a fifth wheel. Then the woman goes her own way.

They find the legendary “Ghost Apache”, and an Indian boneyard and, eventually a huge cache of gold. They have a shoot out with the bad guys, who are chased off. But their mules are stolen, and getting out of the canyon proves difficult, until they find a boat and go down the river. Then Fonda is shot by an Apache Ghosts arrow in the night and dies. The girl returns to the orphanage from which she had run away. In the end, there’s a big press circus, and it turns out Fonda’s not dead. He pulls up in a big car and drives off with the (still) 13 year old girl, presumably toward more adventures.


Ostensibly the point in such movies seems to be the ambiguity of the relationship, somewhere between father-daughter and a romantic couple, although Fonda’s character never crosses the line or gets even close (even when Shield’s character would have it otherwise). Yet it’s still troubling. Shields was a gorgeous child, and she’s wearing make-up, and nearly every man in the movies expresses their desire for her. And though Fonda remains paternal…well he’s Peter Fonda, so he’s just as creepy and icky and objectionable, with his slinky, porn-character manner and his wispy mustache, panama hats, and dead fish eyes.

In some ways the film is salvaged by the fact that the two leads are both such exceptionally weak actors. If they had interior lives the implications of the script would come out even more. For the most part these two limited performers just drive around and say their lines to one another. (Although Fonda is doing something interesting with his character — I swear he’s doing a John Wayne impression at certain points).

Just about all of Fonda’s movies as producer or director are road pictures, and this is a prime example. It rambles, and lacks shape, and one feels more tension in the implied relationship between the two stars than from the supposed threats they face: robbers, kidnappers, ghosts, and death from starvation, thirst, or heat stroke. But it is an interesting document from that decade in which film-makers would ask the question, “You know, no one’s ever been quite this skeevy in a mainstream feature film. Perhaps people will line up and buy tickets if we go THERE.”


Howard Hawks: The Comedies

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on May 30, 2016 by travsd

Hawks with Carole Lombard (who happened to be his distant cousin) and The Great Profile on the set of “Twentieth Century”

Part two of our little tribute to Howard Hawks today, this one focusing on his comedies. In this area, I find Hawks downright anomalous. I don’t know of anything comparable among film directors. Hawks’ comedies are considered the gold standard — they are among the funniest, most solidly made comedies EVER. Yet, he made comparatively few of them relative to his body of work. What’s strange is this…makers of excellent comedies are normally specialists who JUST make comedies. There are some journeyman directors who work across many genres, but can you think of any who are THIS good at comedy on top of all their other sorts of movies? It’s awe-inspiring. One grasps for insight. I had a couple of thoughts.

One is that Hawks is the consummate formal craftsman. In this connection it is interesting to me that he majored in mechanical engineering at Cornell, and loved to tinker with cars and planes and machines of all sorts. Does this combination of skills remind you of any other director of comedies? Yes, Buster Keaton is correct. Actually, now that I think of it Frank Capra majored in chemical engineering — seems like a similar kind of mind. These guys are like, “Okay, I’m going to make a comedy, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And so I am going to build a perfect comedy machine. Just try and find a flaw in it.”

The other thought I had is that Hawks had this rare combination of wealth and education and rough and tumble experience. He’d seen a good bit of theatre. He devoured novels. But he wasn’t a snob, he liked to get his hands dirty and rub elbows with people. In this he reminds me a bit of Preston Sturges. By the way, all four of these guys: Hawks, Keaton, Capra and Sturges served in World War One.

At any rate, these are external details. Whatever the circumstances, Hawks was able to make funny movies: generally very fast paced, intricate, and crazy as all get out, hence the name generally given to them “screwball comedies.”

Most people regard Twentieth Century (1934) as Hawks’ first comedy, but the truth is that he done some comedy work in the silent era. He produced some one reel shorts starring Monty Banks around 1919 for Warner Brothers (and claimed to have directed 3 or 4 of them). And he had directed the feature length silent comedy Fig Leaves in 1926, featuring George O’Brien, Olive Borden, Phyllis Haver, and Heinie Conklin. This experience can’t have been irrelevant. Still it was nearly a decade before he tried comedy again.



Twentieth Century (1934)

Hawks’ adaptation of the Ben Hecht/ Charles MacArthur Broadway hit about a scheming Broadway producer (John Barrymore) trying to get his former protege (Carole Lombard) back into the fold to star once more in a play and restore his flagging fortunes. The title refers to the name of the cross country train on which he tries every trick in the book to win her back and get her to sign a contract. This film is among my favorite one or two Hawks’ comedies. It is one of the few times that the full scope of Barrymore’s genius is captured on film during the talking era. Barrymore is absolutely breath-taking, sidesplitting.  It is a master class in comedy to watch his single minded pursuit of what he wants. Lombard is more the “straight man” in this plot. But that’s okay, if we want to see her be screwy, there’s My Man Godfrey. 


Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I’m not as over-the-top enamored of this this one as every one else seems to be — and maybe that’s why. It may be that it’s so clearly the prototype for Peter Bogdanovich’s What Up, Doc? and I grew up on the latter film and much prefer it. When I finally went back to the “source” many years later, I felt disappointed. Like any Hawks film, including his comedies, it is exceptionally well made. It just doesn’t top my list. I dunno…I don’t really buy Katherine Hepburn as crazy and loopy and spontaneous as she is here. I much prefer her in something like Alice Adams where she goes too far in being obnoxious and is thus vulnerable. Likewise, I’m not sure that glamorous, polished Cary Grant is the best casting as the bewildered paleontologist she tortures. Harold Lloyd would have been perfect! In fact, Grant seems to be doing Lloyd here, right down to the glasses. But of course in 1938, Lloyd was busy playing a similar character in Professor Beware. 


His Girl Friday (1940)

Again, not one of my favorite Hawks comedies, or one of my favorite screwball comedies, and again probably because everyone else thinks it’s the cat’s pajamas. Once again, Hawks is making a film from a Hecht-MacArthur play script (originally called The Front Page). It had first been made into a film in 1931. In the original version the two reporters were two dudes, having an antagonistic bromance (which is ironically, Hawks’ speciality). Yet here one of the characters has been switched to a female (Rosalind Russell); the other is Cary Grant, and so there is also an element of sexual tension. Russell’s character is one of the first examples of a strong, independent professional woman in a Hollywood film, and so the film is often talked about in that light. But I’ve never cared much for Russell, who plows through her lines and her blocking like a steamroller. I never have the impression the behavior is organic, arising from human impulses. It feels much more like an actor hitting her blocking really fast.


Ball of Fire (1941) 

THIS, however is probably my third favorite Hawks comedy, after Twentieth Century and Monkey Business. It’s written by Billy Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett. That’s already a magical and interesting combination of ingredients, but then throw on Gary Cooper in full Frank Capra mode (with a character which recalls Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe) and Barbara Stanwyck in a part that builds on the one she’d played in Sturges’s The Lady Eve and anticipates the one she would play in Lady of Burlesque.

The scenario is a sort of updated reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Stanwyck is the titular Ball of Fire, a burlesque/ night club performer named Sugarpuss who needs a place to lay low to avoid a police interrogation. Fortunately, she is approached by lexicographer Gary Cooper who is investigating modern slang — and she is full of it, to a hilarious baroque degree. Cooper and his six bachelor cohorts work full time in a secluded house on a grant funded project to write an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. (The very idea of printed encyclopedias seems positively medieval nowadays.) Stanwyck decides to stay with the gents for a few days to avoid the authorities, but since one of them is Gary Cooper (and the other ones are sexless, aging character actors like Cuddles Sakall, Henry Travers and Oskar Omalka), sparks soon begin to fly.

Intellectual nerd Cooper has no idea he’s any different from the Ewoks around him. But Stanwyck soon sets his engines revving. This won’t sit any too well with her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) or his henchman Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea). Now THAT is a good cast and they really toe the mark. (Add to it, the inevitable Charles Lane as a numbers crunching accountant for the foundation who is eager to pull their funding) and this is a dream screwball cast.

Much like certain other Hawks films like The Thing from Another World and Rio Bravo, this one is oddly stagebound, claustrophobic and talkie, but not enough to be a deal-breaker — not with this script and this cast.


I was a Male War Bride (1949)

I found this one exceedingly strange…it’s sort of a hybrid mix of a Hawksian war film and a screwball comedy. The pace is much slower. It feels stodgier than the films of the 30s. The premise is that Cary Grant is a foreign national who has married a female American soldier (Ann Sheridan) and wants to come to the states with her. Through some screwy regulation, BRIDES of American servicemen can return to America with their husbands. But no one ever thought of making a provision for the husbands of lady soldiers. So the only way for him to get out is to be a “bride”. Have you ever seen The Big Lift (the 1948 film about the Berlin airlift with Montgomery Clift)? That’s what the setting of this movie is like. It’s not a laugh riot but it is interesting.


Monkey Business (1952)

This is my favorite Hawks comedy now, with the possible exception of Twentieth Century.   Cary Grant plays a scientist who invents an elixir of youth, and accidentally drinks some through the intercession of a mischievous lab chimp. At various times so does his wife (Ginger Rogers), so that at alternating intervals the mature couple start acting like extremely wild 20 year olds — hypersexual, irresponsible hellions. The one scene pictured above, where the normally near-sighted Grant takes Marilyn Monroe on a terrifying ride in a sports car is priceless. Another aspect I like about this picture it deals with the age of its two stars (Grant and Rogers) realistically; it’s even a little self-referential. The older Grant has a vulnerability that helps comedy (see Charade). I feel like his character in this film also influenced Ryan O’Neal’s in What’s Up Doc? as well.

Hawks also made a couple of musical comedies, but I think as a genre they’re sufficiently different to merit separate treatment…somewhere, sometime. And it’s been a long day and I’ve done a ton of blogging….

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

“Turkey” Mike Donlin: The Pride of Manhattan in Vaudeville

Posted in Sport & Recreation, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Mike Donlin (1878-1933). Donlin is probably better known to the wider world for his main occupation — that of professional baseball player. He played for the National League between 1899 and 1914, for seven different teams, most notably the New York Giants, were he was known as “The Pride of Manhattan.” He was especially prized for his hitting abilities, his strutting walk (thus his nickname “Turkey”) his flamboyant show biz style, and his behind the scenes peccadilloes. He was a boozer and partier and hung out with the Broadway crowd and thus…

In 1906 he met and married Broadway star Mabel Hite (whose birthday it also is today, coincidentally). In 1908 Donlin and Hite debuted their big time vaudeville act, a one act play called “Stealing Home”, which they co-wrote themselves and toured with on the circuits through 1911. Hite died of intestinal cancer the following year.

Back on the baseball diamond, Donlin’s disappointing 1914 season convinced him to hang up his cleats and pursue acting full time. That year he also married Rita Ross, formerly of the the team of Ross and Fenton. In 917 he broke into films as a bit player thanks largely to celebrity friends like Buster Keaton and John Barrymore, in both of whose films he can be seen. His last film was the posthumously-released The Swellhead, with Wallace Ford and Dickie Moore. 

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


On The Marx Brothers’ Producers (Including Me!)

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies with tags , , , , on May 30, 2016 by travsd
Thalberg and the Marxes

Thalberg and the Marxes

Today is the birthday of Irving Thalberg (1899-1936), a name well known to hardcore movie buffs as a visionary producer and studio chief; even better known to comedy buffs for his pivotal role in the career of the Marx Brothers (of which more below). Today seemed a fitting time for our long-planned post on the Marx Brothers’ producers in Hollywood…


Walter Wanger (The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers)

Wanger was in charge of Paramount’s Astoria facility when the team went there to make their first two films in 1929 and 1930. We hear about his relationship with the team chiefly in relation to several minor run-ins he had with Groucho. Wanger had a reputation as a high-brow who’d begun his days in the theatre, working with such artists as Nazimova and Harley Granville-Barker. While he was the one who sought to acquire these Broadway hits, there had to have been a certain amount of culture clash with these scrappy vaudevillians. As indeed there apparently was when Wanger asked Groucho to use a more realistic looking mustache, and to cease his patented “direct address” since he would be talking to a camera rather than a live audience. Groucho’s response was to call him a “schlemiel” to his face.


Herman Mankiewicz: (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup)

H’m…I think the three titles listed above say it all, don’t you? It seems to me that Mank was the team’s most sympatico producer (even if the boys themselves revered Thalberg as their favorite). The three made-in-Hollywood Paramount pix tend to be the hardcore fans’ favorite Marx Brothers movies. He also produced the equally zany Million Dollar Legs (1932) starring W.C. Fields and wrote the story for Meet the Baron (1933). Along with his brother Joe, he is majorly responsible for that glorious stretch in the early 30s of zany, nonsensical, surreal comedies. He only produced a handful of films. His greatest fame was as a screenwriter. Along with co-writer Orson Welles, he won a best Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane.


Irving Thalberg (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races)

The name Thalberg looms large in the Marx Brothers’ legend, as he is the man responsible for the near perfection that is A Night at the Opera and oversaw the beginning of A Day at the Races (which is flawed but their biggest money maker) and generally oversaw a reinvention of the team’s formula and screen image when they started at MGM. He is often decried for this by die-hard fans, but the fact remains that the decline of the Marx Brothers happened after Thalberg died. The one picture he cooked entirely from soup to nuts A Night at the Opera is imbued with his patented Hollywood magic….and since most of his pictures had that quality, there’s no reason to suspect the subsequent ones wouldn’t have had it too. What he might have done to improve A Day at the Races had he not died midway through production is academic, rather like “Would John F. Kennedy have taken us into Vietnam?”

Because of his magic touch at the box office, Thalberg was regarded as a kind of God at MGM and treated as such. The Marx Brothers were perhaps the only people he ever allowed to talk back to him (or possibly who dared). Moreover, they pranked him: roasting potatoes in his office on one occasion, and stripping off their clothes on another.


Pandro S. Berman (Room Service)

Room Service was the team’s least characteristic film and their only one for RKO. Berman was a producer with a long string of hits to his credit. At this stage, among his titles, the Fred and Ginger pictures seem the most relevant. He also produced Wheeler and Woolsey. So he knew how to do comedy, but Room Service was neither a critical nor box office success.


Mervyn Leroy (At the Circus)

At the Circus has risen in my estimation in recent years; I now no longer think of it at the bottom but in the middle (the bottom of the middle). How’s that for hierarchy? And it certainly has first class production values, which you can’t say of their last two films at MGM. The fact that Mervyn Leroy produced my favorite movie The Wizard of Oz one year later, and so many other movies I love, makes me believe that the team would have been in good hands had he remained their producer. But it is much to his credit that he made The Wizard of Oz and Waterloo Bridge rather than Go West and The Big Store.


Jack Cummings (Go West)

Some factors that may help explain the abortion that is Go West: 1) Jack Cummings was Louis B. Mayer’s nephew (Mayer disliked the Marx Bros. He found them disrespectful; 2) Go West was one of Cummings’ first features; 3) Prior to this he had directed several Three Stooges shorts. Now, he later produced several Red Skelton movies for MGM that some people consider comedy classics, but I think we can agree that SOPHISTICATION in comedy was not his bailiwick. But the Three Stooges credits explain much about how the Marxes are presented in Go West. It would have been a much better film starring the Stooges, because at least they BELONG in a film of this nature and undoubtedly would have known just how to make it funny as they did in their many western themed shorts.


Louis K. Sidney (The Big Store)

A pretty certain sign that MGM wanted to get rid of the Marx Brothers just as much as the team wanted to quit is that they gave the reins to The Big Store to Louis K. Sidney. The Big Store was his second and last film. In fact I couldn’t even find a picture of him online. The picture above is his better known brother, the actor George Sidney. 


David L. Loew (A Night in Casablanca)

Okay, I have no photo for this chap either, although his name appears in really tiny letters at the bottom of this poster. By contrast with the last guy however, this gentleman was quite important. The son of one of MGM founders Marcus Loew, and a board member himself of the Loew chain, he became an independent producer and produced several classic Joe E. Brown comedies. And we have him to thank for coaxing the Marxes out of retirement to make this rather enjoyable late Marxian romp. Three chairs for that, I say!


Lester Cowan (Love Happy)

Lester Cowan is one of the more reviled names in Marxiania chiefly because: 1) most fans think Love Happy is the Marx Brothers’ worst movie (I don’t agree); 2) Groucho and Chico are shoe-horned into what was meant to be a Harpo solo vehicle in the crudest, lamest way possible; 3) and the climax of the film is marred by a surreal amount of product placement, turning the end of the film into a veritable commercial. Harpo was said to have been so mad at Cowan that he cursed and made nasty remarks — things the famously angelic Harpo rarely did.

Yet the film got made. Ya know how hard it is to make a film, starring 60 year old men whose thing is to leer at 25 year old women? Ask Bob Hope! But I can’t help noting Cowan had also produced the W.C. Fields classics You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and My Little ChickadeeInterestingly, Love Happy was also the last film executive produced by Mary Pickford, studio chief of United Artists (and the last of the original four to remain at the studio).


Irwin Allen (The Story of Mankind)

Yes, that’s right, the famous “Master of Disaster” best known for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno was the Hollywood producer who put the Marx Brothers on the big screen in the same film for the last time — although not together. This all-star picture is suitably weird and I am delighted to watch it any time it’s on.



Of course the precipitating factor in this post is the current revival of the Marx Brothers I’ll Say She Is now at the Connelly Theatre through early June.

The current production has been particularly educational to me about the satisfactions of being a producer. In the 2014 production I was in full on producer/ director mode. In the current version I am taking a much smaller role, though still helping out in various ways. Re-directed, re-choreographed, re-realized from the minds of Diamond-Sisk, sitting in the audience I was still able to take a happy pride in the things that remained that were “mine”. Many of these things are “producer things”, e.g. hiring decisions: Seth Shelden (Harpo), Melody Jane (Beauty), C.L. Weatherstone (Simpson), and Amber Bloom (chorus) were my hires from the original production, as were musical director Sabrina Chap, technical director Tom Bibla, and costume designer Julz Kroboth. New people I brought into the current production include stage manager Sarah Lahue, and ASM Ken Simon. And, while the great Kathy Biehl was one of “Noah’s people” in the original production, I certainly approved her. So when people ask, as some have, “What do you do on this show?” one clear answer is that I brought together key members of the company — a happy thought.

And also I helped shape the show into its current form. All the principle artist Noah Diamond had to work with in building this massive entertainment were fragments, some large, some small. I helped make some key determinations about the running order: placing the Napoleon scene at the end of the second act, the poker scene in the transition between two scenes at the mansion, and the opium den and the trial at the climax. I also contributed a very small number of lines, and bits of business that are still in. And of course, as a producer, I raised a little money for the show…

Of course you can read all about it in Noah Diamond’s excellent book Gimme a Thrill.  And better yet see the show, tickets and info are here.


The Original “Roots” (1977)

Posted in African American Interest, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Television with tags , , , , , on May 30, 2016 by travsd


We are apt to be pessimistic these days about so many things that we may forget the things there are to celebrate — and there are a great many of these, as well: more than you might suspect. You might think television, for example, to be a trivial thing, but I certainly don’t. We spend so much of our lives watching it — and the television of my childhood (the 1970s) was such a barren desert. There were but three commercial networks then, and one government pseudo-network that imported half its programming from England. The networks had incentive to compete with each other. But guess what? That did not equal an incentive to excel. For a network tv production to be a success it only had to be more attractive to audiences than two other shows in the same time slot. And this was often achieved by production factors other than a devotion to “quality”. Today with hundreds of other channel options at the viewers’ disposal, plus streaming and the myriad other forms of home video, you’d better believe producers (some of them at least) try and every trick at their disposal to gain notice…ranging from being the most heinous….to possessing the very highest quality. And thus this truly is television’s Golden Age.

Which is all elaborate lead-in to pre-empt the question I imagine some people are asking, “Do we really need a remake of Roots?” And the answer is (assuming tonight’s production is the good one we are hoping it will be) probably yes. Like practically all Americans at the time, I watched the original ABC mini-series when it aired on eight consecutive nights in January, 1977. It was a major national “television event”, earning between a 61% and 71% market share on every single night. It dominated the Emmys that year, and was what then passed for “prestige television.” It was ground-breaking subject matter, handled with unprecedented bravery (which in those days meant scarcely any at all).

Gary Collins, Pillsbury Bake-Off host and star of "The Wackiest Ship in the Army"

Gary Collins, Pillsbury Bake-Off host and star of “The Wackiest Ship in the Army”

To ensure a success of their production, as was common at the time, they toploaded the show’s casting with a hilarious superfluity of past and present tv stars, many of whom had a trivializing effect on the theoretically noble ambitions of the show.   While some of the key roles (especially African American ones) were filled by respected names, the majority of them were strictly cheese-o-rama. It was quite a mish-mash. The style of production I always think of as “the SCTV version”. In no particular order, the cast included: George Hamilton, Leslie Uggams, Burl Ives, O.J. Simpson, Sandy Duncan, Richard Roundtree, Ben Vereen, Doug McClure, Louis Gossett Jr, Scatman Crothers, Lorne Green, Ed Asner, John Amos, James Earl Jones, Carolyn Jones (no relation), John Schuck, Linda Day George, Georg Stanford Brown, Gary Collins, Moses Gunn, Ralph Waite, Maya Angelou, Robert Reed, Cicely Tyson, Lillian Randolph, Lloyd Bridges and MacDonald Carey. As well as the then unknown Levar Burton, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Todd Bridges. 


“Carol! Which one of the kids took the shackles off Alice?!”

Say what you want about “important stories”, but this is an Irwin Allen sort of cast if ever there was one, the kind of thing that indicates to me the producers didn’t honestly believe it was important at all, just something that could make money. It sort of indicates a set of values so warped it can’t recognize what excellence and seriousness looks like. Like, who did they cut from this cast? Jamie Farr? Shecky Greene? Clarabelle the Clown?

Now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this new version. I was hopeful ’til I saw that its on the History Channel, hardly the imprimatur of quality for either history or drama. On the other hand, the last show I watched on that channel was titled Nazis vs. Aliens , and proved to be surprisingly good! The new version launches tonight; a link is here.

Howard Hawks: The Westerns

Posted in Hollywood (History), Westerns with tags , , , , , , on May 30, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood producer/ director/ screenwriter Howard Hawks (1896-1977). He’s a big subject to tackle, and the king of many a genre. Today I’ll concentrate on the two that are more relevant to my work at present, his westerns and his comedies (next post). We’ll set aside his noir, gangster, war and even science fiction (The Thing from Another World) films ’til if and when the occasion arises.

As for the western, while he only made a comparative few, they were hugely influential. The great Hawskian theme of male bonding under duress manifests itself particularly well in this genre. The fact that today such masculine camaraderie is considered a primary aspect of the genre I think is due chiefly to Hawks. In a time when westerns had long since been considered lightweight kiddie fare, Hawks took them seriously, elevating it into mature entertainment, influencing the entire industry right up to John Ford.

Two things: I always include spoilers, and I’m a critic — not a fanboy. When things aren’t up to snuff I say so, even when I otherwise revere the artist.


Barbary Coast (1935)

This was a perfect film for Hawks to get his toe wet on the way to making westerns. Hawks had made his reputation three years earlier on the ultimate gangster picture Scarface. Barbary Coast is essentially a gangster picture, transplanted to 19th century San Francisco. (I think of “urban westerns” as a minor subgenre of their own. Barbary Coast is set in the thick of the gold rush, so that though San Francisco is a city, it is really a just-born boom town, just as wild as any other fly-by-night western burg, but larger. Miriam Hopkins arrives via ship (the only way out there before the transcontinental railway) to find that her mail-order husband has been killed. She becomes the consort of the casino-owning gangster who runs the town (Edward G. Robinson). This works out okay for a while until she actually falls in love with the noble, poetry-spouting prospector Joel McCrea. A classic Camille-like dilemma transpires — rich suitor vs. poor suitor. She eventually chooses McCrea just as his shot-up body is about to leave on the next packet boat, and Robinson is about to be hung by vigilantes. Also in the picture: Walter Brennan, as a one-eyed, thievin’ prospector, and a very young mustache-less Brian Donlevy. Great movie!


The Outlaw  (1946)

The movie that started it all for Jane Russell. Actually made in 1943 but not released until 1946, it’s an entire movie literally devised by RKO head Howard Hughes to showcase Jane Russell’s legendary breasts. The film was directed in large part by Howard Hawks, but Hughes re-shot and re-edited the film and Hawk’s name from the credits. But Hawks’ hand prints are all over thr film, even if Hughes hacked it up into a mish-mash.

The story is a fictionalized meeting and virtual love triangle betwixt Pat Garret (Thomas Mitchell), Doc Holiday (Walter Huston), and Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel). Pat and Doc are old friends (perhaps the cuddliest western heroes ever — like a couple of Ewoks), though the fact that Pat is now a sheriff creates a new divide between them. When the Kid rolls into town, Pat is obligated to catch him. Doc helps Pat at first, but then chooses the Kid’s side. Pat acts jealous.

At a certain point the Kid is shot and has to recuperate at Doc’s girlfriend’s house (Russell). Doc leaves for a month, by which time the Kid and Russell are regularly getting it on. The Kid is only too willing to dump the girl for Doc, however. In the end Pat kills Doc, but switches it so it looks like he killed the Kid, thus starting the legend that he did so.

Though undeniably strange, the film is a classic, worth repeated viewing, at least in my book.


Red River (1948)

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.


The Big Sky (1953) 

A rather tedious and rambling film in my book. Seems calculated to replicate the success of Red River but lacks that central, focused human story. It’s just a succession of adventures, which, to me, at least, is boring without decent characters and relationships. As Red River was theoretically about the last cattle drive on the Chisholm trail, this one is about the first trip upriver on the Missouri. Set in 1832, it is full of some cool historical details that are good fodder for something, but don’t add up to much here. Chiefly that, thirty years after the Louisiana Purchase, French influence is still dominant in this part of the country. (It prompted me to go the map: you find this really cool stripe of French names going up the middle of the country: New Orleans, Baton Rouge,St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Dubuque, Des Moines, etc).

In this story, two guys meet up in the woods of western Kentucky: Kirk Douglas, and some other guy (Dewey Martin). They decide to hook up with the other guy’s uncle in St. Louis. They look all over the place and can’t find him. Then they are thrown in jail for drunkenly carousing, and coincidentally find him in the same hoosegow. He is played by Arthur Hunnicutt, the best role I’ve seen him do. They get work going on this boat upriver to trade furs with the Blackfeet. Their insurance is a beautiful Blackfoot maid. The rest of the crew are all Frenchmen, and one Indian half-wit. Since these characters are all afforded the respect Hollywood usually gives to foreigners, the only characters we are expected to care about are Hunnicutt, Douglas, and Martin, and there really is no conflict between them. It’s all Indian fights, and rapids, and battles with the fur company. In short, the film deserves its present obscurity.

And what a dumb title! If the movie had at least been in color, we could contemplate the blueness of this “Big Sky”. But anyway, what’s the sky got to do with this picture? Big River would have made a great deal more sense.


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?


El Dorado (1967)

One of Hawks’ last pictures. It’s about two warring ranchers, one of whom is an evil cattle baron played by Ed Asner. John Wayne is a hired gun. On the advice of his old friend the sheriff (Mitchum) he decides not to work for Asner. On his way back, he accidentally shoots the young son of the neighbor. In retaliation, the daughter shoots Wayne. The bullet lodges near the spine, threatening paralysis. Wayne leaves for a time (to Mexico), where he hooks up with one “Mississippi” (James Caan) who is adept with knives, but can’t shoot. They hear that Mitchum has become a drunk, and Asner has hired some very bad killers. Wayne and Caan ride back to help the sheriff.

We are now at the very same formula that made a success of Rio Bravo. In fact, it’s almost exactly identical to that earlier picture. Asner gets thrown into jail and the bad guys are going to spring him (just like in Rio Bravo). And we have the same quartet of good guys. A drunk (now Mitchum as a sheriff, instead of Dean Martin as a deputy), John Wayne, a kid (now James Caan instead of Ricky Nelson), and the sidekick — here an old Indian fighter (Arthur Hunnicutt) in buckskin and carrying a bugle, instead of Walter Brennan. The movie sort of unravels and becomes dull. Lots of business about trying to sober up the sheriff. Lots of shoot outs. But Wayne’s paralysis keeps kicking in, gumming up the works. The end looks hopeless (Mitchum has been shot, too), but they manage to pull it off anyway.


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.


On the “Gold Diggers” Series

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Playwrights, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Jazz Age playwright Avery Hopwood (1882-1928). Hopwood was long legendary for the feat of having four successful plays up on Broadway simultaneously, a feat later equaled by Neil Simon.

We have already done an extensive blog on one of the plays Hopwood was associated withThe Bat (1920), although that was primarily a Mary Roberts Rinehart work (Hopwood was called in to finish the third act and doctor the play overall). Today it seems apt to talk about what is now by far Hopwood’s best known legacy: the many versions and incarnations of The Gold Diggers. The best known one Gold Diggers of 1933 has a zillion fans even to this day; but folks may not realize that there was much that came before and much that came after.  


Original Broadway Play (1919)

The concept of the “Gold Digger” was a major part of the zeitgeist during the Jazz Age, when prosperity made for much gold to be dug. The phrase seems initially to have been applied to Peggy Hopkins Joyce, whose many marriages just happened to be to wealthy husbands. It’s not like such scheming isn’t as old as humankind. What was new about Joyce was the unprecedentedly open and frank way that she pursued her goals. Welcome to America! This was a new phenomenon. It inspired many writers, from Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), to several characters in Fitzgerald.


Ina Claire and Bruce McRae

Hopwood’s The Gold Diggers was early in this cycle. It gives us the familiar kernel of the story: a chorus girl and a rich young man want to get married. Relatives disapprove and try to put a stop to it. Hypocrisy is exposed through funny stratagems, and it is demonstrated that the chorus girl really loves the rich young man (thus proving she is not a heartless monster). The original lead was played by Ina Claire, and the production was a smash hit thanks in part to rave reviews by Alexander Woolcott. 

Hope Hampton

Hope Hampton

The Silent Film (1923)

David Belasco, original producer of the play, also produced the first film version, starring Hope Hampton and Louise Fazenda. Like later versions it was made by Warner Brothers. Sadly the film is now lost.


Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929)

This is the unkindest cut of all. This one is partially lost yet just enough has survived to drive us crazy wishing we could see the rest of it. The earliest years of talkies left us some really incredible documents because of all sorts of factors which capture their moment in a way that Hollywood films which came before and after would be unable to do. Sound (Vitaphone)! Color (Two Strip Technicolor)! More realistic dialogue (Pre-Code)! For the first time Broadway spectacle could be brought to the screen in a way that made sense — and so they went at it, whole hog. Here’s a fragment:

It was the top grossing film of the year and made a screen star (for a time) of Winnie Lightner. Also in the film were Ann Pennington, Nick Lucas (who sang the version of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” that later inspired Tiny Tim), Lee Moran, and Louise Beavers. It was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who was to marry Lightner a decade later.


Gold Diggers of 1933

Not a sequel per se, but yet another re-make with a new added poignancy (and sympathy for the heroines) because it is the depths of the Great Depression and the girls are literally starving. This (as far as we know) is the apex of the series, though one dreams about Gold Diggers of Broadway. 

Co-directed by Mervyn Leroy and Busby Berkley (musical numbers), and produced by Warner Brothers in much the same style as 42nd Street, which had been released just a couple of months earlier, and with much of the same cast (Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ned Sparks, Ginger Rogers, and Guy Kibee). Sparks plays a producer who needs cash to put on a musical about the Depression (1933 was the very worst year of that worldwide financial disaster). Songwriter and juvenile Powell turns out to be a Boston Blueblood and underwrites the show — which (thanks to Berkley’s amazing staging) turns out to better than anyone’s wildest fantasies of a live stage show could ever be. Unfortunately Powell’s conservative brother and trustee (Warren William) and family lawyer (Kibee) want to break up his romance with Keeler. As they try to do so, gold-diggers Joan Blondell and Aline McMahon kick into action and eventually get both fuddy duddies to marry them. And a pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers is yet another gold digger. Happy ending, roll credits.


Gold Diggers of 1935 (film)

Some but not all of the luster is lost here. Here Dick Powell is a hotel clerk hired by miserly millionairess Alice Brady to escort her daughter Gloria Stuart. They fall in love though she is actually engaged to a doofus who is writing a monograph on the use of snuff (Hugh Herbert). Meanwhile, because this is a musical, the millionairess is bankrolling an annual charity show for the milk fund, and hires a wacky Russian stage director played by a very funny Adolph Menjou. It’s Busby Berkley’s first film as credited director, though of course he had choreographed many times before. The big number is “Lullaby of Broadway”: it’s brilliantly staged and shot, even surreal—it all takes place in her head, and has an amazing fantasy interlude. Of course it’s all apropos of nothing connected with the movie we’re watching!


Gold Diggers of 1937

This one has the morbid plot of producers and cast taking out a life insurance policy on hypochondriac moneybags Victor Moore so they can finance a show. With the now married team of Dick Powell and Joan Blondell returning, the picture also features Glenda Farrell and even more notably Susan Fleming (better known as Mrs. Harpo Marx). Busby Berkley staged the production numbers once more and Lloyd Bacon directed.


Gold Diggers in Paris (1938)

It’s always been an axiom of mine that you know your franchise has jumped the shark when you have to transplant it to another country for an angle. By these last couple in the series, it is becoming quotidian and a little tired (reminds me of the plots of some of the Fred and Ginger movies). The meat of the farce is that Hugh Herbert is sent to New York to bring back a certain ballet company to Paris. He accidentally books a bunch of chorus girls who work for Rudy Vallee and Allen Jenkins. Learning the truth too late, he hires Fritz Feld and Rosemary Lane to teach the girls ballet on the ship back to France. The fly in the ointment is that one of the French bookers (Melville Cooper) wants to watch rehearsals, and the company has to keep diverting him. The stakes in a scenario are too low to interest me. Give me the early “Gold Diggers”! Seems like the public felt the same way.

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