Of Time and Tim Burton

How perfect is that is it that animator/director Tim Burton (b. 1958) shares a birthday with animation pioneer John R. Bray, whom we just did a post about earlier this morning? I wonder if he knows and if it provided some partial inspiration? At any rate, there are a couple of classic era studio actors I might have written about today, adding to the existing August 25 pantheon of Chic Sale, Ruby Keeler, James C. Morton, Jingles Keaton, and Monty Hall, but the new ones (I won’t divulge who, as I’ll probably add them later) pretty much bore me to death. And oddly, Burton’s Goth / steampunk/ Victoriana/ kitsch sensibility makes him fit the preoccupations of this blog much more than those ’50s stars, despite his being a contemporary figure. There should be nothing strange or unexpected about this. I count myself as part of the same turn of the historical wheel as Burton, and he has very much inspired me ever since he came to public notice. I’ve done dedicated posts about two of his films here, and have mentioned him three dozen times.

Anyway, this year, Burton’s legendary animated Disney short Vincent (1982) turns 40 years old, and that encroaches upon the historical. Like the boy in Burton’s film, and like Burton himself, we too adore Vincent Price (our four dedicated posts on that glorious horror ham are here, here, here, and here, but he figures in about 75 posts overall on Travalanche). It would be sweet if Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) had been Price’s last role (as I’m sure it was meant to be), but the old workhorse had to go and take a couple of parts after that. Burton also did considerable work on a documentary about Price, which remains unfinished.

In 1984, Burton made the original short Frankenweenie, a sort of mash-up of the concepts of Frankenstein and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (a boy revives his dead dog). The original short had such stars as Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, Paul Bartel, and Sofia Coppola in the cast. Most people know the 2012 animated feature version much better. I reviewed that film here, on its initial release.

In 1985, Burton made his first feature Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which I gushed about in this post. I loved that movie so much much I saw it at the cinema several times, and it (and Paul Reuben’s Pee-wee Herman character in general) were big inspirations to me about possibilities for bringing vaudeville aesthetics into the modern era. It was also on this film that Burton began working with Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman, who has composed the scores to nearly all of his films, and has proven to be one of the greatest Hollywood screen composers of all time.

Naturally, I loved Beetlejuice (1988) as well, Burton’s first feature length film to showcase his gonzo-Goth aesthetic. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, while visually explosive, is kitschy and cheerful; Beetlejuice is dark and death obsessed. It made a star of Winona Ryder, and featured people I loved like Michael Keaton (ditto), Catherine O’Hara of SCTV, a pre-prison Jeffery Jones (then best known for Amadeus and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Geena Davis (fresh off David Cronenberg’s impeccable remake of The Fly), a pre-stardom Alec Baldwin, and wonderful stunt casting including singer Robert Goulet, Dick Cavett, and most magical of all, 1930s star Sylvia Sidney (just about as wonderful as getting to work with Vincent Price!). An animated version of Beetlejuice aired on Saturday mornings from 1989 to 1991. For awhile there, kids could catch two Tim Burton-connected shows (the other being Pee-wee’s Playhouse).

On the strength of these successes, Burton was next hired to helm the 1989 screen adaptation of comic book superhero Batman. This, too, seemed like a confluence of all things great! There had been buzz about a big screen Batman revival for at least a decade by that point (I’d first heard about it somehow as a teenager; obviously it went through a lot of development and many attached then unattached artists over the intervening decade). I was an avid reader of the Batman comic throughout my kidhood in the 1970s, and hated that the only modern screen version was the campy ’60s TV show, enjoyable as that is. I loved the dark mythos of the comic. More recent reboots have proven TOO dark, but Burton’s version hit my sweet spot, the neo-expressionistic visuals in particular. Michael Keaton as the title character was the weakest element for me. (To this day, I have been dissatisfied with the casting of every single screen Batman. Is it unplayable? The Joker seems to have produced no end of brilliant performances, not only Heath Ledger’s and Joachin Phoenix’s but I’d include even Cesar Romero’s. It’s fallen by the wayside in recent decades, but Jack Nicholson’s in the Burton film is the one that raised the bar. He clearly put a lot of work into it, dignifying it with a level of character exploration and physical interpretation that paved the way for all subsequent ones. And again with the inspired casting — old timers like Pat Hingle and Jack Palance (the latter of whom was in the midst of a career revival that would peak with City Slickers a couple of years later).

Burton would also direct the first sequel in this series, Batman Returns (1992) with similar fortunate results. The next two sequels, with other directors, were not so fortunate, leaving no doubt as to who was responsible for the excellence of the first two films. It’s a pity, for Burton had wanted to direct Batman Forever (1995), but was busted down to a titular producing credit. This is why Keaton was not in the third film, being replaced by the oleaginous Val Kilmer.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) may be the ultimate Tim Burton statement, a mix of fairy tale and Americana kitsch that reunited him with Vincent Price and Winona Ryder, and was his first movie to star repeat offender (in more ways than one) Johnny Depp. The cast also included Diane Weist (fresh from her Hannah and Her Sisters Oscar), Alan Arkin, Sam Shepard’s ex O-Lan Jones, Conchata Farrell (whom I then knew best from Hot-L Baltimore), Anthony Michael Hall from the John Hughes-iverse, and Kathy Baker. If I remember correctly, this is the movie that features two cheerful high school girls who speak together, alternating phrases in sentences, a bit copped from Roger Corman’s original Little Shop of Horrors, which is still one of my favorite movies (Burton would have been way better than Frank Oz to direct the re-make). At any rate, it’s interesting to me that Burton’s Rappaccini’s Daughter-like hero, sensitive, misunderstood, lonely, sad because he’ll kill anyone he touches…seems to be a visual exaggeration of Burton himself.

Burton didn’t personally direct The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) himself, but he conceived it, wrote the story and produced it, and its one of those times when a producer is so closely involved that he may as well have directed it. (Similar examples from screen history: Orson Welles and Journey Into Fear, and Steven Spielberg and Poltergeist, for just two). In a way, THIS film could lay just as good a claim as Edward Scissorhands to being the ultimate Burton movie. It’s simply a perfect creation, and it possesses the added genius of being a simultaneous Halloween and Christmas classic.

Cabin Boy (1994), the one and only solo starring vehicle for Chris Elliott, which Burton also produced, might have fared better if he had been as closely involved, or personally directed it, as originally intended. It might have been closer in realization to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, instead of the famous failure it became.

But Burton was too busy that year creating another of his masterpieces, the Alexander-Karaszewski bio-pic Ed Wood (1994). When this movie came out I was at my Ed Wood-loving peak. Circa 1990 my best friend turned me on to him, and then the Film Forum did a retrospective in 1993 (I attended every screening). You’ll find some of my appreciations of “The World’s Worst Director” here, here, and here, though he’s been much mentioned on Travalanche in the form of posts about folks he worked with such as Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Vampira, Criswell, Lyle Talbot, Bunny Breckenridge, et al. In the late 1990s and early oughts, I even produced and acted in stage adaptions of Wood’s films. HUGE fan.

Anyway, Tim Burton’s movie Ed Wood was the only movie I ever stood in line for on opening day. I was that excited. And I loved it so much that I saw it a couple of times at the cinema on its first release and have watched it many times since, including on one of my first dates with my wife. The screenplay (all pretty much true, by the way) is a work of perfection, as was Burton’s decision to shoot in black and white, making it LOOK like an Ed Wood movie. Johnny Depp’s performance as the title character may well be his best work as an actor; Martin Landau actually won an Oscar for his role as down-and-out Lugosi. Such a cast! Pro wrestler George “the Animal” Steel as Tor Johnson, Lisa Marie (who became Burton’s significant other and appeared in many of his subsequent films) as Vampira, Bill Murray as Bunny Breckenridge, Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, along with Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Juliet Landau, Rance Howard, et al.

I am also a huge fan of Mars Attacks! (1997) which seems a continuation of Burton’s “UFO Period”, flying saucers playing such a large part in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. I was and remain nonplussed by the film’s lack of success with critics and audiences. In retrospect, it may be an early indication of the phenomenon that all classic movie fans have to come to grips with. I was a little over 30 years old when Mars Attacks! came out, and still able to make the assumption, or so I thought, that the points of culture reference which the film sends up (in this case ’50s sci fi films and ’70s disaster movies) were still universally known. After all, so many of the popular films of the ’80s had patently been inspired by those earlier movies. But as time goes on, and younger generations come up, fewer and fewer people know what you’re talking about. I think that’s the case here. A HUGE cast of stars (too many to list here), great special effects, hilarious script and performances. But rather a large budget, and it just about broke even. It is instructive to compare it with Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), which Mars Attacks! coincidentally much resembles, came out just a few months earlier, and was a huge box office hit. The principal difference between the two films of course is that Mars Attacks! KNOWS its a parody.

Mars Attacks! is for me, where Burton’s streak of perfection ends. Mind you, I don’t say, he’s never been perfect since! VERY high marks for Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007) and Frankenweenie (2012). But I found myself very disappointed in him — for the very first time — upon seeing Sleepy Hollow (1999). I love how it looks, naturally, as always, but the impulse to change Washington Irving’s indelible American Halloween tale into a procedural murder mystery completely eludes me. (To be fair, it’s a hard story to get right. The best version to my mind remains Walt Disney’s animated short).

Next came two remakes that seemed like they should have been slam dunks for someone with Burton’s sensibility and yet proved far inferior to the originals: Planet of the Apes (2001) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). The latter was his second Roald Dahl adaptation. (The first had been the so-so 1996 James and the Giant Peach, which he only produced. Spielberg’s 2016 BFG would seem to complete a kind of ill-advised Dahl trilogy). Then came a revisionist rewrite of Alice in Wonderland (2010) that made me so mad I almost walked out of the theatre (if it says Alice in Wonderland, Goddamn it, I WANT Alice in Wonderland! But even with a different title, I wouldn’t have liked this movie. For the same reason that, as a Wizard of Oz fan, I’ve never been tempted to check out Wicked). Big Fish (2003) and Big Eyes (2014) were dramas that didn’t play to Burton’s strengths. Dark Shadows (2012) disappointed yet again, proving to be one of those cheap tv show parodies of which there are now too many to list, rather than a gloomy exploration of Dan Curtis’s horror/soap franchise there was every potential for. Burton once been all ABOUT that Goth teen angst stuff that so informs vampire stories. Now, he seemed to have turned against his own genre. (Reminds me a lot of the Hitchcock of the late ’60s tried to reimagine spy films now that everyone else was copying him. But his attempts to do it, Torn Curtain and Topaz, were lousy). Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) was both strictly for kids and the usual cookie cutter Hollywood “product”. Burton’s most recent film was 2019’s live-action Dumbo re-make. “Dumbo re-make”, already an offensive concept to me, becomes trebly so when you add “live-action” to it. Someone please hand me some smelling salts!

We’re always hardest on the people we admire. Some of the work I hate the most is by artists I love the most (examples: the later movies of the Marx Brothers, or the later music of John Lennon). And as I say, every so often he hits the sweet spot again. For me, the last time Burton did so was a full decade ago. It’s interesting though to look at a list of films Burton considered making, but didn’t, to speculate about some greatness that might have been. For example, in 1994 he considered a remake of Roger Corman’s Poe trip The Fall of the House of Usher, but opted to make Mars Attacks! instead. He also considered a remake of the AIP classic X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. Also: A Lost in Oz tv series, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! (starring Jim Carrey!), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pinocchio, and a presumably better vision of Maleficent (though as, I say, I’m not big on these re-imaginings). There were many others, but these were just the ones that made me drool. But, in light of his track record over the last 20+ years there are clearly no guarantees. Has he gotten too rich, sloppy, lazy, corrupted? Did I just answer my own question? The bulk of these bad years seem to coincide with his time of involvement with Helena Bonham Carter, though they seem to have been mutually bad influences. The last film she starred in that seems truly worthy of her talents, looking down her list of credits, may well be The Wings of the Dove (1997).

And yet there is hope. One of Burton’s unrealized projects from a few years back was a stop-motion animated film of The Addams Family. Just a few weeks from now, Netflix will be launching its new series Wednesday based on the original characters, with episodes directed by Burton. It seems a good bet, with its tween heroine and dark comic themes (at least I hope it stays comic!) but, ya know…we’ve been burned before. (At the stake. As a witch. Tim Burton, please direct a decent remake of The Witchfinder General!)