The League of Alternate Superstars: Joseph Cotten

Although he’s not well remembered by most people, especially those under, say, 50, citizen kaneJoseph Cotten, 1905-1994) had a superior number of classic movies to his credit.  A member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater ensemble, Cotten joined Welles on the director’s Citizen Kane (1941) and immediately afterward starred in the wunderkind’s star-crossed The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  With Welles uncredited, Cotten starred with him in Journey Into Fear (1942, U.K., 1943 U.S.)

That was quite an initiation for a novice film actor but the quality work continued throughout the ensuing decade.  (It is hardly ever noted that even the biggest stars, the legends, rarely appear in excellent and successful movies for more than a decade.  In this sense, David Shipman downplayed Cotten’s career in The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years.)

Next up for Cotten was Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the murder mystery that turned the star’s charming demeanor upside down.   As Teresa Wright’s Uncle Charlie, he ingratiated himself with his niece’s family, but she soon realized there was something terribly dark about him.

gaslightIn Gaslight (1944) Cotten was part of a triumvirate of topnotch stars that included Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.  That same year Cotten returned to form, playing a naval lieutenant on leave who provides Claudette Colbert and her children (Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple) a shoulder to cry on in Since You Went Away.

Cotten would see much more of Academy Award-winner Jones, who became a lifelong friend.  First up was Love Letters (1945), followed by the western epic Duel in the Sun (1946), and in 1948 they co-starred in the romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie (1948).  For that he received the Best Actor International Award at the Venice Film Festival.  (Cotten had co-starred with another Academy Award winner in 1947’s The Farmer’s Daughter:  Loretta Young.)

third manThe end of the decade reteamed Cotten and Orson Welles in the classic The Third Man (1949).   Everything revolved around Cotten despite Welles playing the title character.

Like Richard Widmark in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), in 1953 Cotten may have been cast to help 20th Century Fox’s rising star Marilyn Monroe improve her acting.  The film was Niagara, a big success.

As the fifties progressed, Cotten, like so many others, found himself on TV and increasingly in character parts.  Nevertheless, on occasion he found some leading movie roles.  Based on Jules Verne’s novel, From the Earth to the Moon (1958) saw him as the leader of the expedition.

During this time Cotten continued doing radio programs.  In fact, he’d begun on radio in the 30s.  His voice was perfect for that medium as it would be when he narrated the 22 episodes of the 1963 TV documentary, Hollywood and the Stars.

lady frankensteinFollowing Vincent Price and Ray Milland into the horror genre, he battled Price’s maniac in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and that same year played Baron Frankenstein in the low budget but curiously compelling Italian horror movie Lady Frankenstein.  Then came another Italian horror film, Baron Blood, in which he menaced Elke Sommer.

About his life and career Cotten had no regrets.  He married actress Patricia Medina and closed his autobiography with, “I continue to love my wife passionately, spiritually, and completely.  That she calmly and unregretfully closed the door on a thriving and glamorous movie career to be at my side, tells of her love for me.  We are ordinary, extraordinarily lucky people.  For that, all I can say is ‘Amen’.”

By Kim

References

Cotten, Joseph.  Vanity Will Get You Somewhere.  1987.

Shipman, David.  The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years.  1972.

Happy Anniversary, Nellie Forbush and Gigi

South Pacific

March 19 marked the 60th anniversary of the New York premiere at the Criterion Theatre of the film version of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which debuted on Broadway in 1949.  It was one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Big 5,” whose other members were Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.  Like Oklahoma!, South Pacific differed from traditional musical theater in its emphasis on story, even a hard-edged story.  Racism was at the core as sailors, soldiers airmen, and nurses island-hopping across the Pacific toward Japan encountered and interacted with indigenous peoples or, in the case of American nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), expatriate French planter Emile (Rossano Brazzi, his singing voice dubbed by Ezio Pinza, Broadway’s Emile) who’d fathered children with a Polynesian woman, and Lieutenant Cable (John Kerr), who romanced Liat (France Nuyen).

The public made the film the highest grosser of the year.  Unsurprisingly, critics, who rarely complimented Broadway director Joshua Logan’s films, belittled South Pacific.  Complaints ranged from casting Gaynor as Nellie rather than, say, Mary Martin from the stage play or Judy Garland, to the curious color palette developed by Logan and 20th Century-Fox’s “house cinematographer” Leon Shamroy.  Shamroy had helped develop CinemaScope and photographed The Robe (1953), the first movie in the process.  Logan hated Technicolor and did not want to make a film that looked like a picture postcard.  He took a still photographer’s advice to “Use filters, overexposure, shoot through a Navajo blanket or a Spanish shawl.  Anything!  Just don’t make it look as though you could turn it over and find written, ‘Having wonderful time in colorful Tahiti—wish you were here.’”  Taking the advice, Logan “thereby made one of the major mistakes of my career.”  Nevertheless, in The Musical Film, Douglas McVay complimented the rich score “and some at times slightly bilious but often strangely atmospheric use of colour films,…”

Mitzi Gaynor, who could dance up a storm and sing more than adequately, had been under Fox contract for her most of her career.  That was a mixed blessing as Fox worked in MGM’s shadow in the musical realm, continuing to make backstage musicals rather than create art via spontaneous singing and dancing.  Gaynor did get to do one good MGM musical, Les Girls, but like her work at Fox, it was mostly a backstage affair.

 

Gigi

Like South Pacific, Gigi, which premiered on May 15, 1958 in New York at the Royale Theatre, was a reserved-seat roadshow and a smash hit, taking in $40,000 in advance, mail-order tickets before opening night.  Unlike South Pacific, Gigi was one of the last Hollywood musicals whose score Lerner and Loewe wrote specifically for the screen and included such memorable songs as “The Night They Invented Champagne,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “I Remember It Well,” and “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.”  Gigi won a record 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

There is a relationship between Gigi and 1951’s An American in Paris.  Both were MGM productions, both were directed by Vincente Minnelli, both featured Leslie Caron as the lead femme, both were set in Paris.  Both won the Best Picture Academy Award.  One thing was radically different:  Douglas McVay identified “virtually no dancing (the numbers frequently being shot in long, static takes with the singers sitting down).”

In fact, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of dancing in South Pacific either.  (Of course it’s difficult to dance on sand.)  Nevertheless, dancing or a simulacrum of it was part of “A Wonderful Guy,” “Honey Bun” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”

Sidenote:  In the mid-sixties South Pacific and Gigi were reissued, which was the only way audiences who’d missed them in ‘58 could catch up.  There were no VHS tapes, RedBox, YouTube, streaming, or Turner Classic Movies.

By Kim

References

Holston, Kim.  Movie Roadshows.  2013.

Logan, Joshua.  Movie Stars, Real People and Me.  1978.

McVay, Douglas.  The Musical Film.  1967.

Fungus Films: Oh, the inhumanity!

“Dave, make ‘em listen to me!  There is a monster!
We saw it again in dad’s store—and it’s bigger now!”
Steve McQueen, The Blob (1958)

Unremarked upon outside science fiction fandom (and hardly there) is the golden age of theatrical “fungus films.”  No, wait!  The golden age of fungi on film was the only age of fungi on film.  It began in 1955 and for all intents and purposes ended almost where it began, with a 1988 remake of its iconic 1958 predecessor.  The fungi film was probably doomed because audiences generally would rather watch characters matching wits with other bipeds or darned smart aliens rather than unthinking globs of protoplasm.  Moreover, there’s something inherently revolting about death by blob.

Let’s explore this phenomenon whose heyday really concluded in 1972.  “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Films” (see Multimedia Blog, March, 2013) began in 1950 and ended in 1956.  This period coincided with Cold War paranoia, and many science fiction films of the period had a Cold War subtext often discovered in retrospect.  In The Thing from Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), It Conquered the World (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), for instance, humans are either killed for blood, implanted with mind-control devices, or mysteriously transformed into soul-less pods.  The analogy is with totalitarian communism, a convenient bogeyman for politicians stoking fear among the citizenry in the West.  In these scenarios the human body remains essentially intact.  Not so with fungus films.  The entire body is consumed, almost always from the outside, often as a result of one touch to the alien entity.  It seems a stretch then to analyze these science fiction movies from a Cold War perspective.  The human mind is of no concern to the (mostly) mindless goo, liquid, slime, mold, gelatin or crusty substance thrust upon the human.

The first fungus film was in many respects the best:  The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), released in 1956 in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown.  The well-respected writer Nigel Kneale’s stories of Professor Quatermass had originally been made for British TV and were mightily popular.  The film version of what would become a trilogy did what a number of Brit films would do to increase worldwide, specifically U.S., profits:  casting one or more American “names,” in this case the venerable character actor Brian Donlevy as an irascible Quatermass.  (Dana Andrews was enlisted for Night of the Demon, Gene Evans for The Giant Behemoth and Forrest Tucker for The Abominable Snowman.)  Generally considered miscast by highbrows (tell that to impressionable youth!), Donlevy provided a certain gravitas in this and its sequel.  In the film, a British rocket crash lands on earth.  There had been three crew members, now there is only one.  What happened to the other two?  Examination of the rocket’s interior reveals a strange organic substance behind the bulkheads.  This material apparently consumed the missing crew members, and the mute survivor is undergoing his own horrible metamorphosis.

On the heels of The Quatermass Xperiment came another British film, X the Unknown (1956).  Here again, an American actor starred.  Dean Jagger even had a Supporting Actor Academy Award to his credit for Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and was then and is now remembered for playing the general for whom Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye put on the show in 1954’s White Christmas.  In X the Unknown, British soldiers come upon a gravel pit spewing radiation.  Dr. Royston (Jagger) hypothesizes that intelligent beings developed in subterranean caverns and periodically make their way to the surface.  What with humans now experimenting with radiation, these creatures have deadly interest in us.  In Keep Watching the Skies! , Bill Warren described the creature as “a tremendous sheet of radioactive living mud.”  Similarities with The Quatermass Xperiment are rife.  Jagger is another incarnation of Quatermass, the film is in black and white, and the cinematography suitable for noir or in in this instance horrible, mostly unseen monsters.

The sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment was released in 1957:  Quatermass 2, aka Enemy from Space.  This time out Quatermass (once again the brusque and demanding Donlevy) discovers an alien plot to invade earth after creating masses of “food” in gigantic vats at Wynerton Flats, a secret government facility.  As with The Quatermass Xperiment, director Val Guest filmed in semi-documentary fashion.  In fact, this film looks like it was made a decade previously.

The subterranean gunk of X the Unknown was joined by another under-earth goo in 1957’s The Unknown Terror.  This grows in a Latin American “Cave of the Dead,” where an American doctor facilitates its development.  The subtext here is actually Mala Powers’ negligee, which in time-honored horror film style she wears while naturally wandering into the nighttime jungle searching for…raggedly men covered in what critics derisively termed “soap bubbles.”

Chronologically, Japan was next up with a fungus film.  The H-Man (Bijo to Ekotai Ningen) was released there in June, 1958, in the U.S. in May, 1959.  Again, humans create and facilitate the menace.  Radioactivity turns Japanese fishermen into nebulous creatures that can devolve into a rapidly moving, deadly goo.  Don’t dare touch it!

Space Master X-7 (1958) features the intriguingly named “blood rust,” an outer space fungus unknowingly spread on earth by a woman believing the authorities are pursuing her for murdering the scientist who in reality succumbed to the alien entity.  A nationwide hunt is undertaken to find the woman, whose possessions contain fungal spores.  Here, as in The Quatermass Xperiment, a semi-documentary approach lends verisimilitude to the proceedings.

Equally dangerous is The Blob (1958), still the most famous of fungi films.  Outer space is again the source.  When a meteorite is cracked open, its gooey innards flow up a stick and onto the human inspecting this visitor from space.  In due course it consumes his body and crawling around the small town by night increases its size with every human it envelops.  Steve McQueen’s warning (“Listen!  Listen to me!  Now listen to me, everybody!  This town is in danger.  Now several people have been killed already.  Now, now we had to make this noise, we had to make it so you’d listen to us, so we could warn you.”) fell on deaf ears until in the film’s most famous scene the blob invades Phoenixville, PA’s Colonial Theater, prompting the audience to flee into the street.  The mystique of The Blob is such that the Colonial sponsors an annual Blob Fest that attracts visitors from across the country for a screening and a “run-out” mimicking that in the film.  There is a Cold War element when an old coot hearing sirens retrieves from his closet his Civil Defense helmet.  He is obviously preparing for incoming missiles from the Reds, not a terrifying and deadly mass from space.

First Man Into Space (1959) sounds like a documentary, but of course it was an attempt to make hay from the space race.  (Russia’s Sputnik satellite began orbiting earth in 1957.)  Naturally drama becomes melodrama.  This first American spacefarer is infected after his vehicle courses through a strange cloud.  Encrusted like his capsule, his oxygen-starved body requires copious amounts of blood only obtainable (in the movies) via a killing spree.  But who can forget the poor soul’s final comment, “Sorry things had to happen this way, but I just had to be the first man into space” or Dr. Van Essen’s proclamation that “The conquest of new worlds always makes demands on human life, and there will always be men who will accept the risk.”

Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959) climbs from a Mayan pool in this Italian/French co-production co-directed by budding horror maestro Mario Bava (Black Sunday).  Whereas cold foiled the Blob, flame put the kibosh on Caltiki.

Mutiny in Outer Space (1965) covered an expedition into our moon’s caves.  Back on their space station, the explorers soon learn that the deadly fungus found beneath the moon’s surface loves heat and seems intent on finding earth.  Hopefully they can freeze it first.

Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967) was the third of the Professor Quatermass feature films.   However, although there was a pit and a spaceship inside it, its alien creators were not fungi, rather ancient Martians resembling giant locusts or grasshoppers.

The Japanese got into the act again with The Green Slime (1968).  The title is misleading as the slime quickly metamorphoses into ridiculous tentacled monstrosities.  Once again American actors are front and center.  Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel are joined by bond girl Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball).

Beware!  The Blob (aka Son of Blob, 1972) is a mix of comedy and drama that sometimes gells into an entertaining film, e.g., the dude raising a crucifix to ward off the oncoming mass, the sheriff looking down at the gunk crawling up his boot and asking, “What?”

Aftermath
 
The Incredible Melting Man (1977) features the title character returned from Saturn with an infection that melts skin and naturally sends him on a flesh-eating spree.

The Stuff (1985) is a seriocomic satire of rampant consumerism in which people eat a substance that returns the favor by ingesting them from the inside out.

The Blob (1988) is a serviceable but now largely forgotten remake of the iconic 1958 film and in essence brought the fungus film subgenre full circle.

Note:  The Slime People (1963) are not slimy, rather crusty and intelligent spear-carrying bipeds that emerge from beneath Los Angeles and encase the city in an impenetrable fog.  The Creeping Terror (1964) is a distinctly low-budget effort with a troubled production that saw it released as a TV movie.

 

References

Hardy, Phil.  The Overlook Film Encyclopedia:  Science Fiction Film.  Overlook Press, 1995, c1984.

Holston, Kim, and Winchester, Tom.  Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and RemakesVolume I:  1931-1995.  McFarland & Co., 1997.

Warren, Bill.  Keep Watching the Skies!  American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties.  Volume I:  1950-1957.  Volume II:  1958-1962.  McFarland & Co., 1982, 1986.

By Kim

The League of Alternate Superstars: Glenn Ford

It is a shame that Glenn Ford (1916-2006), contemporary of many Hollywood luminaries including his chum William Holden, did not receive the credit he deserved for a long and distinguished film and TV career.  Perhaps the most egregious omission is that Citadel Press never published The Films of Glenn Ford.

In The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years, David Shipman wrote of Ford, “It is always a pleasure to renew acquaintance with him, especially in comedy, where his relaxed and impish performances as a bumbling ordinary guy have been much underrated.  In drama he remains the Little Man, often victimized and battling grimly against the forces of fate.”

Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford was born on May 1, 1916 in Quebec City.  In 1922 the family relocated to Los Angeles.  Gwyllyn, now Glenn, made his first feature film in 1937, Night in Manhattan.  In 1939, the same year as Holden gained fame in Golden Boy, Ford was 4th billed in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence but was in fact the key player.  His breakout role was as a young German caught up in the Nazi net cast over Jews and others the Fascist regimes considered undesirables in So Ends Our Night (1941), a major film starring Fredric March and Margaret Sullavan.  The same year he co-starred with Holden in the quality western, Texas.   Eventually the Holden character goes bad.  (Almost a decade later they reversed roles for The Man from Colorado, with Ford as a psychopathic colonel become federal judge after the Civil War.)

Like Holden, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and various other Hollywood leading men, Ford joined the service during World War II.  He enlisted in the Marines.

The war over, Ford returned to the Columbia Pictures fold and had his big breakout role as Johnny Farrell opposite siren Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946).  Now considered a staple of film noir, it would not be Ford’s last venture into that arena.  Although hardly anyone realizes it today, Ford and Hayworth were a legitimate movie team, co-starring in three other films:  The Loves of Carmen (1948), Affair in Trinidad (1952), and The Money Trap (1966).  Unfortunately, these films were primarily memorable for the casts, not the plots.

Ford became a major western hero, and sometimes, like James Stewart, a tortured one.  The same year as The Man from Colorado (1948), Ford starred in Lust for Gold, a tale of the search for the Lost Dutchman mine.  The ending featured a spectacular earthquake.  In Western Films:  A Complete Guide, author Brian Garfield suggested that as the amoral German immigrant, Ford gave the best performance of his career.  (Note that the same year The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had a similar plot and theme:  greed.).  Ford’s son wrote that co-star Ida Lupino ranked his father and Richard Widmark as her favorite leading men.

Five quality westerns followed:  The Violent Men (1955) opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, Jubal (1956) opposite Felicia Farr and Valerie French and the amazing male duo of Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger with Charles Bronson in support.  An acknowledged classic was next:  3:10 to Yuma.  Ford played ingratiating but dangerous outlaw Ben Wade, captured and assigned to Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a rancher hired to put him on the train over the dangerous obstacle of Wade’s scurvy gang.  Wade comes to respect Evans and actually helps him survive.  There were two westerns in 1958.  Cowboy was rather epic in scope, with a hard edge befitting this tale based on fact.  The dude played by Jack Lemmon joined Ford’s no-nonsense rancher on his cattle drive and became a man.  The Sheepman was not so hard-edged, with Ford battling with the cattlemen (naturally) and sparring with spunky Shirley MacLaine in this, her fifth film.  A sixth western intended as a large-scale remake of the epic 1931 Best Picture Academy Award winner, 1960’s Cimarron was a major disappointment, as would the 1962 remake of 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Ford’s first noir classic had been Gilda, and Ford had another significant—and vastly more violent entry in that realm in 1953.  Directed by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat joined the pantheon of most famous noirs.  After his family is attacked, Detective Dan Bannion (Ford) goes all out for revenge on Mike Lagana’s crime syndicate and its prime hitman (Lee Marvin).  It would not be much of a stretch to label Experiment in Terror (1962) a noir.  Ross Martin’s psychopath terrorized sisters played by Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers. Ford’s detective is out to nab the miscreant, and symbolic of changing times, in one scene Ford stands alone among a gaggle of female mannequins.  His attire may be symbolic:  still in fedora, which by decade’s end will disappear from the noggins of both policemen and hoods, but his trenchcoat has no belt.

Contemporary issues were also in Ford’s repertoire.  The most famous and significant film in this bailiwick was Blackboard Jungle (1955), whose theme “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets became the anthem for rock ‘n roll.  Ford played teacher Richard Dadier (or “daddio” to the punks) at an inner city school packed with society’s newly christened “juvenile delinquents”, including Vic Morrow.  The film was controversial on several accounts, not least in casting Sidney Poitier in a prime role as one of the students.

After Blackboard Jungle Ford began a spate of military movies in that almost forgotten comedy subgenre:  the “service comedy”:  The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957) Imitation General (1958), and Cry for Happy (1961). As Shipman indicated, he was also adept at light contemporary comedies (The Gazebo, 1960; Love is a Ball, 1963) and comedy-dramas (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, 1963; Dear Heart, 1964).

It may be that Ford’s on-screen persona was so soothing and made things seem so effortless that he was not a perennial Academy Award-nominee.  He did, however, receive nominations and win awards presented by other organizations, including the Golden Globe for Best Actor-Comedy or Musical (Pocketful of Miracles, 1961), the Golden Apple Award for Most Cooperative Actor (1948 and 1957), the Golden Boot Award (1987), the Laurel Award for Top Male Comedy Performance (Don’t Go Near the Water, 1957), and the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1987 San Sebastien International Film Festival.  He received his Hollywood Walk of Fame Star in 1960.

By Kim

 

References

Ford, Peter.  Glenn Ford:  A Life.  Madison, WI:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.

Garfield, Brian.  Western Films:  A Complete Guide.  Rawson Associates, 1982.

Shipman, David.  The Great Stars:  The International Years.  London:  Angus & Robertson, 1972.

Riot in Cell Block 11: When Character Actors Star

With a sterling resume as an independent Hollywood producer (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Queen Christina, Algiers, Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent, Canyon Passage, and in 1963, Cleopatra), Walter Wanger opted to use his talents to expose prison injustice in the 1954 film Riot in Cell Block 11.  The immediate prompt was his 1952 incarceration at the Wayside Honor Farm for putting a slug into the groin of agent Jennings Lang, believed to be having an affair with Wanger’s wife, actress Joan Bennett. 

The resulting spare film (80 minutes) is an attack on a society—wardens, guards, politicians and the public at large—that could care less about rehabilitation or the tendency to dump psychopaths into the general prison population.  Aptly, the director was Don Siegel, cutting his teeth on B-movies generally more interesting and in retrospect more important than most big-budget studio films.  Soon Siegel would helm Wanger’s seminal science fiction movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and later achieve greater fame directing Clint Eastwood in such films as Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled and Dirty HarryRiot bears his occasional semi-documentary approach, beginning with newsreel film of actual U.S. prison riots.

Filmed at Folsom State Prison in California, Riot in Cell Block 11 is unique in that all of the stars  are character actors:  the riot’s fomenter Dunn (highly decorated WW II soldier Neville Brand in a sympathetic role), his brutish enforcer (Leo “The Scariest Guy in Hollywood” Gordon), the frustrated warden (Emile Meyer, fresh off his role as cattle baron Ryker in Shane), the by-the-book commissioner (Frank Faylen, an It’s a Wonderful Life alumnus soon to play Dwayne Hickman’s dad on TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), Snader (Whit Bissell, once disparaged as an American everyman, here a despicable guard whereas in 1947’s Brute Force he’d been a con—and in 1957 would play mad scientists in I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein), “The Colonel” (Robert Osterloh, veteran then and later of innumerable TV and film roles) here playing an intelligent war vet incarcerated for a lapse in judgment that led to a manslaughter conviction), hepped-up Mickey (William Phipps, a nuclear holocaust survivor in Five as the most unhinged of the prisoners), victimized guard Monroe (Paul Frees, the ubiquitous narrator and voice actor, e.g., Boris Badenov on TV’s Rocky and His Friends), news reporter (William Schallert, the father on The Patty Duke Show in the 1960s), the con who initiates the riot (Dabbs Greer, veteran by the end of his life of over 300 roles), “Gator” (Alvy Moore of the future TV series Green Acres in a long-billed cap that must be seen to be believed).  Pay attention or you’ll miss James Anderson, who will be playing Scout’s brutish nemesis in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and a chain gang captain in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969).

In summary, Riot in Cell Block 11 may be the only major Hollywood film whose performers were all members of the unsung but necessary and often compelling caste:  the character actor.

By Kim

 

References

Holston, Kim.  Susan Hayward:  Her Films and Life.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co., 2002.  Trace producer Wanger’s trial and incarceration in at least 12 New York Times 1952 articles.

Kaminsky, Stuart M.  Don Siegel, Director.  New York:  Curtis Books, 1974.  See “Chapter VI:  700 Prisoners and a Handful of Actors.”  Siegel said San Quentin ex-con, now actor, Leo Gordon, was not originally welcomed by the warden, who made him enter a separate gate and searched.  Siegel and producer Wanger knew Gordon’s worth.  “Had he not been in the picture it would surely have suffered,” said the director.

Peyton Place: Return to Innocence

Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place was the scandalous and best-selling novel of 1956-57.  The title has become synonymous with small-town America, especially its hidden, often odious human substratum.  Here, in a story set immediately before and during World War II, patriotic parades, picnics, and proms mask hypocritical, sexually repressed, judgmental, mean-spirited, alcoholic, catty, and even murderous citizens.

In 1957 Peyton Place was made into a big-budget and highly successful film that may be the ultimate quality Hollywood soap opera.  (It became a hit primetime TV soap in 1964.)  With a running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, Peyton Place allowed significant time for each of its multitude of characters to make an impression, and of its 9 Academy Award nominations five were for acting:   Best Actress (Lana Turner), Supporting Actor (Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn), Supporting Actress (Diane Varsi, Hope Lange).

The virtually unknown Varsi landed the key role of Allison MacKenzie, the high school senior who doesn’t want to attend college to learn how to write, she wants to write even if her apprenticeship is on the town’s newspaper.  It is Allison’s voice periodically narrating the story.  Another prominent inhabitant of the town is Dr. Swain, played by ubiquitous character/supporting actor Lloyd Nolan.  The climax turns on Swain’s decision to renege on a promise.  His voice of reason and compassion is raised to hold the community accountable.

Even now Peyton Place is a surprisingly affecting movie that can bring tears to the eyes.  Why?  Is it the tree-lined streets, the lake, the Labor Day celebration, the students and teachers holding hands and singing “Auld Lang Syne”?  It is perhaps a fantasy, a terrain that never existed, an environment we think or wish or maybe did inhabit as carefree children.  (Another example of this yearning is seen in “Walking Distance,” the 1959 Twilight Zone episode in which Gig Young interacts with his younger self and longs to remain in the town of his youth.).  One must not neglect another “character” that allows the film to successfully carry all this emotional weight:  Franz Waxman’s lovely theme and score.  Just before Waxman’s music wraps it up, Allison’s voice provides hope for the future:  “We’d finally discovered that season of love.  It is only found in someone else’s heart.  Right now someone you know is looking everywhere for it, and it’s in you.”

 

[Thank you, Mike Varano, for identifying potentially significant subtext:  characters are constantly opening and closing doors:  front, back, classroom, diner, restroom, office, closet, kitchen, pantry, car, bus, train carriage.]

By Kim

Saddle the Wind (1958)

In Western Films:  A Complete Guide (1982), Brian Garfield extols Royal Dano’s performance but otherwise comes down fairly hard on Saddle the Wind (1958).  He thought the actors had not received much direction, New York-born John Cassavetes was miscast, and the story familiar and clichéd.  Yet there is much to give pleasure in this film, especially for film aficionados who can put the whole shebang into context.  Familiarity with the entire corpus of film allows one to enjoy almost any movie.

The Colorado scenery is captivating, the gunplay choreography judicious, the music by future master of western scores Elmer Bernstein, and the character actors backing up Robert Taylor and Julie London rather stunning:  Dano as the fanatical, perhaps unhinged Union army veteran who shakes a deed to the verdant valley into the faces of Sinclair (Robert Taylor) and Deneen (Donald Crisp) and dares them to run off him and his small group of sodbusters, Jay Adler as a bedraggled saloon worker, gravely-voiced Charles McGraw as the extremely nasty Venables come to town to test himself against former gunman Sinclair, Douglas Spencer as the ranch hand incapable of chaperoning the increasingly violent Tony (Cassavetes), and Ray Teal as Deneen’s major domo.

The dialogue is also sparkling, and it’s easy to see why.  Rod Serling was the screenwriter.  He’d written Patterns (1955) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) for TV.  The year after Saddle the Wind he was narrating and writing his ground-breaking TV series, The Twilight Zone.

Some of the movie’s pithy monologues:

“Looking after your brother is like poking hot butter in a wildcat’s ear.  It just can’t be done.”  (Douglas Spencer as Hemp Scribner)

“Sonny, I got the guts and the know-how to puncture your belly six times before you can take a breath of air.”  (Charles McGraw as Venables)

“I’m no slut, Mr. Sinclair.  He didn’t buy me like he bought that gun.”  (Julie London as Joan Blake)

“Yes, but not to a man.  I’m telling it to a dirty, little, trigger-happy jackal without a heart in his body. I can’t say it much plainer that that, Tony.”  (Donald Crisp as Dennis Deneen)

Beyond the sociopathic behavior of Tony, larger issues emerge.  Like Shane (1953), in Saddle the Wind we observe characters embroiled in an imbroglio from which neither side can claim a fully satisfactory outcome.  Who should control the valley, the farmers or the cattlemen?  Both have solid arguments.  Human detritus from the Civil War is also in evidence, with the Union veteran (Dano) being taunted by “Dallas” (Richard Erdman).  Consider Cassavetes’ Tony the incarnation of Shane’s gun-for-hire Wilson (Jack Palance) who insults and blows away Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Reb.  Or maybe Charles McGraw’s Venables is the parallel, although we don’t learn anything of his backstory.

By Kim

The Most Underappreciated Major Western

Garden of Evil is a 1954 western that for many years languished beyond the purview of cinema aficionados.  It gained some traction after its first TV broadcast on Saturday Night at the Movies in 1961, but Brian Garfield may have been the first to resuscitate it in his 1982 book, Western Films:  A Complete Guide.  He especially admired the landscape that in its harsh majesty overwhelmed its puny human interlopers.  That scenery was “The Lost World” of Mexico, specifically the blasted heath around Paricutin, a volcano that spouted from a farmer’s field in 1943 and continued erupting until 1952 by which time its effluvium had submerged two towns.  The tops of the spires of San Juan Parangaricutiro Church were all that remained of human habitation, and these are featured in the film.

The story:  When their ship to the California gold fields puts up for garden of evilrepairs on the Mexican coast, the disillusioned Hooker (Gary Cooper), the card-sharp Fiske (Richard Widmark), the rambunctious Daly (Cameron Mitchell), and the formidable hombre Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza) are enticed by the promise of treasure they won’t have to dig for when Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) offers gold if they will accompany her to the mine where her husband John (Hugh Marlowe) lies trapped by a cave-in.  They ride deep into the interior, find a lava-strewn landscape and an abandoned town before entering the mine and dragging John into the light of day.  He is not sanguine about the future, telling his rescuers that it is the time of the “White Man’s Moon” and their lives are in mortal danger from a savage tribe whose members didn’t kill him because they couldn’t imagine a better torture than letting him rot under the mine’s fallen beams.  Will the gold-seekers allow Leah to tend the fire while they take John and sneak away?  Will Leah give herself to Hooker?  Fiske?  Daly?  Will any survive the White Man’s Moon?

There is much to recommend in this 20th Century Fox production, obviously made on location to lure TV fans back to the big screen.  Fox had introduced CinemaScope the previous year with The RobeGarden of Evils exotic locale was just as suitable for this new process.  The cast was topnotch:  long-time superstar Gary Cooper; the multi-Academy Award-nominated, extremely popular and CinemaScope-ready redhead Susan Hayward; and the one-time king of movie psychopaths Richard Widmark, branching out into non-criminal genres.  Philadelphia-born Hugh Marlowe was in the midst of a golden age as supporting actor at Fox, having featured prominently in Twelve O’Clock High, All About Eve, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Rawhide and Monkey Business.  Veteran director Henry Hathaway was at the helm.  Master composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Day the Earth Stood Still) supplied the variegated score that wouldn’t find its way to CD until the 1990s.  If any of these elements had been less than sterling, so we suspect would have been the movie.

Compare and contrast:   Gary Cooper starred in another quality western filmed in Mexico that same year:  Vera CruzThe Tall Texan, an exemplary black & white, 1953 B-movie with Lloyd Bridges and Marie Windsor, follows a similar path but with obviously less grandeur, philosophical musings, or star power.

By Kim

The Least is the Funniest

Doris Day and Rock Hudson co-starred in three highly successful comedies:  Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers.  The first is generally considered the best.  But is it the funniest?

Pillow Talk (1959)pillow talk tells the tale of a shared telephone line (remember party lines?) on which Jan Morrow (Day) accidentally eavesdrops on the pick-up lines Brad Allen (Hudson) is using on innumerable women.  He eventually learns about his eavesdropper and naturally masquerades as someone else in order to romance her.  Thelma Ritter adds her typical endearing support, and as with the ensuing two films, Tony Randall is an engaging sounding pad and foil.

Lover Come Back (1961) is about advertising “mad men” and a woman.  Jerry Webster (Hudson) competes for accounts with cross-town rival Carol Templeton (Day).  Pretending to be the inventor of the nonexistent VIP, Webster’s ruse falls apart when his boss (Randall) places the seductive Rebel (Edie Adams) in TV commercials for the imaginary product.  A chemist (Jack Kruschen) is hired to come up with something, anything that will prove to the Ad Council that VIP is not a hoax.  The chemist succeeds and Jerry proclaims, “Gentlemen, I give you VIP, a pleasant concoction to be enjoyed by the entire family.”  VIP turns out to be….I won’t give it away.

Send Me No Flowers (1964) features Day and Hudson as a suburban married couple (So much for the myth that she was always the eternal virgin.), Judy and George Kimball.  A hypochondriac, George mistakes for his own a doctor’s chart for another patient and thinks he has a limited time to live.  A noble fellow, he decides to keep Judy in the dark while he hooks her up with an appropriate future husband.  Enter the imposing Clint Walker (of TV’s Cheyenne fame).  send me no flowersSo large of frame is he that he can barely exit his Jaguar.  Hearing of Judy’s travails, he calls her a “brick.”  George retorts, “I’ll tell my wife when she’s a brick!”  When he learns that George is (supposedly) dying, Arnold (Randall) goes on a binge and finds solace in the extreme smoothness of a wooden table top.  George’s weird behavior eventually promotes suspicion in Judy’s mind that he’s having an affair, possibly with Linda Bullard (Patricia Barry).  Arnold tells George to admit his unfaithfulness.  What could go wrong?  Of course it backfires, and in a priceless scene in a train station baggage office Judy grills George, demanding the name of the lady in question. “Dolores,” says he.  She wants a last name, too.   At a loss, George scans the room, his eyes alighting on a park poster of Smokey the Bear.  Thus, “Dolores Yellowstone.”   Send Me No Flowers is a solid mix of sight gags, memorable one-liners, and characters coming to erroneous conclusions.  It benefits from a stable of excellent character actors, including Paul Lynde as a funeral director, Edward Andrews as the doctor, and Hal March as a philanderer.  Chalk up some of its appeal to director Norman Jewison, who the following year helmed The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.  Credit the writers as well:  Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore, who’d written the play upon which the film is based.

By Kim

Heavyweight Male Superstar Duos

Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) is a good but not great western, but there is one attribute that makes it watchable over and over again:  the conflict/rapport between Hollywood stars of equal magnitude:  Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

In Gunfight, Douglas appears first, his Doc Holliday gunfight at the ok corralthrowing knives at the door of his hotel room while Kate (Jo Van Fleet) berates him for not skipping town after killing Ed Bailey’s (Lee Van Cleef’s) brother.  Bailey arrives, intent on avenging his brother.  While Doc makes him stew in the bar, Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) calls on Sheriff Cotton (Frank Faylen) and is perturbed the lawman didn’t arrest Ike Clanton and Ringo when they rode into town.  In the saloon, Earp meets Holliday.  This is what we’ve waited for:  the first meeting of two megastars.  One cannot look away.  Even though I’d seen this film several times, the first at Chester’s Mac Theater (specializing in second-run films like Horror of Dracula, The Vikings, and I Want to Live!) in the early 60s, I must always watch the interplay if I stumble on the movie on TV.  I must watch Lancaster confront Douglas, I must see them spar with each other.  They had made one film before GunfightI Walk Alone (1948).  Lancaster was in the second year of his cinematic career, having debuted as the star of The Killers (1946).  Like very few others, he served no apprenticeship and was a star from the get-go.  Douglas was rambling around the late forties in significant but often secondary roles, such as Robert Mitchum’s foil in the seminal noir film Out of the Past (1947).  His breakthrough to leading man status occurred in 1949’s prizefight film, Champion.  It was all up from there.

Lancaster and Douglas made five other films together:  The Devil’s Disciple (1959), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963; Lancaster in guest role, Douglas the main star), Seven Days in May (1964; Douglas has the more sympathetic part as the officer who must stop Lancaster’s coup), and Tough Guys (1986).*

Two years privera cruzor to Gunfight at the OK Corral Lancaster had another outing versus a superstar.  In 1954’s Vera Cruz his uncouth but ingratiating mercenary Joe Erin came up against soft-spoken but wily Ben Trane, played by the legendary Gary Cooper.  Allied to protect a shipment of gold through Mexico, they find themselves in a stand-off at the finale.  Lancaster was still out for personal booty, Cooper had decided to use it in the service of the rebel Juaristas.

Another 1950s confrontation between heavyweights occurred in 1958’s The Big Country, like Gunfight not a truly great western but entirely watchable.  The Big Country’s on-location shooting is better than Gunfight, the gunplay less well choreographed in the big confrontation between the Terrills and Hannassays in Blanco Canyon.  However, The Big Country ’s music scorebig country by Jerome Moross is the standard against which all subsequent westerns are measured.  And like Gunfight, Big Country benefits immeasurably by a conflict between two Hollywood male superstars.  Gregory Peck played ship captain Jim McKay come west to run a ranch, and was a mere dude to the Terrill ranch foreman Steve Leech played by Charlton Heston.  Like Lancaster, the 6’3” Peck had been a star from his first movie, Days of Glory (1944).  Like Peck and Lancaster, Heston (also 6’3”) didn’t have a meteoric rise to stardom; he was a star from his first film, 1950’s Dark City and by 1956 was playing Moses in The Ten Commandments.  In the meantime Peck had starred in many quality films in various genres (Gentleman’s Agreement, Yellow Sky, Twelve O’Clock High, The Gunfighter, Roman Holliday, Moby Dick) and amassed multiple Oscar nominations.  So when these two got together it was, as with Lancaster and Douglas, a pairing of equals symbolized in this instance by their private nighttime fistfight behind the bunkhouse witnessed only by ranch hand Ramon (played by Alfonso “The Face That Kills” from 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Bedoya).  Appropriately, the Peck-Heston fracas ended in a draw.

Four years later Peck had another match with a superstar.  In 1962, when he finally won an Oscar for his Southern attorney Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Peck played another Southern attorney, Sam Bowden, in Cape Fear.   Bowden had to deal with a vengeance-minded ex-con.  That menacing psychopath was portrayed by Robert Mitchum, whose Max Cady was as chilling as his bogus preacher man Harry Powell in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter.  There could be no draw in their knock-down, drag-out finale fight.  Cady had to be contained, but it took a gun to give Bowden the final say.

One could extend this discussion to other stars of equal stature.  For example,

Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, San Francisco (1936)
Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Boom Town (1940)
William Holden, Glenn Ford, Texas (1941)
Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, They Were Expendable (1945)run silent run deep
William Holden, Robert Mitchum, Rachel and the Stranger (1948)
Glenn Ford, William Holden, The Man from Colorado (1948)
John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Fort Apache (1948)
Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953)
Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, The Last Hunt (1956)
Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, The Ten Commandments (1956)
Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, The Defiant Ones (1958)
Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Some Came Running (1958)
John Wayne, William Holden, The Horse Soldiers (1959)
Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959)
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot (1959)
Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961)
John Wayne, James Stewart, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Becket (1964)towering inferno
John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, In Harm’s Way (1965)
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, The Great Race (1965)
John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, El Dorado (1966)
John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, The War Wagon (1967)
Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
John Wayne, Rock Hudson, The Undefeated (1969)
Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, There Was a Crooked Man (1970)
Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Papillon (1973)
Paul Newman, Robert Redford, The Sting (1973)
Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, The Towering Inferno (1974)
Sean Connery, Michael Caine, The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, The Missouri Breaks (1976)
Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, HEAT (1994)

As for female stars of equal rank in the same movie, there are fewer examples.  What comes to mind immediately is 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.  Another is 1961’s The Children’s Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.

*Even when their screenthe vikings time was equal—or even when Douglas had a more significant role (as in The Devil’s Disciple)—Lancaster always received the preferred left-hand spot on the movie posters for the films in which they costarred.  However, Douglas’ overall 1950s films were at least as good as his rival’s.  Douglas had 24 movies released between 1950 and 1959, Lancaster 22 (including one as an uncredited player).  A subjective rating results in a virtual tie as far as quality goes.  Among Douglas’ premiere films of the decade were Young Man with a Horn, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story, The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lust for Life, Paths of Glory, and The VikingsLancaster’s top-of-the-line releases were The Flame and the Arrow, Come Back, Little Sheba, From Here to Eternity, Vera Cruz, The Rose Tattoo, The Crimson Pirate, Sweet Smell of Success and Run Silent, Run Deep.  Remember that this is subjective, but Douglas needs reevaluation vis-à-vis Lancaster.

By Kim