Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year!

Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places is a film variation of the story The Prince and the Pauper, originally published by Mark Twain.  A variety of memorable performances gelled together to create this witty, funny movie.  Classic actors Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche joined forces with (then) up-and-coming Eddie Murphy, and his costar from the Saturday Night Live cast, Dan Aykroyd.  Although Eddie Murphy does an admirable job, one can't help but wonder how John Belushi, who had been co-stars with Aykroyd in three previous films (1941, The Blues Brothers and Neighbors). as well as years together on SNL, might have portrayed the counterpart to Aykroyd's Louis Winthorpe III.  (Obviously he wouldn't have been playing a poor black man, but that part of it could easily have been changed without losing too much in the tale).  A footnote to this musing is, I read that the original duo that was to be the stars were Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, so that would have definitely been a different take.

Added to the cast were Denholm Elliot, whom if I were rich would like to have a butler/valet/chauffer just like him.  Jamie Lee Curtis comes on board as "the hooker with the heart of gold", Jim Belushi (John's brother) as an overzealous party-goer, and Paul Gleason as one of the most evil villains I've ever seen in a comedy.  (Note:  If you are interested, I did a tribute to Paul Gleason's villain roles in an earlier entry, which you can read here.) Included in some memorable scenes are also James D. Turner and Ron Taylor (who must have had the easiest time in the world memorizing his lines:  "Yeah",  "Yeah" and...oh, yes....  "Yeah".)

I personally feel the movie benefits from the soundtrack, too.  Classical pieces abound throughout the film as background.  The opening score is from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.  Which is fitting, I think, since wikipedia references some similarities between the movie and Mozart's opera.  In another movie classical pieces may have been viewed with a skeptical eye, but here they fit pretty well.  As the opening credits run and Mozart's composition plays we are treated to a variety of sites in Philidelphia, both in the poorer sectors and in the ritzier sectors to lay a foundation to this tale of switcheroos.

Louis Winthrorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) prepares for his day, with the help of his valet Coleman (Denholm Elliot), as an upper-level stockbroker working for the rich Duke & Duke Investments, owned by Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, respectively).  At the same time small time hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) works a scam as a supposedly crippled, blind veteran.

Louis Winthorpe III

Billy Ray Valentine

The Dukes

Billy's ruse is uncovered by two cops, and he tries to get away, inadvertently running into and knocking down Louis as he exits the exclusive club, where Louis has been getting checks signed by the Duke brothers, and Louis drops his briefcase.  When Billy picks it up to hand it back to him, Louis reacts as if he is being robbed.  A panicked Billy runs into the clubhouse but is caught.

The unscrupulous Duke brothers, who had previously been discussing whether an individual's status and bearing have been more influenced by heredity or environment, make a wager in which they plan to discredit Louis and force him into poverty, while at the same time taking Billy and seeing if they can make a classy, well-mannered individual out of him.

Poor Louis

Rich Billy

Neither are immediately transformed (this would be a rather shorter movie if it were true).  Billy treats his new found wealth with all the dubiousness and then extravagance one would expect from someone on the verge of poverty to do, granted a wealth beyond hi dreams.  On the other side, Louis refuses to accept that his circumstances have changed, instead treating everyone with just as much contempt and superiority as he had when he was wealthy.  In the process, he meets up with Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold, who although doubts Louis' story nevertheless agrees to help him.


A brief period of the movie contrasts the changes as, gradually, Billy becomes more refined, while at the same time Louis sinks deeper into depression and debt.  The transformation seems complete, until Louis, in a cab, happens to pass Billy, with his former valet, in his former limousine.  Louis makes plans for revenge, which will coincide with the Duke & Duke Christmas party.  After Louis' foiled attempt to frame Billy with drugs, he runs out of the building, eventually ending up trying to overdose on the same drugs with which he tried to frame Billy.  At the same time, Billy discovers the real story behind what the Duke brothers are doing, trying to use inside information to corner the market on "frozen concentrated orange juice". (Whether there really is such a commodity, I don't know, but I doubt it.  It would be a disappointment to find out there was, because that's one of the funnier parts of the movie.)

Billy tracks down Louis, and reveals the truth.  Together with Ophelia and Coleman, the four plan a plot to take the classified information, being smuggled to the Dukes via a courier, Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason).  The whole series of events takes place on a commuter train travelling from New York to Philidelphia, coincidentally with a New Year's Eve Party going on on board.  (and now you know why I chose this movie at this time.)  Seeing Eddie Murphy as an African exchange student, Dan Aykroyd (in blackface) as a fellow African, Olivia as a Swedish girl, and Coleman as a slightly inebriated Irish priest is a hoot.

Beeks w/ Ophelia
Louis and Billy

Coleman as an Irish priest

Confusion and mix-ups ensue.  With confidence that this isn't a spoiler, I will tell you they DO succeed in getting the secret documents.  (But I won't tell you how....)  The ending involves some pretty furious trading on the stock market floor as Billy and Louis run their counter-ruse on the Dukes.  All for a bet of $1....

May the new year bring all the wealth your little heart desires.  Personally for me, I'd settle for just getting Ophelia.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fa la la la la

I am hoping to be back home later this week so I can write a full fledged review, but I wanted to wish you all a belated Merry Christmas, and to do another of my infrequent reminiscences from those days of yesteryear in my movie experience.

Christmas Eve of 1978.  My sister and I went to see the new Superman: The Movie.  (Why did Hollywood have to add "The Movie"?  Did they think we would go to the theater and expect to see a couple of old George reeves TV shows up on the big screen?  They did the same with the first Star Trek movie:   Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  And several others down through the years...)

My sister and I rarely had the same tastes,  and we still don't.  I doubt she's seen a movie in the theater since I practically had to drag her to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and, even then, the last movie she probably saw in a theater before that was the aforementioned Superman.   The Superman experience was rather phenomenal, for me.  Much like the experience of seeing Tron, and other movies that had cutting edge (at the time) special effects, I was wowed by the feeling, as the tagline so eloquently put it, "you'll believe a man can fly".

In those early years I went to just about any movie that captured my interest, but, as then, today my biggest draw to a movie is how they use special effects.  The stuff that was done to create the illusion in Superman was primitive by today's standards, but that doesn't diminish how great it looks.  And since it was Christmas Eve, I went to bed, not with visions of sugarplums and Santa Claus, but with visions of another hero that flew through the air.

It's not nearly as awe-inspiring these days, since I am limited to a comparatively smaller screen (but at least I don't have to rely on over-priced popcorn and soda pop as treats).  I keep watching the papers however.  Occasionally the Alamo Drafthouse (a damn good theater experience even if it is indoors) will have showings of older movies in celebration of one thing or another.  There are a whole list of movies that I was unable to experience on the big screen as well as many I DID see that I'd like to experience again.

Happy New to you, and hope to see you folks again next year.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Fruitcakes and Nuts (and Bill Murray)

Ebenezer Scrooge.

Unless you've been living under a rock your whole life, you know the name.

And you know what he represents.  Goodness, kindness, philanthropy, human companionship, great employer, and fantastic all-round human being.

What's that?  I'm wrong?  Did you actually make it to the end of the story or did you just nod off midways through the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Present?

OK, so Scrooge WAS a skinflint at the beginning of the story.   As his author so eloquently described him:

"...he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner."

When Ebenezer Scrooge first appeared on the literary landscape in December of 1843, he was just another character from the imagination of Charles Dickens.  But over the past almost 1 and 3/4 centuries, he has become synonymous with the greed and avarice of his pre-ghostly visitations.   Call someone a "Scrooge" and both you and he/she are likely to get the meaning outright.

Down through the years countless adaptations (and various pastiches and parodies on the theme) have been presented to the public. Countless stage productions, a variety of radio programs (when radio was what TV is today), numerous TV productions, a smattering of new, modernized takes on the old theme, and a good many TV comedy and drama shows down through the years have taken Dickens' theme and put it to good use.

Among versions of the original story is a made-for-TV version which starred, remarkably, George C. Scott as Scrooge.  Scott was, as near as I can tell, the only American actor in this otherwise British and British Commonwealth cast.  Yet Scott does an admirable job in his role.  The saving grace here is he doesn't try to affect a British accent, which definitely would have distracted me while I kept trying to catch anything that wasn't said in the "fake" accent.

Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge

In the role of Bob Cratchit was David Warner.  Edward Woodward, who was, at that time, the star of his own American TV show, The Equalizer, appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Susannah York appeared as Mrs. Cratchit.  Angela Pleasance (Donald Pleasance's daughter) was the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Other familiar names included Roger Rees, Joanne Whalley, Nigel Davenport, and Michael Gough.  (I noted many similarities in the way the movie was cast, how similar the actors were to their counterparts in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol.)

Scrooge has been portrayed by Englishmen (of course), a Frenchman or two, a German and many other nationalities.  He has been portrayed by a duck (Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck's uncle, was named after Scrooge and in 1983 got his chance to play his namesake).  He has been played by a woman (among others, Susan Lucci, the Queen of Mean on the soap opera All My Children did a turn as Elizabeth "Ebbie" Scrooge).

"Ebbie" Scrooge

Scrooge has even been played by The Fonz.  Well, sort of.  In 1979 Henry Winkler, the actor best known at the time as  Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli  on the television show Happy Days, was  cast as Benedict Slade, a Depression era skinflint in the New England area of the United States.  Slade was a carbon copy of the Scrooge character, and the story, adapted for the film with some significant changes, still follows the same blueprint.  One significant change is that each of the three spirits looks exactly like someone from whom Slade had, the previous day, Christmas Eve, repossessed items, so he has trouble believing initially they are, in fact, spirits. The fun part of this film, at least at the time, was getting to see a familiar character (The Fonz) in makeup that did a real fine job of making Winkler look like a septuagenarian.


Benedict Slade

The Scrooge story was even adapted as a musical.  Albert Finney and Alec Guinness starred in the 1970 film Scrooge, which featured the story told in the classic musical form.  I saw this once on TV as a young lad, and even today, some 45 years later, I can still vividly recall some of the grandeur and spectacle in some of the scenes, and even can hum one of the tunes ("Thank You Very Much"), despite it being the only time I saw the film.

Finney and cast

Many TV shows that had a crotchety, cranky older character has made use of the theme in it's own way.  One I remember fondly, in particular, was in an episode of Sanford and Son.  Lamont Sanford (Demond Wilson), playing all three ghosts in one fell swoop, led Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) through his life in order to show him the error of his ways.  As usual, Fred was back to his old self on the next episode, but for one brief shining moment, the theme of Christmas even changed him.

Fred Sanford and friends

Among the many parodies and pastiches of the Scrooge theme, in 1988, Richard Donner, famous for having directed the first Christopher Reeve Superman, and fresh off of the first Mel Gibson/Danny Glover film  Lethal Weapon, teamed up with Bill Murray to turn the Scrooge theme on its ear with Scrooged.

Scrooged (1988)

Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a self-obsessed, egomaniacal TV executive.  He belittles everyone below him, including his put-upon secretary, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard),  and is an obsequious twit to his boss,  Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum).  At the beginning, a staff meeting watches a promo for a Christmas Eve schedule including a Lee Majors action show (in which Santa's workshop is invaded by terrorists), and a promo for a planned live-action television broadcast of A Christmas Carol.

Frank Cross

Frank objects to Carol promo created by his execs and proposes his own which terrorizes the execs.  (Bombs, terrorists etc, all of which "may happen" if you miss the live-action show...)  Eliot (Bobcat Goldthwait) expresses an objection to the violence and gets his ass canned (on Christmas Eve).  Frank is just about due for a visit from some ghosts, don't ya think?

Eliot Loudermilk

Franks' old boss, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe),  looking a little worse for wear, makes an appearance and tells him he will be haunted by three spirits.

Lew Hayward

Of course, instead of showing up in his apartment, these spirits have an uncanny knack for just showing up whenever and wherever they feel like it.  The Ghost of Christmas Past [GCPast] is played by David Johansen, whom you may recognize as either the lounge singer Buster "Hot, Hot, Hot" Poindexter, or if you are much older, as the leader of the 70's punk band the New York Dolls.

Frank and the GCPast

The GCPast in this case is a brash New York cabbie.  He drives like a bat out of Hell, scaring the bejesus out of Frank before showing him his childhood, and then a few brief glimpses into his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen).  Of course Frank always was his egotistic self even back then, but he manages to hold on to Claire for a time.  Until, that is, his penchant for self-promotion and scmoozing to get to the top conflict with his private life.

Claire and Frank

Back in the present, Frank is still trying to get the horrendous Christmas special on the roll.  He seeks out Claire, who now works at a homeless shelter, and disses her by saying that her homeless people she helps are just leeches and she should just "scrape them off".  He also manages to insult Grace's mute son.  The kid hasn't spoken since the death of his father a few years previously... The Ghost of Christmas Present [GCPresent], in the persona of a flighty and, really, very annoying Carol Kane, makes her presence known.

Frank with the GCPresent

The GCPresent has one good quality, however; she realizes that Frank needs a conk on the head now and then to get his attention.  She shows Frank how nearly everyone around him has a normal life that is not governed by greed, and they are much happier without it.  Once again, back in the present, Frank is accosted by and threatened by a drunk and vengeance-seeking Eliot, who armed with a shotgun chases him around the control room.

Eliot on the rampage

Fortunately (or maybe not so fortunately), Frank is rescued by the Ghost of Christmas Future [GCFuture] who, although mute, shows Frank a future, which of course since this is a pastiche of the original story, includes his death.

Frank meets the GCFuture

How the story ends, typical of the theme, but atypical since Bill Murray is involved, is well worth the viewing.  And a pretty decent song to follow as the credits roll (the Jackie DeShannon song "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" sung in a duet by Annie Lennox and Al Green).

Love for his fellow man at last

Well folks, hope Santa brings you your dreams tonight.  Be back soon with the leftovers.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Bird is the Word

This is my entry in the Humphrey Bogart 117th Birthday blogathon, hosted by Sleepwalking in Hollywood and Musings of a Classic Film Addict

He was born into the camera (so to speak), if stories can be believed. He was the model for a drawing for an advertising campaign for a brand of baby food called Mellin's.  Note:  It is a false rumor that he was the model for the Gerber's baby.  As noted in a  article, Gerber's did not begin producing baby food until Bogart was well into his adult years.  The Mellin's baby food picture was indeed drawn by his mother, who surely used him as a model, however.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon was originally published as a novel, by Dashiell Hammett, in serial form in Black Mask, a pulp detective magazine from pre - WWII.  It was published in 5 installments from September 1929 - January 1930.  The story told of a whole raft of people who are as ruthless and cunning as any you'll ever meet.  At the end of the fourth installment (in the Dec. 1929 issue), which ended just as Spade walks into his apartment to find the fat man and his cohorts waiting for him,  a footnote was added by the editor.

"To our readers:
     I read this story just as you have read it-installment by installment.  When I got this far I was as uncertain as you are how the story comes out, or who killed Archer and Thursby.  I had ideas, of course, just as you probably have.  It wasn't until, practically speaking, the very last word of the last installment (the installment you will read next-in the January issue) that i knew the answer and it took me completely by surprise.
      As a matter of fact, when I finished reading the last installment I was breathless and overwhelmed.  In all of my experience I have never read a story as intense, as gripping or as powerful as this last installment.  It is a magnificent piece of writing; with all the earnestness of which I am capable I tell you not to miss it.
                                                   THE EDITOR"*

Whew!  Barring that it might be hyperbole, it is easily some of the best breathless salesmanship for the next issue of Black Mask, at the very least.  Would that I were capable of such prose...  "Don't miss my next blog entry, folks. Suspense! Action! Drama!  All this and more, as I review the fantastic Thomas Edison extravaganza The Sneeze!"

Now, of course I'm just trying to be witty.  Both The Maltese Falcon versions, book and movie ARE extremely well written an well done.  By the way, today's version of the Falcon story was actually the third attempt to bring it to the big screen.  The first, made in 1931 starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels.  The second, which actually only had most tenuous of connections to the original story was made (As a comedy! Egad!) as Satan Met A Lady,  in 1936.  But the Bogart/Huston/Astor version was the grandaddy of them all, proving that sometimes the remake can be better than the original.

The movie opens with a brief history about the Maltese falcon, which is repeated, more or less, by Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) later in the movie.  The action proper begins in San Francisco in present day.  Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is in his office when his secretary (Lee Patrick) announces the arrival of a potential client, a Miss Wonderley (Mary Astor)

Spade and Archer get a new client

Miss Wonderley wants to hire the firm of Spade and Archer (Jerome Cowan) to get her sister away from a mysterious figure named Floyd Thursby, whom she thinks has either kidnapped or seduced her sister.  Before the night is over, both Archer and Thursby are dead, killed in separate locations, so it wasn't the result of a shootout.

Spade is visited by Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond), a police detective friend, and Lieutenant Dundy (Barton MacLane) at his apartment to try to get some details, but also to intimate that they have suspicions that Spade killed Thursby in revenge for the death of his partner.

Spade vs. the cops

The next day Spade gets a call from Miss Wonderley, now going by the name of Miss LeBlanc.  But upon arrival at her new digs, it is finally revealed that her real name is Brigid O'Shaunessey, and that the story she told about her "sister" was not true.  But she is still vague about the real truth.

Spade agrees to do what he can to help her, despite some misgivings about the whole shebang.  After returning to his office he meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who wants his help in finding a missing "ornament" (the titular falcon).  Cairo offers $5000 to get Spade's help, but missteps when he pulls a gun and wants to search Spade's office by force.  After knocking out Cairo and determining some of his identity through a search of his pockets, Spade offers his help for a small fee.

Getting physical with Cairo

A mysterious figure follows Spade as he leaves his office, but Spade manages to elude him and returns to Brigid's rooms.  When he tells her about his meeting with Cairo, she immediately becomes cagey.  But after a bit she finally reveals some of the details about her past and what part the falcon plays in it.

The unwanted shadow

Spade finally meets his mysterious shadow, Wilmer (Elisha Cook), and manages to make an instant enemy. The twists and turns of this story abound.  Wilmer is actually a hired gunman for "the fat man", the aforementioned Kaspar Gutman.  Eventually Spade meets up with Gutman and finds out the true story of the falcon.  It turns out that it may be worth considerably more than the $5000 Cairo offered Spade to find it.

Making deals with the dark side

I don't want to get too much more into this movie because it is well worth the watching.  Considered by most people to be one of the best examples of film noir, it could be further detailed here, in this blog entry, but to do so would be denying you of the thrill of discovering it's assets for yourself.

Bogart, for his part, is defined, in many people's eyes, for his performance in a handful of movies, of which this is probably the second most common one. Gotta give a nod to him in his role of Rick in Casablanca, even here, as probably being number one.  (Of course, there are others, but so as not to offend anyone for leaving a specific favorite out, I'll limit it to these two...)

Bogart plays Spade as a hard and determined individual, one who has his moral compass set in the right direction, but is still willing to manipulate it to achieve his ultimate goal (which, despite any indications to the contrary, I think is still on the side of good, if not necessarily law and order).

Bogart did not get a nomination for Best Actor for his performance (although the film was nominated for several awards, including Best Picture, but lost to How Green Was My Valley, and Greenstreet got a nom for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Donald Crisp).  Film noir  was not the pariah that science fiction seemed to be for the Oscars, however.  Just 4 years later Ray Milland won a Best Actor for his performance in The Lost Weekend, as did the movie for Best Picture.

But Bogart would not receive his first (of three) noms for Best Actor until 1943, for the aforementioned role of Rick in Casablanca, and he would not win one until 1951 for the role of Charlie Allnut in The African Queen.  Still the role of Spade should not be discounted (nor, for that matter, should almost any of Bogart's roles, with the exception, maybe,  of The Return of Doctor X).

Hope you enjoyed this entry, folks.  Time to fire up the old Plymouth Fury and see if I can get home without being followed by ne'er-do-wells.


*  The quote from
Black Mask editor was transcribed from The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, ed. Otto Penzler © 2010.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Pomposity and Refinement

This is my entry in the What A Character! Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Once Upon a Screen and Paula's Cinema Club

John Benedict Hillerman was born on December 20, 1932 (which means he will be 84 this year, and yes he is still with us as of this writing).  He was born in Denison, Texas (which makes him a neighbor of mine, more or less, because I was raised in Pottsboro, just 10 miles west of Denison.)  After graduating high school, he went to the University of Texas, where he majored in journalism.  I'm not entirely sure he graduated, however.  What wikipedia tells me is that in 1953, after 3 years at UT, he joined the US Air Force.

It was here that he started getting into acting, working with theater groups on the side during his term of service.  After his discharge, he moved to New York City, where his career really began. He worked on Broadway from the late 50's, and graduated to television and motion pictures by the early 70's.  His first on screen role was as a reporter in They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!, the sequel to tIn the Heat of the Night.

For the next 29 years, he was an outstanding addition to films and TV shows.  He spent his time almost equally between being a guest star on some of the best TV shows of the day (3 times on Mannix, twice on both Hawaii Five-O, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote.)  He was a cast member in many movies at the same time, too.  You can catch him in such diverse flicks as The Last Picture Show, High Plains Drifter and What's Up, Doc?.

For the purposes of this entry I just want to focus on four roles, however.  Ranging from comical to serious, all of them have a theme, for me, of pomposity and/or refinement, which basically is what I think of when I think of Hillerman.

The first time I ever saw Hillerman was in Blazing Saddles.  He plays Howard Johnson (the same Howard Johnson, supposedly, that became the ice-cream magnate, but that's part of the joke of the movie).  Howard Johnson is among the residents of the town of Rock Ridge (all named Johnson...) who are being railroaded into leaving town so that an unscrupulous land baron.  Even in humor, Hillerman comes off a bit pompous in the role which, at least in this case is endearing.

Some classic lines:

"As honorary chairman of the welcoming committee, it is my privilege to present a laurel and a hearty handshake to our new.....n****r...."

Bart: "Can't you see that's the last act of a dying man?"
Howard: "We don't care if it's the first act of Henry V...we're leaving"

The second time I saw Hillerman was in Chinatown, the Jack Nicholson neo-noir thriller.  In this movie Hillerman played a city employee, Russ Yellburton, who may or may not know what happened in the death of Jake Gittes' client's husband.  Yellburton oozes smarminess in his scenes with Jack Nicholson, and manages to talk down to the detective even when he is pretending to try to help.

Classic line:

"My goodness, what happened to your nose?"  Jake's nose has been sliced hoods.  When told that he, Jake, cut himself shaving, Yellburton in a rather snobby tone says "You ought to be more careful.  That must smart."

The only other movie I have actually seen that featured scenes with Hillerman was Paper Moon.   Hillerman has two roles in this one, brothers, in a small town.  One is a bootlegger and the other is a sheriff's deputy.  Ryan O'Neal's character, a con man, manages to steal some of the bootlegger's booze and sell it back to him, thinking no one is the wiser.  But the deputy brother chases him.  Later, after O'Neal has crossed the state line, thinking he is safe, the deputy shows up with a couple of muscle men and beat the crap out of him. Hillerman is OK as the bootlegger, but he is even more memorable as the deputy.

Most people, however, will recognize him for his most iconic role, as the pompous and refined Johnathan Quayle Higgins III, the caretaker for Robin Masters estate, on which Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck), a private investigator on the side,  is in charge of security for the estate.  For the 8 seasons run of the TV show Magnum P.I., Higgins carried on a love-hate relationship reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy (to me).  My sister was a huge fan of the show, and since we only had one T.V. and had to share, I either had to watch that or nothing.  But as it turns out, unlike a lot of other crap my sister liked, this was a pretty good show.

There are lots of classic lines, but to the devotee of the show, there could be only one:

"Oh, my god, Magnum!"

Happy 84th birthday to one of the best character actors in the business.  He's been retired for the past 15 years or so, but his mark on the film world is still memorable.


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Bookends for a Legend

This is my post for the John Wayne blogathon hosted by Hamlette's Soliloquy  and The Midnite Drive-In.  (Today is my birthday, which is why I held off until the last day!!!)

John Wayne had a stellar career.  Beginning in 1926, he began getting small parts and walk-on roles, most of which, in  those early days were non-speaking roles.  Many of his early roles were as a member of the crowd. In 1928, for example, he appeared in the flood scenes in Michael Curtiz's Noah's Ark (which somehow manages to be missed when listing the movies in which John Wayne died... I haven't found this one yet, but since Wayne was not billed as Noah or one of his sons, it stands to reason he must have died in the Flood...)  Also, being a former player for the USC football team, he got several roles as a member of a football team in scenes where the team was on the field.

Wayne's first big break in a major role was as Breck Coleman in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail.  The film didn't do very well, and Wayne's performance was substandard, so he ended up being relegated to the B picture movie lot.  There he cranked out a lot of typical B westerns, and was garnering a name for himself (albeit only among those, particularly kids, who watched said westerns).

But Wayne had a few fans in the industry, ones who thought they saw star material in the making.  One of these was John Ford, a consummate director who had used the big guy several times before and had even recommended him to Walsh.  For a more in depth coverage the Duke's career up to John Ford's casting of him, please see my blog entry How to Build an Icon (The Hard Way)  Or better yet, pick up one of the excellent biographies published over the last 30+ years.

Stagecoach (1939)

John Wayne had a long career as an actor even before his "big break", but this is the one that really put him on the star map in Hollywood.  9 people overcoming the odds in a hostile atmosphere (not entirely unlike Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, and wouldn't that make for an interesting comparison...?)

Stagecoach was based on an Ernest Haycox story "The Stage to Lordsburg".  John Ford found the story and was enthusiastic about filming it.  But no one in Hollywood wanted to back it because the Western as a film subject was thought to be passe', and only good for filming kid's matinee shows.  It was generally thought that as an adult subject very few would be interested and it was financial folly to even consider it.

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to laugh at the naivete' of these executives.  But consider that for several years, that's about all westerns were good for, as children's flicks.  But even harder on Ford was his decision that the only person to play "the Ringo Kid" was John Wayne.  Even Ford's final backer, Walter Wanger,  balked at the thought, wanting Gary Cooper in the role. But Ford was insistent and won out, although he did have to compromise by billing Claire Trevor's name above Wayne's.

The story begins as the stage to Lordsburg arrives in Tonto.  The stage driver, Buck (Andy Devine) goes off to find his shotgun rider for the next stage of the trip.  But the marshal, Curly (George Bancroft) tells him that his shotgun is off with a posse searching for the Ringo Kid who has just escaped from jail.  When told that the Ringo Kid is headed towards Lordsburg, Curly tells Buck that he, Curly, will be the shotgun rider.

Buck and Curly

Meanwhile, two of the towns most disreputable residents are being driven out of town: Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a doctor who has WAY too much more love for his fellow whiskey bottles than he does for his fellow patients is being evicted from his quarters.  At the same time, also being forced to leave town is Dallas (Claire Trevor), a woman of obviously lower morals than her fellow ladies of the society, (in other words a prostitute, although they couldn't come right out and say it in 1939).

Dallas and Doc Boone

Added to the mix is Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of one of the officers of the Cavalry that is in the next town on the route.  As well as Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) who is as meek as the name the actor who plays him bears, a whiskey drummer who is constantly being mistaken for a Reverend, a gambler, Hatfield (John Carradine) who has barely concealed designs on the Cavalryman's wife, and a banker, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), who is attempting to abscond with $50,000 he stole from his bank.

Lucy Mallory
Samuel Peacock

Henry Gatewood

These 8 begin the journey, despite warning of Geronimo and his Apache warriors somewhere ahead.  But with the confidence of having a Cavalry troop accompany them, most of them are willing to make the journey. Not too far out on the journey, the stage is brought up short by a man carrying a rifle and a saddle.  It's the Ringo Kid (John Wayne).  due to the fact that the marshal is riding shotgun and the Cavalry is accompanying the stage, however, Ringo is forced to submit to arrest.

The Ringo Kid

Upon arriving at the first stage of the journey, the people find that the expected troop of Cavalry that was to replace the ones they have are gone, riding off to defend against Geronimo's Apaches.  The present troop has orders to return to Tonto after this first leg, despite the frantic objections by some of the stage riders.  But they all decide to press on as each has his or her own particular reason for reaching Lordsburg.  To wit:

Marshall Curly: To see to it that Ringo returns to prison.
Ringo:  To extract vengeance on three brothers who killed members of his family.
Doc Boone:  Because he has worn out his welcomes behind him.
Dallas:  To return to her own roots.
Lucy:  To meet up with her husband and to have their child with him present.
Gatewood: To escape with his stolen booty.
Peacock:  To get back to Kansas City and his wife and five children.
Hatfield:  Who knows, but it probably involves some nefarious purposes with Lucy...
Buck, for his part would just as soon go back, but he is outnumbered.

Along the way, at the second stage stop, it turns out that Lucy's baby will not wait for the more opportune time to come into the world, and the group is delayed by a day as Lucy gives birth to a baby girl.  Dallas and Ringo start up a friendly romance and Ringo asks Dallas to come with him to his ranch, after he concludes his business in Lordsburg.  Dallas tries to convince Ringo to escape while he's got a chance and no one is looking.  He agrees, but before he can get away, he sees Apache smoke signals on the horizon, and stays to help.

On the final leg of the journey the Apaches attack the stage.  Surely you have seen the classic stunt scene in which Ringo (or rather a stunt double posing as Ringo) jumps onto the stage horses to retrieve the reins after Buck has dropped them.  If you haven't I generously have added that clip here:  (The actual stunt begins at about the 5:00 mark if you just want to skip ahead.)

Of course, the classic cliche is "The Cavalry rides in to the rescue, at the last minute..." And they do.  But wait!  The movie isn't over.  Want to see how each individual ties up his or her own strings, just hang on, because even after the last minute rescue there's still some loose ends, and they all get tied up nicely.

Wayne's big break as it were comes at a great time.  From here he never had to settle for anything just to make ends meet.  As time went on, he ended up with the ability to write his own ticket, taking the juiciest parts in some of the most iconic Westerns ever made (including several more with John Ford.)

The Shootist (1976)

The last film John Wayne made was, fittingly, about an aging gun man who is dying of cancer.  Although Wayne was in poor health, and had battled cancer once already, he was not, as the rumors go, dying of cancer at the time.  But cancer did eventually overtake him a couple of years later, so the movie is somewhat prescient.

As a result of his fame and popularity and his impending death, many of Hollywood's actors and actresses wanted to be in on what was already being touted as "Wayne's last film".  According to one source, (a documentary on the film from my DVD), at least one actor, Hugh O'Brien,  volunteered to work for free if he could just have a part in the production of the film.  Many of the others took a severe cut in their normal pay for the privilege.  For a movie with a budget of only about $8 million, the cast was an astounding triumph of casting (James Stewart, Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard, not to mention such incredible character actors like Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Richard Boone, Scatman Crothers, Bill McKinney and the aforementioned Hugh O'Brien).

The Shootist was originally a novel, by the same name, by Glendon Swarthout.  The movie was directed by Don Siegel, who had a stellar career as a director.  Included in his resume were the first Dirty Harry and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Elmer Bernstein came on board for the music, and Robert F. Boyle, the production designer, did such a good job he was nominated for an Oscar (but lost to George Jenkins for is work on All the President's Men.

The final script had a codicil that Wayne had final approval of the script, as thus there were a few changes.  One of the significant ones, if you read the book, is that Gillom Rogers is not quite as rebellious and antagonistic in the film.  This may have been due to Wayne's influence, although I personally think having Opie Taylor in the role made a significant impact on how the character was played.  In the book, Books goes to the saloon and orders white wine, but at Wayne's insistence, in the movie Books orders whiskey.   Also changed, and this WAS definitely at Wayne's insistence, Books does not shoot one of the characters in the back.  Wayne claimed that he had never done it before in a movie and he was definitely NOT going to do it now.  And is this a spoiler?  Not sure... He also insisted that Gillom, who shoots Books at the end of the novel, NOT be the one to shoot him in the movie.

One of the things that really grabs your attention is the voice-over, at the beginning of the film, by Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) detailing the life and career of John Bernard "J.B." Books (John Wayne).  The voice-over is accompanied by clips from John Wayne's extensive movie career. Each clip, although not actually playing J.B. in them, serves as a video montage of the career of Books as a "shootist".  (Two of the movies used for clips have been previously reviewed here under the blog entry title of The Valiant Few : Rio Bravo and El Dorado).

John Bernard Books (John Wayne) arrives in Carson City, Nevada, on January 22, 1901, a significant date because that was the day Queen Victoria of England died, and a newsboy is hawking a paper with that headline.  Books buys a paper then seeks out a doctor (James Stewart) who turns out to be an old aquaintance, but whom Books wants to examine him medically.

Books and Doc Hostetler

It is revealed that Books has prostate  cancer and has only a couple of months to live.  On Doc Hostetler's recommendation, he seeks out a room at Mrs. Rogers' place.    There he meets Gillom (Ron Howard) whom he had earlier encountered with Gillom's belligerent sometimes boss, Cobb (Bill McKinney).  He acquires a room from Gillom's mother, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), to whom he gives as a name William Hickock.

Mrs. Bond Rogers

Gillom Rogers

Gillom and Moses (Scatman Crothers) soon discover that the man is really Books, however, and against the hopes and wishes of Books, it soon becomes the day's gossip that the legendary gunfighter is in town.  Mrs. Rogers is not pleased to have been fooled, and enlists the support of Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan) to oust him from her property and get him out of town.  But Books tells Thibido he intends to stay and die, telling of the cancer.

Marshal Thibido

Over a period of just one week, Books manages to acquire an attraction of would-be desparadoes who want to earn a name by being the one to kill the famous shootist.  In one dramatic scene two men try to attack him while he is asleep, but he manages to kill them both.  Afterwards, Books starts to implement his plan to die with dignity.  He invites three of the most proficient gunmen in town, Cobb, Jack Pulford (Hugh O'Brien), a faro dealer at the local saloon who thinks he is hot stuff as a gunman, and Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), who holds a grudge against Books because Books killed Sweeney's brother.

Mike Sweeney

J. B. Books.

Jay Cobb
Jack Pulford

The final showdown between Books and the three gunmen in the local saloon is classic John Wayne gunfight.  If you take time to watch this don't miss out on appearances by John Carradine, looking every bit the 40 years older that he was from his appearance in Stagecoach.  Sheree North, a prolific character actress who guested on a plethora of TV shows appears as a hooker whom Books once loved.  If you are an avid watcher of the soap opera  The Young and the Restless, you can catch a very young Melody Thomas (Nikki Newman) in a brief role.

Between Stagecoach and The Shootist, Wayne appeared in so many movies it would take a year to watch them all...but these two represent some of the best, and definitely the best way to see how he progressed from being just a bit player and Saturday matinee B-movie star to the legend he is remembered as today

Well, that wraps up the view from the back seat this time folks.  Have a safe trip home.  BTW, today is my birthday, so be kind on the comments...:-)