Monday, April 27, 2009

Anecdote of the Week: Not a Good Experience, but Not a Bad Picture


The Siren reads Virginia Heffernan's "The Medium" column on Sundays in the New York Times Magazine, and she usually enjoys it. This past Sunday, Ms Heffernan took up the topic of Website comment sections, using as an example the comments on Anne Applebaum's column in the Washington Post. The Siren does not read the Washington Post columnists, as their politics frequently give her a twitch in her right eyelid, but it seems that the people who post on the WaPo site lack respect for Ms Applebaum's credentials, do not engage with Ms Applebaum's writing, are rude and occasionally bigoted and probably post just to see themselves "published."

And the Siren absolutely could not relate.

Indeed, the Siren looked at her own comments section, and felt the same proprietary thrill that a homeowner gets from realizing she has the prettiest rose trellis on the block. Part of that is a question of scale, of course. Still, the Siren does love her comments oasis here. The post on The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami turned into a small discussion of Directors Behaving Badly, and whether indeed most of them ever behave any other way, and the tribute to Jack Cardiff eventually segued into a discussion of the very notion of "auteur." If Ms Heffernan gets tired of the mosh pit of WaPo comments, she is more than welcome to stop by and pull up a virtual armchair.

So the Siren says, once more, many thanks to her wonderful commenters, and she is contributing to the two discussions by posting an anecdote that relates to both prior topics merely by being about Fritz Lang. It's from Henry Fonda's long interview in Hollywood Speaks, the highlight of a very good book. He was an actor who was interested in the process of moviemaking and alert to the different methods and goals of the directors he worked with. Fonda was very aware, for example, of what lay behind Wyler's notorious retakes. That does not mean, however, that Fonda could suffer Fritz gladly--not many could. But the Siren always thinks, reading this particular passage, that Fonda did understand what was making Lang tick. He just didn't want to deal with it.

So here is Fonda, discussing Lang in general and The Return of Frank James in particular. Mike Steen asks Fonda if he was happy making that movie.

No. Because again, it was Lang. Oh shit, he came to me with tears in his eyes and said he'd learned his lesson and so forth. Why Zanuck ever thought he would be the right kind of director for a Western I don't know, 'cause he wasn't at all. He was the same man he'd been on the other one I did with him, You Only Live Once, in the sense he was preoccupied with his camera. He painted with his camera...

...In The Return of Frank James I had a scene where I come into a barn hunting down John Carradine, who has killed Jesse. I had to come in to a point, look around, hear something and exit. That's all there was to the scene. We were about five hours doing it because Lang decides he wants cobwebs from the overhead beam down to the post that stood where I had to stop for a moment. So they send to the special effects department, and a guy comes down and blows cobwebs around. It's easy to do. But then Lang would come in and break holes in them to make them look like old cobwebs. Pretty soon he was breaking so many holes that the entire thing collapsed, and the effects guy would end up having to do it over. I sat there watching. By this time I knew Lang so well I would make bets with guys that we would be three hours, fucking with the cobwebs in a scene where I come in and stand for two seconds, then walk out!

Fonda goes on to talk about filming near Lone Pine and encountering a beautiful fallen tree. John Ford, said Fonda, would have "said 'Oh shit!' and put a tripod down and shot it. But not Lang." Lang made the crew move the enormous log and then ordered a camera platform built to change the angle. Fonda got off easily, however, considering he said Lang also killed three horses on the location by forcing them to run too hard at high altitude.

"So it was not a good experience," said Fonda, "but it was not a bad picture. Somebody saw it on television the other night and told me they enjoyed it. Anyway, I didn't enjoy working with Fritz Lang."

235 comments:

1 – 200 of 235   Newer›   Newest»
mndean said...

There are enough odious Applebaum columns that make wish never to engage her ideas, ever. As far as her credentials, well, "Dean" Broder has those, as do any number of other court jesters, and look how well that has served America. The jaw-dropping Applebaum column assuming that worldwide racist attitudes would hinder our current president's foreign policy (and would be a point to consider in whether to vote for him) is but one reason I never read nor comment on her. She, like most WaPo writers, is beneath contempt.

Sorry, but you did bring it up.

Campaspe said...

LOL, it is true, I did...although I changed the subject midway through. :)

X. Trapnel said...

Yes, Applebaum is pretty bad though her book Gulag is worthwhile as very little has been written on the subject (outside of academia) for general readers. For sheer loathsomeness though Krauthammer and the Dean set the unbeatable standard.

Speaking of the Dean, the conventional wisdom is that Henry Fonda was a mean SOB. I would love to hear some evidence of any kind indicating otherwise.

X. Trapnel said...

I think we'd all agree that the civilized, informed, and wide-ranging quality of the commnets section comes from the example set by our hostess. We do our best to live up to it.

Vanwall said...

Well, Siren, I must say, if you were as godawful stupid as the Applebaum creature, the comments here might approach the ones in reply to her columns. I don't see you losing your faculties in the near future, so we here, and you, are safe from the whining threnodies of the ill mannered and ill informed. I congratulate you on such a captivated audience of the polite and knowledgeable, why, hell, even I manage to look half-way smart here.

Lovely anecdote - it manages to justifiably whack Wyler in passing, and then Henry Fonda's laconic voice is running thru my head, his patient survival from previous experience under Lang's mania, starkly elaborating why obsessive/compulsives would be screened out of a modern director's chair by the little Barton Keyes-ian aspiring beadles in the The Crimson Permanent Assurance head office. Perhaps that was part of being an auteur, your mania, whatever it may be, would be channeled into the finished product in ways you delude yourself in thinking that they are known only to you.

Yojimboen said...

"...the conventional wisdom is that Henry Fonda was a mean SOB. I would love to hear some evidence of any kind indicating otherwise."

X - If you find any, let us know; if you haven't already, read Peter Collier's 'The Fondas'. Hank Fonda was - at times - an intensely (psychologically) cruel husband and father. Every few pages you find yourself wanting to smack 'im; certainly you cannot but feel a great deal of sympathy for his children.

A deeply unhappy man.

Frank Conniff said...

Lang, Ford, Wyler, Hitchcock, Preminger, Sturges... Fonda sure did work with a lot of great directors, and I'm sure they were a prickly, difficult lot to deal with. Fonda got in a fist fight with Ford on the set of "Mr. Roberts" and Ford left the production, replaced by LeRoy (another first rate director). From what I've read, Fonda, who was in the stage production of "Mr. Roberts" for years, had a proprietary relationship with the material and was not happy with Ford's changes. I've always felt it would have been better if it had been purely a Ford film, although it's still pretty darn entertaining as it is (with that cast, how could it not be?) But to me it's always been a really good film and it probably could have been great. Fonda is certainly great in it, as he almost always was.

One more thing: Fonda made a few bad movies in his time, but he never even came close to making a movie that was as bad as any given David Broder column. I don't think I've read much Applebaum; is she as bad as Maureen Dowd? (I hope I'm not offending any devoted followers of Dowd's soulless, pointless, fake-liberal work).

Sebina said...

As much as I've read of the difficulties people have found working for Lang, it still makes me impressed that Lang and Joan Bennett worked together for such a long span of time making films - still they did have an affair, whether that has something to do with it, I couldn't say. But their films together are certainly amongst the best films he did in Hollywood.

Greg said...

certainly you cannot but feel a great deal of sympathy for his children.

A deeply unhappy man.
...

It's true, he was. I don't think there's much evidence to the contrary but the TCM tribute to him by Jane and Peter is pretty moving when you consider the stuff they've said about him before. I remember watching Peter give an interview years ago where he unremittingly called Dad a son of a bitch. He recounted the story about accidentally shooting himself with one of Fonda's guns when he was a kid and how Fonda had to return from a vacation due to it. According to Peter, the first thing Fonda said to him in the hospital wss, "I hope you know you ruined my vacation."

But people grow up and become more forgiving and when you watch that tribute, Peter and Jane say things like, "he wasn't the nicest guy in the world but..." Lots of that going on. Acknowledging his shittiness but also that they loved him.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I well remember an appearance Lucille Ball made at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art many years ago. As I'm sure you all recall she had quite a rocky career in Hollywood before becoming the Queen of Television. There were those who recognized her genius immedialtely, like Orson Welles. He wanted to star her in what would have been his first film, Smiler with the Knife. But RKO talked him out of it, saying she was just a "b" actress. So he went on to make a litte potboiler you may have heard of called Citizen Kane. But he and Lucy remained great friends. He appeared on I Love Lucy and she produced The Fountain of Youth. Anyway Henry Fonda's name came up in regard to The Big Street, a marvelous picture in which Ball gives of performance of such power the only thing i can compare it to is Maria Casares in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. Fonda was her co-star. Asked about how "wonderful" he was she let right into hi. She called him the most hateful man she ever worked with in Hollywood. He didn't want to do the picture and said so at every opportunity.

The crowd gasped and cringed.

Anyhoo, no actor I knwo of had much good to say about Lang. He wasn't "an actor's director" -- as is obvious from his work. His intersts were elsewhere.

Campaspe said...

Yes, Fonda's screen persona was about 180 degrees from what he was like in real life, something Jane Fonda does talk about in the lovely video essay that runs from time to time on TCM. Peter Fonda has been playing out his father issues in interviews for many years now, but it has been nice to see him mellow out about his father with time. Peter's sentiments are easy for many people to relate to -- a rocky time growing up and later forgiveness, if not understanding. Or is it the other way around?

I don't doubt that Fonda gave Lucy hell on set, but she was not always a bed of roses herself. A friend of mine went backstage when "They're Playing Our Song" was in previews -- the hit show that Lucie Arnaz had in the late 70s/early 80s. Anyway, Desi Arnaz was in his daughter's dressing room and the life of the party. Everybody's chatting and having a good time, when suddenly the door opens and there's Lucille Ball, heavy makeup smudged and pretty well inebriated. She looks at Desi and snarls (my friend would put amazing venom into imitating her tone) "Oh LOOK. It's Daaaaddy."

C. said the room emptied like water out of a bathtub, including Desi, who looked very sad leaving.

I love them both on screen, big and small, but I am glad I'm not a Fonda, or an Arnaz, for that matter.

A thought -- if Lucy hated Fonda during The Big Street, wonder if they got along better on Yours, Mine and Ours?

Karen said...

Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball--neither one of them a person I'd want to spend any quality time with. And I believe Vivian Vance would back me up on the Lucy front.

So, how much in contrast they are to our wonderful hostess, who provides us with this salon in which to exercise our own virtues? Siren, unlike every other blog I read, I hasten back to the comments section here constantly, just to see what brilliant insight, new anecdote, or hitherto unknown-to-me film will be revealed to me. And, Siren, it is your own involvement in the discussion that helps keep it going. I love everyone in this little online film club, and am so happy to be part of it.

Campaspe said...

Vanwall, re: Wyler -- are you talking about the link? Because Fonda was defending Wyler. There aren't that many actors who claim to have enjoyed the Wyler experience, although many acknowledged how good the director made them look. Although that one line is somewhat barbed--"he never did 90 takes, but he might have done 50!"

Frank, this interview was from 1971, and as bad as the Mr. Roberts debacle was (and according to most, it was bad indeed until Ford left) Fonda is very complimentary about Ford, as a director. He calls him a son of a bitch, but then says "I say son of a bitch full of love." Which cracked me up, because it's such an obvious lie. But Fonda knew damn well that Ford guided several of the roles that were going to live on after Fonda was gone.

Sebina, welcome! Joan Bennett always cited Scarlett Street as her favorite role and was very forthright in calling Lang a great director and acknowledging what he did for her acting. I think that when she did Man Hunt (which is out on DVD now, finally) she wasn't very confident as an actress despite having been a star for years. Where others chafed at Lang's very detailed, precise, "do it this way" directing, it was exactly what Bennett wanted and needed.

DavidEhrenstein said...

No question that Lucy was 'a piece of work." But friends of mine who palyed cards with her later in life adored her. She had to go through quite a lot to become the insanely famous person we know today. Show business is brutal.

And speaking of which I love everything about Joan "Oh for God's sake, Walter -- he's only an agent!" Bennett.

X. Trapnel said...

Yikes. So much for my hope that the Fonda/SOB stories were greatly exaggerated. This is why I never read biographies of actors; I prefer my illusions.

It sounds like Fonda and Ball deserved each other--and Yours, Mine, and Ours.

Applebaum and Dowd are bad in different ways. Bad ideas as opposed to no ideas.

Campaspe said...

XT, Fonda WAS best friends with James Stewart, so the news isn't all bad. And in any event, as Jean Renoir's line goes, everyone has his reasons.

There's really no reason for Yours Mine and Ours, though. What a bad movie. But it's mesmerizing when it's on. Such a big head-on collision between the onrushing late 60s and the essential 1950s sitcom of the premise.

"Bad ideas versus no ideas" -- perfect.

David, I also love Joan Bennett and have been trying to get my thoughts together on Woman on the Beach, in which (gasp, HERESY) I liked her better than Robert Ryan, largely because of the way the roles were written.

X. Trapnel said...

Maybe Walter Wanger shot the wrong Lang. The interesting thing about him is that he was the only producer who conformed to the image of the on-screen producer (silver-haired, educated, distinguished) as played by Charles Bickford or Millard Mitchell.

Campaspe said...

True, Wanger had the perfect looks for his role. Check out this picture of him and the beauteous Joan.

LOL at "shot the wrong Lang." I am sure a lot of people in Hollywood felt that way.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, if you really want to see the scattered debris of the 50s-60s collision, track down Fonda's late 60s/early 70s(?)series The Smith Family.

Campaspe said...

Karen, thanks so much for the kind thoughts. As I recall you do not share my Lucy admiration, but I forgive you. :P

Goose said...

But was H Fonda such a son of a bitch to cast and crew? Aside from the way he treated his children, which could be an aloof coldness in his DNA rather than deliberate cruelty (not that the children could tell), does anyone know any horror stories?

I know this was also discussed in another thread, but the break with Ford, as I understand it, had to with Fonda's undiplomatic and mean piling on complaints about Ford's handling of Mr. Roberts, particularly in taking a too comedic tone. I sort of imagine Ford, fishing for reassurance and a bit plastered, asks Ol' Hank how the shoot was going, and Fonda responding with a list of "and another thing that is wrong."

On the other hand, to his credit, Fonda did cool down tempers on the set that involved dropping lights on Fritz Lang's head.

Hollywood stars in general not often were as nice as Richard Widmark or Charles Boyer.

X. Trapnel said...

Goose, thanks for the reassurance on Richard Widmark and Charles Boyer, two of my absolute favorites (couldn't stand to hear anything bad about Boyer--and never have. Danielle Darrieux in a recent interview said she adored him; yes, heaven does have favorites.)

Sebina said...

Campaspe: I have followed your blog for a long time ;)
Indeed, and I think Joan Bennett also understood him more than anyone else, as well!

Campaspe said...

have never heard anything bad about Boyer, and in fact, Fonda liked him very much and said so in the interview. Fonda tells of how they were sitting around at a party swapping Fritz Lang stories (thus did they amuse themselves in the good old days, I guess--it was either that, or Harry Cohn stories) and Boyer says, "I've got one." Boyer was filming the death scene in Liliom, and Lang wasn't getting the expressions that he wanted, so he stood just out of camera range and pinched Boyer's toe.

I actually haven't read much about Fonda being difficult on set -- unlike Ford. Let me make clear that I worship Ford and I have the posts to prove it, but by the time Mr. Roberts rolled around an always problematic personality had become borderline hellish, according to several people. Ford was just drinking way too much, and I guess Fonda, never a fount of understanding according to his own kids, could not bear to have that affect a property that meant so much to him.

Actually, that's not true, I HAVE heard bad things about Boyer, but they all came from Billy Wilder, who was a world-class grudge holder.

Sebina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
X. Trapnel said...

Wilder's stories probably stem from Boyer's refusal to talk to a cockroach in Hold Back the Dawn, not one of Wilder/Brackett's better inspirations.

Goose said...

The Wilder problem had to do with Boyer's unwillingness to address an insect in "Hold Back the Dawn." Wider forgave neither Boyer or Mitchell Leisen for that "disrespect of the script" and determined to direct his scripts.

But Boyer had a right to object to parts of the script. It would be inconceivable that he did a Christian Bale.

Campaspe said...

XT & Goose -- yep. We went into the whole thing when I was posting about Mitch Leisen a while back. Wilder was always vituperative about Leisen and Boyer, although the movie turned out great and Wilder went on to direct so you would think he would have gotten over it quicker. I think he clung to it because it made a good story. But I seriously think that it did do damage to Boyer's reputation over time, since in Wilder's retelling Boyer always comes across as an airhead, which he was not.

Goose said...

A way of seeing what the stars were really like, I like watching old blooper reels as they give such spontaneous reactions. James Cagney often joked when he made a mistake. Edw. G. Robinson made a spritz sound and immediately started again. I like Bogart's reaction the best. He acted angry at himself, and let out a mild vulgarity.

I've never seen, but have read on good authority that Ronald Reagan can be seen blowing a line one of these reels, and blamed a prop man. That sounds so true.

X. Trapnel said...

Quite the contrary; Boyer studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and is always described as very literate. He was one of the few actors who could convincingly portray an intellectual (not that many were ever called upon to do so).

X. Trapnel said...

Ha, ha, ha about Ronzo. There in embryo is the modus operandi of contemporary Republican politics: it's always somebody else's fault.

Arthur S. said...

Fritz Lang for all his meanness called Barbara Stanwyck "an angel", he was her choice to direct her on CLASH BY NIGHT, one of his best and Lang considered making that film a pleasurable experience. But then everyone seemed to love "Babs". Fonda declared her his favourite co-star in his later years. Lang also admired Ida Lupino for her work on WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. He's not an "actor's director" but many actors have been terrific in his films including Fonda in YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, Spencer Tracy in FURY, Joan Bennett in her films with Fritz, Edward G. Robinson, Gloria Grahame, Anne Baxter, Robert Ryan, Glenn Ford.

Peter Fonda's funniest anecdote about his dad is when he talks about FORT APACHE. He notes that in that film, Fonda plays a crusty, hard-nosed mean martinet, then adds that whenever his friends ask him what hid dad was like, he'd ask them to see FORT APACHE. That film was the last full collaboration between Ford and Fonda and the only time he played anything close to a negative role in a Ford film(and in his entire career actually save for that tripe he did with Leone) and of course Ford turned from liberal Fonda to conservative Duke Wayne from then on(in his final years he turned to Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark) for his leading man of choice.

Joan Bennett has always been one of my favourite goddesses. In all her incarnations...feisty blonde bartender in ME AND MY GAL(in her natural hair colour), sexy raven siren in 40s Film Noir and domineering weathered adult female for Ophuls, Minnelli and Sirk(and SUSPIRIA I guess).

And I prefer her over Ryan in WOMAN ON THE BEACH. Especially that scene where she lights a cigar and cocks an eyebrow to Ryan challenging him. Weirdly I was reminded of Jean Gabin for some reason when I saw that scene. It's a really terrific atonal film, in the tradition of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, only the ending is totally unexpected for what you usually expect and it's all the more bewitching for that.

Arthur S. said...

Ford and Fonda by the way made up in the late 60s and became friends again. And by the way, Ford didn't punch Fonda. He was not feeling very well and as was his wont when he's ill, he was drinking hooch(on his deathbed, close friend and protege Budd Boetticher was tasked to smuggle in alcohol when no one was looking), then Fonda had issues with the politics of Ward Bond and Wayne and so wasn't really part of Ford's circle then.

Fonda did feel a strong sense of ownership towards MR. ROBERTS but Tag Gallagher argues that if Fonda wanted a faithful production he should never have got Ford involved because he knew how Ford's style was unsuited for that. And Ford's treatment to that material is in line with his other works.

McBride notes that a TV special featuring Fonda interviewing Ford has Ford talking about how he eat out McBride during their "interview"(which involved Ford insisting that he be interviewed on the side of his defective ear and have each question yelled to him). Figures that these two hard-asses would make up by laughing at other people's misery.

Gerard Jones said...

I'm with Karen! I love everyone here, am transfixed by every conversation, and value the movie recommendations here more than any other source. And I do believe it's because of how perfectly the tone and spirit is set by our hostess.

(Although, Siren, I will say that one reason you don't get the sort of fire in your comments that Applebaum does is that you pick fairly safe subjects. Maybe you should do a column on how these immigrants like Wyler, Lang, Sanders, and Cardiff are taking jobs away from hard-working white Americans.)

As for Fonda...it always makes me sad to read how cold and cruel he was, because I like his on-screen persona so much. Although I'll say this: even in his most likable roles, he showed a great self-absorption. Projecting a bit, I might even call it a fascination with his own pain. I think of that patented Fonda speech scene, his eyes wide and soft as if gazing at something only he can see, words flowing out but with no consciousness of the person (usually a girl) sitting next to him. It's one of his most fascinating qualities, and it's what made his Tom Joad feel so transcendental. He made the big "I'll be there, Ma" speech not just an angry or heroic declaration as a Stewart or a Coop would have, but something filled with sorrow, even a romantic self-pity. Compelling stuff. But in my experiences, people deeply invested in their own self-pity can be pretty cruel.

As for Lucy...talented, impressive, the makings of a great card-playing buddy. But every time I look at her I get a blast of angry cold. One reason I think she was so good at caustic humor and gals with tough shells and pretty unconvincing at soft and vulnerable. In fact, she usually seems to be mocking the soft and vulnerable even when she's supposed to be playing them straight. That wide-eyed shtick, as if saying, "This is what those poor tender lambs look like, isn't it? Suckers."

Gerard Jones said...

Goose & X & all: has anyone ever encountered that Boyer/cockroach story outside of Wilder's reminiscences? Billy was known for stretching stories, and that one is just so very Billy. The conceit that he became a director only because he couldn't stomach the stupidity of others (specifically a gay artist-turned-director and a gorgeous, well-educated Frenchman, exactly the kinds of guys he would both envy and resent) fits the whole image Wilder spun of himself: short, ugly and crude, but scrappy and street-smart and ultimately invincible.

But come on. The guy obviously wanted to be a director in Germany, then he went to France and tried to make it as a director again. I'm sure he was determined to become a Hollywood director from the instant he bought his steamer ticket to America. When Preston Sturges used Mitch Leisen as a way to add humor and quixotic nobility to his personal story, surely Billy just saw a good story and jumped.

X. Trapnel said...

I just watched 12 Angry Men for what? the 30th,40th time? Great as always, but Fonda as Jesus in a (slightly wilted) Victor Laszlo suit troubles me a bit. Yes he does often appear to be gazing at some moral horizon the rest of us can't see. What I like best is his slight awkwardness when he has to deal with the other jurors as human beings. Best of all is his palpable unease (in 1/4 profile) listening to Marty Balsam tell that slightly Dada-esque football story ("Whoosh!...I tell you, it was murder.)

A friend of mine insists that Fonda helping Lee J. Cobb put his coat on at the end of the film is the symbolic high point of 50s liberalism.

Safe subjects, Gerard? I dunno; I'm grateful to you and Karen for opening up the sluice gates of Lucy loathing. I can't stand her and never found her a bit funny. No, not even the chocolates on the conveyor belt, an idea Chaplin might have scribbled down and then thrown away.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Jacques Rivette is a huge fan of Woman on the Beach. You can see its influence on his L'Histoire de Marie et Julien, among others. It was made, previewed (badly) and then re-shot. The problem was the production code. The film hovers right on the edge of sexual explosiveness that it can never cross over.

Not surprised that Land loved Stanwyck. She did her joband never turned to the director for "guidance" or "what's my motivation?" nonsense. She knew how to get the job done without muss or fuss and for directors that's a big asset. Her like today is Meryl Streep. Altmn said he didn't direct Streep in A Prarie Home Companion at all. She knew precisely what to do and his job was to get out of her way and let her do it.

I adore Boyer. Most especially for Stavisky and L'Herbier's Le Bonheur

X. Trapnel said...

I first read the cockroach story in Sarris' You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet. Its probably taken on Print the Legend status by now.

Wise words from Nicholas Ray: "If it's all in the script, why make the film?"

Yojimboen said...

Arthur S - we touched on some of this in a Mister Roberts thread last month:

Josh Logan and Leland Hayward, co-producers of the play, thought he [Fonda] was too old for the role. Logan wanted Marlon Brando, Hayward was for William Holden. But Warner Bros. selected John Ford to direct the movie and Ford insisted on Fonda. It was a gesture of loyalty to his friend and also perhaps a gesture of contempt for the work. Ford had seen the play on Broadway. When he came backstage to see Fonda afterward, he was asked his opinion and said he hadn’t paid much attention. Asked why not, he growled “Why should I look at a homosexual play?”Always a heavy drinker, Ford was in an alcoholic daze throughout the first weeks of shooting. He was curt and abrasive toward the cast, and he cavalierly altered the plot and dialog [...] Henry was horrified. He had deep respect for Ford, a man who had not only given him film immortality but also had been a carousing friend for years. But Mister Roberts was close to his heart [...] He hated what he saw as Ford’s trivialization of the work and as shooting progressed on Midway Island he became broodingly silent.
One night Fonda was in his cabin talking with a couple of the other cast members when Ford came to the door, his face flushed with drink, his legendary eyepatch awry.
“Well, Hank,” he asked provocatively, “what do you think of the day’s shooting?”
“I think it’s shit,” Fonda replied.
Ford stumbled unsteadily toward him and threw a looping punch. Fonda had to be restrained from knocking the old man down. After that, Henry was rigid and unforgiving, and Ford was drunk twenty-four hours a day. Jack Warner finally had to replace him with Mervyn Leroy to get the film completed.
excerpted from
The Fondas
Peter Collier

It's perhaps possible that somewhere during production, Ford decided Fonda wasn't grateful enough for his (Ford's) having gone to bat for him.
We'll never know.

Arthur S. said...

I don't know why Fonda has to be as good and nice as his famous characters. He's always been a very versatile actor. In his defense, Fonda was a lifelong liberal(he japed that Ronald Reagan made him physically ill) and was against McCarthyism.

Besides there's an edge to his best characters. Like in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, he shows Abe as quite shamelessly cheating in one country game and a showboat in the courtroom. He isn't entirely touched with grace in that.

Fonda is and remains one of the greatest actors in American history and no amount of ornery behaviour can and should change that.

Besides John Ford would never tolerate Fonda self-glorifying himself in THE GRAPES OF WRATH. In fact, Fonda didn't want to do LINCOLN and Ford bullied him into playing a "jack-legged lawyer from Kentucky". He wouldn't get away from that meanest of Irish drunks.

Manoel de Oliveira also dislikes actors asking questions. He said that the director's job is to cast the actor, if he has to "direct" then it means he cast the wrong person. All great directors say similar things more or less. Even Mizoguchi...one story has one actress going to him and saying, "Mr. Mizoguchi what's my character's motivation", Mizo(who was a mean tyrant on sets) glared at him and said calmly, "Isn't that your job!"

Hitchcock was the king of them all, "Your motivation? Your SALARY!"

My favourite Boyers is HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT, LOVE AFFAIR, MADAME DE... and STAVISKY...

X. Trapnel said...

Boyer is amazing in Madame de, suggeting a man genial and tolerant by nature being pushed past his limit. Most telling is his way (yes, of course it's in the script, Billy, but bringing it off is something else again) of talking hopefully to himself and to his unresponsive wife in trying to justify and salvage their marriage (we never learn the source of her indifference).

Gerard Jones said...

X: Peter Biskind wrote a really fun book, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, in which he takes a long look at Twelve Angry Men as a demonstration of the consensus ideal that dominated '50s liberalism (and Eisenhower "progressive conservatism"). Can't remember if he mentioned the moment with Hank and Lee and the jacket, but if he didn't he should've. The sentiment has risen again in Obama's "post-partisanship." Unfortunately, with Rush Limbaugh in the Lee J. Cobb role we don't even get to pretend it might work.

Gerard Jones said...

And yes, I'm most grateful to Karen for opening the what's-spooky-about-Lucy discussion, just as I was once equally grateful to her for leaping to the defense of the early George Brent. (Now if only we could bring her around on the Irene Dunne issue.)

The chocolates on the conveyor belt! Right up there with the grape stomping and Vitameatavegamin! How does these bits become canonized as the epitome of comic brilliance? Is it just because they're self-contained enough to be popped into clip shows? I always thought Lucy was best at the little human moments, starting with her scene stealing as one of the gals in Stage Door. Great body language, great bits with a cigarette. No conveyor belt.

(I'll make room for the Harpo Marx mirror routine, both as sentiment and as history--TV asserting its conquest of comedy from the movies, a woman asserting her equality in the male physical-comedy tradition.)

Karen said...

Favorite Boyer? Jesus. That's tough--he's so marvellous in everything. Just saw him as Napoleon (with Garbo as his mistress, Countess Marie Walewska) in Conquest, in which he was simply masterful. But for sheer Boyer delight, I'd probably go with his slightly cracked philosopher Cluny Brown and the wise and worldly father in The Happy Times, which is a movie filled with such blissful delight that it can barely be measured, but which no one in my immediate acquaintance knows anything about. Special mention to his performance in Liliom, which conveys a raw sensuality that Hollywood never let back out of the bottle.

Sigh. Charles Boyer.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, one of the things I noticed, perhaps for the first time, is how rough Juror 8 can play when necessary ("What it must be like to want to pull the switch...You're a sadist!") None of this ridiculous "oh, we mustn't, mustn't hurt Republican feelings or they'll get mad at us!"
E.G. Marshall (my favorite performance of the 12, but why choose?) makes me nostalgic for the lost prudent, honest, principled conservatism that seemed the perfect ballast for liberal idealism.

X. Trapnel said...

Karen, you've actually seen The Happy Time!!?? It barely exists as a rumor! It must be in the keeping of the same jerk who's witholding Cluny Brown and History is Made at Night.

Yes, early George Brent. He's very good and very likable in 42nd Street. And almost unrecognizable; he didn't become "George Brent" until he inherited (from Warner Baxter) that oily forelock that, in moments of testiness, creeps down his forehead like a spider dipped in rancid Brylcreem. He, in turn, passed it on to S.A. Brugh who bequeathed it to Mike Connors (or Jack Lord). Something like Edmund Kean's sword going from Gielgud to Olivier.

Gerard Jones said...

I too must jump on the Boyer bandwagon. I used to resist liking him, either because I'm a crypto-Francophobe or because I'm trying to repress my latent homosexuality. But what chance did I have, really? He's just so...supernal.

My favorites line up pretty much with Arthur's. I love History Is Made at Night and Love Affair, and to heck with what anybody says about Hollywood sentimentality and hokum. They're fever dreams of desire and loss. And what more can be said of Madame D...? (Sadly, I have yet to watch Stavisky, although a friend recently mailed me the disc, insisting that it's de rigeur.)

His Pepe le Moko is, of course, iconic. As with Rick in Casablanca and Garbo's what's-her-name in Grand Hotel, it's hard to remember that such figures haven't always been there somehow, but had to be invented by an actor once. And I like him in Hold Back the Dawn, too. Not once do I catch myself saying, "Damn. If only he'd talk to a cockroach..."

Karen said...

My dear X. Trapnel, not only have I seen it, but I have it resting eternally on my DVR drive. If I knew how to download it, I would make copies for EVERYONE.

TCM ran it about a year ago and I recorded it on the strength of the cast alone. Then watched it with a gradually widening smile of sheer delight.

There were so many heavenly passages--most of which I recorded for posterity in the Memorable Quotes section of its IMDb entry:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044687/quotesWhat the words cannot convey is the genius of the delivery, of course, especially Marcel Dalio as Grandpere. But read that penultimate entry--Papa Boyer speaking to his growing son, who is in trouble for sneaking into the maid's room to kiss her. The parenting there is so amazing--my smiles were sweetened with tears.

Oh, lord, it's a brilliant film. It demands DVD release!

Gerard Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerard Jones said...

not only have I seen it, but I have it resting eternally on my DVR drive. If I knew how to download it, I would make copies for EVERYONE.Can we all come over some night...?

X. Trapnel said...

Karen, thanks for the link; THT sounds marvelous. Plus the bonus of Marsha Hunt (a special favorite of mine).

Goose said...

Ah, 12 Angry Men, one of my favorites.

The height of the Fonda character's cruelty is when he turns the tables on Cobb with - "Go over it again, we're not convinced." But few actors could get way with that without seeming smug - Fonda succeeds. But he is comassionate to his foes too, also without smugness

Arthur S., I too enjoy his cheating at Tug of War in Young Mr. Lincoln. Again, how many actors can get away with that?

None of this of course has to do whether the real Fonda was a nice guy.

Karen said...

Gerard, I know you jest (unless you really would buy a cross-country plane ticket for the event), but if there are those in the NYC area who are interested, I would be delighted to host a viewing party.

X. Trapnel said...

I'm not sure "We're not convinced" is cruel, so much as it is Juror 8's way of saying checkmate. In any case, a terrifically dramatic line in its simplicity, like E.G.'s "I did." in reference to seeing the marks on the woman's nose ("Yeah, what do you call those things?")

Karen, if such an event does take place do send a smoke signal to NJ

Gerard Jones said...

I can't say I'd be able to plunk down the price of a full-fare ticket the day before, but given enough warning I can often contrive a business reason to be in the Apple. Don't leave me off the list!

Karen said...

You're in, X.T.

X. Trapnel said...

Thanks Karen! (at last a chance to do my Ch. Boyer eyebrow imitation)

Chris Edwards said...

Didn't Lang nearly set Brigitte Helm on fire in Metropolis? Fonda got off easy...

mndean said...

Yeah, you New Yorkers get to lord it over the rest of us. But I've got San Francisco an hour away, and I get better weather.

Failed Hollywood parents aren't exactly news - I was aware of Fonda's coldness to his kids even when I myself was a kid, just as I was aware of Crosby's cruelty. For some time I thought hell was being a famous actor's child.

As far as Lucy, I always think when I see the show on rare occasions that I like Desi's reactions more than Lucy's harebrained silliness. I saw a few of her late '40s films, and I could see her polishing the "Lucy" character she'd ride to fame in those films.

Leisen sure got a lot of abuse considering that his films were pretty successful, although I think he was better in comedy than drama.

As for Boyer, my reaction is when don't I like one of his performances? Haven't found it yet, but I suppose there might be one out there.

Gerard Jones said...

Boyer did make some unfortunate movies late in his career in which he was either asked to parody himself or he just seemed to be coasting: Casino Royale, Barefoot in the Park and the monumentally awful Lost Horizon (in which, I'll grant, he was by far the least egregious element). Aging Hollywood just didn't know what to do with such as him.

At least he never did a Love Boat.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ross Hunter's musical version of Lost Horizon was indeed a mega-flop. But he paid Larry Kramer so much money to write the screenplay that Larry was able to buy his One Fifth Ave. condo in which he created ACT-UP.

So it was far from a total loss.

Gerard Jones said...

That's the kind of Hollywood history that should be reported more often!

(Just saw the new NYT poll showing 57% of voters aged 40 and under support equal marriage rights. The tide turns.)

Gerard Jones said...

Oh, and to weigh in the initial topic: Applebaums are just incredibly stupid. I hear her journalism about Russia and Poland from years ago is pretty good, but as a columnist she doesn't even make any sense. Can't even figure out her point half the time, or it's built on a straw man.

Just the opposite of our Campaspe, who always has a point and always knows how to make it.

mndean said...

I know Boyer was in some bad movies, but I never saw where I disliked his performance such that I would not watch a film because of anything he did. Ross Hunter's Lost Horizon is one film I have happily never watched. It's reputation kept me away.

Frank Conniff said...

Remember those commercials that Fonda did in the late sixties for G-A-F viewfinders (remember viewfinders?!!!) And how about the commercials he did for some floor wax product that I don't remember the name of? A woman would be sitting in her kitchen and then Fonda would suddenly enter with a big friendly smile and exclaim, "Great floors!" Given what we now know, that in real life Fonda was by all accounts a cold, distant depressive who was the last guy in the world that would give a shit about how shiny some housewife's floor was, these commercials stand as yet another example of what a great actor he was.

Gerard Jones said...

Some things one doesn't need to experience. I certainly don't think Boyer's performance would keep you away. But it's kind of sad to see him there.

Campaspe said...

Some time ago Filmbrain wrote a charming piece about seeing Lost Horizon as a kid, and thinking it was teh awesome, then re-watching it as an adult. Well worth a visit. David's detail about Lost Horizon leading to ACT-UP, though, is such dramatic perfection. We always knew musicals were good for the world, didn't we?

MNDean, I do get jealous of California weather (and San Francisco's general beauty and great film festivals) but then I think, fires, mudslides, earthquakes, locusts, I don't think so. (There have been locusts too, right? Frogs, any frogs lately?)

Karen, I must wangle an invitation as well. You know how I feel about Boyer. I personally think that aside from the jaw-dropping beauty of Henry Fonda's daughter and Mr. Redford, Boyer is about the only reason to watch Barefoot in the Park.

It's interesting to compare Boyer's Pepe le Moko with Gabin's. Both are trying to maintain dominance over a criminal gang. Gabin is just plain more frightening in a physical sense, you can easily see why criminals wouldn't cross him. Boyer, on the other hand, seems to be doing it by pure psychology. I need to see a good print of Algiers; it was shot by James Wong Howe and seems quite beautiful but the public-domain DVD I have is, well, a nice word would be "inadequate."

Karen said...

Ooh! I love it when a plan comes together! So: X.Trapnel, the lovely and talented Siren--who else is in?

It makes me very happy to read the Boyer love here. I love his range--from charming romantic lead to cold and menacing to who knows what. And he aged so well, too; so elegantly. It's true that he signs like gold on a dung heap in even the worst film.

But I confess I've never seen this Lost Horizon remake, for which I am profoundly grateful. Although David's Larry Kramer ACT UP story makes me even more grateful. David, I'm so glad you're here to share your stash of amazing stories with us!

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're more than welcome.

There's a great line in Terence McNally's Love! Valor! Compassion! where Buzz the show queen (played of course by nathan Lane) says of Lost Horizon "I never miss a chance to see Liv Ullman sing and dance."

mndean said...

Frank,
Those GAF things were called Viewmasters. I oughta know, I had one. Stereo photography is just the thing to turn a kid's head. I always insisted on taking pictures at family events, even when I was 6. That Viewmaster made me do it. I'm probably the only one here who still uses film, too.

mndean said...

Siren,
Locusts? Noooo, never locusts. They developed away all the farm land, damn it. Fires (smoke, really) is the only thing that can make my life miserable even though I live in the middle of a city. The fault lines are too far away to affect my house and the mudslides and fire damage happen to rich idiots who build on hillsides near wilderness that burns away before the fall rains. You'd be amazed the number of idiots that actually do that. It's a tragedy all right, but one of their own making.

Campaspe said...

You are not the only one who still uses film. I do too. I don't take good digital pictures, I don't know why. They are always lifeless and badly framed for me.

Java Bean Rush said...

Blog Owner is the host(ess); apparently we each set the tone for our blogs.

Gerard Jones said...

I do get jealous of California weather (and San Francisco's general beauty and great film festivals) but then I think, fires, mudslides, earthquakes, locusts, I don't think so. (There have been locusts too, right? Frogs, any frogs lately?)Oh, you East Coasters! The fires only affect a few predictable locales that are easily avoided, none in San Francisco. Mudslides are utterly irrelevant unless you own a $10 million house on a small strip of Southern California coast; they make good TV news items, but I've never met anyone in my 51 years who's had personal mudslide experiences. We did have a bad earthquake here 20 years ago, but most of the city was unaffected. Nothing even broke in my house. The only fatalities and serious damage were on a couple of stretches of roadway and a few buildings that hadn't been brought up to modern seismic standards--and all such structures have been closed down since.

Sorry to rant, but this idea of California as a place of great natural danger is just nonsense. More people die in the average Northeastern blizzard than in years' worth of our little tremors and brushfires.

Gerard Jones said...

Hey Karen. I'm serious about being able to make trips to New York with a little bit of advance notice. I got research to do and editors to see. Keep me posted!

M. George Stevenson said...

Two Fifth -- the same building that Ed Koch lives in and where, reputedly, Kramer says to his dog when encountering the ex-mayor in the lobby, "Oh, look! There's the man who killed so many of daddy's friends!"

Vanwall said...

Gerard - I agree about the over-estimation of the natural disasters that can occur here in Caleefornia, as Der GruppenGovernfuhrer likes to accent-uate, and they are much less lethal or regularly seasonal - come talk to me about Tornado Seasons, and June too soon, July we must fly, August come they must, September remember, October all over - hell that's half a year - and we can discuss why this side is the "Pacific" Coast. Oops. Touch wood, of course.

That said, I have been personally reached out and grabbed by the heart, by the fires lately - evacuations, home losses of friends, and the death of a close co-worker who was living up to her altruistic ideals in the path of the flames. It seems every 20 or 30 years a part of Cali seems to rebel against the encroachment of the guys who lost a house to fire, rebuilt and lost it to mudslide, rebuilt again and lost it to an earthquake - all on the same piece of former wilderness. And then they get ett by the puma living down-canyon.

I must say, my favorite topic here, movies, has played a large part in exaggerating things in California every way, and everywhere else, fo that matter - if you don't live thru it in real life, you can say, "There, but for the grace of God, go I.", when you're watching any disaster film not set in your own backyard. But, I'll not say that again.

mndean said...

I would take digital pictures, except that the two rather expensive digitals I owned both went belly-up within months of their warranty expiring (both costing more than they were worth to fix), and where am I going to get a 6x9cm digital camera, let alone a 4x5in? I still have tons of 35mm equipment, most of which I got for little or nothing. I even still have a 16mm Bell and Howell that I mounted on a car for some MOS (thanks, Mr. Wilder!) traveling shots for a film I never finished.

Gerard Jones said...

Vanwall: I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your coworker and the struggles of your friends with the fires. I don't mean to dismiss or diminish the reality. I have a good friend who lives in northern San Diego and who, with his family, has been evacuated twice due to fire in the past five years or so. Unpleasant and scary for everyone.

But I do wish to convey to non-Californians that the areas afflicted by fire and mudslide are always the same relatively few areas and can be avoided. In San Francisco our only natural threats are earthquakes, which are neither as frequent or devastating as people in other states seem to imagine. Of course, those are unsettling in that there's absolutely no warning. No seasons, no premonitory weather, no alerts. The ground is just suddenly moving.

tdraicer said...

I haven't posted for the last year or so (though I have been reading), but the SSS's comment on comments makes me want to start, well, commenting

Fonda strikes me as an unhappy man who turned to acting in order to be someone other than himself. Unhappy people don't make good parents and frequently not good husbands (though I believe his last marriage was happy enough until the final months of illness) but Fonda had more than a few loyal friends. In any case, as I was never married or related to him, I don't really care what he was like in private. (Anymore than I care that John Wayne was a deep reactionary.) I saw Fonda live on stage twice (Clarence Darrow and First Monday in October) and he was amazing. For me, that will always be Henry Fonda.

(And since I'm name dropping, I also saw Stewart in Harvey back in 1970.)

On politics, I'll just say I'm basically a Krugmanite (someone who has never much trusted Obama, but from the Left) and leave it at that.

X. Trapnel said...

I just finished watching (for the first time) Black Narcissus

Mr. Dean tells ex-Sister Ruth to "try and get some sleep."

mndean said...

Vanwall,
What stuns me about Californians is how so many are utterly naive about living in what was once forest and brush land. They develop the areas and then let the growth get close to their houses. About 20 years ago, a friend of mine had a brother who bought a house in the foothills and while we were cleaning the house, I asked him when he was going to clear the brush away from the house and what he was going to do about his pond (which I called Mosquito Lake, for obvious reasons). He hadn't a clue. I lived in a city all my life and knew more about the danger he was facing. It made me very fearful for the people who decided to live out in the "wilderness". The Oakland Hills fire claimed a relative of one of my mother's coworkers. I just shake my head and wonder why we're so helpful after the disaster, but never think of the disaster we invite.

Gerard Jones said...

The people of Oakland at least learned from that experience: regulations are much stricter now on the brush and trees around houses, and they've been pretty well followed. The trouble in much of Southern Cal is those eucalyptus trees: a great way to produce the effect of a forest in a hurry and without much water, but pure tinder. In that case the fatal flaw is trying to turn what was once dry grassland into wooded estates.

Gerard Jones said...

Seems like there ought to be a movie in that...

Karen said...

Hmmm...so, movie night at Karen's with Charles Boyer, Louis Jourdan, Marcel Dalio, and Marsha Hunt? Sounds like a plan!

X.Trapnel's in, our gracious hostess is in, and Gerard may even be in with enough notice---who else?

How does the weekend of June 19th sound?

Campaspe said...

Ah, this is turning up new folks and the long-silent as well, which makes me happy. M. George Stevenson, what a grimly funny story. I was around in the 1980s and I feel quite bitterly toward a lot of inert politicians from those times, too.

I am also guffawing over Frank: "in real life Fonda was by all accounts a cold, distant depressive who was the last guy in the world that would give a shit about how shiny some housewife's floor was."

Apropos of TDRaicer's comment -- I was paging through the rest of the book with the Fonda interview, and looking at the chapter devoted to a talk with William Wellman. It's frustratingly short but when asked who was the best actor he ever worked with, guess who Wellman names? "Hank Fonda." On the strength of the only film they did together, The Ox-Bow Incident, which is indeed Fonda at his best.

Campaspe said...

And Java, thank you for the implied compliment, as well.

Vanwall, Gerard, Mndean--I was basically joking about California, I know that disasters there are quite avoidable for the most part. It is very much analogous to the fear engendered by New York City's alleged criminality (even nowadays in the Bloomberg era) and the perception that we are cold, distant depressives--a city of Hank Fondas if you will.

XT, why do people say "Let's get outta here" is the most common line in movies? "Try to get some sleep now" or variations thereupon is in EVERY movie ever made at some point. It popped up in Mississippi Mermaid the other night. The more recent the movie with the line, the harder I flinch. But Black Narcissus can be forgiven anything, really.

Karen, la famille Campaspe should still be in town in June.

Operator_99 said...

Friday, March 13, 2009 - "George and Bernard: Notes on a Scandal" was clearly the tipping point. The comment section of this blog has always been a high point, but that post, and all subsequent posts have moved the comments section to a new level. If the comments section were allowed a name, I would call it the "Siren Cafe". Visiting here is like going into the White Horse Tavern, the original Cafe Figaro, or (name your favorite haunt), ordering a cup of your preferred beverage, and meeting with friends to argue, banter, think, and laugh in a true atmosphere of shared community. I say thanks to our proprietress for this venue. A good experience and a good picture.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, no criticism of Black Narcissus implied! (Hell, "try and get some sleep" is uttered [subtitlewise] in Madame de). BN was stupendous, mesmerizing (actually I was grateful to "TAGSS" for restoring my sense of reality; the flaw in the carpet, as it were (only Allah is perfect).

Gerard Jones said...

Oh, but Campaspe, we all know that the stories about New York crime are gruesomely true! I've never ridden the subway without being shot, knifed or mugged at least once. Twice if I go above 110th Street. But heck, for New York, it's worth it! I just bring extra bandages and some plasma.

Gerard Jones said...

"Try to get some sleep." What a great line for the slick but heartless villain to say right before he blows off the head of the hero's friend! I'm calling Joel Silver right now!

X. Trapnel said...

Brilliant, Gerard! How about a contest for mispplied movie cliches.

Vanwall said...

Bourne used that line in a nice reversal - sleep was the least of his intentions.

Say, I read "Overheard in NY" regularly, and the real NYC must be a helluva fun house.

Nature has a way of making you pay, now or later. The eucalyptus trees came from the Scripps company - they had an idea about making gazillions from the railroad industry, until they found out those trees aren't good for much other than burning.

I've always bee fascinated how people in film just hang up the phone with no goodbye. How impolite! What's the genesis there?

M X - I'm so glad you are now a complete human being. BN is required viewing for gaining that final step up; no longer will you be lumped among the mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers. :-)

mndean said...

Those lines "try to get some sleep", "let's go" or "let's get out of here", "I'll pay the check", are so banal that they often pass right by me. I think one problem is that we expect dialogue with more wit, and when we hear banalities, it's either tune 'em out or grit your teeth. Since life is spent mostly uttering banalities, I don't get too upset hearing them in a film.

So you saw Mississippi Mermaid? I never knew quite what to make of it when I saw it years ago. I'd never seen Belmondo be such a masochist in any other film. I also remember not finding Deneuve very convincing in her role, either (I thought she was miscast). Even the cabin from Shoot the Piano Player shows up in a cameo. Strange film.

X. Trapnel said...

Why, he scratches on my knuckles are, are healing! It's a miracle! (cue up angelic choir music)

Thank you, Sister Ruth! If there's any way I can repay you...

X. Trapnel said...

Xt! typo please read "the scratches"

Gerard Jones said...

Vanwall, you're right! It's the scene where he's calling her from the roof, right? And here I thought I was being so clever by twisting the line into an action movie. It gets harder to do parody all the time.

And thanks for that tidbit on the eucalpytus trees. Scripps actually thought those soft, snappy things could be used for railroad ties? You'd think people would do research first.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Larry did indeed say that to Ed Koch -- who's squealing like a stuck pig on Page Six of the NY Post today over the film Outrage -- which hangs him out to dry.

Yojimboen said...

The cliché which actually gives me a physical pain is the driving scene where the driver is in deep conversation with his/her passenger and you want to shout at the screen “Watch the f*cking road!”

Gerard Jones said...

I like the scenes in the '30s movies when there's anger between the guy and girl and he starts driving a little too fast and you can suddenly visualize the medium-long shot with the car roaring toward you from center-bg and the tree on the left of the screen.

X. Trapnel said...

Another (not quite) cliche: whenever anybody looks for a file it's always in the top drawer.

Karen said...

The line that I think of as appearing in almost every film known to man is, "Have a drink," or "Better have a drink." Alcohol really was a panacea for decades, wasn't it?

I remember going to see the release of the remastered print of Vertigo in the mid '90s and, when Stewart brings Novak back to his apartment after pulling her out of the Bay, he says, essentially, "Better have a drink." Sadly, my historical context-challenged fellow moviegoers found this hi-LAR-ious, which was something of a mood-killer. But it caused me to be hyper-aware of how often it's said--humorously,l seriously, menacingly....it's the companion to "Cigarette...?"

X. Trapnel said...

It's possible that one could compile a list of drinking, eating, smoking conventions and cliches particular to any type of food, beverage, or tobacco product. (I've been longing for a Siren post on Anthony Mann to point out the obsessive coffee drinking in his westerns).

For the dumbest of all movie cliches, however, I nominate the gift-giving ritual:

Receiver: "What is it?"
Giver: (twinkle) "Open it!"

Campaspe said...

XT, for the Anthony Mann coffee post we need Peter Nelhaus!!

mndean said...

Trapnel,
That cliche I love. It's especially silly when the box is so obviously small, it can't contain anything but jewelry.

Gerard Jones said...

It's especially silly when the box is so obviously small, it can't contain anything but jewelry.Or her lover's severed ear.

But that one isn't used as often.

X. Trapnel said...

For almost non-stop coffee referencing see The Far Country (a northern, I suppose, rather than a western), but the pinnacle of absurdity is reached in Winchester 73 when Dan Duryea, his gang being shot to pieces around him, plaintively whines, "where's the COFFEE!?"

Come to think of it I could use a cup right now.

There was a fearful moment in Black Narcissus when Clodagh's boyfriend gives her her xmas gift, the usual words went unuttered.

Gerard Jones said...

Karen: the couple times I've seen Vertigo on the big screen the audiences have also laughed at Jimmy giving Kim a drink right after saving her from the drink...but I took that to be evidence that, in this case, the crowd wasn't historically challenged but in fact pretty historically aware. I think unless you have some sense of '50s cocktail culture and old Hollywood's use of the drink as panacea, that line won't be very funny. A bit odd, maybe, but not a big laugh. I think I chuckled myself, in fact. That one moment captures so much about the times and the culture that's silly, charming, and a bit creepy all at once.

(The other big laugh-getting when Vertigo is shown here in SF is the street repair on California Street. Because whether it's 30, 40, or 50 years later, they're still always repairing that same spot.)

X. Trapnel said...

In my experience the big laugh getters in Vertigo are 1. the doctor's fatuous diagnosis midway through the film and 2. "It [Judy's hair color] can't matter to you!" The laughs originate in that warm, toasty, cozy region of the soul that tells us "We know better now," the source of so much of our present vulgarity.

X. Trapnel said...

I feel embarassed to have missed a detail about Vertigo (my 2nd favorite film after Madame de), but doesn't Jimmy Stewart offer Kim Novak coffee (maybe some still warm from The Man from Laramie) back at his bachleor pad? He does push a shot of whiskey at her when he urges her to dye her hair.

Gerard Jones said...

Did I misremember my Vertigo? Sadly possible, at this age. An excuse to watch it again, at least...

Yojimboen said...

My favorite anti-cliché:
A guy (I think it’s Gig Young - maybe Ask Any Girl) confronts his secretary (horn-rimmed glasses, hair in a bun), and says “Lemme try something…”
He removes her glasses, reaches and unpins hair and shakes it out. Problem, the girl is much less attractive than before.
She says, “What…?”
He says, “Never mind.”
Hands her back her glasses and exits.

X. Trapnel said...

These things happen, Gerard. There was a time (how much aching sadness Wordsworth [Immortality Ode] got into that simple phrase) when I could have told you the name of the magazine on Scotty Ferguson's coffee (!) table.

Gerard Jones said...

There's definitely something people laughed at during the post-immersion scene in Vertigo...

As for the laugh over "It can't matter to you," I suspect there's something at work other than "we know better now" (although that's part of it, certainly). I get the sense that a lot of modern audiences don't understand how demented Scotty is becoming. A '50s viewer would have understood how irrational Scotty's assertion was and begun to tumble to the idea that this was not the usual Jimmy Stewart hero. I think modern audiences feel slightly at sea with the subtleties of the old sexual politics and are slow to catch on that Scotty is going nuts. So there's a nervous effort to interpret "It can't matter to you" as some sort of bizarre '50s attitude...because what else can it be?

Overall, I think Vertigo is one of the more difficult old movies to follow closely if you don't know the times and the conventional movies of the period, so subtly and slowly does it bend norms and expectations.

X. Trapnel said...

Excellent point, G! there are so many things in Vertigo that deliberatly subvert 50s film conventions. Many films of the time have subtexts about shopping and consumption, makeovers, even stopping for fashion shows. The excruciating (worse than the Psycho shower) dress-buying scene is almost too painful to watch. Glamorous urbanism is overturned with SF as a quiet city of the dead (I've often wondered if Hitchcock was familiar with Georges Rodenbach's fin de siecle novel Bruges-la-Mort which has a plot similar to Vertigo and certainly the same mood. It is the source of Korngold's great opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) which Bernard Herrmann must certainly have known). I would even maintain that the portrayal of the doctor, judge (Henry Jones--as R.O. Thornhill would say, "What a performance!"), and Gavin Elster--bulky, white authority figures/elegant man of affairs--violated 50s norms.

mndean said...

That was the one thing in Vertigo that was very disorienting to me - to see a sterile, depopulated San Francisco. I'd been there many times in my life from the early '60s on, and never did I remember it like that. The teeming New York City of North by Northwest more resembled the San Francisco I remembered.

Gerard Jones said...

Yojimboen: You think that may be from Ask Any Girl? Is the movie itself worth seeing, or should I scan for that scene? The scene itself I gotta see. Sometimes it can get too self-referential or self-indulgent, but usually I like it when movie makers notice their own cliches and invert them. Especially if it's a cliche that audiences have begun to groan about. It's almost like making amends.

Gerard Jones said...

X & mn: I too have never seen SF so deathlike, not even when the 49ers were in the Super Bowl. But it's a strangely beautiful place in Hitch's vision, and strangely unreal. I understand why he chose it for Vertigo.

I'm intrigued by this novel Bruges-la-Mort...but I don't suppose it's been translated? I ain't never learned none o' that French talk.

X. Trapnel said...

Yes, indeed it's been translated (U of Scranton Press). Rodenbach (1855-1898) was one in a long line of symbolist/proto-surrealist writers that flourished (if that is the word) in Belgium at the turn of the century. Another, Maurice Maeterlinck had a huge vogue in England and America (big influence, I think, on Beckett). The greatest of them all, Franz Hellens, a particular cause of mine, remains utterly unknown. What they all shared or passed on to their painter bretheren Ferdinand Khnopff, Leon Spilliaert, Willem Degouve de Nunques (google these 3 and you'll see some very eerie, disturbing images) Magritte and Delvaux was an aesthetic of the beautiful nightmare, full of longing and dread (Hellens called it "fantastic realism" and it has a lot in common with what's called magic realism these days. The first major Belgian director, Andre Delvaux (whose films are very hard to find) worked in this vein.

Yojimboen said...

Pretty sure it’s Ask Any Girl - I don’t know if it’s available on DVD. Can’t really remember how good it is – saw it years ago for the young and cute Shirley MacLaine (her first film after Some Came Running). It’s sort of Sabrina written sideways: two brothers after the same girl; standard David Niven fare of the period. I’m not the best judge; it’s by Joe Pasternak and Chuck Walters and David E is our resident Chuck Walters expert. I do remember the script was reasonably smart and funny, and Gig Young was always for me the anti-Bob Cummings.
(And, M X, Percy Helton is in it!)

X. Trapnel said...

Mae Clarke too!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ask Any Girl is indeed excellent. The estimable and much-missed Raymond Durgnat was an admirer. it appeared simultaneously with ther Doris Day cycle and provides and interesting contrast. Also with my beloved The Best of EverythingShirley plays a smart young Miss on the move in New York. She gets a job as a secretary at a Big Deal company and sets her sights on Gig Young. He's suave and handsome but a Toxic Bachelor of the old school with a stable of steadies and no intention of settling down. David Niven plays his older, smarter and much nicer brother. He catches wind of Shirley's campaugn and elects to advose her. His plan? She should combine the characteristics of Gig's faves: the laugh of one, the hair color of another, and the something else ( I forget what, it's been awhile) of the third. Put them all together and she enchant s Gig -- who can't figure out what there is abotu her that makes her so special. But by that time (you guessed it) she realizes that Niven's the man for her, and all ends happily.

That of course is the plot. With a film like this it's all in the playing and the grace ntoes, of which Chuck was a sadly unacknowleged master. This is a great, fun pre-feminist romp. And infinitely smarter than Sex in the City

Campaspe said...

I am quite sure I saw Ask Any Girl in some long-ago snuggle with my blankie and the TBS Superstation (I miss that thing as a source for movies, loud commercials and all). I'm a big Shirley fan and I was and remain always happy to see David Niven in a romantic lead. He was so damn charming, everything an Englishman should be. In fact I just ordered the Graham Lord bio, which may be a mistake but we shall see.

I would love to see As Any Girl again. Wonder if Gig Young will play the same way or I will be hearing "Yowza, yowza" in my head ... he is one of the few actors whose creepy fate requires an effort for me to put aside.

Campaspe said...

That's Ask Any Girl, not As Any Girl, which almost kind of works as a title though.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, I have the same Gig Young problem; it casts an eerie pall over "Walking Distance," the greatest of all Twilight Zones.

Campaspe said...

XT, it's definitely the murder aspect. Suicide is terrible and heartbreaking, but it doesn't much affect my enjoyment of Sanders, obviously, or Boyer. (I hadn't thought about that connection even, though they are both in this thread.) But Young put himself in the class of "family annihilator" as the criminal shrinks call it, and I find it just plain evil. I agree, it makes Walking Distance almost unwatchable to me, although to be fair the last act of Our Town is equally painful due to the theme alone.

Campaspe said...

Operator_99, I neglected to thank you for the kind words. I have always felt that the comments were the best part of the blog, but yes, lately we seem (like Spinal Tap) to have gone to 11.

Goose said...

Gig Young.

The evil of the murder in watching him act is magnified, I think, by the contradiction of his screen personality - the happy-go-lucky bachelor, but a loser in love, with the pale dead eyes.

Gerard Jones said...

I found They Shoot Horses, Don't They particularly spooky after Young did what he did. He's not the one who shoots the girl, of course, but he embodies the whole sick spirit of the story.

Gerard Jones said...

X, thank you so much for the reading list! As you probably predicted I know Maeterlinck and Magritte, and have heard of Delvaux, but that's where my erudition stops. I'll seek out Rodenbach and Hellens. Any recommendation on which to start on?

Gerard Jones said...

Has everyone heard that John McCain will be AMC's guest host for Memorial Day weekend? Watch for Obama to show up on TCM...

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard.

Except for Rodenbach (should be gettable via Amazon), these writers are only available in rare, hideously expensive editions (Hellens' Memoirs from Elsinore [in English] runs abt $60.00 assuming you can track down a copy. I read him in my slow, lurching, dictionary-bound French). There are other European writers of the time (or later) who worked in that same shadowy, dreamlike vein: Stefan Grabinski (Poland), Paul Leppin, Ernest Weiss, Hermann Ungar (Czech/German, friends and acquaintances of Kafka), Dino Buzzati (Italian, absolutely brilliant--and funny; he also did surreal comic strips), and in English Walter de la Mare ("Seaton's Aunt" is IMO the most terrifying short story in Eng or Am Lit. It was filmed sometime in the 80s) and the utterly unclassifiable Robert Aickman (everyone I've introduced Aickman to has found him--disconcerting). All of these writers have points in common with mainstream surrealism (Breton's Nadja or Aragon's Paysan de Paris); I think they're stuff is much better though.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, I should have mentioned that all the Europeans I listed are available in English in reasonably priced editions. I'll also throw in Louis Couperus (Dutch) and Stig Dagerman (Swedish, married to the actress Anita Bjork)

Yojimboen said...

Oh, dear, I had completely forgotten about (or shut out) Gig Young's awful demise. Sorry I brought him up, folks. Truly, his on-screen persona gave no clue to how he would end his days. But thanks, Mr. E, for the reprise of the movie.

Gerard Jones said...

X, I'm reassured by what you say about mainstream surrealism. I just don't care for that stuff. I knew Breton a bit, enough to know that he leaves me pretty cold (although I've always admired him for being one of the few arty-lefties willing to expose the lies of Stalinism before '39, like John Dos Passos on our shores). Now I'm sure I'll seek out some of these.

Gerard Jones said...

Should say "I know Breton a bit," as in his work. "I knew Breton" makes it sound like we used to hang out together on the ol' Rive Gauche.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, I was sick with envy there for a moment. I like some of Breton's work but I've often felt it was writers and painters on a parallel track to Surrealism who did the best work (how innocuous and drab most of Dali and Ernst look now). And I hugely admire his stance against Stalinism; this took a certain amount of courage in that time and place. Breton was a noble Don Quixote figure.
A favorite story: Some time in the 1950s a group of middle-aged surrealists and their ladies made an excursion to the bosom of nature (somewhere not too far from Paris) for a picnic. When a roasted chicken was placed on the table, Benjamin Peret, an impecunious and always-hungry poet, plunged his fork in. "Ladies first!" said Breton. Peret ignored him and continued to dig in. "Ladies first!" said Breton menacingly. Peret paid no attention. "LADIES FIRST!" roared Breton, whereupon Peret let out a yell of rage, grabbed the chicken, and ran off into the field, the bird held high and Breton in hot pursuit. History does not record how long the great chase lasted.

Gerard Jones said...

That's a perfect story. Sounds as though they were still in touch with their Dada roots.

And I may not have known Breton, but, you know, I did meet Regis Toomey once...

X. Trapnel said...

It would make a nice little Renoir film; after all,Sylvia Bataille (Parti de Campagne) married two surrealist alumnae: Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Gerard, you're quite right about Gig Young embodying "the whole sick spirit of They Shoot Horses Don't They. It's an incredibly great movie anyway and he's the (rancid) cherry on top.

For years Young had occupied an "also ran" psoition, somewhere between Cary Grant and William Holden. He was for years seen as "good but not much more than that." Then They Shoot Horses came along and simply floored everyone. Clearly he'd been underestimated. But sadly the Hollywood that gave birth to him was long gone.

Interestingly he got parts in two curious late Peckinpah films: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Killer Elite. He was fine in both.

But what can one say of murder-suicide?

I think of Phil Hatman -- killed by his bride who then killed herself.

And then there are the drug deaths -- like poor Brad Renfro. Imagine getting busted for trying to score heroin on skid row. They sell you literal rat poison down there. What despair. Now he's gone.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

One of the problems with reading comments at the bottom of blog entries is that, well, they *accumulate* ... and the thought of reading all of 'em in order can be daunting.

I just got as far as the Arthur S. entry starting "Fritz Lang for all his meanness ..." Apologies, in advance, if someone further down has anticipated my words. But.

I think that the possibility of on-screen Henry Fonda nastiness was anticipated at least as far back as "Grapes of Wrath." There's a coldness and vindictive resoluteness to the anger that we see there. Not acted on, perhaps, but definitely in evidence.

I shuddered when I read Arthur S's line about "that tripe he did with Leone." I'm not inordinately drawn to westerns, admittedly, but that one's on my short list -- and I do think it's a masterpiece.

"Well, let's face it, I'm not well!"
-- Ryan in WOMAN ON THE BEACH

Campaspe said...

Mrs HWV - I wrote a piece about my dislike of OUTITW some time back, it is around in the archives but I am unable to post a link at the mo. However, I hasten to add that Dennis Cozzalio (you know, the guy with the great blog named for that director, whozeewhat) has always said he managed not to hold it against me. Suffice it to say that I find Fonda's villain one-note, and he was never one-note in the noble parts.

Since David mentioned his name (geddit?), Fonda in the long-titled spaghetti Western makes an interesting comparison with the equally corrupt Gig Young performance in an equally long-titled movie of just one year later...what was it with the 60s/early 70s fad for long titles, anyway?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Nothing beats Rameau's Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Denis Young) by Wilma Schoenexcept
Celine et Julie vont en bateau/ Phantom Ladies Over ParisNow I suppose is the time for me to confess being a big Leone fan. LOVE Once Upon a Time epics.

Yojimboen said...

A story I've always liked about Gig Young is that after winning his Oscar, he received a bouquet of flowers offering congratulations and signed 'Liz and Richard'.

Young's (reportedly genuine) response was: "Liz and Richard who? I do wish people would sign their last names to these things!"

X. Trapnel said...

The lamest of all 60s/70s long titles: Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title (1966)

X. Trapnel said...

The wolves of memory are unleashed.
I just recalled What's So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968). Can't you just imagine the trailer with a jocular, unctuous male voice uttering the title, De Vol-type music bubbling in the background? Makes you kind of crave Carl Dreyer.

At least it had Charles Lane.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Don't, pray, forget "You've Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You'll Lose That Beat" (1971). Complete with a cast that included Zalman King, Richad Pryor, and Robert Downey Sr. Music contributors included Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, later of Steely Dan.

X. Trapnel said...

Nor should The Lady in a Car with Glasses and a Gun (Anatole Litvak, forsooth) be forgot.

I thought some of this might be due to the baleful vogue of Lina Wertmuller, but it seems her serpentine titles are mostly late 70s/early 80s

Gerard Jones said...

Perhaps not worth mentioning because it was meant to be lame: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies. Except worth mentioning in that it fails miserably even at its attempt to be humorously lame.

I'm guessing that an important step in the evolution of those titles was It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The addition of that fourth "Mad," assaulting the mental rhythms that have been trained by duos and trios of words, was apparently pretty attention-getting back in '63. I think it got producers thinking about different ways to make customers notice titles.

X. Trapnel said...

All of these titles tend to be a-rhythmical and clanking to the ear. The larger question is why was comedy so bloody awful during this period? Were there any good comedies in this period (I confess, I'm not a Day/Hudson fan, but will concede those films were better than the common ruck). This was also the time when Billy Wilder stopped being funny.

Yojimboen said...

I remember a reporter asked Stanley Kramer why four "Mad"s? Kramer replied with absolutely straight face, "I thought about it for a long time until I finally decided three wasn't enough and five... Well, five was just one too many."

mndean said...

I suggest that when we've hit Ray Dennis Steckler territory, it's time for a new thread. And yes, I've seen Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, to my everlasting shame.

mndean said...

Interminable terrible title award has to go to that Mercy Humppe thing that it's just to early in the morning to remember all of (I won't even look it up, it's just too ghastly). I get the feeling that if the '80s filmmaker's cocktail of choice was cocaine and ether, the '60s cocktail was LSD and 'shrooms.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here you go!

Arthur S. said...

Let's raise our glasses to Fassbinder's EFFI BRIEST, the full title in German is well...
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071458/releaseinfo#akas

I love good long titles like THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP or THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE or BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and even THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND or my favourite...
LA PRISE DE POUVOIR PAR LOUIS XIV.

There is a beauty to these long-winded titles.

The only Leone film I love unconditionally is his final film ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. The others are okay at best and I dislike OUTIW quite strongly and find Fonda's work there quite overrated. The music is great however but the amount of attention on that film leaves me in deep disbelief.

X. Trapnel said...

Is there some sort of parallel to be drawn between the long titles of yesteryear and the vogue for participial titles that started, I'm guessing, with Breaking Away and reached its apogee of cringe-making archness with Surviving Picasso?

I had forgotten about the Mercy Humpe thing. I will not thank you for reminding me, mnd

DavidEhrenstein said...

Truth can be brutal.

Gerard Jones said...

"The Completely Automated Twitter Growth & Money Making System for
People That Want to Set Up A System ONCE, Forget About It, and Have it
Grow and Make Money EVERY Day!"

Is that spam or the title of a movie I missed?

Gerard Jones said...

I have to go along with our mistress...or hostess, rather...on Once Upon a Time. Loses my attention as it goes on, and Fonda seems one-note indeed. But I do love that opening. Not only bold, brilliant command of pace but one of the truly great uses of sound on film.

Splat.

Splat.

Splat.

(Hat)

Splup.

Gerard Jones said...

David, David, David...I wouldn't have minded a Mercy Humppe reminder if you hadn't tricked me into clicking on the link and having it slap me in the face in those huge IMDb letters.

I suppose this is what the young folks feel when they're "rickrolled."

X. Trapnel said...

Just had a look at the IMDB listing for Hieronumous Merkin/M. Humppe. My guess is that the makers thought Skidoo represented the future of cinema or that for reasons beyond human understanding they wanted to outdo it.

Gerard Jones said...

X: There is in the human soul a fatal attraction for the extremes of darkness. Most of us see Skidoo and think, "Enough. We need go that way no more." But there will always be that one who thinks, "How terrible. How horrifying. What would it be like...to go further...?"

On this occasion, alas, that one was Anthony Newley.

Gerard Jones said...

An early milestone in the (brrr) Surviving Picasso line of titles: in 1974 Sidney Lumet chose to retitle Larry McMurtry's Leaving Cheyenne as Lovin' Molly. The original title is in the same grammatical form, of course, but it's lyrical and the title of a traditional song. With Lovin' Molly Sid opened titling to a kind of nauseating cuteness that Hollywood had so far resisted.

Campaspe said...

Gerard, even I have to admit the opening of OUATIW is great.

If I ever decide I really want to throw bombs around and destroy what Wolcot just called our "cocktail-party bonhomie," I will write up one of my ideas in search of a post: "Why I prefer Heaven's Gate to Once Upon a Time in America."

The two films would make a good double feature though, assuming we gave people a break for dinner like they used to do during the Broadway run of Nicholas Nickleby.

mndean said...

Even with my car-wreck watching mentality, I've never seen Skidoo. I remember reading the video box and not being remotely enticed into seeing it. and I've seen a ton of dumb/weird films.

One more thing - is there a stupider "event" in our national calendar than the Kentucky Derby? I can't even see the point of horseracing to begin with, it's crooked (just because I never gambled doesn't mean I don't know any gamblers), so it all seems so gobsmackingly dumb. It makes the Academy Awards look like the Nobel Prize, and I never mention the Oscars because I think they're awfully dumb.

mndean said...

I would mention the Indianapolis 500, but there is the specter of seeing someone eat hot, flaming death that makes it have some tension. Other than that, it's like Grand Prix without the plot, and just think what Grand Prix is like with the plot.

Gerard Jones said...

Hours go by and I keep thinking about Mercy Humppe. Which I've never seen, mind you. Or really even thought about until David slapped us in the face with it.

It doesn't seem so very bizarre that Anthony Newley would make a self-indulgent, self-conscious, self-aggrandizing (in the guise of self-examining) allegorical comedy about his life as a superficial womanizer. But a distinctly British exercise, something marrying the Beatles with Bedazzled and Carnaby Street, very Hip and Now but also music-hallish. Doesn't it say a whole lot about the state of movies (and mainstream pop culture as a whole) in the late '60s that he would cast Milton Berle as Mephistopheles? And George Jessel as God? As if he had no idea what was actually witty or absurd or satirical, and no idea what he really wanted to say, and instead went for big cinematic Post-Its saying "laugh."

(With the "camp" excuse: "Of course it's a stupid idea! It's supposed to be a stupid idea, don't you see? Being purposely stupid shows how above such stupidity we are!")

Then there's his decision to fill the role of the lost, innocent love of his youth with a statuesque, icy Playboy Playmate. Isn't that exactly the time you reach for Eleanor Bron? Again it's the Post-It: market-tested sex in place of even a vague sense of what will actually work narratively or emotionally.

Seems like a lot of movie humor and sex then was just reassembled from what was generally branded as sexy or funny. And forced. Forced really hard. I'm thinking that's at least partly about a generation who just a few years before thought they were he young sophisticates suddenly finding themselves horrifyingly out of step with the generation replacing them. And about entertainment communities (the movie studios, the musical theater crowd) finding the monetary ground falling out from beneath their feet.

Maybe that's what runs through all those long, self-conscious titles and dull, self-conscious movies: terror. The frantic urgency to Be Funny even when nothing you're thinking or feeling is humorous in the least.

Pity they weren't willing to indulge in gallows humor about aging, drunken hipsters being swept into the dustbin of history. That might have made for some good comedies. But they, the Newleys of the world, wanted so desperately to prove they still had it...that they even had more of it than these new punks...

X. Trapnel said...

Gerard, you've hit on a huge point with a brilliant distinction: lyrical vs. cute. I've nothing against the present participle; my favorite modern English novelist (and mysteriously unfilmed, like John Dos Pasos) Henry Green is the author of Living, Party Going, Loving, Concluding and "unresolved" quality of the titles capture the absolute immediacy of experience and perception in the action of his narrative. I haven't read McMurtry's book, but the title is poetic, suggesting hope, regret or, best of all, an ambivalent mix (The title The Best Years of Our Lives is charges with ambiguity). When I first saw the title Come Next Spring, my curiosity was piqued, first by the faint Shelleyan echo ("If winter comes, can spring be far behind") and the implied sense of some coldness/darkness that spring just might resolve. I've always noticed that James Hilton's titles always carry a sense of sadness, loss, or darkness along with hope and nostalgia (Goodbye Mr. Chipps, Lost Horizon, So Well Remembered, We Are Not Alone etc.) Now Hilton was, of course, a "middlebrow" novelist (Who, oddly, greatly admired the distinctly "highbrow" Henry Green) but the aspiration toward lyricism was an authentic part of popular culture from the 20s through the late 40s. The complicated cultural dialectics of the fifties (too much to go into here) turned it into cuteness and the main outcome of 60s counter-culture was to push beauty out of popular culture as doctrinaire modernism had (with considerable success) pushed it out, indeed, made it unmentionable in high culture.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Heaven's Gate ? Roller-Disco Run Amok!

X. Trapnel said...

I've long believed that postwar American culture is rooted in the logic of wartime production, hugeness in size, vast in quantity, little or no individuation (except in a surfacy way). All of these are fatal to comedy. Size and loudness are the only components of It's a Mad etc. World (the jokes suck but there are plenty of them). When the official 60s began the bright, shiny, shadowless (no need for Jack Cardiff) 50s colors simply reshaped themselves into psychodelia, the blaring loudness became amplified rock. The tunnel connecting the present and the immediate past began to close up (this is the interspace in which Skidoo and Mercy H. happened). The final synthesis was the mass-produced infantilism of Spielberg and Lucas a close-ended worldview (they're too smart to end up as pathetic relics like Peter Lawford) that we're still stuck in.

Belvoir said...

Just want to thank Siren for her always absorbing, thoughtful essays. And yes, the commenters here as well, I learn so much. Smart bunch.

It seems I'm especially drawn to Siren's blog when i'm feeling blue. Reading her brilliant posts, I'm taken away to another era, I forget my blues, I'm absorbed and fascinated. So rare, I can't thank you enough.
I appreciate your erudition and graciousness, immensely.

Yojimboen said...

…Mercy Humppe isn’t that bad; it’s bearable in the same way as are What’s New Pussycat or Casino Royale: silly self-indulgent artifacts of a specific era. In Newley’s case, he styled his semi-autobiographical farce more after Fellini’s 8 ½ than anything else. His title was a cheeky attempt to see just how much he could slide past the blue-nosed U.S. censors (no different than Mae West did throughout her career). He got away with it because nobody knew what a merkin or a mercy hump was.
In context Newley may be excused his boyish indulgences, he was at his peak and on a major roll (nowhere near his swansong; he did 27 more film projects before his death in 1999); so some slack can be cut. Hitherto impoverished post-war Brits like Newley, Leslie Bricusse and Lionel Bart had nailed the US market in a succession of smash Broadway musicals (yes, with the long titles, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off; The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd and as we all know, sudden fame and wealth has a way of turning one’s head. (And you’re right, GJ, invitations to the Playboy Mansion don’t help.) They didn’t quite conquer H’Wood as easily as they did Broadway; though Bart’s Oliver! did win Best Picture. (Sadly, Bart paid a predictable price: his massive cocaine habit shortened his life.)
The naissance of long titles (like those above, plus “Marat/Sade”; “Oh, Dad, Poor Dad…” and “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running” etc.) came from theater and H’Wood (surprise, surprise) only imitated the trend.
Who’s to say they were wrong? We seem to remember the long titles, how much do we remember about Blow; Mirage: Elf; Gambit; Insomnia; She; Arabesque; Caprice; It?

P.S. X – the worst part of Skidoo, and I’ve seen it half a dozen times (don’t ask – it’s the traffic accident syndrome) is imagining Preminger having his way with virginal creatures like Jean Seberg and Jill Haworth and throwing up a little in my mouth.

mndean said...

Someone thinks What's New, Pussycat is bearable? Wow, I had a lot more fun watching Bedazzled, and I didn't even think that was a good movie. Outside of vignettes, I couldn't stand WNP. It was like, Hah! Good joke. 10 minutes of grinding boredom. Hah! Another good joke. Do that for over an hour and the film loses me.

You know, Preminger having his way with Preminger is enough to make me vomit.

Gerard Jones said...

Yojimboen, thanks for the historical context. When I look at the Newleys and Bricusses (and Berles and Jessels, as well as the Peter Lawfords) of the late '60s I see a cultural complex about to crash and burn, and I assume they must have felt at least a premonitory dread. But maybe I'm bringing too much hindsight into my imaginings. Anthony Newley in 1968 and 1969 really might have felt that he'd conquered the world and would just keep thundering along for years to come.

The warning signs were all there, of course: Dr. Dolittle had performed well below expectations, as had every musical since '65. Movie box office was dropping and every studio was either in deep trouble or being sold. Weren't Broadway and West End ticket sales dropping too? Soundtrack album sales started slipping drastically around that moment, as did a lot of other music of the theater/nightclub style, as Top 40 radio swung quickly toward rock and teen-pop. Did Newley and his peers see those as worrisome but probably temporary dips, or did they sense that they were about to be back-burnered en masse? (Pardon my French.)

Were their greatest indulgences driven by cockiness or fear? Of course, in show biz, who can tell cockiness from fear anyway?

Gerard Jones said...

I didn't realize that Preminger had his way sexually with Jean Seberg, but he sure screwed with her life. Thinking about Jean always makes me sad.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Preminger had his way sexually with Dorothy Dandridge, most memorably. Also Maggie Mcnamarra. If he had his way with Seberg he was first in a long line that included Clint Eastwood and Denis Berry (who dumped her for Anna Karina.) Eventually she found her true love -- heroin.

I found What's New Pussycat? to be great silly fun, especailly for the scene where Ursula Andress parachutes into Peter O'Toole's car as Dionne Warwick sings "Here I Am" on the soundtrack.

The title, BTW, comes from Warren beatty. it was his come-on line at the time, and Chrlie Feldman originally wanted to star him in the film. But he backed out as it was too close for comfort. Interestingly Peter O'Toole backed out of Fellini's Toby Dammit for the same reason, and was repalced by the fabuous Terence Stamp.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Jean Seberg.

Yojimboen said...

"Cockiness or fear?" A little of both, one supposes, with a generous larding of that old reliable stand-by... (the one that carries us all through this vale of tears) self-deception.
Plus ca change...

Frank Conniff said...

Anthony Newley fell victim to the mass cultural change that happened in that time. In the early sixties, "Stop The World I Want To Get Off" was considered a new, fresh, different kind of musical. And Newley, as it's star, director and coauthor of the book and score, was thought to be the wave of the future. But by the end of the decade, Newley couldn't have been more irrelevant. For a while in the seventies he remained popular in the Vegas-Copa-Mike Douglas-Merv Griffin world, but that era also faded. His most lasting work, in my opinion, are the songs he wrote with Leslie Bricusse, but the temptations of stardom caused him to abandon that partnership way before he should have. I still haven't seen Did Merky Bumpkin Boink Hermione Gingold or whatever the hell it was called.

X. Trapnel said...

Yojimboen,

Mirage, Gambit, Arabesque (seen 'em all when I was a kid; remember only a smashed watermelon in the first and [implied] naked Sophia Loren in the last) are imitation one-word Hitchcock titles; throw in Charade as well. One-word titles usually connoted elegant Europeanism or at least worldly sophistication with actual or soi-disant Mancini (as against DeVol) music sighing and swooning under clever credit graphics.

Do further viewings of Skidoo reveal unexpected riches? Paradoxically (fire with fire? hair of the dog?) visions of goat-legged Otto having his way with Carol Channing might help keep your gorge down.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Yojimboen, there's a similar scene in "The Band Wagon." Cyd Charisse is writing a letter on the train, wearing glasses, hair pulled back, and Astaire makes some comment about never noticing before how attractive she is. It's just a passing witticism, not an insult as in the Gig Young movie.

Not to shift this thread in yet another direction, but the comment on "Vertigo" reminded me why, in spite of everything, I prefer watching movies on TV. I saw "The Conversation" in a theatre and the scene where Hackman sits in the apartment he has torn apart looking for a bug, mournfully playing his saxophone, got a huge laugh. It didn't wreck the movie for me, but close.

mndean said...

I saw a LOT of those sixties films - Gambit, Arabesque, Kaleidoscope, when I was a child. The only thing was it was on a black-and-white TV so I missed the psychedelic colors and all I saw was plot. Good enough for a ten-year-old (they seemed so cool and sophisticated), but I didn't enjoy the revisiting of these films that much when I was older. They seemed so dated. Charade was different. I never felt embarrassment for liking it when I was young.

Gerard Jones said...

David: You may be just the man to confirm or harpoon a Hollywood tale I've heard.

Beatty, goes the story, gets the ball rolling on What's New and brings in Woody Allen to write and appear in it. Woody impresses everyone, and his first draft is much of the reason the movie gets greenlighted. Then Beatty starts battling with Feldman, first over the size of his own role, then over Feldman's insistence on casting his girlfriend of the moment, Capuchine. Finally Beatty decides it's time for a grandstand play. Fearing that his threatening to quit won't carry enough clout with the studio, he talks Woody into agreeing to quit with him, knowing that the potential loss of the new hot-shot writer/comic actor will make Feldman look bad and might swing the studio weight against him.

So Beatty announces he's walking. Is told "so long" by the studio. Finds out that Woody is still on the picture. Swears that someday he'll get back at the little traitor.

Woody Allen goes on to become a big success. Gets a tall, gorgeous girlfriend in Diane Keaton who turns out to be a star and helps him reach the commercial and personal pinnacle of his life.

When suddenly she's leaving him. For Warren Beatty. Who directs her to her second Oscar and makes her a bigger star than ever.

Maybe too perfect. But a fine story.

Yojimboen said...

X - Twice in one week you've zetzed poor old Frank DeVol - what did he ever do to you? Granted, he was the king (okay, the Czar) of wallpaper music - but he worked on some half-decent movies, and who's to say those movies may actually have succeeded because the score didn't get in the way?

I imagine most of his work came via, "Whaddya mean Mancini's busy? Try Lalo Schifrin. He's busy too? Who's NOT busy? Lenny Rosenman? Nah, I owe him money. Alex North? He won't take my calls. Jerry Goldsmith? As if! What the hell, call Frank DeVol..."

mndean said...

I can't make myself hate Frank DeVol. I liked him on Fernwood 2Night - he and Fred Willard were the only ones who weren't smarmy.

Funny that his biggest hit was The Happening, which was improved when out of his hands. HDH's merging of rather downbeat lyrics to an almost insipidly cheery tune was a stroke of genius.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, I challenge you to watch the opening credits of Good Neighbor Sam and not retch. There's an aggressive ickiness to DeVol that's far more irritating than the blandest wallpaper music. In the old days if you couldn't get Herrmann, Korngold, Rozsa, Waxman, Steiner, (sigh) you'd call up Roy Webb or if truly desperate DR. William T. Axt (like Mr. Paul Muni) and get functional music, stuff nobody notices or minds. In the early sixties when "they" were pushing those bad comedies it was with the imperative "You gotta like these people!" DeVol is the aural equivalent, a musical laff track.

Frank Conniff said...

Frank De Vol's biggest impact was on sitcoms. His music for "My Three Sons" and "The Brady Bunch" perfectly captured the bland inoffensiveness that those shows sought to achieve. His "Family Affair" theme music reaches a level of whiteness that Lawrence Welk wouldn't even dare.

I'm sure De Vol was a dependable professional who could always be relied on to reach into what George Bernard Shaw in his days as a music critic called "the common stock." But De Vol worked in an era when great things were happening not just in film scoring, but in the so called "light" side of the street that De Vol worked on. Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel, Burt Bacharach and Michel Legrand were doing brilliant work in those days. I think there's a good case to be made that on top of everything else, the sixties were also a golden age of Easy Listening.

Vanwall said...

"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" is my favorite title, bar none, of any film regardless of its merits. It doesn't need me, or us, or any damn thing to watch it or critique it or, hell, piss on it - it's proclaiming it'll f**k you up but good if you look at it sideways.

X. Trapnel said...

Geez, the Family Affair music is snaking its way back into my consciousness; another strike against DeVol. Yes, uninflected whiteness is part of the problem, and though I make it a point not to use this word I must add... goyishness. The Hollywood sound from the 30s through much of the 50s was a very cosmopolitan synthesis of central European symphonism, jazz, theater music. Its feel was urban and sophisticated (the arrangements in the Astaire Rogers films are wondrously good, never soppy or over-orchestrated, many subtle harmonic turns) and by no means easy listening. Herrmann, Korngold, et al. reflect nearly every facet of twentieth century music, at least within the "limits" (hah!) of tonality. The demographic shift to the suburbs, the end of the urban aesthetic, and the gradual turning away from Europe favored a more homogenized sound.

mndean said...

I take it all back. Family Affair's theme - it inspired homicidal feelings for that entire show in my little 6-year-old mind. Sebastian Cabot - blam! I wanted his smug butler falling dead out of a closet, crushing to a pulp little Buffy and Jody underneath his corpulence. Brian Keith (inoffensive as he was) I wanted to see die in a construction accident. I should have remembered that was DeVol's music that made me have these thoughts.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Yes, but at DeVol *did* write the theme song for "Kiss Me Deadly" -- well, co-wrote it -- which counts for a lot.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2LQLHzKjEw

Gerard Jones said...

X: enjoyed your history of the large and lifeless from WWII through the '60s. But let's not forget our dialectics!

That bigness you talk about was also slow, smug, showing off technical slickness and pretending to sophistication. Even Kramer's Mad-Mad-Mad-Mad shtick had a smug sort of "we're above this old shtick even as we chuckle at it" tone. But the amplified guitar of rock music came from black musicians in Chicago, got picked up and speeded up by poor Southern whites, people who were truly outside the bloated New York-Hollywood-Vegas factories. When that sound really became the amplified rock we know it was through working class English kids who (in some ways, anyway) had more in common with John Osborne and Tony Richardson than anyone in Hollywood.

It was a loud sound, as you say, but jagged, fast, and truly individual. No effort to impress us with production effects or "clever" Frank DeVol arrangements. I'd even say it was an aggressive alternative to the big slickness of the amusement factories. The factories tried to swallow it up but they really never got it. The nadir of Cole Porter's career came in in 1957 with The Ritz Roll and Rock in the movie version of Silk Stockings:

Rock and Roll is dead and gone,
Since the smart set took it on.
Because they found it much too tame,
They jazzed it up and changed the name,
Now all they do around the clock
is the Ritz Roll and Rock.

These fancy fops and fillies
Throw swell affairs,
And make those hick hillbillies
Look like squares.
(Lyrics approximate.)

It's like a keynote for all that would-be hip '60s crap: the desire of the "smart set" to believe they could capture or even outdo the raw, young stuff from outside their doors.

Yojimboen said...

X - I dunno if you know this book...

It's called "Musician" - it's the memoir of Lyn Murray, a not-hugely-famous composer/arranger in the biz.

It's about the most entertaining history ever done on that side of movie-making, with a superb tragi/comic autobiography thrown in. One of the high points is Mr. Murray's turning down Hitchcock (he had scored To Catch a Thief but was too busy to take on the offered Trouble With Harry) and so committed "the biggest professional mistake of my life..!" by introducing his pal Bernie Herrmann to Hitch.
If you haven't already read it, you should.

Gerard Jones said...

Psychedelia was a weird case. You're right that as a design aesthetic it comes straight from that plastic-industrial, shadowless, nuance-less '50s look. Pop Art came from the same place and moved the look along. But then LSD gave a new significance to bright colors and rapidly changing forms. And popular Hindu art with its bright flat colors jumped into the vogue via people like George Harrison. Making it easy for the Hollywood of the Batman TV show to try to embrace the "acid" aesthetic.

And yet, really, the "counter culture" barely embraced psychedelia, and only for a very short time. The real hippies were into earthy, muddy colors, and the urban rock kids liked their colors dark. The Beatles' flirtation with commercial psychedelia in Yellow Submarine was an anomaly. Psychedelia was ultimately more at home in Skidoo.

And when it died, it died good. The same as the pretenses of the Ritz Roll and Rock. I think you're right that the self-protective infantilism and over-control of Lucas and Spielberg is mostly about the next generation trying to avoid the embarrassment the '60s.

X. Trapnel said...

Gerald, I never forget my dialectics, but I do try to use them with subtlety, unlike our Marxist friends who declare whatever won't synthesize to be "epiphenomenal." The dominant marketing/cultural trend since WWII has been, I believe the top-down creation of homogenized mass taste on a mass scale, and thus to create desire for an easily manufactured cultural product. Ubiquity in the form of relentless advertising, publicity, and volume are intended to numb and stunt any aesthetic receptors that might crave something better (and thus harder to produce). Things that don't conform are culturally marginalized into the realm of the uncool or the evil (movie villains who listen to classical music). It's been a gradual process and many disparate cultural objects have been tossed into the mix and their "outsider" or "rebellious" or just plain quirky qualities quickly and easily smoothed away. Rock may have been or seemed rebellious, but this was for a very brief moment, it quickly became a cliche, a matter of attitudinizing and packaging and has been the establishment music for the last four decades as no form of popular music had ever been before. American Idol is its living graveyard. In the past musical tastes tended to be disparate and localized (Ira Gershwin once pointed out that he and George never had a "hit" as measured by sheet music or record sales). One reason (among so many) for the enduring fascination of the films we all love is the sheer uniqueness, quirkiness, and originality of personalities and acting styles. Actors now, even when they are talented seem, at least to me, interchangable (this is why we don't have Greenstreets, Lorres, Sanderses--they don't conform to television notions of reality). This is not to say that every product of mass pop culture is bad. There's always a lot of talent around and creative imagination will out.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, thanks for the tip on the Murray book. The bit about the cello-playing nuns reminds me of the famous Beecham story that has Sir Thomas chiding a lady cellist as follows: "Madam, you have a golden instrument between your legs; can you do nothing more than scratch it?" A great pity that David Raksin, a wonderful raconteur (and terrific composer) never wrote a memoir. I will forever reproach myself for not taking a day off work to go to Carl Fisher Music at Astor Pl. where he was signing a collection of piano arrangements of his music.

Gerard Jones said...

No question, X, that the machine has gotten very good at blending and smoothing out. And yet there are still quirky and localized musical styles. I've seen a few rise and fall in SF the past few decades. I think the musicians who can now avoid the big record companies entirely and build audiences over the internet are producing more.

I don't know that I'd call rock "rebellious" (a word I'm sure was attached to it by '50s hucksters trying to bring in the Rebel without a Cause crowd). But the styles that I'd lump together under the "rock" umbrella (electric blues, fast hillbilly, R&B, '60s rock, and then punk and related styles) had a good run of creativity outside the big marketing machines, including very distinctive personal and regional styles, from the late '40s until sometime around 1980. I won't compare any of it to the Gershwin brothers for subtlety or lyricism or intelligence, but I'd also never say it was created from the top down or homogenized.

No argument from me on modern Hollywood, alas.

Gerard Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerard Jones said...

Closer to what I'm trying to say: just as the Gershwins never had a "hit," and yet those of us who know them love them, the Violent Femmes never had a "hit" either (except one flukey sort of second-tier hit when they were just starting out). And yet they still produce strange and astonishing music that I could never mistake for anyone else's. I've never seen American Idol, and I don't know that it has anything to do with the new music I like. You just have to avoid the great monolith in the center and listen around the edges.

mndean said...

Like some, I've never seen American Idol - it seemed too much like the prepackaged teen idols that the major labels foisted on kids from the advent of rock and roll through the early '70s. In the old days, it worked and it didn't. The idols were initially popular, but tended to have fairly fleeting careers unless they could be put into films or television. I don't know any of the American Idol winners but I can't believe I missed much.

The music industry was much less a monolith and in many ways more crooked than was Hollywood, so I never really saw much of a resemblance between the two. Even through the '60s, there were literally hundreds of labels vying for air time to get on the pop charts. Most of the labels were regional and often run by colorful hustlers who were involved in the business in one end or another before running a label. Some genuinely loved the music they peddled and a few went into debt to make a go of it. Some were looking for an easy, big score and some even were looking for a way to launder ill-gotten gains. Back then, it was amazing how many individual styles could be found in what was at bottom fairly basic music.

Corporate music reared its head in the '70s, when major labels bought out competitors and finally learned how to tame the market and the bands. The music became prepackaged, bands became business entities and styles were picked up and dropped like fashion. It was like that for some time.

For reasons that never seemed too clear to me (it was a time I wasn't involved in music), the whole thing blew apart in the '90s. I think the technology got to where musicians could produce themselves without the great expense of studio time. The labels still control the charts and the radio, but the radio began mattering less and less as a medium for new music. Now all a group has to do is put a video on YouTube and they can get a following. You can then go to a venue and that band will have a CD ready to sell. I've heard plenty of these music acts. Some are interesting, most have not much to offer (and looks have become more important to music than musicianship on many levels) To me, the music scene is worse now, since there's no talent filter. I've had friends tell me I gotta listen to this new group on YouTube and I find that it's just some music that appealed to their eccentricities. It's good that there's less forced agreement, but I often wonder how much talent there is and how much ego. You wouldn't believe how much more ego your average musician has over your average actor, which is one of the reasons I liked being around actors more.

The old hustlers knew talent when they saw it and often gave talent a chance to make them money, but they're deader than the old Hollywood moguls. Now it seems we get either the wild west of independent production or the bleached-teeth grooming of AI.

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