Friday, April 30, 2010

Spencer Tracy Gives an Oscar-winning Performance in Captains Courageous

capThere are times when I think Spencer Tracy would have been better off if he’d never been paired up with Katharine Hepburn in 1942, when they co-starred in Woman of the Year. Now I know there are many fans of this duo, which made nine films together. I, myself, enjoy many of their films. Yet, the problem I have with this pairing is that there are so many movie fans who don’t recognize (or know about) the great work Tracy did without Hepburn. For way too many, his career is overly defined by the work he did with her. This is a shame, because he gave some of his best performances without her. As a matter of fact, in his illustrious career he was nominated for nine Academy Awards (winning twice), and only one of these nominations, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, co-starred Hepburn. Perhaps this oversight is tied to their off-screen romance. Whatever the case, I wish more people appreciated his non-Hepburn films.

Captains Courageous is one of those non-Hepburn films in which Tracy gives an outstanding performance. He won his first Oscar playing Portuguese fisherman Manuel in this classic MGM film, directed by Victor Fleming. An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novel of the same name, the film garnered four Academy Award nominations (only winning Best Actor) and is considered one of cinema’s classic coming-of-age adventure stories.

a%20Victor%20Fleming%20Captains%20Courageous%20Spencer%20Tracy%20DVD%20PDVD_008 In the beginning of the film, spoiled rich boy Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) and his widowed, inattentive millionaire father (Melvyn Douglas) are aboard the Queen Anne and headed for Europe. Harvey is a world-class brat who thinks it’s okay to drink six ice cream sodas. Punished by the gods of the high seas for his childish gluttony, Harvey becomes nauseous and leans a little too far over the rail to spew the remnants of his tasty treat. Splash! Into the ocean goes Harvey and nobody seems to notice. His body is rescued by Manuel (Tracy), a Portuguese sailor working on an American fishing ship captained by Disko Troop (the great Lionel Barrymore). Evidently Harvey didn’t sustain a concussion, because when he wakes up he’s as pompous as ever. He demands that Captain Troop drop everything and turn the ship toward shore. Troop missed the memo that said Harvey is lord and master and so he tells the boy a foreign word—NO. Instead, Harvey is informed that he must spend the next three months aboard a ship inhabited by dead fish and unrefined sailors. Plus, he’s told he must work on the ship if he wants to eat. Oh, the inhumanity!

Put under the supervision of Manuel (who calls Harvey his little fish), Harvey refuses to do any work at all and shumovrf5ns the friendly overtures of Dan (Mickey Rooney), the captain's son. Once hunger kicks in, Harvey starts working in the ship galley. Over time, Harvey learns to perform various jobs and is eventually taught by Manuel how to fish. On one of their fishing trips in a skiff, Harvey fouls the line of other fisherman in order to catch a large halibut and win a contest. While Harvey is basking in the glow of success, Manuel is throwing the fish back in an effort to teach his little fish a lesson. This incident provokes an amazing result: Harvey actually feels ashamed and apologizes. From this point on, the salty, singing fisherman and the young would-be sailor form a bond. As a matter of fact, Harvey grows so fond of Manuel that he doesn’t want to be returned to his father.

PHOTO_7973871_66470_20197532_ap_320X240 Later, when the ship learns that a rival fishing ship is trying to beat them to port in an effort to get the best prices, Captain Troop decides they must make some bold moves. He orders the sails unfurled in dangerous weather conditions. Manuel volunteers for this task. Unfortunately the weather causes the mast to crack and Manuel is mortally wounded and trapped by the sails’ canvas and ropes in the water. In a heart-wrenching scene, it is decided that Manuel must be cut loose, sending him to the bottom of the sea to his death, This scene alone was most probably enough for Tracy to win the Oscar. His tearful goodbye to his little fish just break your heart. Bartholomew is also very moving in this scene. captains-courageous-end-title-still As a matter of fact, Bartholomew is exceedingly good for the remainder of the film. When the ship arrives at Gloucester, Harvey is reunited with his father. A moving memorial service is held for Manuel. It is here where the gulf between Mr. Cheyne and Harvey is closed. Mr. Cheyne sees that his son is no longer a spoiled brat, but a young man who has been profoundly changed by his experiences with Manuel.

Overall, this is a moving coming-of-age film. Tracy’s portrayal of the salt-of-the-earth (or sea in this case) Manuel is wonderful. Like many of his earlier roles, Tracy really develops this role into a memorable character. He gives Manuel many edges and does a good job of not over-playing his character into too much of a stereotype. In addition, Bartholomew is a delight to watch. Yes, his character is annoying in the beginning, but the personality change he undergoes throughout the film seem believable. It is not easy to go from one of the most-irritating brats in screen history to a child who makes your heart break by the end of the film. Of course, Bartholomew had an excellent, seasoned co-star to help him along this difficult path. It is a shame that this film is not as well-known as it should be.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Drunken Master: Jackie Chan Fights to Become a Film Star

In Drunken Master (1978), Jackie Chan is Wong Fei Hung, a young hellion who is constantly in trouble. Fed up with his son's behavior, Fei Hung's father sends him away to be trained by Beggar So (Yuen Siu Tien). Fei Hung considers this a punishment because, not only does the martial arts training require strenuous work, but Beggar So is well known for maiming his students! The young man manages to evade his master's grip, only to be disgraced in a fight with a proficient assassin (Hwang Jang Lee). Fei Hung returns to Beggar So to learn a style of martial arts known as the "Eight Drunken Immortals" so that he can redeem himself and regain his family's honor.

When Jackie Chan and his fellow students (his "brothers") completed Peking Opera school, it was not surprising that they had trouble finding work suited to their skills. After all, the focus of their studies was physical training and performance, which took precedence over academics. Eventually, Jackie and a few of his Peking Opera brothers (most famously, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah) found moderate success as stuntmen. All four of them came to work on movies showcasing the rising star, Bruce Lee.

Following Lee's untimely death and the release of his first starring American role, Enter the Dragon, in 1973, Bruce Lee became an international household name. Hong Kong and American audiences wanted to see more, but with Lee gone, studios had to look elsewhere. Unfortunately, the majority of these studio execs wanted to replace Lee, sometimes quite literally, by naming actors Bruce Li or Bruce Le. Other actors would simply attempt to replicate Lee's mannerisms (e.g., that wonderful face he would make when he was truly angered), or studios would cash in on old footage of the star, such as his short-lived TV series, The Green Hornet, being reedited into two feature length films (focusing on Lee, of course), The Green Hornet (1974) and Fury of the Dragon (1976).

When Jackie Chan finally moved from extra/stuntman/supporting player to starring role, he worked with director Lo Wei, who'd helmed Lee's hugely successful Hong Kong movies, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972). According to Chan, Lo took credit for at least some of Lee's success and resulting popularity. Not surprisingly, Lo wanted Chan to be another Bruce Lee (one of their early films together was the 1976 New Fist of Fury). Chan's resistance to emulating another actor led to many disagreements between star and director, and Lo blamed their string of disappointing box office results on Chan's stubbornness.

Chan, however, soon proved that he was not the reason for the failures. The very first time Chan was "loaned" to another studio, he and a young director named Yuen Woo-ping made Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), in which Chan was finally able to display his knack for comedy and stunningly choreographed fight sequences. Director Yuen, who also attended Peking Opera school, would achieve great success later as a filmmaker and action choreographer (and is, sadly, only known in the U.S. as the choreographer of the overrated The Matrix (1999) and Ang Lee's 2000 film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was a success, but it was Yuen and Chan's second picture together (filmed just a few months later), Drunken Master, that made Jackie Chan a star. Both films starred Yuen Woo-ping's father, Yuen Siu Tien. With these films began Chan's comic, kung fu style, as well as the injuries he would sustain in the years to come. In Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, the actor had his arm slashed open by a sword and one of his teeth knocked out, and he nearly lost an eye while filming Drunken Master.

The deal with Seasonal Films (the studio to which Chan was loaned) was only for two pictures, so the star went back to working with Lo Wei. When Chan tried to join the Golden Harvest studio, Lo reportedly attempted to involve triads (the Chinese crimi
nal organization, similar to the Mafia), which unfortunately controlled much of the Hong Kong film industry. The dispute was eventually settled, with the help of actor/director Jimmy Wang Yu. Chan's first film with Golden Harvest (and away from Lo Wei) was one that he co-wrote and directed, The Young Master, in 1980. It eclipsed the box office records held by Bruce Lee's movies. By the time Chan made Police Story in 1985, he was internationally famous.

Wong Fei Hung was an actual person, a legendary Chinese folk hero. He was a martial artist, a physician, and a teacher who dedicated his life to helping the poor and the weak (Chan referred to him as a "Chinese Robin Hood"). Before Chan first portrayed Wong in Drunken Master, Kwan Tak Hing had played the character in approximately 90 films. When he was around 75 years young, Kwan played Wong Fei Hung again in The Magnificent Butcher (1979) and Dreadnaught (1981), the former film which starred Chan's Peking Opera brother, Sammo Hung, and both films which were directed by Yuen Woo-ping and starred another of Chan's brothers, Yuen Biao. The "drunken boxing" which Chan displays in Drunken Master is Zui Quan, which, literally translated, means "drunken fist." It consists of the fighter utilizing movements giving the appearance of drunkenness. This form allows for fluid motions for attack and various distractions to confuse the opponent. Being drunk is not necessarily a prerequisite, but, as the film suggests, it helps considerably.

In 1991, Jet Li starred in his own series of Wong Fei Hung movies,
Once Upon a Time in China, directed by Tsui Hark. The star and director made two more films together, and Vincent Zhao took over the role in parts IV and V, the latter film which was also helmed by Tsui. Sammo Hung directed Li in the sixth installment, Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997). Chan performed the song for the closing credits of Once Upon a Time in China II (1992).

Sixteen years after Drunken Master, in 1994, Chan reprised Wong Fei Hung in Drunken Master II. The sequel not only surpassed the original, it's also one of Jackie Chan's greatest films, with splendid comic antics, thrilling fight sequences, and a scene-stealing Anita Mui. The movie was released theatrically in the States in 2000 (after a string of Chan's Hong Kong films were playing to great success on American screens) as The Legend of Drunken Master, cut, dubbed, and re-scored, which, sadly, was a fate that befell the majority of Hong Kong films in the U.S. However, even most Hong Kong DVD copies are either of poor quality, cut, or a combination thereof. Uncut versions really only have one additional sequence, which concludes the film and is, admittedly, a scene of rather paltry taste. Good quality copies of Drunken Master II with the final scene intact are rare and highly sought after commodities. I own such a copy, and yes, I'm bragging.

Random trivia: In this month's
Bond Is Forever, I'd mentioned Yuen Qiu, who had a small part in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), starring in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (2004) as the landlady. Her husband is played by Yuen Wah, who had attended Peking Opera school with Jackie Chan.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Bond Is Forever: "The Man with the Golden Gun"

Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), a professional assassin who sports a golden gun which houses only a single bullet, is such a proficient killer that he can demand one million dollars per hit. When it looks as if the hitman's next target is British agent, James Bond (Roger Moore), the spy travels to Macau to find the man who manufactured the gun's unique golden ammunition. It soon becomes clear that Scaramanga's ultimate purpose is the procurement of the solex agitator, a device for harnessing solar energy. Bond's mission takes him to Bangkok, Thailand, and eventually to Scaramanga's private island in China, where 007 has a showdown (actually, a duel) against the man with the golden gun.

There are two significant elements of The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) which reflect the times. One such element was the oil crisis of 1973, during which time countries were researching alternate sources of energy, e.g. solar. The other notable aspect o
f the movie is the focus on martial arts. The previous year, Bruce Lee starred in his first American film, Enter the Dragon, which sparked a U.S. interest in martial arts films (such as Lee's earlier Hong Kong films). Interestingly, Enter the Dragon has been accused of adding Bond ingredients into the plot. For example, the movie's main villain, Han (Shih Kien), has his own private island and a deadly artificial hand (a la Dr. No), and even cradles and strokes a cat (a la Blofeld). However, The Man with the Golden Gun is clearly inspired by the success of the Bruce Lee film, and Scaramanga's room of mirrors is undoubtedly a take on a similar sequence with Lee and Shih.

It is additionally worth noting that the aforementioned plot points were not taken from author and Bond creator Ian Fleming's novel of the same name. In fact, aside from the title, the villain's name, and the character of Mary Goodnight (who was actually Bond's secretary in a few of the books), the majority of the story was written strictly for the big screen. Fleming's novel was published posthumously in 1965 and differs drastically from other Bond books. There has been speculation that The Man with the Golden Gun was incomplete at the time of Fleming's death and was subsequently completed by one or more other authors.

After the release of The Man with the Golden Gun, producer Harry Saltzman, reportedly due to financial turmoil, sold his half of the rights to Danjaq, LLC (then Danjaq, S.A.), the parent company of EON Productions. His
wife died from cancer shortly afterwards, and Saltzman largely stayed out of the movie industry, co-producing two films based on the life of Vaslav Nijinsky (Nijinsky in 1980 and Time of the Gypsies in 1988). Albert "Cubby" Broccoli founded Danjaq and EON Productions with Saltzman (Danjaq was a combination of their wives' names, Dana Broccoli and Jacqueline Saltzman), but it was the latter man who initially secured the film rights to the James Bond character. (Broccoli had tried a few years earlier, but the deal fell through when Broccoli's then partner, Irving Allen, met with Ian Fleming in London -- as Broccoli cared for his sickly wife in the U.S. -- and supposedly told the author that his books were not "good enough for television.")

The Man with the Golden Gun is one of the more unpopular 007 outings, but the movie does have its strengths. First and foremost, Christopher Lee makes an indelible villain. He has incredible presence, which is why the actor remains one of the best Draculas to ever appear on screen. As Scaramanga, he mesmerizes, with a smile that is both attractive and potentially lethal. This is a man who has made a career out of murder, not just for monetary gain, but because he simply delights in it. Were it not for Lee's striking performance, Hervé Villechaize as Nick Nack, Scaramanga's resourceful (and equally deadly) assistant, may have stolen the film.

Villechaize, perhaps most famous as Tattoo on the TV series, Fantasy Island, plays Nick Nack with some humor, but he never overdoes it, and he proves a formidable opponent to Bond. Best of all, the film itself does not seem to be mocking little people (or "midgets," as they said 30+ years ago). In one scene, Nick Nack has the drop on 007 during a Thai boxing match. As Bond and Scaramanga talk, Nick Nack snacks on a bag of peanuts while keeping what looks to be a Derringer aimed at 007's back. The man does not even seem interested in the discussion, as he seemingly pays more attention to the fight. It's both amusing and tense, as Nick Nack's fortitude is never called into question, and Bond respects the man enough to not move until he knows that he is gone.

The film has been criticized for its comedic moments. But the comedy is not overbearing, and the movie is sincere when necessary, such as the majority of fights (e.g., Bond's scuffle with some men in a belly dancer's dressing room). Likewise, much of the tongue-in-cheek dialogue works, such as when 007 questions who would want him assassinated, and M (Bernard Lee) responds: "Jealous husbands, outraged chefs, humiliated tailors. The list is endless."

However, The Man with the Golden Gun is not without its flaws. One of the most superfluous characters from the previous year's Live and Let Die was the exasperating Louisiana sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), who makes an unwelcome return in this film. Once again, the sheriff's attempts at comic relief are a series of misfires. Similarly, director Guy Hamilton, who also helmed Live and Let Die, includes another boat chase, which, fortunately, is not as lengthy as the first time. The women in The Man with the Golden Gun are underutilized. Maud Adams has little to do as Andrea Anders (she would have a much more substantial role as the title character in 1983's Octopussy). Britt Ekland's Mary Goodnight is one of the most worthless of the Bond Girls. For every one thing she does that is helpful, Goodnight does two or more things which prove detrimental. As a for instance, Goodnight helps Bond track Andrea to a hotel, but the spy lost Andrea's trail only because Goodnight parked her car in front of his taxi.

While the movie's treatment of the varying cultures is respectful, it is conjointly puzzling. Bond receives assistance from Lieutenant Hip (Soon-Tek Oh), whom he meets in Hong Kong. Hip's ethnic background is unclear, but his nieces in Bangkok, Thailand, according to the lieutenant, have a father who runs a karate school. Since karate is a Japanese style of martial arts, this would insinuate that either Hip's brother or his brother-in-law is Japanese. Additionally, Bond encounters sumo wrestlers in Bangkok, and is later captured and taken to what appears to be a dojo, where the students are dressed in uniforms most often associated with Japanese martial arts of karate or judo. To add to the confusion, actor Oh is of Korean descent, and Yuen Qiu, who plays one of the nieces who may be Thai and/or have a Japanese father, is Chinese. Oh would go on to play recurring characters in various American TV shows, such as Magnum P.I., Hawaii Five-O, Charlie's Angels, and M*A*S*H. Thirty years after The Man with the Golden Gun, Yuen would win awards, nominations, and praise for her outstanding performance as the landlady in Stephen Chow's wonderful Kung Fu Hustle (2004).

In honor of Paul's weekly Trivia Time, here's a trivia question for anyone interested: What four distinct components are assembled to form Scaramanga's golden gun? (Hint: Each piece has its own function prior to assembly.)

I would love to hear what everyone thinks of Roger Moore's second go-round as Bond, James Bond. Even if you aren't fond of the film, I'd like to hear your thoughts on why you aren't a fan.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with GoldenEye (1995).

Monday, April 26, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 34

Trivia Time is being posted one day late due to Internet issues. I apologize for any inconvenience and thank you all for your patience! Next week we should be back to normal (I hope!).

Who Am I? We have made four films together, two for the same director. One of these films was the debut for the younger of the two of us. In addition, in one film we played brothers, and in another movie one of us played a priest and the other played a murderer. Who are we?

#1. Who were two of the best known movie brides of 1946? (Hint: one of them appeared in two films with the younger actor, and one film with the elder actor from the "Who are we?"s.)

#2. Who were the male and female stars in Deborah Kerr's first film?

#3. Name the film.

#4. What future Oscar-winning director was the Assistant Director (AD) on #3?

#5. Name four films starring Deborah Kerr and David Niven.

#6. Which of the films in #5 also starred the actress from #2?

#7. Who played Sir Thomas More's wife in Man for All Seasons?

#8. Who played Sir Thomas More's daughter in Man for All Seasons?

#9. What was the name of the Nobel-prize-winning trilogy that was the basis for a British mini-series in which the actress from #8 starred? Who was the author?

#10. Which actress played Ann Boleyn in Man for All Seasons?

Von Ryan's Express: The Other Great POW Escape Film of the 1960s

For 45 years now, The Great Escape has cast a long shadow over Von Ryan’s Express—so it’s about time someone shed some light on the lesser-known latter film. Released in 1965, just two years after The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express also tells the tale of a daring escape from a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp during World War II. While both films split their running times between scenes inside the camp and outside the fence (once the prisoners break out), the similarity ends there. For me, the most gripping scenes of The Great Escape involve the building of the tunnel. Conversely, Von Ryan’s Express takes off when the escaped prisoners hijack a German train.

The film opens in Italy in 1943 when an Italian unit captures downed American pilot Colonel Joseph L. Ryan (Frank Sinatra). When he arrives at the POW camp, Ryan finds a stubborn group of mostly British soldiers led by Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). The camp’s Italian commandant has mistreated the prisoners as punishment for their repeated escape attempts. As a result, the prisoners’ former commanding officer has died in a sweat box, malaria and scurvy are rampant, and food rations have been cut in half.

Although Ryan confesses he is a “ninety-day wonder” (commissioned as an officer after three months of training), he becomes the prisoners’ leader due to rank. After cautiously evaluating the situation, he cuts a deal with the Italians: the prisoners will cease all attempts to escape and, in return, all food, medicine, and clothes will be distributed to the men. Ryan’s actions don’t endear him to his new British subordinates, but he earns a measure of respect when he stands up to the Italian commandant after later being double-crossed.

The friction between Ryan and Fincham becomes a recurring element in the film. It comes to a head early when the prisoners awaken to find their Italian captors have abandoned the camp due to the impending approach of Allied forces. Still, buried deep behind enemy lines, the 400 prisoners must decide whether to stay at the camp (hoping Allies reach them before the Nazis) or try to reach safety on their own. The decisive Ryan chooses a course of action and the soldiers follow—thus setting into motion a nail-biting sequence of events that culminates in a stolen train speeding through Italy.

While Von Ryan’s Express nicely balances suspense, intense action sequences, and occasional humor, what elevates it above other World War II thrillers is the presence of a flawed hero. Ryan, for all of his good decisions, makes some awful ones, too—resulting in the deaths of some of his men. He makes the kinds of mistakes that the experienced Fincham would not. By the same token, though, Fincham lacks Ryan’s daring and innovation—traits that play a large part in the success of the prisoners’ escape.

Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard play off each other effectively. I think this is one of Sinatra’s best performances, along with The Manchurian Candidate and Suddenly. Sinatra displays the necessary bravado when Ryan makes a command decision, but he also subtly conveys the uncertainty that Ryan hides from Fincham and the others. Howard has a more straightforward role as the cynical, skeptical Fincham, but he brings conviction and believability to the part. Among the supporting cast, Edward Mulhare stands out as the chaplain, whose fluency in German leads to his impersonation of a German officer at a train station (maybe my favorite scene).

Lensed on location in Europe, Von Ryan’s Express makes excellent use of its budget, even to the point of recreating the POW camp. Versatile director Mark Robson, who helmed films ranging from Peyton Place to Phffft, paces the film perfectly and his experience as an editor (mostly for Val Lewton) is evident during the breathless climax. Jerry Goldsmith provides an outstanding music score that’s understated during the tense sequences and then rousing as it ends the film with a memorable march theme.

It’s interesting to note that Frank Sinatra insisted on changing the film’s original ending. I won’t spoil the climax, but believe that he made the right decision. It’s just one more reason to check out the marvelous Von Ryan’s Express. While it will never match the fame of The Great Escape and its iconic Steve McQueen motorcycle chase, Von Ryan’s Express deserves to rank alongside it as the best World War II action film of the 1960s.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Trivia Time Part 33 - The Answers

I'm posting this week's answers early. Good work Tom (don't drink to much), Gilby, and, yes, you too Rick. Here is what you missed.

#6. Copeland composed three scores for director Lewis Milestone: Of Mice & Men, The Red Pony, and North Star.

#7. The films are. Mission To Moscow (Warner Bros.); North Star (Samuel Goldwyn); and Song of Russia (MGM).

#8. Walter sang in the film North Star. The lyrics were by Ira Gershwin (no kidding).

#9. The Dana Andrews films are North Star and The Best Years of Our Lives.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro: Floating Flowers and a Slicing Sword

Sanjuro was my first foreign film, my first samurai film, and my first Kurosawa film. When I watched in it on PBS in the early 1970s, I’m not sure if I even knew who Akira Kurosawa was (but suspect I soon learned). I found Sanjuro charming, intriguing, and mesmerizing. Each time I watch it again, I’m reminded of that unique blend of qualities. Although I admire the more critically-acclaimed Kurosawa films such as The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress, none of them has toppled Sanjuro as my favorite.

The plot bares a passing resemblance to The Seven Samurai, in which a village hires down-on-their-luck samurai to protect them from marauding outlaws. In Sanjuro, a group of young men are joined by a wandering samurai in their quest to oust a corrupt official from power. Sanjuro Tsubaki (Mifune) is a reluctant hero, though. After eavesdropping on the young men discussing their village’s problems, he emerges only to offer advice (“They say outsiders can be good judges”). However, after learning that the youngsters can’t take care of themselves, he agrees to help.

The young men and the villain’s henchmen quickly learn that the disheveled, yawning, perpetually-scratching Sanjuro is a force to be reckoned with. Although a master swordsman capable of single-handedly defeating a horde of bad guys, Tsubaki’s greatest strength lies in his shrewdness. He uncovers that the “good” superintendent and the “bad” chamberlain are just the opposite—it’s the superintendent who has been taking graft and plotting a takeover.

Unlike many bloody samurai films, Sanjuro balances the swordplay with humor and charm. An old lady chastises the veteran warrior Tsubaki, warning him that “killing is a bad habit.” The cynical Tsubaki, who admits allegiance to no one, develops a fondness for the young men he’s helping.

Mifune has a field day in the title role. A film critic once pointed out that John Belushi’s “Saturday Night Live” samurai character was obviously patterned after Mifune’s performance in Sanjuro. He may be right; it’s hard to watch one and not think of the other. It also highlights that Mifune was a fine comedian as well as an action hero.

Kurosawa’s direction is seamless, flowing effortlessly from kinetic (as in the swordfights) to poetic (camelia blossoms flowing down a creek). The final showdown between Tsubaki and another samurai (whom he respects) is stunning in its efficiency and shock value.

I find it interesting that many of Kurosawa’s films have been adapted for American and European audiences. The Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven (and other films); Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars; George Lucas even says that Star Wars was inspired by The Hidden Fortress. But no one has remade Sanjuro—perhaps indicating that it truly is a one-of-kind samurai picture.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Errol Flynn Leads the Charge of the Light Brigade

In his second starring role, following the previous year’s Captain Blood, Errol Flynn cemented his claim to superstardom. His quick success owed much to his good looks, his natural charm (especially in the scenes with Oliva de Havilland), and his ability to portray a convincing leader. Audiences believed it when he asked men to follow him—even to their deaths—in this film, They Died With Their Boots On, and Rocky Mountain.

The Charge of the Light Brigade takes place in India in 1854 during the Crimean War between Russia and England (and other European countries). An unstable political situation becomes worse when England withdraws financial support from Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon), the influential leader of the Suristani tribesmen. Khan eventually pledges his allegiance to Russia and commits a ruthless act that sets into motion the charge of the film’s title.

Against this backdrop of war, Major Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) and his brother Perry (Patric Knowles) vie for the affections of Elsa Campbell (de Havilland). An early scene informs us (the audience) that Elsa, though engaged to Geoffrey, has secretly fallen in love with Perry. This knowledge causes us to empathize with Geoffrey as his emotions evolve from disbelief to anger to understanding. Geoffrey’s scenes with Elsa are all the more touching, because as he professes his love, we know she is consumed by guilt.

On the surface, The Charge of the Light Brigade comes across as a well-crafted action film with a love triangle subplot. But it also offers a subtle commentary on the military mind. At one point in the film, Vickers follows orders against his better judgment—because following orders is what officers do. The result is a bloody massacre that haunts Vickers and his men. When an opportunity for revenge arises later, Vickers chooses not to follow orders, an act that results in both tragedy and triumph.

Warner Brothers lavished high production values on The Charge of the Light Brigade, although it’s too bad it’s not in color. Max Steiner’s marching musical score is inspirational. The cast is top-notch (though Nigel Bruce is perhaps too silly for a Army colonel). And, under the sure hand of director Michael Curtiz, the climatic charge is impressive and exciting.

It was filmed in San Fernando Valley during cold temperatures. Both Errol Flynn and co-star David Niven describe the difficult production in their entertaining autobiographies My Wicked, Wicked Ways (Flynn) and Bring on the Empty Horses (Niven). The title of the latter book is attributed to Curtiz, who frequently shouted to the film crew to "bring on the empty horses" to portray the number of fallen lancers during the charge. Sadly, trip wires were used to cause the horses to stumble, which sometimes caused injuries so severe that the animals had to be killed. Humane societies, including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, sent formal complaints to Warner Bros., which ultimately resulted in measures to monitor animal scenes during film productions. Charge is one of the few Flynn hits never re-released by Warner Bros., largely because of the concern over the treatment of horses during the climatic charge.

Charge of the Light Brigade was the second of nine Flynn-de Havilland films. Ironically, Anita Louise was originally cast as the female lead and Olivia was a last minute replacement. Flynn and Patric Knowles would appear in three additional films together (Patric's biggest roles were probably in Charge and Four's a Crowd). Flynn and Niven reteamed again for The Dawn Patrol. Finally, although they famously didn't get along, Flynn and Curtiz made twelve films together, if one counts the Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Curious Bride (in which Flynn is the corpse and shown briefly in flashback).

In 1968, Tony Richardson (Tom Jones) directed another version of The Charge of the Light Brigade, which was not technically a remake. Though based on the same historical incident (and also borrowing the title of Alfred Tennyson's famous poem), it's an anti-war film with a satirical edge. Trevor Howard and David Hemmings were the stars. Though probably more accurate, I much prefer the Curtiz-Flynn version.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Jonny Quest: An Animated Action Series for the Young at Heart

Animated prime-time series were still a rarity on American television in 1964. The Flintstones was starting to wind down a successful six-year run. The Bugs Bunny Show and The Bullwinkle Show had enjoyed brief stints in prime time. The Jetsons lasted but one season in 1963. So, it was a bold move when Hanna-Barbera, who produced the Flintstones and Jetsons, set out to make a prime-time animated action series.

The studio’s original plan was to adapt the radio series Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy for TV. It enlisted comic book artist Doug Wildey to develop the show and give it a unique look. When the negotiations for the rights to Jack Armstrong stalled, Hanna-Barbera decided to create its own character: an 11-year-old boy who accompanied his scientist-father on adventures around the world. The young hero’s original name was Chip Baloo, but it was changed to the catchier—and more descriptive—Jonny Quest.

Though the original Jonny Quest series last just 26 episodes, it made a lasting impact on television animation. The key was that Wildey treated it like a live-action show. Characters didn’t fall from cliffs and bounce right back up with no injuries. The locations were sometimes exotic, but always realistic. The humor was natural, usually delivered by Jonny’s dog Bandit. The show’s terrific jazz score, composed by Hoyt Curtin, gave the series a unique sound (and perfectly accentuated the action). I even like how Jonny and his companions are introduced in the show’s credits, just as if they were real people.

Each character is concisely defined, which is essential in a half-hour action series where “character development time” is at a premium. Dr. Benton Quest, Jonny’s father, is a single parent who takes his son everyone (which is cool…but does place Jonny in dangerous situations). Hadji is an 11-year-old Indian orphan who is adopted by Dr. Quest (as shown via flashback in the episode “Calcutta Adventure”). Roger T. “Race” Bannon is the family’s bodyguard and a tutor to Jonny and Hadji. Finally, there is the aforementioned Quest family dog, Bandit, who gets into humorous trouble—but also rescues the family from some perilous situations.

The plots in Jonny Quest are an exciting mix of action with splashes of science fiction. In “Turu the Terrible,” the four adventurers encounters a prehistoric pteranodon that’s been trained to guard a mine containing a valuable ore. A circus acrobat-turned-thief poses as a gargoyle so he can steal a valuable formula in the atmospheric “House of the Seven Gargoyles.” The villainous Dr. Zin sends a nearly-indestructible, spider-like robot to spy on Dr. Quest’s experiments in the appropriately-titled “The Robot Spy.” Being an ensemble series, the “hero” varies depending on the episode. For example, in “The Robot Spy,” one of Dr. Quest’s inventions saves the day, while Jonny is the first one to spot a “living gargoyle” in “The House of the Seven Gargoyles.”

Without a large budget, Wildey had to limit the amount of animation in Jonny Quest. He maximized the use of static shots and moving backgrounds. And, as if to compensate for limited movement, he employed a rich palette of colors for drawing both characters (e.g., Jonny’s bright yellow blonde hair) and backgrounds (some of the night scenes are stunningly bathed in deep blue).

A young Tim Matheson provided the voice for Jonny. Matheson, who enjoyed a solid acting career in film and television, is probably best known as Otter in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Veteran voice actor Don Messick played Dr. Quest (in all but five episodes) and Bandit. If his canine sounds seem a little familiar, it may be because he also provided the “voice” for Scooby Doo and the Jetsons’ Astro!

There have numerous unsuccessful attempts at reviving the Jonny Quest franchise, starting with a new 13-episode series that ran as part of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera in 1986. The USA Network broadcast a made-for-TV movie called Jonny’s Golden Quest in 1993 and TNT showed a sequel called Jonny Quest vs. the Cyber Insects in 1995. The following year, TNT launched a short-lived series called The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, in which Jonny and Hadji were teenagers.

Every few years, there seems to be discussion of a live-action film version. In the meantime, one can enjoy the complete, original Jonny Quest series in glorious color on DVD.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

This Week's Poll: Who would you hire to clean up a rowdy Western town?

You've just been elected the mayor of South Bend, Texas--of course, no one ran against you. Why? Well, no one else wanted to be mayor of the rowdiest town west of the Mississippi! The bank is robbed every day. The stagecoach doesn't stop in South Bend anymore. The sheriff and his deputy joined Pike Magee's gang of cattle rustlers because the life insurance was better.

You've convinced what's left of the good townsfolk to contribute to a fund to hire a lawman to clean up the town and restore order. Who are you going to hire?  A federal marshal, a retired sheriff, a reformed gunfighter? Here are your nominees:

Will Kane (Gary Cooper, High Noon) - He has the experience and did more for the town of Hadleyville than it deserved. However, it might be hard to convince his wife Amy, who normally doesn't condone violence.

Shane (Alan Ladd) - He's quiet, but there's no doubt that he can shoot "a little bit." Only question is whether he's still available after the big gunfight with Riker and Wilson.

Paladin (Richard Boone, Have Gun--Will Travel) - He's expensive, but looks very imposing in that all-black outfit. Tries to reason with the baddies first, so there might be less bloodshed.

Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda, Warlock) - Blaisdell has the perfect experience, having been hired by the town of Warlock to clean it up. Only problem is that he and his crony tend to overstay their welcome.

The Stranger (Clint Eastwood, High Plains Drifter) - Experience is similar to Blaisdell's, but may have ulterior motives and appears to vanish as he rides away.

Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne, True Grit) - Sturdier than he looks, comes cheap, and gets the job done. But beware of his interest in bad sequels.

Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) - A potentially smart deal, because when you hire Wyatt, you apparently get his brothers and Doc Holliday, too.

There are plenty more lawmen and gunfighters who could handle this job, so please leave a comment if think a viable applicant was omitted. If you want to vote for one of the seven nominees above, cast your ballot in the green sidebar on the right.

Trivia Time - Part 33

Due to computer problems (hard drive crash), I may not respond as quickly as usual. My wife has kindly loaned me her Mac laptop (normally used to support a NASA mission) to do this post.

Who Am I? When handed a script written expressly for him, this person commented that it was the first script he had ever received that didn't have Gary Cooper's fingerprints on it. "When they can't get Coop, they come for me", he said. Who am I?

#1. What was the name of the film mentioned above?

#2. Who was the director?

#3. In the MGM film, The Heavenly Body, what was the name of the name of the observatory where William Powell worked?

#4. What was the big event that was supposed to be the crowning achievement of William Powell's character's career? Be specific.

#5. In The Heavenly Body, what were the four different ways of drinking vodka?

#6. Aaron Copeland composed the scores for three of this director's films. Name the director and the films.

#7. During World War II, President Roosevelt directed each of the major studios to create a "propaganda" film showing the plight of the Russians under the Nazi regime and depicting them as our friends and allies. Name the films from Warner Brothers, MGM and Samuel Goldwyn.

#8. In which film(s) did Walter Brennan actually sing? Who wrote the lyrics to the song(s)?

#9. In how many movies did Dana Andrews play a bombadier? Name the films.

#10. In the Preston Sturges film Hail the Conquering Hero, which Paramount film was advertised on a billboard at the railway station in the closing sequence?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Clark Gable Leads a Mutiny on the Bounty


In 1935 Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn had the great distinction of awarding the first “Oscar” for Best Picture (it was actually called Outstanding Production at that time) to MGM’s nautical classic Mutiny on the Bounty. His studio had no film nominated (which is difficult to believe since 12 films were up for the award), so he was just happy to be asked to the party. Anyway, between 1927-1934 the award wasn’t known as the “Oscar”, so technically this was the first Best Picture to win the “Oscar”—one of those tricky questions for you trivia buffs out there. It also holds the honor of being the first remake (1933’s In the Wake of the Bounty) to win Best Picture. In the end, the film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and only won one, but at least it won the biggest prize of all. Of course, they may have picked up the Best Actor award if it hadn’t been for the fact that the three male leads (Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone) were nominated against one another. I suppose Victor McLaglen was quite happy about this, because he took home the award for his performance in The Informer.

The screenplay was a monumental undertaking, as screenwriters Talbot Jennings, Carey Wilson and Jules Furthman were given the task of adapting the first two volumes of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s 1932 The Bounty Trilogy to the big screen. For the amount of story they had to work with, I think it is a miracle the movie was only 132 minutes long. Perhaps this is one of the reasons they were nominated for an Oscar (they lost out to The Informer, too!). There was an actual Mutiny on the Bounty, but, like most Hollywood films based on true stories, this was not a completely accurate retelling. For example, Captain Bligh wasn’t reprimanded in this incident but, in fact, promoted to Vice Admiral for his actions.

Director Frank Lloyd also picked up a nomination (he lost to John Ford, who, you guessed it!, directed The Informer—was there a conspiracy?) for heading MGM’s $2 million over-budget film. Good thing for Lloyd that it was also the top-earner of 1935, at $4.5 million. Of course, producers Irving Thalberg and Albert Lewin couldn’t complain since they signed off on a film primarily shot on location in Tahiti and Catalina Island. Perhaps Lloyd’s greatest accomplishment on this film was getting Clark Gable to shave off his cherished mustache.

Charles_Laughton_in_Mutiny_on_the_Bounty_trailer The story begins in 1787, aboard the H.M.S. Bounty, which is bound for the breadfruit capital of the world, Tahiti. Once there, the crew’s mission is to transport the cheap foodstuff to plantations in the West Indies. Charles Laughton gives one of his most memorable performances as the sadistic and abusive captain of the Bounty, Captain Bligh. Some genius at MGM thought Wallace Beery was the best actor for this role. Really? Wallace Beery better than Academy Award winner Charles Laughton? I hope someone got a promotion for averting this disaster. Anyway, before the ship can set off from Portsmouth, Captain Bligh has one bit of business to attend. A crew member must be flogged for violating a rule. The problem: he’s dead. No matter, he still must be flogged to send a message to the rest of the crew. Does the audience really Gableneed to know any more about Bligh? First Officer Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), who is used to working with this nutcase, tries his best to heed his captain’s orders while at the same time gaining the respect of the crew. This only infuriates Bligh more, which, in turn, causes him to do things that makes Christian grow to resent him. In addition to Fletcher, Midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), who is on his first cruise with Bligh, is astounded and shocked by the captain’s behavior.

By the time the ship lands in Tahiti, Fletcher is out of favor with Bligh and is not allowed to go ashore. Instead, Byam goes ashore and falls in love with the beautiful Tehani (Mrs. Marlon Brando, Movita Castaneda). Not wanting to hog all the beautiful island women, Byam concocts a plan to allow Fletcher to go ashore. Once there, he also falls in love with Maimiti (Mamo Clark), the granddaughter of the island chief. The crew spends six months in paradise and then, once they have got all the breadfruit they can carry, they must set off for the West Indies. Having led a carefree, happy existence on the island, the men soon become reacquainted with Captain Bligh’s strict 1935_clarkgable running of the ship. Some of the men can’t take it and decide to abandon ship and return to the beautiful Tahitian women. When they are captured, Bligh orders their flogging and demands that the ship’s very ill doctor, Dr. Bacchus (Dudley Digges), attend. What a clever last name for an alcoholic!!! Any way, Dr. Bacchus dies after leaving his bed to obey Bligh’s order. This causes Fletcher to break and he intervenes in the flogging and starts a mutiny. Bligh is tied to the mast and becomes the victim of countless insults from his crew. Luckily for him, Fletcher is an honorable man. 230px-Charles_laughton_mutiny_bounty_1 When the crew decides to kill him, Fletcher saves him and sets him and some of the non-mutineers out to sea in a small rowboat. Unfortunately for Byam, who doesn’t support the mutiny, there is not enough room for him in the boat. Put out to sea, Bligh swears vengeance and promises he will live to see every last mutineer hang. A master sailor (but a total SOB), Bligh does manage to travel the high seas over 3,500 miles to reach the East Indies.

Clark_gable_franchot_tone_mutiny_1 Meanwhile, the mutineers return to Tahiti, where both Fletcher and Byam marry their Tahitian beauties. And for a whole year, the crew lives in paradise. But then one unfortunate day the Pandora, commanded by one Captain Bligh, drops anchor in the Tahitian harbor. Fletcher leads the mutineers on an escape from the island with the Bounty, while Byam and five other men return to Bligh. As psycho as ever, Bligh charges them with mutiny and places them in irons. Crazy for vengeance, Bligh recklessly pursues the Bounty and wrecks his ship. Miraculously, those who survive this crash also survive another rowboat expedition and eventually make it back to England, where Byam faces court-martial and is sentenced to hang. At his hearing, Byam reveals the true nature of Captain Bligh and the cruelty of flogging as a punishment. In true Hollywood style, Byam is pardoned and allowed to return to service in the navy, while Captain Bligh’s behavior is denounced.

And what happened to Fletcher? He and his crew took the Bounty to Pitcairn Island and promptly crashed and burned it so no one could ever leave. No doubt after seeing this movie thousands of women went home and dreamt they were stranded on a deserted island with Clark Gable.

Overall, and enjoyable adventure story. The cinematography is pretty impressive, but I definitely think it would have been better shot in color. The acting is top-notch and Charles Laughton does a great job portraying one of the most vilest characters in screen history.

Starring Farley Granger

Starting with its showcase of Strangers on a Train on this week's edition of "The Essentials" (Sat., April 17, 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific), Turner Classic Movies will pay tribute to the films of Farley Granger. Strangers on a Train will be followed by They Live by Night (1949), Roseanna McCoy (1949), The North Star (1943) and Edge of Doom (1950).

Granger was discovered and signed by producer Sam Goldwyn while still in high school and was quickly cycled into The North Star. Though he was groomed for a career in Hollywood, his first love was the theater and he eventually bought out his contract with Goldwyn so that he could pursue a career on Broadway.

In 1986 Granger won and Obie Award for his performance in Talley & Son.

Though he made a number of films, Granger considers only three of them top-quality: They Live by Night, Strangers on a Train and Luchino Visconti's Senso (1954) with Alida Valli - considered by many to be his finest performance.

The upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival will present a recently (and laboriously) restored version of Senso. The film's U.S. premiere was a highlight of the festival's inaugural year in 1957...and I am thrilled to report that I have tickets to the festival's screening of Senso on May 2 at the Castro Theater.

A recent photo of Farley Granger

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Airwolf Whirls into Action

Airwolf, which aired from 1984-87, was one of my favorite action TV shows. I looked forward to every episode with excitement. It ran for four seasons with 79 episodes. Series creator Donald Bellisario did an episode for Magnum P. I. entitled “The Birds of a Feather” in 1983, hoping the idea would sell as the pilot for Airwolf. It wasn’t picked up by any network, so Bellisario made some revisions and shot another pilot that was broadcast as a two-part Airwolf in January 1984.

The stars of Airwolf were Jan-Michael Vincent, Ernest Borgnine and Alex Cord. Jan-Michael Vincent had been in movies for many years. His wholesome American good looks led to his discovery as an actor. He guest starred in many television episodes and appeared in movies such as The Mechanic (1972) with Charles Bronson, White Line Fever (1975), and the miniseries The Winds of War (1983). His outstanding performance in The Winds of War won him the leading role in Airwolf. Ernest Borgnine’s acting career took off when he portrayed Sgt. “Fatso” Judson in From Here to Eternity (1953), and he is still acting today. Alex Cord guest starred in many television series. However, it was the movie Synanon (1965) in which he played a dope addict that brought him notice. I saw him portray the murderer in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Tell Tale Heart in 1971 with Sam Jaffe as the old man. His performance was excellent and one I will always remember.

Airwolf was the code name of a high-tech military helicopter created for the United States. It was capable of flying half-way around the world and could out run jet planes. It was loaded with a computer system that practically controlled the aircraft. It was designed for three pilots to control it; however, it could be controlled by only two. One pilot would control the aircraft while the other one could see anything on radar, identify approaching aircraft, and initiate an array of various cool weapons. One character described Airwolf as a “mach one class chopper that can kick butt”—which is an accurate description.

The series pilot “Shadow of the Hawke” explains that Airwolf was designed by Dr. Charles Moffet (David Hemmings). While demonstrating the helicopter for the military, he suddenly blows up the entire military installation and steals Airwolf. Moffett decides to use the aircraft for mercenary reasons, but he is a cruel man and doesn’t want money from other governments. Instead his fee for using Airwolf is so he can pick women of his choice to torture and murder.

Alex Cord plays a man who works for an organization called The Firm. His name is Michael Coldsmith Briggs III, but his codename is Archangel (he wears glasses with a patch over the left eye lens, uses a cane, and wears a white suit...symbolizing an angel!). Archangel goes to see Stringfellow Hawke (I just love that name), who flew Airwolf as a test pilot. He wants him to find the helicopter and return it to the government. The problem is that Hawke is a recluse who lives in the mountains in a cabin by a lake with his dog, Tet. He likes living alone and doesn’t want to help Archangel, who shows up at his cabin with a young woman who is an agent. Hawke’s character is fascinating. He parents died in a boating accident on the lake. He inherited the cabin from his grandfather who collected famous paintings as a gift for his grandmother. He even serenades an eagle playing a cello in a chair on his dock.

Stringfellow had a brother named St. John (pronounced “Sinjin”), who flew helicopters in Vietnam with him. Their helicopter was shot down and only String was rescued. St. John has been listed as an MIA for fourteen years. Hawke has lost everyone he loved and is very depressed. He has only one friend, Dominic Santin, played by Ernest Borgnine who runs a helicopter stunt service for movies. Hawke is his main stunt pilot. Dominic raised Stringfellow and St. John after their parents died. Hawke finally agrees to go on the mission to retrieve the helicopter from Dr. Moffet and return it to the United States military. Archangel offers him a million dollars, but Hawke is not interested in the money. He wants the government to find his MIA brother. Archangel agrees to Hawke’s demands.

Naturally, Hawke falls in love with the female agent Archangel has brought with him. When she gets into trouble, Hawke steals Airwolf and goes after her. In the end of the pilot, Hawke decides to keep Airwolf to blackmail the government into helping him find his brother. He hides the helicopter in the desert in a unique place. Archangel recruits Hawke into helping The Firm on secret missions. Archangel does not want any government to know about Airwolf nor is Hawke to be associated with the government in any way. Hawke agrees to do so. Every week, he goes on a mission to other counties to help the organization keep America safe.

The first season of Airwolf is rather dark because Hawke is a man who prefers his peace in his cabin. During the second season, the show was changed to lighten the stories to make it more family-oriented. Jean Bruce Scott was added to the series as Caitlin O’Shannessy, a pilot in Santini’s helicopter business. She was on the show for two years. The fourth season was terrible because the entire cast was completely written out of the show. Hawke quits, Dominic is killed, Archangel is reassigned, and Caitlin is just gone. Hawke’s brother (Barry Van Dyke), who turns out to be alive and has been secretly working for the government, becomes the leading character. The fourth season was the last one. I watched three episodes and decided I didn’t like it.

I loved the first three seasons Airwolf. The series featured excellent action scenes and Vincent’s interesting character always made it entertaining. Jan-Michael Vincent has always been one of my favorite actors. His life has been a hard one. He was in a car accident, which permanently damaged his voice, and also has battled alcoholism. He is doing better now and has retired from acting.

The helicopter used as Airwolf was sold after the show. It was used as an ambulance helicopter in Germany. During a thunderstorm in 1992, it crashed and, sadly, all three crew members were killed.