DAYS OF LETTERS

CELEBRITIES I HAVE KNOWN

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

When I was growing up Ginger was dancing.  Judy was singing.  And Vivien Leigh was outacting everybody.  And people wrote letters.

I have always had good luck hearing from celebrities.  Over the years I have composed and sent off dozens of admiring missives, some of them fan-atically adulatory.  And the ratio of response has been gratifying.

I have often been sparked to write during awards season.  I have seldom agreed with the Oscar choices made by voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.  The New York Film Critics, as the group was called at the time I am remembering, appeared to me to make the better choices.  They were the only other film award group attracting any considerable attention then.

I tended to write actors and actresses, and directors and photographers, whose work that year I had admired, if they had been ignored by the award givers or had seen the award go to another nominee.  That was when I wrote Jack Hawkins.

Jack Hawkins.  Hawkins in The Black Rose had been brusquely touching as Tristram Griffin who dearly loved his friend, and loved England even more.  I wrote Jack Hawkins, and he responded in ink.  His few words conveyed an unmistakable humility that was genuine.  He wrote an appreciative note, declaring himself “staggered and gratified,” that I thought him the best supporting actor of the year.  (The Black Rose, Henry Hathaway, 1950.)

Richard Hylton.  If any of my readers are not familiar with Richard Hylton, I hope you will find Lost Boundaries and watch him.  Made outside the studio system and one of the earliest American films to look at racism, Lost Boundaries is far from a complete success.  Gavin Lambert said it well:  “It cannot be said to betray its subject but is, rather, unequal to it.” (quoted in Halliwell)  But Hylton is impressive in a sensitive, wrenching performance.

In response to my letter Hylton sent a handwritten note and  —  to my surprise  —  an unrequested photograph, signed.

Hylton would make only three more films.  He took his own life at age 41.  (Lost Boundaries, Alfred Werker, 1949; Halls of Montezuma, Lewis Milestone, 1950; Fixed Bayonets!, Samuel Fuller 1951; The Pride of St. Louis, Harmon Jones, 1952.)

Joseph Wiseman.  I first experienced Joseph Wiseman on the New York stage.  In his first film he reprised his stage role in Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story (William Wyler, 1950).  My other favorites among his film portrayals are Viva Zapata!, Elia Kazan, 1952;  The Unforgiven, John Huston, 1960; The Happy Thieves, George Marshall, 1962.  He would confound me by eventually playing Dr. No.

I still possess the short letter he wrote me, in his own hand, to thank me for mine.  The scary guy’s brief words are touching and sincere.

Celebrities today seem to have caught our societal bug.  I no longer receive the rate of response to which I became accustomed.  In the last several years the only famous names who responded  —  and they responded right away  —  have been Alistair Cooke, Ginger Rogers and Tom Cruise.

NEXT FRIDAY POST September 29

Until then,
See you at the movies?
Rick

 

IN CLASS WITH THE GREAT DAVIS

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

The prof who brought her to speak to us  —  brought her to the UCLA campus in his own car  —  came into the room alone and told us that she was outside having a final cigarette.  He also told us  —  would she have killed him if she knew?  —  that she was “a little nervous”  about her first classroom appearance.

in Mr. Skeffington

He went outside and brought Bette Davis into us.  I was sitting in the fourth row of an eight-row classroom.  I was that close to the actress I had admired since my childhood, since the time when my mother and my aunts referred to Bette Davis movies as “deep pictures.”  In reality most of her films were melodramas lacking, as were most Hollywood films of the era, psychological sophistication or profundity.  I think that by deep, my family meant somber, with the possibility  —  rare then  —  of an unhappy ending.  But Bette Davis starred in some good films.  She was three times directed by William Wyler.  During her major creative years, 1936-1952, she certainly had overall, scripts of better quality than did Greta Garbo, who spent her entire career elevating hokum.  Of course Davis, too, did her share of making mediocre material watchable and interesting.  From her earliest screen appearances it is impossible NOT to watch Bette Davis once she enters a scene.

On this evening she was wearing a dark blue semi-formal dress.  She and our teacher sat in chairs on either side of the small desk at the front of the room.  She did not begin with a presentation.  He introduced the person who, for once, needed no introduction, then invited us to ask questions.

I remember her responses about four films.

Storm Center.  She displayed a bitterness about the fate of this film in which she played the town librarian who refused to remove a book from the library’s shelves when someone claimed that it promoted communistic ideas.  The Legion of Decency, at the time a powerful force on filmmaking and film distribution, had seen fit to give Storm Center a designation of “condemned,” a category usually reserved in that time for sexy French and Italian imports.  Storm Center, not that well received by critics, also did not perform well at the box office.  Rightly or wrongly, Davis blamed the Legion of Decency for the film’s failure.  “Once you get that Catholic rating…” she said, there was no chance of success.

Mark Harris in his book Five Came Back suggests that there were those in Hollywood who actively worked to punish Davis for her participation in the film and that this played a part in her difficulty finding roles in this crucial period of her career.   (Storm Center, Daniel Taradash, 1956.)

The Virgin Queen.  Davis was particularly interesting talking about this mid-fifties film which had a mixed critical success and was a box office failure.  I had always felt that she and the film were better than the conventional wisdom; and  —  lo!  —  she certainly agreed with me.  But she gave no indication that she regarded it as meeting less then her highest standards.  I would venture that she estimated it as equivalent to her Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).   She is not that good (the earlier outing is one of her outstanding performances).  Neither is the film, though its brilliant color is handsome, and it tries for a thorough sense of period.  Directed by Henry Koster, it features Richard Todd as Raleigh and Herbert Marshall as Leicester.  (The Virgin Queen, Henry Koster, 1955.)

Another Man’s Poison.  A student in our class remarked to her that she had often read that in her performance in Another Man’s Poison, Bette Davis had intended to parody her films and the kind of role she usually played.  She did not at first grasp the intent of the question; but  —  OH!  —  when she did:  When the questioner explained what she was asking, Davis said, “You mean making fun of my own work?  I would NEVER do such a thing.”  Another Man’s Poison, Irving Rapper, 1951.)

All About Eve.  Hearing the actress speak briefly about the famous Mankiewicz film, I became aware for the first time that performers had often not seen the completed versions of their films.  That is probably no longer true.  Davis was speaking to our group before VHS and DVD and streaming.  But I wonder if sometimes today this still happens  as I reflect on the fascination with which actors sometimes watch clips of their performances during award shows.  They appear sometimes to be discovering and learning.  It is only Barbra Streisand who can clearly be seen enthralled in admiration of her own work.

Bette Davis had been speaking to us of some of her films that she had never seen.  She then said that she had seen Eve.     “That is one I can sit through and never have to close my eyes.”  She said only that about the film, and it was enough.  (All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950.)

At another point in the evening one of the lesser lights in our class told Bette Davis that he was interested only in directing .  “How long might I have to work at a silly-assed job like editing before I get to direct?”  She was kinder than she might have been.  She first snapped:  “Editing is not a silly-assed job.”  Then she only said, “Editing can create a movie, it can make or break a film.”

When the session was over, without her having smiled once, our prof thanked her; and, with the great woman sitting right there, said:  “I think we would all prefer having heard honest pride to false modesty.”

See Rick’s Flicks post of 2/5/16 for a discussion of Bette Davis’ career, Rick’s Flicks’ choice of her greatest performances and choice for the single greatest one.

DAVIS QUOTE:  On turning down the role of Mrs. Dudgeon in The Devil’s Disciple, she said that after twenty-five years in the business and two Academy Awards, “I’m damned if I’ll play Kirk Douglas’s mother.”

NEXT FRIDAY POST September 15
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

REMARQUE’S EVERYSOLDIER IMMORTALIZED BY MILESTONE

All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone
1930
screenplay George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Dell Andrews
based on the novel by Eric Maria Remarque

Everyone remembers the last few feet of film in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front.  It reprises an earlier sequence when the soldiers we know march off, away from the camera.  Each, in his turn, looks back over his shoulder at us.  At the end we have seen most of them die, and we feel guilty, even about the less likable ones.

Watching the film again, the viewer finds the earlier sequence already heartbreaking.  We remember each of these young men, the lovable and the unlikable; and we know that almost all of them will die.

The opening sequence in the hometown of these German soldiers is masterful.  The sight of a most theatrical arch (part of the town plaz) is balanced by the filmic introduction of the characters and a graphic exposition.  The National Board of Review said at the time of the original release:  “A magnificent cinematic equivalent of the book…to Mr. Milestone goes the credit of effecting the similitude in united and dynamic picture terms.  The sound and image mediums blend as one, as a form of artistic expression that only the motion [picture] screen can give.”

Indeed credit must go as well to the writers who have done one of the screen’s most memorable jobs of adaptation  —  a magnificent achievement in adaptation.  The first half of Remarque’s novel is largely impressionistic and not particularly linear.  With flashbacks and visualizations of description, through selection and combining, the adapters created a continuous story suitable for its era’s audience while retaining an overwhelming sense of the war in which  —  and through which  —  all that we see occurs.

Milestone’s vigorous camera (photography by Arthur Edeson, editing by Milton Carruth and Edgar Adams) moves as few cameras in Hollywood were moving in 1930.  It captures the bombardment, the rattling machine guns, the rats, the rain that always drenches war, and the mud.  The number of the dead.  And the body parts.  The track channels the noise and noises of war.

Kimmerich’s Boots.  The dying Kimmerich’s good boots make a motif on film as on the page.  Müller lusts after them, and he will eventually pass them on.  Our Everyman Paul Baümer is present for Kimmmerich’s death and, leaving the hospital afterwards, launches joyously into a glad-to-be-alive run.  In what today appears a lapse, Paul, back in his barracks, delivers a monologue to one of his fellows explaining how he felt, telling us what we have already seen and know.  Was this verbalizing in the original silent footage (with extended titles) shot when All Quiet was planned as a silent film?  These thoughts he shares ARE in the novel and, as expressed in the film, let us know succinctly that he thought about sex, among other things.  This is psychologically sound, and how else convey it?  The clumsiness of it may be in part the fault of the acting.

The Girl on the Poster.  The continuing and forceful visual style of All Quiet is evident in the café scene where the soldiers have gathered to get drunk and look for women.  Our man Paul Baümer and buddy Albert Kropp sit at a table behind which is a poster featuring a soldier with his girl.  Kropp tears the soldier from the picture, leaving just the girl available for their fantasy intentions.  The action will be repeated later in the hospital where Kropp tears the leg he has lost from an earlier photo of himself before his wounding.  Actually neither Milestone nor the screen writers can be credited with the eloquent mutilation of the poster.  The action is Remarque’s, in his novel.  The later incident in the hospital is an inventive addition of the film.

A remarkable shot that everyone who has seen All Quiet remembers is that of grenade smoke clearing and revealing a pair of hands  —  only a pair of hands  — clinging to barbed wire.  This too is precisely described by Remarque in his remarkable book.

The Leaders in the Arena.  Three conversational bits in three different moments in the novel are gathered and combined by the screenwriters into the scene in the film in which the soldiers wonder why they are killing Frenchmen they have never met and can have nothing against.  This grows into one of All Quiet‘s memorable set pieces as the soldiers, talking together, decide that in future, national leaders angry with each other should fight out their disagreement personally face to face before an arena audience and let the better nation win.  In all my viewings of All Quiet, I have never sat with an audience that did not applaud this proposal.

The French Girls.  The scene with the French girls pleased its original pre-Code audience and surprised the late 40s-audience upon the film’s re-release.  Its eroticism seems mild enough today  —  nay, innocent.  Paul and two chums swim naked (this is 1930; we see the men only from the waist up) across a narrow river and approach the farm house where they are expected, bearing their clothes in front of them, much to the delight of the three French girls watching them from within.  After food and wine, the camera reveals the dining table in an empty room with scattered clothes, then settles on the open door of one room from which we hear Paul’s voice.  He speaks to the French girl of what this night will mean to him, an isolated night, away from war and death.

Why does the world love Paul Baümer?  Why did Americans love this German soldier such a short time after so devastating a war?  Lew Ayers’ stylized acting is discomfiting at times.  Yet we always like him and are always pulling for him.  We suffer with him when on his brief leave home he is alone and isolated as his acquaintances and even his family cannot grasp the horrors he knows and make their ignorant assumptions about his experiences.  He has lived only twenty years and is older than all of them.

This is not an actors’ film; and the theme and content, the photography and editing and the sounds of war on the track defeat the thespian shortcomings.  Remarque’s creation  —  Paul and his world  —  win, and win us.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Actor note:  In his supporting role as Kat, Second Company’s sergeant, Louis Wolheim creates a warm and enduring character.  This viewing of All Quiet on the Western Front appears to invalidate the smart-aleck evaluation of Wolheim in The Racket on Rick’s Flicks for 8/7/15.

NEXT FRIDAY POST September 1
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

RENOIR AT UCLA

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

MEANWHILE     –     back at UCLA

Hugh Gray brought Jean Renoir to us as well.  I sat in the third row of a small projection room.  I was that close to one of the world’s greatest living men.  And the great man was down-to-earth, close to self-deprecatory, but aware, I don’t doubt, of the timeless quality of his body of work.  Time proves him right about that.

THE SOUTHERNER, one of Renoir’s American films

He was generous in the question and answer session after he spoke.  We of course asked him about Grand Illusion  and Rules of the Game; but I easily recall the most surprising thing he said  —  that, for him, the most beautiful films ever created were the silent films of Hollywood in the twenties.  I am sorry now that I did not ask him if he meant to refer to Hollywood’s silent era in general of if by noting the twenties, he meant to exclude the films from the previous decade.

It must have been Arthur Ripley, our directing prof, who brought George Seaton to us as guest speaker.  (He twice won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay:  The Miracle on 34th Street and The Country Girl.)  Seaton was debonair, tailored and in manner sophisticatedly reserved.  I remember only one point that Seaton made, and I will be grateful if any of my readers can comment on it.  He spoke about music as background in film, something he considered crucial to successful film making.

writer/director George Seaton

He then said that almost any dramatic music  —  I do think he said almost  —  that almost any dramatic music will work with any dramatic scene; that if you play the music against a playing scene, the music and the scene will rise in tension together and dramatically merge and climax.

He really said that.

Comments?

NEXT Friday POST August 18

Until then,
See you OUT and AT the movies,
Rick

CIVIL WAR WITHIN THE CIVIL WAR

Razor-tongued Judith Crist, of national critical reputation at the time of the release of The Beguiled in 1976, wrote:  “A must for sadists and women-haters.”  Passing over whether that is an apt description of the earlier film with Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel, I am curious about how many of my readers would describe Sofia Coppola’s current version in the same way.

Under the firm yet delicate hand of Coppola, this Beguiled, from the novel by Thomas Cullinan  is a mood piece.  Pace and rhythm, atmosphere and setting, are  beautifully sustained and controlled.  If Nicole Kidman’s off-set comments are accurate  —  that Coppola captains a relaxed ship  —  the final edited result here is an impressive achievement.  (I remain confused about one aspect of the production design and/or the photography.  The backgrounds of the external shots invariably resemble still photographs  —  not process shots but stills.  They are consistent and fit the mood.  Was their intention beyond consistency and fitness?  I would enjoy hearing from readers about this also.)

The story is set in the Confederacy during the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school  —    currently two instructors (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) and four students.  They rescue and nurse back to health a wounded Union soldier, and the male presence among them surfaces repressions, rivalries and jealousies.  SPOILER ALERT:  They heal the captain’s wounded leg, but Miss Martha (Kidman with stalwart nursing skills) will eventually amputate it. Captain McBurney (Farrell)  —  though pathological in his fury  — is more fortunate than he realizes because this is a substitute Freudian amputation.

Elle Fanning is uncomfortably good as the most nubile of the students.  Dunst is pitch perfect in her special loneliness; Farrell is perfectly cast and always excellent; and Kidman is at her best in one of her most subtle performances.

A.O. Scoot in the New York Times describes The Beguiled as a comedy.  This is debatable, even in the limited sense in which he apparently intended.  But his description of the look of the film and of Coppola’s intent and achievement are both admirable:  “Mist and cannon smoke from a distant battlefield hang amid the Spanish moss.  The atmosphere is too genteel to be gothic, but it is haunted nonetheless, by intimations of disorder, lust and violence.”  And Sofia Coppola’s film “is less a hothouse flower than a bonsai garden,a work of cool, exquisite artifice that evokes wildness on a small, controlled scale.”  (New York Times, 6/23/17.)

The Beguiled                     The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola                       Don Siegel
2017                                      1976

NEXT FRIDAY POST August 11

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

1976

STRANGE THRESHOLD OR BEHIND THE DOOR FROM PETER LORRE

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

When I was a student at UCLA the perks included not just the regular experience of hearing Colin Young and Hugh Gray and Arthur Ripley as regular classroom instructors.  They were always bringing outstanding  —  nay!  THRILLING  —  guest speakers for us.

I was late for class the day Mr. Ripley brought Peter Lorre with him.  I could see through the open door that not a seat was left.  I was able to stand in such a way that our guest could not see me but I could see him.  Even from outside the room, though, his presence was still vivid.  From where I crouched, I seldom distinguished any of his words; but I could hear the buzzing nasal hum of an internationally recognizable voice.

The Speaker

Right there, before my squinting eyes, stood M, a redder-faced, heavier M, heavy but not sloppy, neat in an expensive gray suit.  I was looking at Ugarte, at Joel Cairo, at Julius O’Hara.

In those good and glamorous days at UCLA, Peter Lorre was the only speaker I had to hear from such an uncomfortable distance.  I was close to all the others, usually in intimate classroom settings  —  small classrooms.  Billy Wilder  —  when only three of us showed (!), and we had him all to ourselves; and he graciously gave us an hour and a half.  Bette Davis  —  in a small classroom.

Dalio in CASABLANCA (photo courtesy of reader dmg)

 

I can’t remember why Marcel Dalio was in town when prof Hugh Gray brought him to class to talk with us.  And blithering, often hungover youth that I was, I cannot now report much of what he said to us.  He was candid, unsentimental and quintessentially French relating anecdotes from the sets of Casablanca but especially The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion.

Coming Soon:  George Seaton.  Billy Wilder.  Jean Renoir.  And Bette Davis:  dynamite in a small classroom.

Coming Soon:  Farrell, Kidman and Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled.

Note:  Consult imdb for Arthur Ripley, Hugh Gray and Colin Young.

NEXT FRIDAY POST July 28

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

MORE DREAMS FROM THE FIELD

RECOMMENDED READING

In the June 18 Akron Beacon Journal Clint O’Connor interviews Akronite actor Dwier Brown who played the father in Field of Dreams and later wrote the book If You Build It  —  a Book About Fathers, Fate and Field of Dreams.  O’Connor’s article contains some good and useful information about the film; and, most importantly, O’Connor writes knowingly and sensitively of a film which treats the father/son motif as knowingly and sensitively as few films have.  (Clint O’Connor, “‘Field of Dreams’ Isn’t Just a Film.”  Akron Beacon Journal, 6/18/17).

Field of Dreams
Philip Alden (writer/director)
1989
based on the book Shoeless Joe by William P. Kinsella

  •          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *         *          *          *

On Thursday, June 22 in the Akron Beacon Journal Clint O’Connor appears again, this time interviewing Akron’s own (San Francisco’s own, cinema’s own) Kurtiss Hare.  In an illuminating full-page piece, O’Connor talks with Hare who, through the Nightlight Cinema, brings the best and most challenging of world cinema right to the door of northeast Ohio.

Akron Beacon Journalhttp://www.ohio.com

NEXT FRIDAY POST July 14
Until Bastille Day, then,
See you at the movies,
Rick