There is probably no more discussed, written about, argued over and idolized film than “Citizen Kane”. What is amazing is that it has remained near the top of so many lists of the greatest films of all time, 80 years after it first appeared. The reasons are straightforward, “Kane” created the template that so many films that came after it also follow. The visuals are creative, the movie is shot from non-traditional perspectives in most of the scenes. The Edits are integrated into the story, they are not simply stopping places before the next scene. Film Noir owes a deep debt of gratitude to Gregg Toland who shot “Citizen Kane” like it was a noir story. The film also gave us Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to create unforgettable scores for a dozen iconic films.
Far be it from me to commit to trying a new take on the classic, this will simply be a few random observations that I made at my screening. To begin, if you were seeing this for the first time and watched the opening five minutes, you would think this was a horror film. It is possible that some could classify it that way, but most of us get past those trappings as the story plays out, although by the time of the conclusion, you may revert back to that original impression very easily.
The characters in the story appear at different ages and in various degrees of warmth or aggravation with the title character. The one exception that I noticed was Everett Sloane’s Mr. Bernstein, who somehow managed to roll with every mood that Charles Foster Kane went through, and still remained loyal to him. Maybe that would classify him as a sycophant, but after everything plays out, I thought he was the one character in the story who you could always feel sympathetic towards. Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland becomes a self righteous hypocrite, in spite of the fact that he is basically correct about his friend Kane. I hope that I hold no grudges so long that I could not reach out to a former friend near the end of their life and provide a small amount of solace by giving them a phone call.
When I went to the list of credits on the IMDB page, I was amazed at the number of actors listed as having participated in this film. They are uncredited in the film but the list is as long as your arm, it includes dancers, singers, reporters, and pedestrians. Everybody got to be a part of history. Ben Mankiewicz, the TCM Host who is also the grandson of the screenwriter, provided a brief introduction and coda for the Fathom presentation of the film. There was nothing particularly new in anything he had to say, but it did include a reference at one point to the David Fincher film from last year, with the notation that the film about the making of the film got twice as many Oscars as the film that inspired it.
Orson Wells accomplishment with this film was something incredible for the level of film experience that he had, which was basically none. Regardless of the controversies over the screenplay, the author of the film is pretty clear and you can see his imprint on every frame of the movie. “Citizen Kane” does not need me to recommend it, my only purpose is to remind you that it is out there, waiting for you to discover for the first time, or rediscover for your thirtieth time.
Do you ever sit down for a movie with a rush of excitement pumping through your chest? Have you ever broken your face from grinning from ear to ear? Have you ever been so happy that you gasp at, laugh at and cheer lines from the movie you are watching? If you have done none of these things I can confidently say you have not seen King Kong on the big screen. Another Fathom Event presented by TCM got me out of the house during this time of “Social Distancing” and although I am a little lightheaded, it’s not due to exposure to COVID-19, rather it is a result of being contaminated by this 87 year old treasure.
“King Kong” is a cultural touchstone for cinema fans. The groundbreaking special effects laid the groundwork for the kinds of fantasy films that we see today. The mix of animated articulated models, stop motion photography and rear projection. made it possible for the world to imagine the impossible and we have done so ever since. Kong continues to be a character in films but even more importantly, the concept of bringing our imagination to life has accelerated every decade, exponentially, ever since. Young audiences need to forget their prejudices about B&W films, old style acting and antique special effects. It is the heart of this movie that matters and the energy it imbues in a viewer should always be inspiring.
I get as caught up in the excitement of the film as Carl Denham does when he tries to convince Ann Darrow to join his expedition. He is the antithesis of Ian Malcolm. The devil with the natural world, he is going to subjugate it and exploit it and do so unashamedly. John Hammond is Carl Denham on tranquilizers. As the film moves along you can quickly understand why. We are in awe of the towering gate that the natives of Skull Island hide behind. We are amazed at the animals from the “dinosaur” family that we encounter, and we are terrified but also thrilled at the appearance of the majestic alpha of the island. Denham want to photograph the native ceremony, put Ann in a scene with Kong himself, and finally he gets the idea of capturing the beast and bringing him back to civilization.
The opening of the film in New York during the Great Depression is haunting with it’s sadness and desperation. It is also a nice time machine to let us see the world of that era. The electric lights that make up the ads around Time Square are dazzling today, much less 87 years ago. The women lining up at the shelter are haunting but not in the way that today’s homeless population is. The sexism of Jack Driscoll would have him tarred and feathered today, but even in 1933 it seems quaintly romantic. It’s not toxic masculinity, he has old fashioned thoughts but mostly in a desire to protect the female of the species. He is not a bad guy, just a product of his times.
“Kong” is of course the real star, and the combination of special effects and story make him a compelling character, even though he is a monster. You may sympathize with him occasionally, but then you watch him stomp on a native villager, or bite one of the sailors into pieces. Remember, he not only derails and crushes a carload of people on an elevated train, he grabs a sleeping women out of her bed in a high rise, and when he sees that she is not Ann, he simply tosses her away, twenty stories to the ground and death.
The music from Max Steiner innovativly creates suspense and character. It is not simply filler or background music, it is part of how the story is being told. The Overture goes for five minutes before the film starts and it gets you worked up for what is coming very effectively. This was a TCM Event so Ben Mankiewicz hosted and provided a nice into and brief exit for the film. The reason to go however id that you get to see The Eighth Wonder of the World in his natural habitat, a movie theater.
OK, yes, we went to see Lawrence again. I know this is getting a little redundant, but as I have said in the past, if you can see a movie you love on the big screen, jump at the chance. After all, life is short and you never know when the opportunity will arise again. We had planned on going to this Fathom event on Sunday, but after two late nights before and some planning of a birthday for the next day, we slid back into the Wednesday afternoon screening. This was the full roadshow presentation, with Overture and intermission. TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film with some details about the casting process. Apparently a lot of money was spent on a screen test of Albert Finney but he fell out. Marlon Brando never responded to offers and when O’Toole was tested, halfway thru the test, Lean stopped and felt he had found his star.
I always try to find a little something different to emphasize about a film that I have written about before. It has gotten tougher over the years, because of the number of times I have seen certain films [Jaws and Lawrence stand out, but you can add almost every Bond film as well], to find a new angle. As I was sitting in the theater and the lights had gone completely out for the overture (modern theaters don’t quite get it), I was immersed in the score without any other sensory data. That inspired me to try and pay particular attention to the sound design of the film and the music cues. “Lawrence” is a film that is noted for it’s visual sweep and rightly so. I think it is also true that it is aurally a majestic piece of work as well.
The Academy Award winning score by Maurice Jarre is noteworthy because of the familiar title theme, but there is so much more in this film that the music enhances. The familiar melody reoccurs of course but there are other sections of music that are quiet and contemplative or strident and martial. They are integrated into the action seamlessly in every scene in the movie. What is also well crafted by David Lean and Jarre is the absence of music in some sections. The desert at night is often quiet. When Lawrence is thinking about the idea of attacking Aqaba there is an ominous score but as they travel under the stars later, it is eerily quiet.
In past posts I have mentioned the sound of the creaking tent poles in Faisal’s tent as the wind moves over the structure. There are dozens of other moments where the sound is equally important. At the well, listen to the echo as Tafas tosses the goatskin receptacle down to gather up some water for he and Lawrence. The ominous silence foreshadows the visual scene that is about to take place. When Lawrence is singing out to the echo and it is being heard by Brighton, the effect is staggering at suggesting the distances at which they are communicating with one another. The sound of the camels and horses at Auda’s camp is like thunder rolling over the dunes. Train whistles and steamboat horns also jump out at times, creating the equivalent of an audio jump scare. The clanging of two ladles, hanging from the animal of the retreating Turkish troops, builds an anticipation of the bloodbath that is about to begin.
From the beginning of the film, sound swallows us up before there is any dialogue. Lawrence’s motorcycle revs up as he takes off from his starting point and it ratchets up and down as he cruises through the English countryside. Note however the distinct difference in sound when the vehicle travels over the rise and we hear a hushed spinning of the wheels rather than the engine roar we had before. Every step of this film had little moments of genius like that, and then Jarre’s music cue would top it off immaculately. Frankly, I could have sat in the theater in the dark and listened to the score on the sound system and been happy. My emotions can be easily manipulated with the right musical note. Once again, my whole body shuddered with delight at the artistry of the film makers when we go to intermission.
The original plan was to see “Kiss Me Deadly” and try to squeeze in a program called “Crackin’ Wise” and finish off the day with a nitrates screening of “Spellbound”. None of those three things happened. This was still a jam packed day and there were other programs to see that held all kinds of allure for me.
His Girl Friday
The first change of the day began before anything had really started. I was with my daughter and while we are not locked at the hip, I do enjoy taking in the films at the festival with her as much as possible. Although I wanted to keep a Noir thing going by seeing the Mickey Spillane based “Kiss Me Deadly”. I have seen it before however and missing it was not going to hurt that much. Amanda had not seen His Girl Friday before and that’s where she was headed so I chose to tag along. There was another reason I chose this, my friend Michael, who is a blogger here in Southern California, was going to see this and I hadn’t seen him in almost a year so this would be a good chance to catch up because he was going to see Rosalind Russel and Cary Grant as well.
Sure enough we caught up with him and we spent several screenings together for the rest of the festival.
Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel are great in this rapid fire remake of “The Front Page”. The switch in gender and relationship from the previous film works really well, and Ralph Bellamy gets pushed off as a third wheel in another picture that he stars in. Author Cari Beauchamp, an Academy Scholar and contributor to numerous publications, walked us through some background on the film and mentioned something that particularly interested me. The average person speaks at a rate of 120 to 150 words a minute, according to Beauchamp, Grant and Russel both exceed 200 words a minute in most of their scenes. Even with that active pace and shap direction, because of the two late nights in a row, I dozed in a couple of spots. I may have missed five to ten minutes of the film, fortunately, I’ve watched it a number of times. Amanda was very entertained by the whole thing.
Jaqueline Bisset was scheduled to appear at this which was one enticement to see this movie, but she had to cancel at the last minute for a family emergency. Host Eddie Muller was particularly disappointed, but vowed to try to get her on the program next year. [My suggestion is a screening of “The Deep”]. Miss Bisset however was not the main reason I wanted to see this screening. The car chase that begins and ends all car chases was the main draw. This looked like the movie that was going to have the biggest crowd at the festival, despite being perceived by many of the fans as outside the “classic” studio period. I had just seen a story on CBS Sunday Morning about the Mustang that was featured in the film.
Amanda also has the wits to recognize McQueen as the King of Cool. She dotes on him almost as much as her favorite, Robert Shaw (tomorrow). McQueen’s image was everywhere at the festival, including the “Essential” passes that we wore around our necks for admission to every Festival activity.
The sound design on this movie is tremendous and when the Charger and Mustang take over the streets of San Francisco, it is a wonder to behold and especially to hear. I saw “Bullitt” in it’s original theatrical release in 1968. My older brother Chris took me, it was playing with a long forgotten George Peppard film, “House of Cards”. I remember describing to my friends on the playground the violent shotgun killing of the witness, but especially detailing the car chase.
McQueen looks so cool in his turtleneck sweater and blazer, the sunglasses cap off the effect and you have an authority figure that the rebel generation of the 1960s can relate to.
An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women of Animation
This was flat out my favorite program at this years TCM Film Festival. The gathering of talent and history was incredible and the stories these women shared were fascinating insights into the world of animation, particularly at the Disney Studios.
Mindi Johnson introducing Ruthie Tompson
To begin with, author and animation historian Mindi Johnson, introduced us to Ruthie Tompson, who as a little girl was a model for the kids featured in Disney’s original Alice shorts, which mixed animation and live action, before Mickey Mouse. If you can do math, you will have figured out that Miss Tompson is not exactly a kid. Here she is in her 108 years of glory. She sounded great and made just a couple of remarks as an introduction to the rest of the program. She ended up going to work for Walt and did ink and paint on the first real Mickey Mouse short, “Plane Crazy” which was screened as part of the audio visual presentation put together by the host.
What followed that introduction was a long line of innovators in the animation arts. Mindi Johnson described the bungalows that the inkers worked in and showed us a variety of pictures that illustrated the labor intensive process that was required to get these cartoons in shape. When color entered into the scene in more abundant ways, the painting process became more complicated and the women who participated in putting these shorts together began to be designers in addition to the detailed ink work they did.
On the program, there were women who contributed to every Disney Feature Film ever released, including Pixar films and Roger Rabbit.
After the presentation, there was a book signing at the Roosevelt Hotel Lobby. Amanda and I scrambled over there, bought a beautiful copy of Mindi Johnson’s book, and then had it signed by all the women on the panel.
I frankly pity any animation fan who was not there for this wonderful look at the hidden history of outstanding women in the field.
Heaven Can Wait
We headed back to the Main Chinese theater and reconnected with Michael for our next screening, the comedy “Heaven Can Wait” which was nominated for nine Oscars in 1978, including the big one, but walked away with just the prize for set decoration. This film had Warren Beatty’s influence all over it. Three of the actors were nominated [including Beatty] and the film was co-directed by Beatty and Buck Henry , who was one of the guests for the presentation. We saw Henry last year at a screening of “The Graduate”, and he was a little more mobile then. This year he did not get out of his wheelchair. He was also a bit more cryptic and slow with his answers, but when he interjected a comment, the wit and sharpness are still there.
Ben Mankiewiczlead the discussion and Dyan Cannon, nominated for her role in the film, took the lead on most of the background, allowing Buck to participate when he was good and ready and not before.
This film is a loose remake of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was screened last year at the festival although I missed it. This was the 40th anniversary of the film, although Dyan Cannon did not want to acknowledge that, I know what she means, it just does not seem possible that it was that long ago.
The movie is a featherweight story of a heavenly mix up with some body swapping comedy and slapstick humor from Charles Grodin and Miss Cannon. Amanda had never seen it before and she enjoyed it while recognizing that it was largely a frothy entertainment from the decade of cinema that she most loves. Ben made mention of the fact that Cannon was at one time married to Festival favorite Cary grant, and she quikly volunteered that their love life was great. It was a big laugh and she does have a book coming which looks back on that time so that should be interesting.
The Big Lebowski
The one thing that could lure me away from the nitrate screening of “Spellbound” that was was originally planning on, was the last minute addition of Jeff Bridges to the line up of guests to talk about the Coen Brother’s stoner film noir. Lebowski is twenty years old this year, and I know many classic film fans would probably find it’s inclusion problematic because of it’s recent vintage. I did hear a few people complaining because there is a Fathom Screening in conjunction with TCM coming up later this year so maybe this showing was superfluous. Forget that, the movie is entertaining as hell and still completely weird. Which was pretty much a description of Jeff Bridges as well.
Just as Mel Brooks and William Friedkin had, Bridges barely sat during his time in front of the audience. He roamed the stage and actually lead us all in a Buddhist style chant before the interview actually began.
Eventually, Ben managed to corral him and get him to sit for some questions. It is probably well known that much of The Dudes” costuming came directly from Bridges own closet, including the sweater jacket that is so iconic. Bridges mentioned that co-star John Turturro was not quite sure that the film was something he thought much of, but after several years he has come around and it seems that it may be his most recognized part.
Bridges had very nice things to say about the late Ben Gazzara, who had been a contemporary of his father. Even though the subject might have called for it, and in California, the laws do not frown on it, I did not detect the scent of herb in the air. Bridges loopy conversation might suggest that he was taking advantage of the new policy, but I suspect he was mostly high from the warm reception he got from the crowd at the festival.
AFI says it’s the number 11 comedy of all time, I can find no reason to disagree. Mel Brooks first film is a slap stick like Affair with lecherous men, providing sexual gratification to little old ladies in exchange for their investment in Broadway shows. Gene Wilder is a timid book keeper who figures out a way to make money from a flop. So the search is on for the elements of a guaranteed failure.
Everyone remembers how great Zero Mostel and Wilder are in their parts. Special mention must go to Kenneth Mars as the deranged playwright. His morose Nazi, seeking redemption for der Fueher is comically tragic. No tragedy, just hilarity when Dick Shawn appears as the actor, supposedly destined for failure, who steals the play with his loopy line readings. He almost steals the movie as well.
Springtime for Hitler was a show stopper in the film, and I’m sure the number had a huge impact on the decision to turn the film into a Broadway musical. The film made from the musical play does not quite deliver the same goods, but I remember enjoying it anyway.
As usual, The TCMFF planned a great program for opening night. Before the screening, Leonardo DiCaprio came out and presented an award named after the late Robert Osbourne, to Martin Scorsese, for his efforts at preserving films. Both gave nice speeches, and Scorsese was particularly passionate regarding seeing films on the big screen.
Then Mel Brooks came out, supposedly to be interviewed, but he is a force of nature that cannot be contained. He basically riffed for twenty minutes on the background of the film and the actors. Host Ben Mankiewicz cold barely ask a question much less get a direct answer, but he knew that going in, he’s done this type of thing with Brooks before. At 91, Mel puts the rest of us to shame when it comes to energy.
So let’s see if we can get the whole day in on one post rather than spreading it out over several. Saturday is always a densely packed day at the TCMFF. It begins with one of the movies I treasure from my nostalgia bank. A comedy takeoff on my favorite film.
The Court Jester
The film features the clown prince of movie comedy from the 1940s and 50s, the amazing Danny Kaye. Like most people my age, I encountered this movie in reruns on Sunday afternoon movie programs. It is a brilliant take off on “robin Hood” and other swashbucklers.
The movie looks great on the big screen and this is one of the reasons I chose to see a movie I practically know by heart, because I have never seen it it a theater. The color bursts forth in amazing hues and the costumes look lush and detailed. The opening number with Kaye pretending to be The Black Fox and dancing with miniature versions of himself was a riot. The Foxes outfit was reproduced a dozen times for the diminutive actors playing the acrobatic troop that Hawkins once worked with. Captain Jean shows up in a similar outfit, tailored for a woman and with a slightly different color. This is the start of the little details that make a big screen viewing extra special.
The audience was full and host Illeana Douglas and guest Fred Willard shared their stories about seeing the film and loving Danny Kaye. Outside in line for the next film, I encountered a woman who had a myriad of tattoos, but her most recent ones were the focus of my attention. If you look closely you will see here on the wrist a Vessel with a Pestle, a Chalice from the Palace, and a Flagon with the figure of a dragon. She definitely is a fan. My fandom will not go so far as to paint my body, but I do have a full post on the film here. I think you will find the review and story there worth your trip.
The Awful Truth
This was a last minute call for me. I’d originally planned on seeing “The Last Picture Show” with director Peter Bogdonovicth , but I decided that since I’d seen it only a month earlier, I’d look for
something else. My daughter Amanda and I split up at this point and she headed off to see the 70’s classic while I queued up for a screwball comedy that I saw three decades or so before and had only a vague memory of.
This was a chance for me to sit with some of the TCM Party People I know from on-line. Kellee Pratt and her husband Gary were there as was Aurora from Citizen Screen. I saved a seat for my local blogging buddy Michael, and there were a dozen others from the group around us as well. Some of those folks were introduced to me and some were not but all of the group was friendly and full of anticipation. The excitement was completely understandable because this movie is a delight. As with most screwball films, the premise is a little far fetched and convoluted but once you accept that, everything falls into place. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are married couple who have some secrets that they keep from one another but they appear to be a little innocuous. Grant however lets his suspicions get the best of him and they pursue a divorce that neither of them really wants.
Ralph Bellamy plays the third wheel love interest who complicates the couples reunion. This is a part that he most have done in films a dozen times, including “His Girl Friday” where again his romantic proclivities are thwarted by Cary Grant. I’d just seen Grant in “North By Northwest” a few days ago, and It is amazing how great his range was. The picture at the top of this post was taken by TCM of the line for the film. If you look closely, you will see me giving the “Fight On” victory salute of my Trojan Family.
I saw this movie when it was first released and I thought it was hysterical but a bit of a thrown together piece of work. I must have watched bits and pieces of it over the years so that I knew it intimately. Watching the whole thing once more, it was much more coherent and professionally assembled than I remembered, although it was just as funny 38 years later.
Much of that credit belongs to the director Carl Reiner, who along with star and screenwriter Steve Martin, put together a series of loose sketches (much like they had done throughout their careers) to make a real movie. Reiner was present before the screening for a book signing that went on quite a while and caused a pretty big delay in the schedule. I was worried I’d not make it in time to get to the next film where I was scheduled to reconnect with Amanda.
Reiner was much like Mel Brooks was, full of stories and very funny. He does digress a bit into some political themes that are prevalent these days. One of the reasons I want to go to the festival is to get away from that subject matter and it was a little annoying. I was glad when he got the subject off his chest and went back to the film and his admiration of Steve Martin. Host Ben Mankiewicz, while interviewing him had a hard time understanding the baseball cap he had handy. The information that Reiner is not a Colorado Rockies fan, lead to realization that the hat logo had more to do with the guest than baseball. I’ll bet you figure it out faster than Ben did.
I was Mr. Reiner last year at the TCM FF talking about “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid“. At age 95, he has not lost his wit or enthusiasm for working. Apparently he has two other books coming out this year as well.
Best In Show
The least “classic” in terms of date released film I saw at the Festival was the most successful of the Christopher Guest directed improvisational films, “Best in Show”. I suspect some classic film fans would be wondering why this movie is included in the program. It is barely seventeen years old and hardly the sort of thing that would attract this audience. It was however not only well attended but completely booked and I don’t think anyone in the standby line got in.
Since the theme of the festival was comedy, it makes sense to have some of the funniest movies around included in your program. Since the Festival makes a great effort to add value to the screenings with special guests, this film really paid in spades because there were four actors from the film present to share some stories.
John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and Jim Piddock sat down front and spoke of the process that is used to put these ensemble films together and they reminisced about the making of the film. Poor Bob Balaban had such a sore throat that he could not speak, but he participated with notes that the host or one of the co-stars would read. It seems appropriate that he was the one with a wing down since it was also true when they made the film. He had a large footbrace on his leg the whole time that they were shooting and had to have his slacks altered so that he could hide the fact but still wear the piece. Piddock recalled how difficult it was to play straight man to Willard. He also noted that all of their work was basically done in an afternoon and that there were no dogs present at the location where they shot.
We had an interesting encounter with a woman in line for the next movie. She had been in the screeing with us and she and her friend were discussing the film while we waited to get back into the main Chinese theater. She hated the film, and I think she represents many of the fans who would have questioned it’s inclusion. However if you judge by the volume of laughter in the room and it’s frequency, the movie was a success with most of the crowd.
While it may not be from the studio era that most fans of TCM would use to define “classic film”, the rest of the world would certainly concede that this is at least a modern classic. “The Graduate” introduced Dustin Hoffman to the world and the themes of the movie reverberate throughout Hollywood for ten years after the film was released. As hard as it was for me to believe, my daughter had never seen it and I was anxious to get her take on the film.
The Simon and Garfunkel songs that are littered throughout the story are part of the soundtrack of we baby boomers lives. The opening sequence with Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, being moved without any effort on his part by the people conveyor at LAX, with the blank tile walls behind him, completely forecasts the characters story and ambivalence. Much has been written about the final shots and the tentative smiles and uncertainty on the actors faces, but if you ask me, this was the moment that Mike Nichols earned his Academy Award.
Screenwriter Buck Henry was the guest and his was one of the most interesting interviews of the weekend. Mr. Henry is eighty seven years old and not quite as spry as Carl Reiner or his old collaborator Mel Brooks. He was in fact in a wheelchair, but he did not appear to be infirm. As he was interviewed, there were times when he seemed indifferent to or confused by the questions, but just when you thought he was out of it, he usually made an insightful comment or quip, and I began to think he was really just toying with us.
The fact that Robert Redford walked away from the part as Nichols continued to try and interest him in it might be well known. Henry added to the story however by explaining that Redford’s reason given to the director was simple, he didn’t get it. He also shared a piece of info that I was unaware of , Murray Hamilton was a replacement for an actor who Nichols let go. The actor was very capable but Nichols simply did not think he could play “rich”. The actor was Gene Hackman, perhaps my very favorite actor ever. To me the bigger question was how he could play older. Hackman and Hoffman are pretty close to the same age and they shared rooms together at one point. Hackman moved on to “Bonnie and Clyde” which was not at all a bad trade for him.
The best part of the film came in the car on the ride home that night. I had the kind of discussion with my daughter that film fans always want to have. We had insights and disagreements and intelligent comments to make about a movie that inspired us. She has asked me several times what my favorite part of the festival was. I’ve not said it before but I will put it in writing right here. My favorite thing about this years TCM Film Festival was the forty minute ride home that night, talking to her about a great movie.
I could have warned host Ben Mankiewicz that his notes would be worthless when interviewing Mel Brooks. I had the pleasure just a couple of months ago of watching Brooks participate in a presentation of Blazing Saddles. The man is a force of nature that cannot be controlled. The twenty or so minutes that Brooks was given was filled with laughter and applause. He repeated some of the same stories he told two months ago, but he added some new ones. I especially enjoyed hearing about his revenge on Harry Cohn and the pleading that was done on his behalf to keep his job.
High Anxiety is a pastiche of Hitchcock films that touches on several more than a dozen of the master’s works or characters. I’ve heard it said that it is one of his lesser accomplishments, but since the story and jokes have to borrow from so many well known sources to begin with, it is a real achievement that it feels like a regular film and not a parody like one of the Airplane! or Naked Gun films.
The cast of this movie was packed with the funniest of actors from the 1970s. Madeline Kahn should have a statute somewhere to commemorate the day she entered our motion picture world. Her rendition of Hitch’s icy blonde is spot on. Cloris Leachman has no vanity to serve when it comes to getting the laughs. He marble mouthed mustached nurse, is a nightmare version of the nightmare that was Mrs. Danvers seventy years ago. Harvey Korman was funny in almost everything he did and his fussy, emasculated psychiatrist is a character that can safely sit next to his role in Blazing Saddles.
Finally, Mel Brooks turns in a wonderful comedic performance as a psychiatrist with a major hang up that probably accounts for why he chose the profession in the first place. Brooks looks great in 1977, and could pull off a leading man role without having a matinee star like face. The two high points of the film for him are the shower scene where he effectively stands in for Janet leigh, and a musical turn at the piano bar. Brooks sells the title song as if it were part of the Great American Songbook, but also as a comic tune that sets the stage for events in the movie. The theme of this years Festival was Comedy, and this was one of the many films I saw that had the audience reeling. Of course they did get a big appitiezer to start the meal off with.
Opening night at the TCM Film Festival was a double edged sword this evening. My plan had been to see the main event and then cruise down afterwards to see “The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)”. Something created a hangup, and the screening did not start until forty-five minutes past the scheduled time. The late start meant that if we stayed for the whole film, we would miss the Hitchcock film. A real bummer because at the last minute it was announced that Martin Scorsese was going to introduce the film. Amanda had never scene the whole of “In the Heat of the Night” so it seemed wrong to leave, plus once the film gets started, you don’t want to go anywhere. You get a chance to watch actors who are really good do what they do so well. Also, the guest list for the film is impressive.
Our host was TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, and his line up was amazing. Actress Lee Grant, who had been blacklisted and not worked for twelve years before this film, was there to talk about her experience. She was joined by the director Norman Jewison, who’s CV is about the length of your arm. The producer of the film, who won the Academy Award that year for Best Picture, is Walter Mirisch. He is ninety-six years old, and still amazingly engaged with the film business. If you loved a movie from the sixties or seventies, there is a good chance his name is attached to it somewhere. He mentioned that he has lunch every week with the man he considers his best friend, the star of this film Sidney Pointier. Mr. Pointier has voice issues so he could not participate in the discussion, so he just sat and watched the film from the row right in front of us.
Just on the other side of the aisle from us were Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who wrote the title song that was sung by Ray Charles. Their other musical collaborations are too long to even think about listing. Right behind them was actor Scott Wilson, who played the second suspect in the film. He is a personal favorite of mine because of his starring role in The Ninth Configuration among others. OK, now that the name dropping is over, let me share a little bit of what they shared.
Mirisch talked about his seventy year friendship with Poitier, and how the two of them found the property and spent a great deal of time developing it. The original treatment fixed a number of issues that the book had, but the screen writer had a job offer he could not turn down and he left the project to be replaced by Stirling Silliphant, who went on to win the Academy Award for best screenplay. Mirisch also told of how he negotiated the production cost of the film, based on the possibility that it would not play south of the Mason-Dixon line. He handicapped Director Jewison with a tight budget but a great script that they did not want to change. There was worry that the slap that Pointier gives to a white gentrified suspect might create race riots. Jewison regaled us with stories about how he and Rod Stieger worked out Chief Gillespie’s character. The gum Stieger chews in the film is almost a co-star.
Of course the film holds up well in spite of the progress we have made as a country. The raw racism shown so casually would certainly shock today’s younger viewers who would have a hard time seeing how blatant such prejudice was, not that long ago. The film is an important landmark in the transition from the Jim Crow attitudes of the day to more enlightened perspectives just a few years later. The murder mystery is a plot device to allow us to see racial tension boil over and remain in an undercurrent simultaneously. Pointier was also in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in the same year. He was the number one box office star, and it mattered that this film succeed as it did.
We got to walk the Red carpet before the movie, so for a brief moment, we felt like celebrities, but no one asked me “Who I was wearing?”
It was just two years ago that I went to a screening of “The Ten Commandments” at this same theater. That showing was not a Fathom event but rather part of a series AMC Theaters did that year running a whole variety of older movies. It was not particularly well attended in part I’m sure because of a lack of promotion. Today, I returned to the Red Sea with Charlton Heston and because the screening was a Fathom Event in conjunction with TCM, the theater was quite full. It was not a sell out but it was impressive for a Sunday afternoon screening of a sixty year old film.
Once again the film was spectacular, and although the special effects are six decades behind today’s digital technology, it still feels more than impressive. TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz pointed out that much of the exterior work was shot in Egypt and that there were enormous sets to complement the camera trickery that makes the city of Goshen appear so impressive and of course the parting of the Red Sea so notable. The photographic effect of the final plague on Egypt looked like God’s green fingers were coming from the sky and that the fog which clung to the ground was his breath, turning Ramses edict on itself and slaying the first born of Egypt while passing over the Israelites who marked their thresholds with lambs blood.
The style of the dialogue sometimes provoked a bit of laughter from the audience. Let’s face it, half of the time anyone says the name of Moses, they repeat it a second time in the script. The things that are most believable in the filming are the impressive use of the extras, especially in the Exodus scene itself. The geese, and goats and camels and cattle all interact in a very realistic way with the impressive cast of thousands. Still none of it would matter if Mr. Heston and Mr. Bryner were not convincing in their parts. While much more theatrical in nature than most of us are used to in acting today, both the leads are effective with their faces, body movements and voices. Both of them make large public pronouncements that would sound silly coming from today’s leaders but are sincere in the context of this film.
So many character actors are in the film that it is a wonder that they could keep them for as long as it took to shoot the film. I’ve heard it said that Edward G. Robinson was miscast in the movie but his slight NY accent did not seem to be a distraction to me. Vincent Price was suitably slimy and hearing John Carradine’s sonorous voice backing up Heston was a delight. The only performer who seemed slightly awkward at times was Anne Baxter, but her scenes near the end of the movie were far more effective than the love scenes in the first hour.
It’s Easter season so this film is a perennial and it made sense for TCM to schedule it during the Holy Week. If you are looking for some easy way to commemorate the Holiday, the nearly four hour investment in this movie is probably worth your time. It is also playing again this Wednesday, so play hooky and go, you will be glad you did.
In preparation for this Fathom Event, I went back to an excellent post written my my friend Michael for his own blog three years ago. “An Appreciation: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is well worth your time. There are nuances that I found really interesting and anybody who loves Butch and Sundance should love it. I also know that sitting somewhere on the other side of town, Michael was enjoying the same experience I was because there is no way he would miss an opportunity to see this wonderful film on the big screen.
I myself wrote about this film for the final post I did for “Fogs Movie Reviews“, a site that I contributed to for several months before its ultimate retirement. That post was about the three great Westerns of 1969. Today I am going to focus exclusively on the George Roy Hill film. As Ben Mankiewicz said in his intro to the film today, it was the biggest film of 1969.That was an understatement, it made over a hundred million dollars and that was more than twice as much as any other film made that year. I first saw the movie with my friend Don Hayes when his family took me with them to a drive-in theater to see the flick, that was probably late 1969 or early 1970.
The secret of the films success is so easy to identify after watching the movie again, that it surprises me. There are three essential ingredients that make this movie sing. First is the star pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In old Hollywood, they say you could feel the chemistry of stars in a film. Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Flynn and DeHavilland all had charisma together that made their films fly. Here is a match between same gendered co-stars that had the same effect. Their only other outing together is the Academy Award winning “The Sting“. That’s a pretty good track record for casting. From the opening sequence, the two of them showed perfect comic timing, playing off of one another’s facial expressions and body language. In the long sequence of the film where they are fleeing the pursuing super posse, they sweat and squirm and kibbutz with a real relationship that seems built on years together as outlaws. Mankiewicz mentioned some of the original choices for the film cast and I can’t imagine Jack Lemmon as Butch but I could see Steve McQueen as Sundance. Lucky for us that we had to wait for that Newman/McQueen flick until 1974.
The direction of George Roy Hill is another piece to the success of the film. Hill has managed a number of films with a nostalgic feel, including “The Sting” and “The Great Waldo Pepper”. He may not have been as stylish as other film directors but he had an eye and an ear that would let the past come to light and I think his creative use of music cues, sepia tones and timing of comic scenes accouts for a lot of the reasons that people can love this movie. The first five or ten minutes of the movie look like the nickelodeon feature that plays behind the titles. When the three main characters head off to Bolivia, they make a stop in NYC near the turn of the 20th century and the photo montage delivers enough information that we don’t need the extended film sequence that had to be condensed for reasons of studio politics. The lighting choices for most of the night scenes feel very distinctive from other films at the time. Of curse he was aided by Conrad Hall’s cinematography.
Finally, the most important ingredient in the whole concoction is the script by William Goldman. He had done extensive research, and for the spine of the story, the opening tag that declares “Most of What Follows is True” is mostly correct. Long time fans of “The Princess Bride” will be able to recognize the attitude of some of these characters. They are non-conformists with a wicked sense of humor and a streak of fatalism about them, for instance when Sundance turns his back on Butch as he kids that he is stealing Etta from him, he mutters “Take her”. That sounded like the Man in Black and Prince Humperdink all at once. Percy Garris mocking the two bandits turned payroll guards as Morons, is just priceless. Sheriff Bledsoe, played by Jeff Corey, speaks wisdom without the humor when he points out that times have changed and that the two outlaws have outlived their minor legend. Sundance complains about where they have landed in Bolivia, “this might be the garden spot of the whole country.” The gallows humor is abundant and it is one of the most wonderful things that Goldman contributed to the story. Goldman wrote in one of his books that this was one of two real life stories that he thought were instantly compelling and cinematic. Somehow they managed to neuter “The Ghost and the Darkness” but thank heavens this story was brought to life by the right set of artists.
The movie will be playing two more times this coming Wednesday, I can’t think of anything you might be doing that would be more enjoyable for two hours than taking in this film. Get thee to a TCM/Fathom participating theater and set yourself down for the best time to be had in 1969 and so far, 2016.