As a precursor to our film project, 12 Western Feature-Length Films in 12 Months, produced by our company Running Wild Films and 5J Media which will begin production in 2016, I have decided to share my thoughts on films from the genre as I study Westerns in preparation to make our own.
This series of short blogs is titled “Western Impressions”.
Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
It wasn’t what I expected. Sharp’s writing is there but overshadowed by a sentimental and overabundant need to question the “Apache’s” intention. Aldrich’s tough cinema isn’t quite as tough as I always hoped it would be. The best part was the end, Lancaster under a wagon, getting shot and shooting Apaches and wanting to just die out in the desert.
Lasting impression: The final shot of Lancaster licking the cigarette paper.
With my newest video blogs, I compare both versions of The Killers and also the original and remake of Cape Fear.
Some brief notes on: Frank Sinatra, Sandra Bullock and Deborah Kerr
Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998)
We of a certain age all grew up with Frank Sinatra. At least his music. He came after Bing Crosby and somehow somewhere in the late 1950s surpassed him as America’s most popular singer. By this time he had gone through several highs and lows that had not only deepened and matured him but left a residue of anger and bitterness as well. It was during this period that he recorded so many of his classic albums with Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins. Now he had been in movies for nearly a decade already but it wasn’t until his famous “comeback” in From Here to Eternity (1953) that anyone ever paid much attention to Sinatra the actor. But even earlier Frank was beginning to show his chops as an actor in films like Meet Danny Wilson (1952). And after his Oscar winning performance as Best Supporting Actor he quickly moved into playing dramatic leading roles with such distinction that Elia Kazan, arguably the best director of actors in America, selected him for the lead in On the Waterfront (1954) when Marlon Brando at first refused to play the role. Later when Brando changed his mind and accepted, the film’s producer Sam Spiegel had to financially settle with Sinatra out of court. My point being that Elia Kazan in selecting Sinatra was indicating how high in his esteem Frank was as an actor. Right up there next to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift who were then thought of as America’s finest.
I feel that this estimation is correct. At the time Sinatra was among America’s finest dramatic actors in the movies. One only has to revisit films like Suddenly (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Joker is Wild (1957), Some Came Running (1958) and of course The Manchurian Candidate (1962) which he also produced. But his skill was not just relegated to dramas he was as good at comedy in films like The Tender Trap (1955) and one of my favorites Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head (1959). Then came the “Rat Pack” when he seemed to be mostly playing host to his friends rather than acting a role that he started giving lazy uninteresting performances. Apparently, for some reason he became bored and decided not to try anymore. (Note: Marlon Brando seemed to have fallen victim of the same malaise as well.) But at his best very few could match him. Today he is legendary as a singer/ interpreter of songs but he was also an actor of rare power and range. I would say unequivocally the best singer turned actor in the history of motion pictures.
She won the Academy Award as Best Actress in 2009 for The Blind Side but I still contend that she is an underrated dramatic actress whose skills have still not been fully appreciated. I have felt this way since films like Murder by Numbers (2002. It wasn’t much of a picture but she was terrific in it. Also Crash (2004), Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) and the Truman Capote film that nobody saw Infamous (2006). She plays in that one Harper Lee and does a very good job at it. Truthfully I liked this film a lot better than the more celebrated and critically acclaimed Capote that came out earlier the same year. And I sometimes wonder if the release dates on the films had been reversed would both the critical and box office response been the same.
Sandra Bullock came to the public awareness as the spunky young woman who drives the bus in the hit film Speed (1994). Everyone was won over by her energy, quick wittedness and sense of humor in that role and she quickly became type cast as that kind of character. But via other roles that she played I could tell that behind the winning smile and tough girl vulnerability there was an intelligent, sophisticated woman who had been through some of the rough patches of life and was drawing on some of that in her acting. And no, I’m not referring to the tabloid stories about her recent breakup and divorce. This was before all that. There had always been a edginess to her performances that was dramatically surprising and sometimes bracing too. Even in things like the popular Miss Congeniality (2000) it can be spotted. But my favorite role and performance by her thus far is in the film 28 Days (2000). Again nobody saw it. At least nobody I knew and I can’t think of seeing any review that praised or even acknowledged it. Portraying alcoholism is a very difficult task. Nick Cage[O1] nailed it in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and so did Ms. Bullock in 28 Days. Nailed it better than just about anyone in recent memory.
We have a tendency to mentally type cast actors in our minds and not support their efforts to change or expand their range. Hopefully this won’t happen with Ms. Bullock and she will get the opportunity to show us how much more she is capable of. I say this knowing that dramatic stories in movies are a rarity these days. Cable TV seems to be the outlet for these types of stories. But wherever Sandra Bullock has the chops let’s let her show them.
Deborah Kerr (1921- 2007)
Deborah Kerr was one of the great ladies of cinema. An actress of superior skills who also had poise, understated good looks and a quiet presence that complimented every male co star she appeared with. She was one of those women who didn’t have to compete with the male in order to be his equal. And co starred with just about every big male star of her time. Clark Gable (The Hucksters -1947), Robert Taylor ( Quo Vadis- 1951), Stewart Granger (King Solomon’s Mines-1950), Burt Lancaster ( From Here to Eternity – 1953), Robert Mitchum ( Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – 1957), Cary Grant ( An Affair to Remember – 1957),Gregory Peck (Beloved Infidel – 1959), Frank Sinatra ( Marriage on the Rocks- 1965),Gary Cooper ( The Naked Edge – 1961), Kirk Douglas ( The Arrangement – 1969), David Niven (Separate Tables -1958), Van Johnson (End of the Affair – 1955), James Mason ( Julius Caesar – 1953)and with Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956.She became famous for two iconic roles. The troubled wife in From Here to Eternity (particularly for the beach scene) and as the school teacher Anna Leonowens in the musical The King and I although she didn’t sing. Marni Nixon dubbed the musical numbers. She was also an actress of nearly all genres as well, appearing in Costume epics (Quo Vadis),Mysteries ( The Naked Edge), Classics ( Julius Caesar), Historicals ( Young Bess- 1952), Horror ( The Innocents – 1961), War stories (The Journey), Melodramas (The Arrangement), Musicals ( King and I),Comedies ( The Grass is Greener- 1960) a near western ( The Sundowners – 1960), Adventure ( King Solomon’s Mines), Biographical ( Beloved Infidel ), and multiple play adaptations as well. In fact the only genre she seems to have missed completely was science fiction.
She was nominated for the Academy Award six times but never received a competitive award. She was given an honorary award in 1994 for the excellence of her career overall.
I met Ms. Kerr in 1954 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands when she was filming The Proud and the Profane and remember her to be everything she seemed to be on screen. Gentle, thoughtful, considerate and very refined. I had met the entire cast of the film and interviewed most of the principals for the radio station I interned at. I was fifteen at the time and totally in awe of them all. I remember Ms. Kerr as being very approachable and easy to interview. But my most memorable encounter with her occurred a week later when I was going home from school. This was around two in the afternoon and they were filming at the central market place one block away from my school. A crowd had gathered to see what they were doing. So I joined the crowd behind the ropes to look at things too. I watched them do two takes and then break for another setup. As she was heading to her trailer dressing room Ms. Kerr looked over and saw me near the front. She quickly walked over, called my name and bid me to step under the rope and join her. I did and she invited me into her dressing room where we talked about the scene that had just been shot and how movies in general were made. When she was called for the next scene she invited me to sit on her chair so I could more closely see what was going on. I can’t tell you how special that made me feel. And to this day I still look back on it as one of the nicest days of my life. Years later I went to see her on Broadway in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Seascape. After the show I sent a note back stage sort of reminding her of that day in St. Thomas and thanking her for her kindness. I gave it to the guy at the stage door exit for delivery. I never heard from her but I hope she got it.
All this is to say that, from my point of view, Deborah Kerr was not just a great actress on stage and on screen. She was also a very lovely person as well.
Desert Island Movie # 4 Trapeze
Outside of using them as a backdrop for horror films they don’t make circus movies anymore. Yet there was a time when they made them so frequently that it almost amounted to a sub genre unto itself. And any number of popular stars had at least one circus picture on their resumes. John Wayne, Charleston Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, James Stewart, Esther Williams, Cliff Robertson, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas along with Clyde Beatty who was a circus impresario and author Mickey Spillane of Mike Hammer fame. Some titles include; Ring of Fire (1954), The Big Circus (1959), The Big Show (1961) Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) and Circus World (1974)…The best known, highest grossing, most critically acclaimed and most honored was Cecile B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). It was given the Academy Award as the Best Picture of that year. And Mr. DeMille who was known as “The King of Epics” did indeed make the biggest circus picture of them all, loaded with spectacle, thrills, stars, sentiment, and enough plotlines to support three films all held together by a stirring narration spoken by Mr. DeMille himself. But even with all that my all time favorite circus picture is Burt Lancaster’s Trapeze (1956). I say Lancaster’s because although he didn’t direct it, (England’s Carol The Third Man Reed did) he was the dominant creative force behind the entire enterprise. The film was produced by Hecht- Hill – Lancaster a company he helped to found. They had produced the Academy Award winning Marty (1955). This was a story that Lancaster brought to them for development because the subject was close to his heart. Prior to becoming a movie star Lancaster had been a circus acrobat and had been looking for a long time for a story with a circus background. In fact one could say that many of his action pictures prior to Trapeze due to his physical hi jinks in them were sort of circus pictures in disguise. I’m thinking of films like The Flame and the Arrow (1950) and The Crimson Pirate (1952) both featuring his former circus partner Nick Cravat. But now he had found the right story in Max Catto’s novel The Killing Frost which writers Liam O’Brien, James R. Webb, Wolf Mankowitz and the great Ben Hecht turned into a screen play called Trapeze.
Now this is by no means is an authentic depiction of circus life any more than The Godfather (1972) is an accurate portrayal of organized crime.. Like that classic film Trapeze is a glamorous and highly romanticized rendition of its subject. And that is exactly what makes it a terrific film. It’s romantic, it’s glamorous, it’s beautifully shot, the circus atmosphere is handsomely rendered and the three leading players couldn’t look more beautiful or physically capable. Lancaster, of course, shines. He was 42 and in great shape physically. So much so that he did all the stunts in the film himself…Gina Lolabrigida, who, preceding Sophia Loren, was the screen’s leading Italian sexpot. She was called “The most beautiful woman in the world” at the time and in this film she looks it. But her performance as the narcissistically ambitious tumbler goes beyond the physical. It is solid and emotionally credible…And Tony Curtis (30 when the film was made) has never looked more handsome in a movie. This was his first major role in a class A, high budget film with a world re known director and a truly international cast. And Curtis made the most of his opportunity. He was always an athletically capable performer and in this one , with coaching from Lancaster and others, he is entirely convincing as Tino Orsini, the young hot shot trapeze artist. Because of his pretty boy looks Curtis was always an underrated actor. In Trapeze he gives a well balanced, romantic performance that would catapult him into the upper echelons of screen stardom.
The film in short tells the story of the new young artist replacing the old one. Here the “Old man” after some resistance and coaching becomes the young man’s teacher and mentor. All is well until a conniving woman named Lola inserts herself in their midst using her looks and sexuality to potent effect. It splits the duo apart and sets up questions as to whether or not they will be able to arrive at the historical breakthrough of performing the triple mid air somersault that they were working so hard to achieve. Reed’s stylized direction takes us wholly into the world of this particular circus and its environs. And with the creative input of his cinematographer Robert Krasker, he uses the then new cinemascope process to full effect.
I like this film because the atmosphere is exotic, the trapeze sequences are breathtaking and the story is suspenseful as well as romantic. When I was a kid everyone dreamed of running away with the circus and living with people who make their living performing death defying stunts that stun and amaze us. If all of them were like the one in this film I definitely would. But since I didn’t the next best thing is this film. And that’s why I want it on my desert island.
Screenwriters are probably the most underappreciated contributors to the cinematic event. They are the ones who have contributed some of the best dialogue that informs both the cinema and our lives. And from time to time, we will be honoring these writers by quoting from some of the films that they have written.
“I can understand how you got in a crap game and lose $700 dollars that you didn’t have. But how did you lose your pants?”
“In a lady’s bedroom trying to raise the cash. Almost made it too. You realize that people are the only animals who make love face to face… Thanks again, but you could’ve telegraphed the money and saved yourself the trip.”
“Yesterday I didn’t have the money.”
“What’s the proposition?”
“You won’t lose your pants. Your life maybe. But what’s that?”
“Hardly anything at all.”
-The Professionals, written and directed by Richard Brooks, 1966.