Monday, October 28, 2013
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER – A BluRay Movie Review
Billy Curtis gives the Stranger a bath
Clint Eastwood is the sort of person who gives everyone who feels they’re getting too old to achieve their heart’s desire an encouraging kick in the pants. He was already a tremendously successful leading man before he started directing. He won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars first for UNFORGIVEN, then for MILLION DOLLAR BABY, and he even received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award. And at 83 he’s directing his first musical, JERSEY BOYS.
It’s hard to put your finger on what he does as a director that makes you care about his characters, but he’s done it since the beginning. I well remember seeing his directorial debut, PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971) when I was in high school. Days later, I’d find myself daydreaming about the characters in the movie, hoping they were alright. That had never happened to me before, and has rarely happened since.
Clint directed his second feature in 1973, and it was his first time helming a Western: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. So far he’s directed four or six Westerns, depending on whether you count BRONCO BILLY (1980) and SPACE COWBOYS (2006), and because of the tremendous popularity of his trilogy with Sergio Leone – FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, and the iconic status of OUTLAW JOSIE WALES (the most slavishly imitated of his films) and UNFORGIVEN, his other fine work sometimes is overlooked.
Happily, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, so ripe for re-evaluation, is back, from Universal, in a breathtakingly beautiful BluRay 40th Anniversary edition, digitally remastered and restored from the original 35MM film elements. So to start, let me say that the clarity of the image is breathtaking. So often today, digitizing of movies does them far more harm than good. The ability to make everything in vision be in sharp focus robs the director and cinematographer of the ability to point you in a specific direction – the viewer’s eye roams the frame aimlessly. At worst, digitizing of THE WIZARD OF OZ has shown us where the seemingly real open spaces end and the painted walls begin. In PSYCHO, it has returned three large zits to the face of Janet Leigh, which make-up artists had successfully hidden.
In HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, the image is immaculately clean, without losing the ‘film’ look. The grain is not obvious, but it is there. Shot by the great Bruce Surtees, who had previously shot Clint in several Don Siegal films, the actor/writer and cinematographer would eventually collaborate on fifteen movies together. Eastwood famously works with the same crew whenever he can, and reuses actors he likes.
The story takes place in the town of Lago, shot at the edge of Mono Lake, and after so many dry and dusty western towns, seeing all of that blue water just beyond the town is startlingly lovely. But the people of the town are not nearly that appealing. Clint simply moseys into town for a drink, and is quickly set upon by a trio of thugs that at length get spectacularly dispatched by ‘The Stranger’ – again, Clint is a man with no name.
It’s a town with secrets; a town without a man possessing, “…a complete set of balls,” as one character puts it, and since he’s eliminated the men they’d hired to protect them, they’re now eager to hire Clint to defend them against a pack of enemies about to be let out of jail. When he finally agrees, the town learns they’re not getting what they bargained for.
The script by Ernest Tidyman, who created SHAFT, and whose adapted screenplay for THE FRENCH CONNECTION won him an Oscar, has crafted the sort of plot that, while containing familiar western elements, goes to wholly unfamiliar territory. The town has a past they’d like to keep buried; the stranger has flashes of dreams or memories; a man being beaten with bullwhips. While the story follows logically along, you’re not always sure if what you’re seeing is a shaggy dog story or a supernatural tale.
Eastwood with Verna Bloom
Another Eastwood trademark was just beginning to emerge, the casting of actresses that usually didn’t do his kind of film, a pattern that may have started with the almost all female cast in Don Siegal’s THE BEGUILED. While Marianna Hill plays just the sort of tart you’d expect in this sort of story, Verna Bloom, as the only townsperson with a conscience, couldn’t be more unexpected.
Also notable in the cast are Walter Barnes if the exceedingly likeable if gutless sheriff; Geoffrey Lewis as a creepy villain, in the first of seven films with Eastwood; Billy Curtis, a Munchkin from THE WIZARD OF OZ, who becomes the Stranger’s right hand; and most delightful of all Paul Brinegar, RAWHIDE’s Wishbone, and Clint’s co-star for years, as the town bartender.
The Stranger gets the town a makeover
Clint Eastwood has always credited Don Siegal and Sergio Leone for teaching him about directing, and the Leone influence can clearly be seen in the opening sequence, when The Stranger comes to town. There is no dialog for seven and a half minutes, but there’s audio aplenty as the hoofsteps and wheezing of Clint’s horse becomes music, in the same way that squeaking windmills and dripping water and buzzing flies were music for the opening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
This new BluRay edition of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER comes with a digital copy and an ultraviolet copy, but surprisingly, the only special feature is the theatrical trailer. Personally, I would prefer something different rather than the same movie in three different formats. But after all, you buy a movie for the movie, not for the extras, and this beautiful edition of DRIFTER is a worthy addition to your cinema library.
MY DAY AS A WESTERN ‘EXTRA’
Yesterday, Saturday, October 26th, 2013, I had my first experience as an ‘extra’ on the set of a Western. The film is entitled WESTERN RELIGION (#WesternReligion) , and it was day six of a nineteen day shoot.
For the uninitiated, an ‘extra’, a.k.a. a spear carrier; atmosphere; or among the self-aggrandizing, a supernumerary, is defined as “…a minor actor in a crowd scene.” They are the people who, without drawing attention to themselves, make a scene look normal, making a street, or restaurant, or theatre not seem deserted aside from the lead actors. They are the human visual equivalent of elevator music.
I’ve been on sets with costumer Nikki Pelley any number of times, and the last couple of occasions she’d been daring me to be dressed and put on-camera. I would have visited the set, to report on the shoot, anyway – and will cover the film and the filmmakers extensively next week. But the offer to appear in costume, made it irresistible.
The tent city.
The film, set in 1879, concerns the town of Religion, Arizona, whose town fathers want to draw attention to, and investment in their community by promoting a high stakes poker tournament. The shoot was at Peter Sherayko’s Caravan West Ranch in Agua Dulce, a huge, wild and mountainous place, frequently seen in movies, dramatic TV shows and reality shows, that I’d previously visited for the filming of WYATT EARP’S REVENGE, among other projects. WESTERN RELIGION had originally been scheduled to shoot on the Western street at the Paramount Ranch in Agoura. But the recent federal government shutdown closed National Parks, including the Ranch, and the filmmakers needed to find another location, and fast.
A tent city has been erected at Caravan West Ranch which, considering the premise, is actually more logical and historically accurate for the setting than a well-established Western town would be. I saw the tent city when I arrived at 8:30 a.m., and I thought it looked wonderfully unfinished, in transition.
I’d supplied my hat, shirt and pant sizes ahead of time, so clothes could be pulled with me in mind. I was told to bring my own boots if I had a good pair, and I did. I brought a hat as well, a black ‘Stallion’ by Stetson, much like James Garner’s MAVERICK hat. It would have been fine for a 1960s TV Western, but it wasn’t historically authentic, and Peter Sherayko, who helped revolutionize the demand for historical accuracy with TOMBSTONE (read my reviews of his books HERE ), was in charge of props and costumes. Likewise, my trousers would have been acceptable if they didn’t have cuffs. I was fitted in period pants, shirt, vest, and hat – with a much smaller brim than we think of for Westerners, but historical photos show that it’s correct.
Me, in costume.
There is a wonderful story in Bob Thomas’s excellent biography, THALBERG: LIFE AND LEGEND, about the first movie the Barrymores made together, RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (MGM 1932). John and Lionel had both been active on film since the silent days, but it was sister Ethel’s first film, and she took much persuading. The brothers flanked her at the premiere, and when they lights came up, they were eager to get her reaction. She was stunned: “When did we do all that acting? All I remember was waiting between takes.” And for actors, especially extras, waiting is what you mostly do on a set.
Director O'Brien, center, setting the scene.
I was fortunate that, being there in the capacity of journalist as well as extra, I had pictures to take and people to interview, because it was twelve full hours before they started to shoot my scene. Inside one of the larger tent buildings was a saloon set – actually two saloon sets divided down the middle of the room, representing watering holes in two different towns. On the right as you enter, as a pianist plays, and a comely saloon-girl looks on, a pair of tough drunks bully the bartender, until a stranger comes in for a drink. The two make the mistake of picking on him. He quickly shoots them both, as well as two lawmen at another table, when they try to interfere.
Peter Sherayko (r) hands gun to Claude Duhamel, while
DP Morgan Schmidt frames shot.
Ass't Cameraman, having done slate, and knowing
what's coming, braces for Duhamel's gunfire.
Writer/director James O’Brien directs sometimes from the set, sometimes from outside, watching the video feed from the RED camera. Although the scene will be brief on-screen, it’s very complex, involving a lot of cutting in the editing room, and a lot of gunfire on the set. We all wear earplugs. Stuntman Frankie Ray, gun half-drawn, is shot out of his chair, and crashes to the ground, at least nine times. One chair is destroyed and another is damaged – I don’t know about Frankie’s back. Every time Claude Duhamel as the stranger needs to fire his gun, it needs to be loaded and unloaded by armorer Sherayko. This is not my scene – I’ll be in the saloon at the other side of the set. But I watch for hours, and I never even see the lawmen that Claude kills – their shots are done later, while I’m doing interviews, all of it to be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle.
Outside the saloon, wrangler Kevin McNiven walks horse back
and forth in front of doorway, to give 'life' to street as seen from
inside. Dust seen in the air is being kicked up by a P.A. for
the same reason.
It’s sometime after 8 p.m. when those of us in the next saloon scene are told we’ll soon be needed. I don’t the exact time because I don’t have my watch – I took it off when I dressed, knowing what a faux pas it would be if that 20th century item slipped from my sleeve and appeared on-camera (even though mine features Roy Rogers and Trigger). I also had to remember to remove my glasses before they started filming. Most lenses today, mine included, are largely rectangular. Lenses of the period were circular. One of the other extras is Howard Coleman, who will be armorer for several days on the film. He can wear his own glasses: they were 1952 Government Issue when he was drafted for the Korean War. They could easily have been issued for the Civil War.
Our scene, in another saloon, though shot in the opposite end of the same room, involves a pair of card games. At the main table, four men play poker. One of them, Salt Peter, played by producer Louis Sabatasso, bickers over a pot with a much bigger man, known as Goliath. Goliath pulls a gun, but Salt Peter stabs him to death. As Salt Peter gathers his winnings, the dealer, played by Jeffrey Hendrick, shows him a handbill about the poker tournament in Religion, Arizona. He decides to go.
There is a second poker game going on, and that’s where I am, along with Howard, and a young man who has been building sets all day; they were short one man for the scene, so his hammer and saw have been taken away, and he’s been put in costume. The camera is shooting through our game to the other game. The camera is low, DP Morgan Schmidt doing his own camera operating, with Howard on the left of frame, me and the other guy on the right. It should be an interesting shot.
At the other table, they’re playing with authentic period cards. At ours, the backs are good, but the faces are modern. We have to avoid showing the faces to camera. We each have a shotglass of liquor on the table. We have stacks of coins to play with. Some are silver-dollar- sized Mexican pesos and smaller centavos. Others are carnival tokens, and gold-colored Elvis Presley and presidential tokens. They all look good if they’re not in close-up. As the rehearsals begin, we’re told to just play poker naturally. We do, although we all forget at the end of the hand, and put our cards down face up.
As they start doing takes, we are re-directed to not actually talk, but mouthe how many cards we want. We decide how many on advance, regardless of what we’re dealt – after all, the camera can’t see it. More takes. They like our action, but not our noise. Howard can’t very well riffle-shuffle the cards silently, so he switches to an overhand shuffle, which is much quieter. Unfortunately, to keep the card faces from being visible to camera, he must shuffle from his left hand to his right – try this some time if you’re a right hander; it ain’t easy. We can drop our cards on the table, but we can’t toss coins into the pot as we bet, because they ‘clink’ together. When you win a hand of poker, try raking in your coins without them ‘clinking.’ It takes practice; but we got good at it as the night progressed. I sipped my drink whenever I thought of it – it was a quiet, but natural movement, and the sips of watered-down Coke were surprisingly refreshing.
Depending on the angle, sometimes we had to lean back unnaturally so we weren’t blocking the main action. The last couple of takes, closer (I think) on the action, we couldn’t bet or put down cards, as our hands would have filled the screen. So we held our cards, shifting them, re-ordering them. I switched them from one hand to another while I picked up my drink. Anything to make the card-hands not look unnaturally motionless, but not moving them enough to distract.
When the camera moved in even closer on the main table, we were done for the night, and outside of the saloon, In-And-Out burgers and fries were waiting for us. It was a long, long day, but a fun and interesting experience, and I’d do it again. Only now I’ll try and get a line of dialog! And next time ride a horse! And next time get shot!
Next week I’ll have full coverage on WESTERN RELIGION, and the people who are making it, on both sides of the camera.
COSTUME DRAMA TRAUMA
By Henry C. Parke
(Note: This article was originally written for my other blog, STALLING TACTICS, and I think it’s a natural follow-up to MY DAY AS A WESTERN EXTRA. If you enjoy it, please check out STALLING TACTICS HERE. )
September 3rd, 2013
I love being on movie sets, especially Western movie sets, where the boardwalks and wooden store-fronts, horses, costumed actors, and guns make you feel like you’re time-traveling. The last time I had the privilege, writing for the Round-up, the wardrobe mistress said, “Next time, I’ll dress you, and you can be an extra.” It sounded like fun. I’d been an extra here and there in friends’ movies. I was one, or actually did a small ‘bit’, in a picture I co-wrote the original story for, SPEEDTRAP (1977). When detective Joe Don Baker is dodging gangster Timothy Carey in the sleazy block of Phoenix (which we had to manufacture), he zips by me and a hooker, and if you strain your ears, you can hear me say, “Gee, a hundred dollars is a lot of money,” and her responding, “Well I’m a lot of woman.”
I got a call from my wardrobe lady friend that she was dressing a Western at Paramount Ranch, and I was invited! I was all psyched at my return to the screen, so you can imagine my disappointment when I got a call back that they couldn’t use me: only S.A.G. extras. Oh, well.
Then I recalled that I actually had played a small, costumed role in a period picture. It was back when I attended NYU Film School in the 1970s, and in addition to making your own films, you were crew, and sometimes cast, in other people’s films. A friend was directing a comedy, a faux documentary about a fake poverty row movie studio of Hollywood’s golden age. He needed clips from nonexistent films, and I acted in a few. One was a World War II ‘Battle of the Bulge’ epic. The gag was that, being a poverty row studio making a war movie during the war, all the big studios had rented the proper uniforms for their war movies. So we had to make do: the Nazis dressed in Confederate uniforms, and the U.S. Army in Salvation Army uniforms.
I was delighted to find myself, at dawn, in Morningside Park, dressed in a well-tailored Confederate Captain’s uniform, complete with hat and sword. We were going to start with a big battle scene, involving both armies. But just as the camera was about to roll, it couldn’t. The director of photography had forgotten to charge the power-pack that ran the camera. He hurried off to plug it in. We would have at least a two-hour delay before we could begin. As this shoot was destined to run late, and I had made plans for the afternoon, I needed to find a payphone. It was awfully early, but if I didn’t call then, I might not have a chance for hours.
There were no payphones in the park, so I walked out of the park, onto the streets. Did I mention that Morningside Park is in the middle of Harlem? Harlem, the home of the Apollo Theatre, the Black Panthers, and in those days, zero white people? So I started walking along the streets of Harlem, at dawn, wearing a Confederate Captain’s uniform, complete with hat and sword.
There was not a soul on the street. The first phone booth I came to had a phone, but no receiver. The second had no phone at all, and the booth had been converted into a make-shift urinal. The third one had a complete phone, and I made my call. As I talked, I noticed an older sedan parked across the street from me. There were about a dozen Miller High Life bottles lined up on the sidewalk beside it. The engine was off, but the headlights were on, dim, like they’d been on all night. A few figures lounged around inside.
I finished my call, and left the booth, starting my long walk back to the park. The sword slapped against my left leg with each step.
From behind me, from the direction of the lone car, I heard a voice. “Hey!” I kept walking. “Hey you!” I kept walking. “Hey you! Soldier boy! Come ‘ere!” The voice was accompanied by laughter.
“Yeah!” another voice joined in. “Johnny Reb! We want to talk to you!”
I heard the engine cough. I thought maybe the headlights had drained the battery. I hoped so. Then I heard the engine start up strong. I reached a corner. A right turn would bring me closer to the park, but a left would be the wrong way on a one-way street for the car I could hear gaining on me. I turned left.
They turned left anyway. I thought it was time to start running. Try running while wearing a sword – no wonder the officers rode horses.
I heard a shattering smash as a Miller bottle hit the sidewalk a distance behind me. The next one was closer. I changed direction at every corner, but of course I didn’t lose them, not in their car. I heard a lot of laughter and hooting and hostile comments. Even as I was ducking bottles, I couldn’t help admiring the ‘Johnny Reb’ reference – I don’t think I could have come up with anything that good that quickly. The next catcall truly amazed me – someone in the sedan was calling him and his friends Buffalo Soldiers!
Finally I reached the street with the entrance to Morningside Park. As I bolted for the winding downward path, I saw three iron posts jutting up from the ground, across the entrance, perhaps to prevent carloads of Buffalo Soldiers from driving down.
As the car screeched to a halt across the street, and young men began to pile out, I faced them, drew my sword, and shouted, “F#ck you and Abe Lincoln!” Then I turned and ran like Hell down into the park.
I ran into camp, screaming for help, and as the Buffalo Soldiers appeared at the bottom of the path, they faced twenty armed, uniformed Confederate soldiers, and a cannon was being swung into position. I don’t know what they thought, but was grateful that they ran back up and drove away, perhaps never to drink Miller High Life again.
THAT'S A WRAP!
That's all for tonight. Next week I'll have, among other things, news about a renewed western series, and a new western feature or two in the planning stages.
All Original Contents Copyright October 2013 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved
Sunday, October 20, 2013
A DVD Film Review
Victor McLaglen in STRONG BOY
A remarkable treasure-trove of ‘lost’ films found in New Zealand has produced an absolutely splendid DVD: LOST & FOUND – AMERICAN TREASURES FROM THE NEW ZEALAND FILM ARCHIVES. For decades, distant New Zealand was the end of the line for distribution of American and European films. By the time they reached that nation, the movies had played everywhere else, and there was thought to be no point in spending the money to ship the prints stateside. As a happy result, the films found their way into the possession of private collectors and, at length, into the collection of the Archive.
In what is clearly the most important event in silent film history in many years, in 2010, a search of The New Zealand Film Archives collection turned up 176 American-made silent movies that had been written off as ‘lost’ for decades. The Archive generously shared them with The National Film Preservation Foundation, and its American archive members, The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, George Eastman House, The Library of Congress, The Museum of Modern Art, and The UCLA Film & Television Archive who split them up, and got to work preserving and rejuvenating them.
Now, with the support of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Argyros Family Foundation, they have issued a 3 ¼ hour DVD with a dozen films on it, from very brief newsreels to features. Among them are films made by John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mabel Normand. Although no actual westerns are included, there is plenty to appeal to the Western aficionado, and anyone interested in great and historical filmmaking of any genre.
One of the problems of seeing the more popular silent films is that they’ve been ‘duped’ again and again, leading to graininess, grays that should be black, and soft focus. Contrarily, the films in this collection came from first-generation release prints, and are very crisp, with broad range of gradations from white to black.
Considering that this was the end of the line for film distribution, the physical quality of many of the film prints is remarkably good – no doubt due in large part to the preservation work of the various archives. Among the surprises, in addition to extensive tinting, a couple of the films are in color, and one, from 1921, has its original synchronized soundtrack! All of the others have engaging new musical scores, composed by either Michael D. Mortilla or Donald Sosin. Here and there, several of the films do show signs of image decomposition, and one can’t help wondering, if no one had thought to check the New Zealand Film Archive until, say, 2020, what would have been left!
A real grabber from the very beginning is LYMAN H. HOWE’S FAMOUS RIDE ON A RUNAWAY TRAIN, from 1921. Not merely a movie, it’s a thrill ride. After a cartoon beginning, the viewer quickly finds himself at the front of an out-of-control train barreling downhill at break-neck speed! The sensations, sometimes giddiness, sometimes panic, compare well with those high-tech simulation rides you get at the amusement parks. And this one has its original score, which had been preserved on disk at the Library of Congress.
And because no old-time movie program would be complete without a cartoon, there’s THE HAPPY-GO-LUCKIES (1923), a story about an alley-cat and a mutt that want to enter a dog show with a $100,000,000 prize! It’s a funny early work by animator Paul Terry, who would go on to produce more than a thousand Terrytoons, who was nominated twice for Oscars, and who gave the world Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle.
Next there’s a coming attraction for a film which, sadly, we may never see: STRONG BOY (1929), starring Victor McLaglen, and directed by John Ford. It’s an action comedy about a baggage handler who becomes a hero during a train hold-up, and unfortunately, all that’s known to exist of this feature is these 42 exciting seconds.
But the next film is a complete John Ford feature, UPSTREAM (1927). Not typical Ford, it’s a comedy set in a Manhattan boarding house that’s home to a bevy of vaudeville performers, and focuses on a knife-throwing act – and romantic triangle – made up of thrower Grant Withers, lovely assistant Nancy Nash, and the least celebrated member of a Barrymore-like theatrical family, Earle Fox as Eric Brashingham (and yes, he is a brash ham). The act is broken up when a theatrical agent will hire any actor with the Brashsingham name to play Hamlet in London. Sure, it’s John Ford lite, but it’s a lot of fun, and if you’re quick you can spot John’s older brother Francis Ford as the juggler. And it’s a pleasure to see Grant Withers, who would make many big and small-screen Westerns, and work for Ford again in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, FORT APACHE and RIO GRANDE, at the beginning of their association. Ford was famous for his stock company, and was extremely loyal. While Earle Fox never made an impression in talkies, Ford used him, sometimes in tiny, uncredited roles, in FOUR SONS, THE INFORMER, MARY OF SCOTLAND, and his final film, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.
An educational or industrial short, BIRTH OF A HAT (1920-ish) was backed by the great cowboy hat maker STETSON, and is quite amazing – I had absolutely no idea what went into making felt, no less making a hat out of it.
THE LOVE CHARM (1928) is shot in two-strip Technicolor by Ray Rennahan, who would win Oscars for his camera chores on GONE WITH THE WIND and BLOOD AND SAND. Set in the tropics, and shot convincingly in California, it tells the story of a yacht-load of rich dilettantes who stop on an island to observe the native dancers, and the missionary’s daughter who falls for the handsome captain: “He is white, just like me.” There’s a line you probably wouldn’t hear today. It’s the first writing credit of Duncan Renaldo, who was better known as an actor, especially portraying The Cisco Kid, whom he played eight times on the screen, as well as in 156 TV episodes. Under his own name or as Renault Duncan, Renaldo would write stories or screenplays for five more movies, the last being a pirate film, THE LADY AND THE BANDIT, in 1951.
WON IN A CUPBOARD (1914) is one of the two earliest films in the group, and is the earliest surviving directorial effort of the hugely popular comedienne Mabel Normand, who starred, and may have written the story as well. A Mack Sennett-produced Keystone Comedy, it’s setting, unlike most Keystones, is rural rather than urban, and revolves around Mabel, the sap she loves (who knows why?), the other saps who love her, and various disapproving parents. The slapstick is broad and funny, there are some very nice gags about who is caught in a cupboard (hence the title) and the story even features a rural constabulary not unlike the Keystone Kops.
Also from 1914 is the Edison serial THE ACTIVE LIFE OF DOLLY OF THE DAILIES. Episode #5 – THE CHINESE FAN, and one other chapter, are all that are known to exist, but since this serial is more of a series of short stories than a cliff-hanger styled serial, you’ll have no problem following the exploits of the plucky reporter Dolly (Mary Fuller), who goes to cover a story about a play in Chinatown, and ends up trying to rescue a kidnapped heiress, and taking part in some rough-and-tumble fighting. A serial with more literary pretentions then most, DOLLY was written by the drama critic for the New York Sun.
Then there are the Newsreels. The first two clips, from The Co-Operative Weekly Review of 1919, are war-effort fare, though for The Great War rather than World War II. They’re followed by a pair of clips from the Selznick Pictures Corporation in 1921, and feature an ostrich-drawn cart, and a radio-controlled car!
ANDY’S STUMP SPEECH (1924) stars former Keystone Kop Joe Murphy as Andy Gump, a character he played in 48 shorts. Though the once tremendously popular comic strip ran from 1917 until 1959, the Andy Gump name is now most closely associated in the public mind with a portable toilet. However, the movie, from Universal, is pretty amusing, if contrived, telling the story of Gump’s failed run for the presidency. It’s very broad, and there is some clever use of both optical and physical special effects, and there is a very exciting car-chasing-a-train sequence. Murphy was another actor who never made a successful transition to sound; his post-Gump roles, ending with AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), were mostly uncredited bits, but he’s very funny here.
VIRGINIA TYPES (Pathe 1926), is a brief but intriguing documentary, shot in Pathecolor, about the small community of Old Rag in the Blue Ridge Mountains whose way of living seems not to have changed much since the Civil War. While just a brief snapshot, it’s a valuable one, as it features a people who would soon be forced from their homes to make way for the Shenandoah National Park.
VIRGINIA TYPES -- note the Pathecolor
Some might argue that THE WHITE SHADOW (1924) doesn’t quite belong in the group, as it was made in England rather than the U.S., but it was distributed here by Lewis J. Selznick, and that’s American enough for me – after all, it’s the earliest known Alfred Hitchcock! And how fun to think that sixteen years later, Hitchcock would be brought to America by Lewis Selznick’s son, David O. Selznick, to make REBECCA. While directed by Graham Cutts, Hitchcock was the assistant director, the editor, the set designer, and wrote the scenario from a work by Michael Morton – some sources say a screenplay, some say a novel.
WHITE SHADOW - mid-dissolve at the sinister
'Cat Who Laughs' nightclub
The story revolves around twin sisters Nancy and Georgina Brent, both played without any apparent trickery (but probably stand-ins) by beautiful American leading lady Betty Compson. Nancy has come back from studying in Paris as a soulless creature, unlike ‘good’ Georgina. Nancy is disrespectful to her parents, and mean to her would-be boyfriend, American Robin Field, played by Brit Clive Brook, whose distinguished career would include several fine Sherlock Holmes portrayals. A string of tragedies befalls the Brent family after Nancy runs back to Paris, and others go in search of her.
The 'soulless sister' leaves a note before fleeing
Unfortunately, only the first three of the film’s six reels have been found, so after 42 minutes, a series of title cards tell you how the story wraps up. But half of a Hitchcock is better than a whole of most other filmmaker’s efforts.
Can you spot the prim sister who doesn't belong
in this den of iniquity?
Yup, that's her.
I highly recommend this DVD – I’ve not only watched it all, I’ve shown parts to everyone who’s dropped by my home this week, and they’ve all enjoyed it. This wonderful collection is available for $25 from the National Film Preservation Board. It comes with a 48 page book full of detailed information about each film. Their website is HERE , and this page includes a trailer, plus clips from several of the films, including Hitchcock’s THE WHITE SHADOW, Ford’s UPSTREAM, and the Duncan Renaldo-scripted THE LOVE CHARM. You can also find out about another of their collections, TREASURES #5 – THE WEST, 1898-1938. HERE is the link to that page.
JINGLE OF THE SPURS – THE HOPALONG CASSIDY RADIO PROGRAM (1950-52)
A Book Review
As someone who does a fair amount of driving, I like to have an alternative to listening to the radio, when either the music or the news or the talk gets too repetitive or depressing. So I load my iPod with podcasts of shows that interest me, and no surprise, I listen to a lot of OTR, a.k.a. Old Time Radio. The westerns can generally be divided into two camps: the grown-up stuff, like GUNSMOKE, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, FORT LARAMIE; and the kid stuff, like LONE RANGER and CISCO KID. When the adult stuff gets too grim, and the kid stuff gets too precious, I find myself listening to HOPALONG CASSIDY. The Hoppy shows strike a good balance between the extremes, and are often surprisingly well-plotted mysteries, just like the best of the Hoppy movies.
In what may be a unique relationship between a hugely popular character and an actor, only one man, William Boyd, has ever played Hoppy, and he has played him in all the recorded mediums of his time. Author Bernard A. Drew, who previously penned a biography on Hopalong Cassidy’s creator, Clarence E. Mulford, has written the story of the 104 radio adventures Hopalong Cassidy had, between his 64 movies, which ended in 1948, and his 46 TV episodes, which began in 1952, when the radio series ended.
The stories of William Boyd and Hopalong Cassidy are remarkable. In the early 1930s, Boyd, a handsome leading man with a promising future suddenly had his career clothes-lined due to the incompetence of newspapers and gutlessness of filmmakers. Another actor named William Boyd had been arrested in an opium den/brothel raid, and newspapers ran the photo of the wrong actor. Boyd was dropped like a hot coal by studios who knew he was innocent, not wanting to explain the mistake to members of the public calling for a boycott of Boyd’s films.
His career was saved when producer Harry ‘Pop’ Sherman, about to start the series of Hopalong Cassidy films, decided to give the untouchable actor a chance. Boyd, strikingly handsome with a shock of white hair, looked nothing like Mulford’s description of the scruffy, limping – hence hop-a-long – character, but he was ideal for a cowboy hero, and no one did it better than Boyd. From 1935 to 1941, Pop Sherman produced the films at Paramount, then moved the series to United Artists. When even Sherman got tired of the character, Boyd, now too typecast to do anything else, sold everything he had to buy the rights to the character, and produced the last dozen films himself. He was the first star to put his own movies on television – and it made him a multi-millionaire, and showed the way for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. And talk about collectibles – Boyd licensed 2,400 individual products adorned with his image and Hoppy’s name.
Drew’s book traces the history of the radio series, from the failed 1941 audition show, through the 39 Mutual Network shows, and the 64 CBS shows almost all co-starring Andy Clyde, former Keystone Kop, as Hoppy’s sidekick, California. The Mutual and CBS shows would be played for decades on various stations. His log has a complete plot rundown of every episode. And if you, like me, ever wondered whatever happened to the Mutual Network, Drew reveals that it’s still in business, although it’s changed its name – to CNN.
As author Drew points out, one of the changes in recent years, with the coming of MP3 recording, is that these old radio shows, once so difficult to track down, are very accessible now. I download podcasts for free, and the entire run can be bought on a single disk off of eBay for about five dollars.
He further examines Boyd’s guest appearances on other radio shows, and the many Hopalong Cassidy records that were put out over the years. A pair of nice bonuses at the end, Appendix A is the radio promotion section from a 1950 United Artists Hopalong Cassidy Pressbook. Appendix B is a 1949 Mutual Radio Publicity Kit, full of both smart and dumb promotional ideas, and scripts for on-air ads. I learned a lot from this book, not only about the radio show, but about Boyd the man and Boyd the businessman, both of whom rose to the occasion when it was necessary. Priced at $16.95, JINGLE OF THE SILVER SPURS – THE HOPALONG CASSIDY RADIO PROGRAM is available from Bear Manor Media. Here’s the link: http://www.bearmanormedia.com/ .
FREE DOUBLE FEATURE SATURDAY AT THE AUTRY
On Saturday, October 26th, from noon until 2pm, a pair of Gene Autry films will screen, HOME ON THE PRAIRIE (1939 – Republic), and THE BLAZING SUN (1950 – Columbia). In PRAIRIE, Gene, backed by Smiley Burnette, is a livestock inspector trying to stop hoof-and-mouth infected cattle from being shipped. In BLAZING SUN, Gene and Pat Buttram are after bank robbers, in a film that features plenty of great western faces like Alan Hale Jr., Tom London, and Kenne Duncan.
WILD WESTERN FESTIVAL OCT. 25-27 IN GLENDALE ARIZONA
This three day event will feature music, gunfights, stunt shows, American Indian dancers, and much more. Special guests will be HERCULES star KEVIN SORBO, whose most recent western is SHADOW ON THE MESA; HIGH CHAPARRAL star and frequent John Wayne co-star DON COLLIER; TV’s GRIZZLY ADAMS, DAN HAGGERTY; THE VIRGINIAN star ROBERTA SHORE; actor, stuntman and western historian NEIL SUMMERS; and western movie bad-man MIKE MOROFF. Learn more HERE .
AND THAT’S A WRAP!
Next week I’ll have my review of Universal’s 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray of Clint Eastwood’s HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER!
All Original Contents Copyright October 2013 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved
Sunday, October 13, 2013
‘WHEN CALLS THE HEART’ - a film review
More than any other networks in recent years, The Hallmark Channel and The Hallmark Movie Channel have demonstrated an unswerving commitment to the Western genre. Their recent SHADOW ON THE MESA won the Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and just a week ago GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE: QUEEN OF HEARTS and HANNAH’S LAW were screened by invitation at the Almeria Western Film Festival in Spain.
And just when you thought, with the end of the third season of HELL ON WHEELS, that you’d have nothing new and Western to see on the small screen, this Saturday night the Hallmark Channel is presenting the motion picture WHEN CALLS THE HEART, not just as a stand-alone film, but as a ‘back-door pilot’ to a weekly Western series which will premiere in January.
HEART is tele-written and directed by Michael Landon Jr., and based on Janette Oke’s best-selling Canadian West book series. Oke and Landon are new neither to Hallmark nor to each other. This duo has previously produced some of Hallmark’s most popular romantic westerns: LOVE COMES SOFTLY (’03), LOVE’S ENDURING PROMISE (’04), LOVE’S LONG JOURNEY (’05), LOVE’S ABIDING JOY (’06), LOVE’S UNFOLDING DREAM (’07), LOVE FINDS A HOME (’09), and LOVE TAKES WING (’09).
Poppy Drayton as Elizabeth Thatcher
WHEN CALLS THE HEART stars lovely newcomer Poppy Drayton as Elizabeth Thatcher, daughter of a lavishly wealthy Canadian family. At a time when monied young women were not expected to be educated or work, she’s studied to be a teacher, and is eager to find a position. Her meeting with handsome young Superintendent Higgins goes awry when he does offer her a position – directly under him – if she wants a plum teaching assignment. Appalled, she nonetheless doesn’t report the proposition to her father (to my regret – I think a good caning would have perked things up), and she’s disappointed but not entirely surprised when Higgins offers her an alternative teaching position in the distant frontier, at the picturesquely named town of Coal Valley.
Elizabeth’s pretty little rat of a younger sister, Julie (Daisy Head), was patronizing at the very thought of her sister becoming a school marm, but the idea that Elizabeth could survive the experience in the rugged west is, to her, laughable. She sets out to do everything she can to shake her sister’s fragile self-confidence, enlisting the aid of Edward Montclair (TEEN WOLF regular Daniel Sharman), a dilettante friend who has amazed the Thatchers by actually graduating from the Royal Mounted’s police academy.
Maggie Grace as Aunt Elizabeth
Elizabeth’s resolve grows when she stumbles upon a diary kept by her namesake, her father’s sister Elizabeth (beautiful Maggie Grace), whom nobody talks about. It seems that when the first Elizabeth was in her early twenties, she became a school marm on the frontier, and was rarely heard from again. From here the two stories are told in parallel, the aunt’s adventures giving the niece some idea of what to expect – from testing by skeptical students, to wild animals, to tragedies, to handsome Mounties. When Elizabeth sets out for the west by train, she is perturbed to find that her father has hired the young Mountie to see her safely to Coal Valley before reporting for duty. It is then, in the last half hour, that the movie becomes less of a romance and more of a western, and soon Marm and Mountie are riding stagecoaches, facing outlaws, and having adventures, and for a romantic western image, the way they enter town cannot be beat.
And when she arrives at her assignment, Elizabeth meets her two bosses and allies, Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin) and Frances Tunnecliffe (Jean Smart), who tell her exactly what challenges she will face – matters that Superintendent Higgins, unsurprisingly, failed to mention.
The film is attractively shot, and early on, the mansion and restaurants suggest a Canadian DOWNTON ABBEY, and in fact, Poppy Drayton appears in the coming season of DOWNTON. The costuming, while often striking, is confusing. The dresses and jewelry are from the 1880s or earlier, yet a glimpse of an auto and the use of a flashlight sets the story in the 20th century (and a brief close-up of paper-jacketed books on a shelf suggests the 1960s!).
While always interesting, the story doesn't become involving until we start seeing the flashbacks of Aunt Elizabeth – her character and adventures are much more compelling, beautifully photographed, and with more consistent costuming and art direction setting the story in the late 1870s or early 1880s. Aunt Elizabeth also has a more impressive Mountie than her niece, in the person of Stephen Amell, star of the CW’s ARROW.
While it does take a long time to get Elizabeth out west, happily for western fans, when the series comes in January, Elizabeth will already be in Coal Valley. And here’s some more positive news: while the movie was shot in Alberta, Canada, the series is being lensed in and around Telluride, Colorado, an event that Colorado Governor Hickenlooper and Hallmark President Bill Abbott jointly announced, noting that it’s the first TV series shot in the area since FATHER DOWLING MYSTERIES in 1991! Considering how many U.S.-set westerns are shot in Canada, it’s nice to see some traffic flowing in the other direction.
Lori Loughlin, Jean Smart, Poppy Drayton
There will be some changes in going from movie to series, including that Elizabeth will now be played by ARMY WIVES regular Erin Krakow. The male romantic lead will be Daniel Lissing of LAST RESORT. And happily, Lori Laughlin will return in her role of Abigail Stanton.
WHEN CALLS THE HEART will premiere on The Hallmark Channel on Saturday, October 19th, at 9 pm, East and West, preceded by five of Janette Oke’s LOVE COMES SOFTLY films.
THAT’S A WRAP!
Next week I’ll have a review of a delightful video, LOST & FOUND – AMERICAN TREASURES FROM THE NEW ZEALAND FILM ARCHIVE, and a look at highlights from the Almeria and Lone Pine Western Festivals.
All Original Contents Copyright October 2013 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved