Jul 31, 2017
William Faulkner in Hollywood: Screenwriting for the Studios
University of Georgia Press, 2017
William Faulkner was different from literary greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck who came to Hollywood chasing a big paycheck and then struggled to adapt. The novelist not only adjusted well to studio life, but thrived. In a new book, Stefan Solomon examines Faulkner's Hollywood experience and how it colored his creative output.
While Faulkner's time writing screenplays took him away from more personally satisfying literary pursuits, it also gave him the financial resources to continue that work, in addition to providing inspiration for its development. His practicality on that front, and his adaptability and ability to understand the demands of cinema worked enormously to his benefit. He was able to write in the style of different studios, finding success at RKO, MGM and Warner Bros, collaborating on fixing and conceiving projects, looking upon the whole enterprise as a job, though it was not without its artistic inspirations.
In fact, the inspiration ran two ways when it came to Faulkner's writing during his Hollywood years. The rich world of his literature colored his screenplays and sometimes that day work inspired his novel writing in the early morning hours, before he headed to the studio. Hollywood was never the dream. Faulkner always preferred his Mississippi home, but the writer embraced the opportunities movie money offered while reaping those creative benefits.
Faulkner was unusual among novelists in his grasp of the visual and aural language of movie writing. He was adept at integrating stage direction and sound into his scripts, creating a world to accompany his dialogue. On the other hand, the power of dialogue impressed itself upon the novelist, and he would begin to insert more of it in his literary works.
As a script fixer, Faulkner had a knack for adding dramatic tension, pumping life into literary sources so that they could live on the screen. He understood the needs of the cinematic form as well as he did their differences from literature. For example, director Jean Renoir felt Faulkner's small, but significant contributions to the script of The Southerner (1945) helped to translate its literary source to the screen. When the writer created a scene about competition over catching a desired fish, it both added dramatic tension and resolved an important plot thread.
The book examines both Faulkner's credited and uncredited work, demonstrating how, as with the Renoir film, the writer could significantly affect a movie with as little as a single scene or a few lines of dialogue. These efforts include work on films as diverse as Gunga Din (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946) and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). It is interesting to note that while Faulkner was more often contributor than lead, he tended to work on films that would become classics.
This is a highly accessible academic work, appropriate for the casual reader. It goes deep into the details, and reader interest will depend on whether or not that kind of analysis is appealing. The focus is on craft, with very little personal detail. Faulkner's methods and the way he navigated Hollywood take center stage.
Perhaps William Faulkner belonged in Mississippi, writing novels and eating watermelon on his back porch, but he made the most of his time in Hollywood. William Faulkner in Hollywood captures the unusual combination of vision, industry and practicality that made that so.
Many thanks to University of Georgia Press for providing a copy of the book for review.
Jul 13, 2017
A mid-seventies car race comedy is a tad out of the time range I typically cover at A Classic Movie Blog, but I was curious to see the post-code progression of films like The Great Race (1965) and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). I also desperately needed a purely escapist flick, which I got. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this loosely-arranged comedy provides eye-candy for classic car lovers and the freedom of the open road.
Led by bored businessman Michael Sarrazin, a group of speed freaks takes off on their annual cross country race, zooming from New York City to Los Angeles. The seven teams of driver and navigator are distinguished by make: Camaro, Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, Cobra, Rolls Royce and Dodge, with a hapless motorcycle rider (based on Charlie Chaplin's silent person) thrown in the mix for physical comedy. With trickery, CB radios and radar detectors, they elude the police, making pit stops along the way where crews wait to change tires and make adjustments. It is as if the entire country is a race track.
At its best The Gumball Rally is alive with the thrill of speed, roaring engines and the freedom of discarding the law simply to have the wind whip through your hair. While sex plays a role, the biggest turn on is the cars, which are reason enough for automobile fanatics to watch. These are the bodies that get the most attention and while there are no truly stand-out sequences, the action is engaging in a sort of laidback, free form way.
With an enormous cast and most of the action on the road, this is not a film for character development. It has the odd feel of being only cast with supporting players, with no true stand-out performances, though Raul Julia is charismatic despite a terrible Italian accent, Gary Busey plays his Chiclet teeth and horsy laugh to great goofy effect and it is fun to see cult favorite Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters ) as a navigator who has an interesting chemistry with her driver, and soap star Susan Flannery (Days of Our Lives, The Bold and the Beautiful). Overall though, there are so many characters in the mix that it is easy to get lost.
While of course you don't approach this genre looking for strong character development, a charismatic lead or an intriguing relationship could have elevated this to a sort of classic status. Think Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit (1975) and the genuinely touching connection he made with Sally Field in that flick. Of course, that kind of magic is rare, and taken for what it is, The Gumball Rally is a good time and a great escape from responsibility.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Jul 11, 2017
For the past few years, in addition to writing reviews for A Classic Movie Blog, I have also shared my takes on the latest releases for the film rental site ClassicFlix, which has recently shifted its operations to disc sales. As there is no overlap between the titles I review there and here, I thought I'd share some edited excerpts from my reviews of some of the most intriguing films I covered for the site. It is quite an array:
This remarkable display of 1920s creative talents gets its vibrancy via contributions from an array of artisans including painters, architects and even glass artists, juxtaposing a creaky femme fatale story with sleek avant-garde style.
The l'inhumaine (inhuman woman) of the title is Claire Lescot, a wealthy opera singer who lives in a grand temple to art deco and cubism on the outskirts of Paris. There she surrounds herself with men who adore her, though she always remains cool to their attentions. She goes too far with the young engineer Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain), the one suitor for whom she has true feelings, causing him to plunge his car off a cliff in romantic frustration. The incident causes a scandal, but this is the least of Lescot's worries as she finds that all is not as it appears.
French opera singer Georgette Lablanc stars at the titular dangerous woman and was also a major backer for the film, providing half of the funding. At 55, Leblanc had already reached her professional peak; movie stardom was just another adventure. With a face like a head on Easter Island, she is grand, if not quite believable as a woman who inspires overwhelming lust in so many men. She's like Mae West in that she isn't as stunning as she thinks she is, but her confidence in her own appeal adds to her allure.
The style of the film provides the substance. L'Inhumaine clearly isn't a showcase for acting talent or exploring new narrative forms. Lablanc in particular doesn't seem to know how to move in front of the camera, indulging in frequent chest heaving to express her emotions. The lack of nuance in the cast works in the film's favor though, adding to the sense of unease created by L'Herbier's unpredictable camerawork. They are not so much actors as figures to be adorned and moved through the creations of the various collaborators, oddly enhancing this portrait of an exciting, but chaotic modern world.
The Chase (1946)
Film noir typically evokes sharp-witted private dicks, smooth-talking gangsters and dark city streets. Dreaminess isn't regularly used to describe the genre but that is just what The Chase (1946) is, because this languid "wrong man" drama has the heady, slightly off-center feel of the surreal world of sleep.
Robert Cummings is Chuck Scott, a scruffy veteran who is starving to death until he finds a billfold full of cash on the sidewalk. After borrowing a few bucks to buy breakfast and a cigar, he tracks down the owner of the wallet at his Florida mansion. Insisting on seeing the man himself, he is introduced to millionaire Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran), a psychopathic criminal who claims to be in the "entertainment business."
Impressed with Chuck's honesty, Eddie immediately offers him a job as his chauffeur. The down-on-his-luck drifter is happy to take any job. Chuck is broke and appears to have been made at least somewhat emotionally numb by his war experiences. Unattached and aimless, he seems to think there is nothing in Eddie's world to which he would object, but that reserve is cracked when he meets the gangster's depressed wife Lorna (Michele Morgan).
The Chase is both a psychological and physical chase. Eddie requires absolute control: whether in business or his personal life, but along with his mania for power is a delight in deciphering the desires and needs of others and exploiting their dreams. He is dangerously clever, with an otherworldly ability to anticipate the actions of those he targets. Like a slasher movie serial killer, he moves forward with steady confidence while his victims scurry away in fear, tripping over metaphorical tree roots, their failures filling him with delight.
Cochran is the stand out here, in a performance that would doom him to typecasting as cruel villains. As his henchman, Lorre is sinister and self-amused, delighting in little tasks like subtly threatening a businessman in his boss' crosshairs, but always slightly irritated by Eddie's lack of caution.
As the morally flexible Chuck, Cummings is appropriately seedy. While Chuck is the nominal hero, he is a complicated man. There is still good left in him after his traumatic wartime experiences, but he is a damaged soul.
Morgan was not the first choice for the role of Lorna, but it is difficult to imagine any other actress pulling off the dreamy sadness and blunted joy she evokes here. She, above all the other stars, embodies the film's drifting, unreal feel.
23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)
23 Paces to Baker Street isn't necessarily a lost suspense classic, but it is entertaining and deserving of more attention. Starring Van Johnson, Vera Miles and Cecil Parker and directed by Henry Hathaway, it is a mystery that builds slowly but surely to a fascinating climax.
Van Johnson stars as Phil Hannon, a playwright who has exiled himself to London after an accident that has left him with a life-altering disability. Bitter, and with too much time on his hands, he is alert and ready for action when he overhears a conversation in a pub that seems to point to a dangerous crime on the horizon. He searches for answers with the help of his estranged love Jean (Vera Miles), who has followed him across the ocean because she refuses to give up on the depressed writer, and his butler Bob (Cecil Parker), who gradually realizes how deeply he has fallen into his employer's obsession.
The film proceeds slowly at first, but with consistent tension. While the police, and even Jean and Bob may not fully understand the danger unfolding, the audience always sees the emerging peril at hand. What that particular danger is stays unclear and here Hathaway shines, putting you in his character's shoes, making you wonder how far this should go before it becomes too dangerous. Once the threat becomes real, the action blows up and the momentum increases dramatically.
Johnson, Miles and Parker are a pleasing trio. Their chemistry, and the plot they drive forward, is reminiscent of James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). Thanks to Parker though, the humor has a drier, more British feel.
One of the great pleasures of 23 Paces to Baker Street is the glimpse it offers into 1950s London. In addition to a gorgeous opening sequence, there are fascinating scenes on the streets and in a now demolished department store. With fewer cars and people, and a slower pace of life, it is almost as if you are looking at a different city.
Night Train to Munich (1940)
Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich evinces the terror of a dawning war in a thriller which balances laughs, romance and action with remarkable ease. At this point in his career Reed had hit a certain rhythm, producing films that were polished, well-paced and always had emotional heft beneath a highly entertaining exterior.
Margaret Lockwood is Anna Bomasch, the daughter of a wealthy Czechoslovakian scientist. While her father barely escapes the Gestapo for London in the months leading up to World War II, she is arrested and sent to a concentration camp for interrogation; she refuses to reveal where her father has gone. There she befriends Captain Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid). He presents himself to her as a passionately rebellious teacher but is actually there undercover, in an attempt to get her to lead the Nazis to her father. Rex Harrison is a soldier who helps her.
Given the relative innocence of the time, its remarkable how effectively Night Train to Munich captures the menace of what was to come. Though there were many unknowns in that year, the advance of danger was clear and Reed captures that feeling of doom in many ways, from the bullying actions of a Nazi officer, to the dawning terror in the glances between two Englishmen who realize all the dry jokes in the world can not stop the upheaval to come.
Harrison, Lockwood and Henreid (here credited by his real name von Henreid) star in early roles, each similarly perched on the edge of their eventual greatness. Compared to his most famous parts, Harrison is almost pretty here, looking young, thin and much more mischievous. Two years after an equally nervy performance as the heroine in The Lady Vanishes, Lockwood once again possesses the perfect mix of elegance and grit, making it plausible that this daughter of wealth could manage such a great upheaval of her plush life. Henreid also ably manages a contradictory persona, exuding matinee idol eroticism while also projecting an aura of menace.
Destiny is German director Fritz Lang's first major production and a worthy companion to his other silent era triumphs, the Die Nibelungen (1924) films and Metropolis (1927). It awakened filmmakers Luis Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock to the thrills and artistic beauty of film and its special effects so impressed Douglas Fairbanks that he bought the rights in order to hold back the release of the film in the United States until he could imitate them for The Thief of Bagdad (1924).
In a dark tale that foreshadows the tone of Lang's work, Destiny is the story of a woman (Lil Dagover) who goes head-to-head with death (Bernhard Goetzke) in an attempt to win back her fiance (Walter Janssen), who he has taken as they enjoy a romantic afternoon at a pub. As the title suggests, Death is rather weary of claiming souls and he gives the grieving woman three chances to win back her lover. In a trio of scenarios, she is tasked with saving one of the lives on the Grim Reaper's list for imminent disposal. If she outwits Death one time, she gets her man back.
These three elaborate scenarios are the central action of the film. In each of them actors from the framing story join the two lovers and Death in what unfolds as a series of parallel worlds where the power of love is continually tested. With elaborate settings, and what the opening credits claim to be authentic costumes and artifacts, Lang stages his stories in an Arabian Nights-style Persia, Venice during the Renaissance and ancient China. In these tales the players enact highly exoticized and caricatured versions of the people of these cultures, often playing them for laughs, but these amusements do little to mask the darkness, violence and doom at the core of the action.
With his gaunt cheeks and oddly blank eyes, which give off the appearance of lacking pupils, Death looks frightening, but entirely over it all. Weary Death is the perfect title for this scenario. In his lair, surrounded by flickering candles which symbolize with eerie simplicity the living souls he will someday claim, he is motionless and emotionless, with a rigid expression of disillusionment that looks carved into his skull. He finds no joy in extinguishing lives, as he demonstrates in a chilling scene; a candle flame turns into a baby which he briefly holds with a jaded expression before it vanishes into the after world.
The special effects are among Destiny's most spellbinding elements, and still enchant nearly one hundred years later. You can see the bits Fairbanks borrowed for his own epic, including the way a flying carpet is approached and a flying scroll that looks much like a similarly lively rope in The Thief of Baghdad. Other effects were already fairly common at the time; creating transparent figures and making people appear out of thin air are elegantly executed and used to satisfyingly unsettling effect.
Jul 6, 2017
Seven Days in May (1964) was director John Frankenheimer's follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate (1962), meant to be another unsettling portrait of power and politics. Given today's political climate though, it is striking how relatively sane everyone seems in this story of an attempted military takeover of the US government. While there are dark forces in the mix, for the most part the players here are intellectual, sober-minded and determined to act with honor. It feels like a fantasy. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this engrossing, underseen film is a fascinating comment on its own times and a timeless story of the eternal truth that everyone thinks they are the good guy.
Fredric March is embattled U.S. President Jordan Lyman, an increasingly unpopular leader who is under fire for signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union in the midst of the cold war. In fear for the safety of the nation, Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) has been working undercover to overthrow the president and create a government which satisfies his concept of defense. When Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey learns of the imminent takeover, he rushes to inform the president and preserve the union.
What follows is a muted, but intense race to thwart the uprising in the seven days before it is to begin. Jiggs struggles to find his way through the conflict, a situation in which he does not agree with the actions of his president, but is determined to uphold the constitution. He is unsettled by the wrong he must do to protect his leader, and particularly that he must betray Scott's former mistress, and his friend, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) to obtain potential ammunition.
I don't know how much Rod Serling's script draws from the Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II book, but it bears his mark: a plea for reason, belief in honor, but little faith that humans can act in their own best interest. While the film makes protagonists of Jiggs and Lyman, it doesn't necessarily celebrate them. Perhaps they have the constitution behind them, but in some ways they can't claim moral superiority to Scott.
The General is a threat, but he isn't a monster either. Made during the Cuban missile crisis, many Americans agreed with General Scott's belief in a strong military offensive. Frankenheimer didn't, but he wanted to portray Lancaster's character as sane and level-headed.
Frankenheimer recorded commentary for the film, included in this release, in which says that he doesn't believe that this movie could be made today, because he doesn't think audiences would accept a president with the morals of March's Lyman. He believes the office has been debased. I don't know when he made those comments, but it is worth noting that this feeling about the highest office in the land has existed in varying degrees of passion since Kennedy's assassination.
Due to political tensions at the time, co-producer Kirk Douglas recalled getting pushback from several directions when he wanted to film the story. It was only when President Kennedy not only gave his approval, but encouraged the producers to continue that the production could continue. JFK had had his own experiences with a dangerously influential general and seemed to want the public to understand how fragile democracy can be.
Here that fragility is revealed quietly, behind doors, coming to the edge of crumbling without a hint to the public. In some ways it is insidiously subtle; Jiggs knows the threat is real, but in fighting to be heard, you sense his self-doubt. It isn't so much that he doesn't believe in his end goal, but rather that the forces against him are so relentless that he struggles to keep his focus and moral grounding.
While these major players drive the action, they make victims of their foot soldiers. The emotionally exhausted Holbrook is already down when Jiggs further betrays her trust. In their quest for truth presidential advisor Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O'Brien) become casualties of their own patriotism. It is a trio of moving performances, all of them pawns in different ways.
March and Lancaster communicate their entitlement smoothly.Their characters are more alike than they'd care to admit, both of them in power because of their ability to ask for sacrifice and their ferocity in standing by their beliefs. It was interesting to see two actors with such bold personas playing low-key roles. Still, though they are more subtle, but you can see the confidence surging beneath the surface.
A fascinating commentary by John Frankenheimer is the sole Special Feature on the Blu-ray.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.