Monday, July 25, 2016

Cavalcade of Comedy

In 1933 Fox released a big budget film version of Noel Coward's play Cavalcade. You'd think the last thing American audiences would want to see at the height of the Depression would be a worshipful portrait of the British upper classes before WWI, but Cavalcade was a monster hit and even won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Later in the decade, just before the outbreak of WWII, Fox produced another nostalgic look at pre-Depression life, this time concerning the early days of the film industry, and titled it Hollywood Cavalcade.

The film details the silent-era ups and downs of a director based on Mack Sennett -- who himself appears, along with various Sennett veterans as well as Buster Keaton. Keaton is shown inventing the pie fight when he accidentally hits Alice Faye with a custard pie (in fact Keaton was never a pie throwing comedian):   

The highlight of HC is an extended B&W chase sequence directed by Sennett veteran Mal St. Clair, featuring Buster and the Keystone Kops (though that name is never used) which borrows some ideas from Keaton's motorcycle scene in Sherlock Jr. However the use of rear screen blunts its impact.

Unfortunately, after an amusing first half HC devotes the rest of its running time to a Star Is Bornish soap opera, whereupon director Alan Ameche gets too big for his britches and ignores the only woman he could ever love thus descending into alcoholic degradation etc etc etc... Curiously, the very similar The Comic would repeat this pattern thirty years later -- first half fascinating silent comedy detail, second half soap.  

Still, even in the second half there are interesting moments, as when Ameche goes to a theater and sees the audience wowed by this new movie The Jazz Singer. This sequence features Al Jolson and was specially shot for the film. I am willing to bet Comden and Green saw Hollywood Cavalcade before writing Singin' In The Rain, as both films share several plot points.  

Hollywood Cavalcade is fascinating for movie buffs as it presents an early Hollywood perspective on the silent era -- Nostalgia on its way to History. There are dozens of references to various aspects of silent cinema: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is seen (from behind) and someone even calls out his first name -- six years after his death, he could finally appear in a major studio feature; in a bathing beauties scene Ameche directs young starlets ("Mabel! Don't look down! Move your head a little to the right!"); there is even a subtle reference to Sam Goldwyn's "Eminent Authors" fiasco.  

But my favorite such moment is when we see the Director reject an aspiring actor (for whom in real life Fox honcho Darryl Zanuck had written scripts in the '20s). He later becomes the #1 star in movies: Rin Tin Tin. 

Hollywood Cavalcade never quite makes classic status, but the first half is an amusing tribute to silent comedy and the entire film has an abundance of interesting detail. I certainly found it more entertaining than the original Cavalcade.


David Wolper was a Hollywood producer
who specialized in documentaries. His preferred method was to use as much PD or cheap-to-acquire footage as conceivably possible (William Friedkin's recent memoir gives an amusing portrait of Wolper's M.O.).

In the early '60s he sold a series to ABC called Hollywood and The Stars, consisting mostly of library and newsreel clips, with wraparounds from host Joseph Cotten. The H&TS episode on movie monsters is still fondly remembered by horror aficionados who saw it as kids, but the one that concerns us is "Funny Men", broadcast on November 29, 1963, exactly one week after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Clearly inspired by the compilation films of archivist Robert Youngson (I'm sure we'll discuss him at a later date) then playing in theaters, there are a couple of interesting things here: for one, this may be the first time Chaplin's City Lights rehearsal footage was ever seen publicly. And if I'm not mistaken the man with Fred Allen is none other than an unrecognizable Clifton Webb. Straight man, indeed.

The Marx Brothers are only mentioned in passing, and if Hal Roach was mentioned at all I missed it. Roach's discoveries Laurel & Hardy are seen only in a brief clip from and English newsreel. I guess Wolper was taking no chances with usage rights.

Cotten's intro to part 2 is worth waiting for.

The episode's writer, Irwin Rosten, is unknown to me -- checking IMDb he appears to have specialized in documentaries, and worked a lot for Wolper. But movie buffs will know the "Funny Men" director - Jack Haley Jr made a career out of Hollywood nostalgia, which reached its zenith a decade later with Haley's That's Entertainment.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It was perhaps the greatest comic premise ever. In 1964 Paramount asked Neil Simon if he had promising ideas, and he sent them back this:

Two divorced men, one a slob and the other compulsively neat, move in together to save money so they can pay their alimony – but they soon learn they have the same conflicts with each other that they'd had with their wives.

Paramount was no dummy, as movie studios go. It bought the rights immediately.

The concept wasn't completely new for Simon. His first hit play, Come Blow Your Horn, concerned a naive young man who moves in with his swinging bachelor older brother. Simon's next hit, Barefoot In The Park, dealt with two newlyweds moving into their first apartment, and getting accustomed to each other. So the “Simon Situation” of opposites thrown together was already established (and would still be going strong well into the '70s in scripts like The Goodbye Girl).

But it was the brilliant simplicity of The Odd Couple, with its central relationship mocking a marriage, that really established the formula.

Variations go back at least to Laurel & Hardy. The Honeymooners had done a classic episode where Ralph is laid off and Alice has to take a job, resulting in Ralph staying home and tending to the housekeeping. This led to the inevitable and irresistible scene of Alice coming home after a hard day's work to be greeted by Ralph in an apron wanting to go out: “It's okay for you Alice, you get to go out and see people. All I do is sit here and stare at these four walls all day!”.

Such parodies of the oft-maligned 1950s marriage may seem dated to some, but got huge laughs at the time. Perhaps even more significant for our purposes was an episode where Ralph and Norton are forced to share a train compartment – guess who gets on Ralph's nerves? You can clearly see The Odd Couple situation here in utero.

Through coincidence or fate, The Odd Couple debuted on Broadway in early 1965 with none other than Art Carney, The Honeymooners' Norton, in the role of Felix the neatnik. And Oscar the slob was played by the actor for whom Simon conceived the character, Walter Matthau. (Matthau was not terribly eager to play Oscar. He told Simon he'd rather play Felix, as it was a challenge; Oscar was too easy, he wouldn't even have to act for it. Simon replied, “In this play you'll be Oscar. Go act on your own time.”)

The Odd Couple was an immediate hit, winning Matthau a Tony and landing him the role of Whiplash Willie in Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie with Jack Lemmon – and a new team was born.

Matthau's successor as Oscar was Jack Klugman.

Jack Klugman on Broadway in The Odd Couple, with Eddie Bracken as Felix.

Although Carney seemed overshadowed in The Odd Couple's success, for a moment it looked like it might pay off in a big way for him – there was talk of pairing Carney with Jackie Gleason in a film version. Gleason had expressed interest in doing The Odd Couple – but not as Oscar. He wanted to play Felix. Maybe he needed to be seen as fastidious rather than sloppy, or maybe he sought a Matthauesque acting challenge – who can guess the reason? Carney was willing to move over to Oscar, but this casting was dropped in favor of Lemmon and Matthau, who had shown they could work superbly together in The Fortune Cookie.

Despite unimaginative direction by Gene Saks (the possibility of Wilder as director was dismissed as an unnecessary expense) the film version was a smash. In his memoirs Paramount production chief Robert Evans credited its success with keeping the studio from being shut down.

Almost immediately talk started about a TV adaptation of The Odd Couple. Tony Randall was soon cast as Felix, while Mickey Rooney was offered the role of Oscar (the two had appeared together in a stage production in Las Vegas, and Randall felt they had good chemistry).

Rare photos of the 1967 production of The Odd Couple at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas:  Featured with Randall and Rooney are Buddy Lester as Murray the cop (he's armed, so we hope it's Murray he's playing) with boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson and Bing Crosby's son Gary.

But Rooney turned the offer down. Shortly before this had turned down the role of Archie Bunker in All In The Family. Nice going there, Mick.

So the series producer, former Dick Van Dyke Show and Lucy Show writer Garry Marshall, pushed his choice for Oscar: Jack Klugman. This suggestion was quickly nixed by ABC, who insisted Klugman was a dramatic actor and couldn't play comedy (a notion that predictably infuriated the cantankerous Klugman – besides, hadn't they seen him on Broadway?). But Marshall stood firm, and ABC's inability to come up with an acceptable alternative resulted in Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as The Odd Couple for five seasons.

Garry Marshall died earlier this week. The obituaries invariably mentioned his megahits Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley (itself a disguised Odd Couple) and Mork & Mindy (ditto), and his various film successes. A few noted his frequent comic cameos (usually much better than the film or TV episode he was gracing with his presence) and one or two cultists like myself remembered his great scene as the casino rep in Albert Brooks' Lost in America.

But The Odd Couple is his crowning achievement. For me Randall and Klugman are the all time greatest TV comedy team (and yes, I'm including Gleason and Carney). A team we wouldn't have had if Gary Marshall hadn't dug in his heels and insisted on casting a “dramatic actor” in a comedy.

Monday, July 18, 2016

In 1957 the popular TV western Gunsmoke filmed an episode entitled "Buffalo Man", about a vicious buffalo skinner (John Anderson) who mistreats a young woman traveling with him.

Jack Klugman, fresh from 12 Angry Men, makes an early Hollywood appearance as the skinner's partner.

The episode's climax is a brutal (by 1957 TV standards) fistfight between Anderson and James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon.

For some reason, the dailies (rushes) and outtakes from this episode were saved instead of being thrown out. You can see some of them here:

In 1959 this footage, or at least the climactic fight scene, was featured in an instructional film entitled Film Editing: Interpretation and Values, put out by the A.C.E. (American Cinema Editors), the Hollywood editors union. This film showed the Gunsmoke scene as cut by three editors, and explored the various differences in their cuts.

By the '80s and the film school boom these dailies were being used by many film programs for an editing exercise: use the various takes and different angles to create a re-edited scene. This is still being done; I found this project description from UNLV (the same institution where Ray Dennis Steckler – writer and director of Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies – was once a film professor, but that's another story):

Many film students have uploaded their versions to YouTube:

There have been all sorts of re-edits: music videos, Marshal Dillon made into the villain… I think this one is my favorite; it's not only funny but it's one of the few I've seen to recut the sound as well as the visuals: 

From IMDb's entry for actor John Anderson: 

The episode "Buffalo Man", climaxed with a brutal fistfight between his character, Ben Siple, and James Arness' Marshal Matt Dillon. This action scene, from its build-up to its dénouement, would become the common sequence upon which generations of budding editors would cut their teeth in film school. This sequence also features Jack Klugman, who would later co-star with Anderson in the classic "A Passage for Trumpet" episode of The Twilight Zone (1959). Shortly before his death, Anderson remarked that it was Klugman who informed him, many years after the filming of their Gunsmoke episode, that they had become legendary among film editors for their ubiquitous presence in student editing bays.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Micheál MacLiammóir (1899-1978) began life in London under the much more prosaic name Alfred Willmore. A child actor like his contemporary and friend Noel Coward, he worked in the British theatre through the 1920s when he ended up in Dublin, Ireland. With his partner Hilton Edwards he founded Dublin's Gate Theatre and established it as a successful rival to the city's venerable Abbey Theatre.

In 1931 a precocious American showed up at The Gate, claiming to be a Broadway star and virtually demanding to be hired as an actor. That assertive teenager, one Orson Welles, made his professional stage debut later that year in The Gate's production of Jew Suss, playing the elderly Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg while only sixteen himself.

The young Orson Welles:

Cast list for the Gate production of Jew Suss, the stage debut of Orson Welles:

Welles once described Micheál MacLiammóir as looking “like something Beardsley would have drawn if they'd taken away his erasers.” I'm not sure what that means either. Maybe he was referring to MacLiammóir's hilariously obvious hairpieces.

Welles and MacLiammóir (with Eartha Kitt, left), probably in the early 1950s:

Outside of his work with The Gate MacLiammóir is best remembered for his superb performance as Iago in Welles' film of Othello:

In 1960 MacLiammóir put together a one man show on Oscar Wilde called The Importance Of Being Oscar. He was far too old for the role (just as he'd been for Iago) and for all his talent he lacked the playful frivolity of Wilde. Nevertheless the production became an international triumph, running on Broadway and eventually on worldwide tour.

MacLiammóir explores aspects of Wilde in The Unimportance Of Being Oscar:

In 1964 MacLiammóir recreated his performance for television; by some miracle, a kinescope of this production has survived:

As stated MacLiammóir was too old for the charmingly witty young upstart, a role for which he was temperamentally unsuited anyway. Instead he emphasized the post-prison Wilde, tired but not yet defeated, not bitter but not wholly accepting of his lot. It's a fascinating performance and not to be missed.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What Might Have Been: The Dean's List (Pt. III)

This brings us up to the '70s. Dean would have turned 40 in 1971; it's difficult to guess how he would have proceeded without knowing whether he'd have been a leading man or a character lead (Stewart Granger: "I never aged into a character actor. I'm just an old leading man").

A problem for Dean would have been the waning of rural American cinema: westerns and Southern melodramas/character studies a la Williams and Faulkner. The increasing suburbanized nation would curiously become more and more urbanized cinematically.

Clint Eastwood managed to survive this by updating the western formula to Dirty Harry. I have trouble seeing Dean as a gung ho cop – I actually think he would have been more comfortably cast as Scorpio (if you're saying “too old”, remember the role was intended for, I kid you not, Audie Murphy). Few of Eastwood's non-western roles would have suited Dean. One I can see him trying is Escape From Alcatraz, basically Birdman meets The Great Escape.

Warren Oates after The Wild Bunch had a brief period of leading roles. I can see Dean in most of them: Two Lane Blacktop, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, The Wild Bunch itself. But Oates could not maintain his stardom, which may tell us something of how Dean would have done in trying to be a character star.

Jack Nicholson has always struck me as the polished up Warren Oates:  not quite as eccentric, not quite as intimidating.  I think Dean might have been comfortable in a number of Nicholson roles – can't you seem him pushing lunch onto the diner floor in Five Easy Pieces?  I see Dean playing either role in the Nicholson-Brando The Missouri Breaks, but then it was a western. Dean might have worked well as McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Of course the character is a rebel, but not explicitly connected to youth angst. Nicholson isn't bad, but Dean might have given it more menacing unpredictability, in the manner of Warren Oates and his legendary L.A. little theater performance of 1966 (the theatrical production I most wish I could have seen). 

But I don't think Dean would have been comfortable in Chinatown. He just doesn't seem to fit as a cop/detective. Neither really did Paul Newman (with the partial exception of Harper) which may help explain the decline in his great film roles after the '60s.

I also can't see Dean in any of The Godfather roles, even Tom Hagen. I can see Dean in another Duvall part from that year, as the good-ole-boy heavy in the Clint Eastwood western Joe Kidd (which I actually consider superior to his Godfather performances -- it's one of the great western villains). Most of Duvall's other notable roles are too overbearing for the introspective Dean.

Could Dean have done Apocalypse Now? Not Duvall's role, the lead. It was offered to McQueen and Caan (among many others) before ending up with the less-than-ideal Martin Sheen. It would have been another Dean-Brando pairing, after The Chase ("Brando and Dean -- TOGETHER AGAIN!!"). 

Gene Hackman, one year older than Dean, finally achieved stardom in The French Connection, as a rogue cop. As I've said I don't think that sort of role would have been successful for Dean. The one Hackman part I can see Dean in is The Conversation – inner-directed and confused, instead of storming the streets busting heads.

Bruce Dern, like Warren Oates, had a brief period of leading roles in the '70s, but he never struck me as a leading man. Maybe Dean could have played unpleasant Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (perhaps Dern's best role). Another possibility is Coming Home, as the career soldier who turns out to be more confused than committed. Note that both of these were supporting parts, not leads.

Last time we pondered Dean instead of Robert Blake in In Cold Blood. Dean could also have played the vengeful Indian in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (or maybe the Marshal played by Robert Redford – he couldn't possibly have been duller than the latter) or the motorcycle patrolman in Electra Glide In Blue –  a rare cop role that might have worked with Dean. Blake – described by Richard Boone in the early '60s as “the new Brando” -- would go on to his greatest success in the self-parody of TV's Baretta. Could Dean have ended up there?

Burt Reynolds got one of the last great Southern roles in Deliverance, and then became a superstar by spoofing the character type in the Golden Age of Redneck Cinema. Burt's biggest problem was that when he jumped out of the saddle or the Trans Am, he seemed completely out of place.  Reynolds was perhaps the star hardest hit by the decline of the western. Previous stars such as  Glenn Ford, Dana Andrews and even Fred MacMurray had been able to extend their careers by 5-10 years thanks to westerns – but that career trail was no longer open to Reynolds. Once the fashion for Good Ole Boy epics waned, so did his time in features, and he ended up on TV with astonishing speed.

So many of Reynolds' films are self-parodying or self-referential (self, self, self; we're definitely in the Me Decade, and starting the Age of Irony)  that I can't see Dean trying them (or don't want to see it). I certainly hope he wouldn't have ended up in Cannonball Run, even in a cameo (or a Camero). Of course there's Deliverance  (in the Voight or Reynolds roles), but I can't see any others. Reynolds was a new kind of star. Not a comedian, but not to be taken seriously either.  That doesn't really jibe with Dean's extreme eartnestness.

And after the '70s, what? Would James Dean have aged into a character actor? I think he would have done it more successfully than Paul Newman, who was still a leading man, an old leading man, in his 70s. I can see Dean doing character leads and then straight character parts, occasionally returning to the stage. Perhaps he would have been Jor-El in Superman or The Joker in Batman, and cleaned up financially like Brando and Nicholson did. 

But we'll never know. James Dean died much too young, and we never got to see him grow as an actor. But then, we never saw him get fat like Brando or do Nike commercials like Dennis Hopper. In one sense, a thoughtlessly selfish sense, maybe that was a good thing.