About Nondisposable Johnny

John Ross blogs from Havana, Florida. He works for a living so please don't take it personally if he doesn't get back to you right away.

WHAT OLD HOLLYWOOD COULDN’T DO…THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (And Then There Was Hollywood: Ninth Rumination)

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
D. John Huston

John Huston shot a two-hour version of Stephen Crane’s lean, mean novel of war that he went to his grave considering his masterpiece. Considering all Huston had done with the rest of his time was helm The Maltese Falcon,  The Asphalt Jungle, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Misfits, Fat City, Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead (just to hit a few high points), that’s saying something. Having just seen his Red Badge for the first time, I”m inclined to think he might not have just been woofin’.

My first thought when the film began, though, was “Oh, no.”

It has that Old Hollywood Narration that almost always meant ponderous with a capital “P.” This was no exception. More like Exhibit A.

It wasn’t the words (which were mostly straight from Crane), but the tone. It always said, You Are Now in the Presence of Art. Never louder than here.

The shame is that, my second impression–borne out by nearly every frame of the movie that followed–was that, if ever a movie didn’t need such claptrap, it was this one.

Huston fought furiously, with support from his star, an even more perfectly cast than you could imagine Audie Murphy, to keep the film intact, at or near its original two-hour running length. Instead, after a poor preview, the studio cut it to a truly crippling 69 minutes, turning it into a B-level feature on the level of Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle.

And adding the dread Narration.

The suits then proceeded to destroy the pruned footage. When they approached Huston decades later, in hopes of restoring it for a post-Viet Nam-So-The-World’s-Finally-Ready-For-It re-release, he had lost his personal print.

And you wonder why directors drank?

Absent a miraculous discovery of a surviving original print (unlikely but not impossible–Crane’s original novel had been censored as well, and has only been restored to its full length in recent decades), we have what we have.

Which is still well worth seeing.

What remains certainly catches the spirit of a novel that might well have been deemed unfilmable in any age. Despite its brevity and lack of pretension, The Red Badge of Courage pointed the way towards nearly everything that was good in literary modernism. Even in truncated form, the movie may well have done the same for the modern battle film. It seems likely that Daryl Zancuk, who made The Longest Day and Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg), were aware of it–though even they didn’t catch up to Red Badge‘s signature achievement, which is catching the tone of every aspect of battle. The lead up’s state of endless boredom crossed with an air of anticipation that amounts to an unscratched itch is matched by combat’s uncertainty and head-spinning anarchy of emotions–dread one minute, fear the next, then exhilaration and, finally, resignation, as the generals march the survivors off the ground they’ve risked all to take.

When our national epitaph is written by the keepers of some near or distant future, they’re sure to note that Huston’s film–likely turned into a pulled punch by studio interference in the name of commercial considerations which yielded no fruit**–was made at almost the exact instant when Americans lost their ability to imagine war as a matter of taking and holding ground. Every soldier who has fought one of our “holding actions” that began when Matthew Ridgway  (wisely) stopped at the 38th parallel in Korea during the very moments The Red Badge of Courage was being chopped up on the cutting floor, would nonetheless recognize the attitudes of the soldiers who march away at the end of the film, unsure of what exactly it was they fought for. No American solider since Red Badge was made and mutilated has been asked to hold any ground he took. Too much trouble for this strange sort of Empire we’ve built, which has all a traditional Empire’s burdens and moral compromises, and very few of its common rewards.

One needn’t be entirely existential, though, to appreciate this Red Badge on its considerable surviving merits.

In addition to Huston’s fine feel for every aspect of battle’s tedium, fatigue, excitement and even glamour (fully catching the spirit of Churchill’s old line about being shot at and missed as life’s most “exhilarating” experience)–not to mention the full-blooded ironies of fear of cowardice turning into the real thing as readily as fear of being thought a coward creating a false courage which also turns into the “real” thing, the very elements I would have thought impossible to catch without Crane’s language)–there is also the superb cast.

Here you can find the very best work of Arthur Hunnicut, Royal Dano, John Dierkes and Murphy himself, every one of them laid in the shade by WWII’s most famous cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, as the youngest, greenest recruit. I saw his name in the credits and then promptly forgot to look for him until the final credits, when he was revealed as “Wilson,” a part he embodied so fully it never occurred to me it might have been an amateur acting in his first film. He made another the same year and never acted again as anyone but himself. More’s the pity.

Perhaps he was playing himself here as well. God knows he had seen enough Up Front to have some idea of how first-timers behaved before, during and after their first combat. In any case, his performance here is the jewel in a substantial crown.

We will win no more wars. But The Red Badge of Courage, even in its present still-mutilated state, can hold its place on the small list of films which remind us–and the future–of what was required, back when victory was deemed something more than a luxury.

Bill Mauldin and Audie Murphy: The Red Bade of Courage

[NOTE: **The movie bombed anyway–testimony to a kind of cowardice beyond the ken of even this, the most famous American study on the subject.]

WE ALL GOTTA BE BORN SOME TIME, SOMEWHERE, IN SOME COUNTRY OR OTHER….(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #116)

I normally don’t think much about Easy Rider. I saw the movie somewhere along the way and my general reaction was “I guess you had to be there.”

Then I ran across Ileana Douglas’ top ten movies at the Criterion Collection website (which you can view here), which led me to her twitter page, which led me to her podcasts, which you can sample here–highly recommended, just be sure you have some time on your hands because it’s kind of addicting.)

But one quote from her comments on the first time she saw Easy Rider stuck out.

…let me tell you, the first time I saw it on TV, all cut up, I thought: This is the movie that ruined our lives and turned us into dirty hippies? I just didn’t get it.

By “our’ and “us” she meant her own family, especially her father, who took the movie for a road map on how to live the rest of his life, an obsession that was bound to have an effect on his then five-year-old daughter.

Her father, as it happened, was the son of a famous Hollywood actor who called himself Melvyn Douglas (the family name was Hesselberg). Douglas herself, chose her grandfather’s profession and adopted his surname. And eventually she came to terms with both her “dirty hippy” upbringing and Easy Rider. Hence its inclusion in her Top Ten Criterion films (which I recommend reading in full–on top of her abundantly self-evident charms, she’s an excellent writer).

I’ll probably watch Easy Rider again at some point. Movies sometimes grown with repeated viewings. And no movie can be entirely withouh existential interest if the main characters are based on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby.

And I’ll keep Ms. Douglas’ reassessment in mind.

But I’m pretty sure one thing will stick in my craw. That’s the ending, which imagines the Modern Southern Redneck, not as the natural ally of hippie culture that he was (I’m speaking as someone who grew up around as many rednecks as Ileana did hippies), but as an extension of the Klan, come out from under the sheets and gone hunting hippies.

One can never say something-or-other didn’t happen to somebody-or-other somewhere-or-other some-time-or-other.

Maybe somewhere, sometime, some hillbilly killed a hippy for the frivolous reasons presented in Easy Rider (frivolous as in “I just don’t like them sons-a-bitches. Let’s shoot ’em!”)

For a better look at the real flavor of backwoods’ paranoia, I’d recommend Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, which came out in the early eighties (and seemed to take something out of Hill, who was never quite the same again).

But you can get the gist from the music that defined the relationship between the hillbillies and the hippies–Charlie Daniel’s “Long-Haired Country Boy,” Hank Williams Jr.’s truly paranoid “Country Boy Can Survive,” and especially Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” which circles back to Viet Nam, catches up the whole story and brings it to its natural conclusion.

The message from the hardcore hillbilly has been the same going all the way back to the Scottish highlands.

Best leave me the hell alone.

In this respect, at least, Easy Rider took the easy way out.

Just like the rest of the country.

Left us with the movie–and the world–that defined my childhood…Which was much tougher, much funnier, didn’t tell a single lie, and didn’t have the answers either.

May have to write about that some day.

Meanwhile, I’ll just keep in touch with that other world I didn’t quite grow up in the usual way. By listening…

 

I’M SHOCKED–SHOCKED!–TO DISCOVER….

…That the men who took over Pop Culture the moment the punks and the Overlords conspired to punch a hole in the side of Rock and Roll America’s boat didn’t quite grasp why there were so many songs about sixteen-year-old girls and exactly none about fifteen-year-old girls….

…unless, of course, you’re telling them to go away…

I knew there was some reason I always liked the second Indiana Jones movie best. Pretty sure no one ever imagined Kate Capshaw as a twelve-year-old.

[NOTE–And, yes, I know who directed American Graffiti–and then proceeded to never grow up.]

THE DREAM? IT WENT THATAWAY….(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #115)

Between Twitter, Facebook and the Blogosphere, I follow at least one of everybody. There’s no other way to keep up these days and, honestly, all of ya’ll bear watching.

I keep most of what I find to myself, but there was something today that forces me to respond.

Not there. It wouldn’t do any good, no matter where “there” happened to be.

Whatever social media was supposed to be in theory, in the mean old world where it operates, it’s an echo chamber where people go to feel and express two emotions at the exclusion of all else: rage and the warm glow of being told they are right….about everything.

Today, the extreme right wing white nationalist I follow on twitter linked to a record by a white man.

It was the first time she had heard it and  she was compelled to comment on it’s incredible beauty. By her profile she looks to be twenty-something. By her tart responses to anyone foolish enough to confront her on her own turf, she’s highly intelligent (extremists of every stripe often are).

She responded to this particular song as though it were an incredible piece of her white heritage which had been kept from her by the dark forces of a lost world.

She could hear it only as an example of white pride–could believe such things have been pushed to the margins (where their very creation is no longer conceivable in this Brave New World), and kept from her only by an insane application of diversity theory.

That’s the problem with throwing your Culture away.

When some piece of it bobs up among the waves that swept you away, whoever is looking for a life raft is apt to grab on….and make of it what they will.

The song?

What do you think.

By who?

Who do you think.

Just try to imagine hearing it for the first time on the other side of whatever journey brought that highly intelligent young woman to the place where she is now….a place where it sounds as it if could have emerged from those waves only after a thousand years of what she has convinced herself is the only viable reality….

Goodbye us.

I do sort of wonder what she’ll make of this, if she follows the YouTube thread…

Goodbye us?

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Checkmates, Ltd. Up)

“Love Is All I Have To Give”
The Checkmates, Ltd. (1969)
Did Not Chart
Recommended source: Back to Mono 1958-1969

The Checkmates (or Checkmates, Ltd.) were a lounge act Phil Spector became briefly enamored of in the late sixties when he was making the first of his many “comebacks.”

The other comebacks never amounted to much. He liked to latch on to some established act (a Beatle if he could get one, it not, almost anyone would do–The Ramones, Leonard Cohen, Dion) and lend his name to what they were already doing, sometimes with a pistol-waving incident or two thrown in.

But he had something prove with Checkmates, Ltd. They were unknowns, and he had a history of making hits with unknowns, the better to put himself at the center of their achievements.

He found success, too. His second release on them was “Black Pearl,” a big hit featuring the group’s tenor, Sonny Charles, in a spectacular performance that was one of the subtlest and deepest of the era’s protest-soul records.

But their first Spector release, which had gone nowhere, was just as powerful. It featured the group’s baritone, Bobby Stevens, on a record he had co-written with Spector.

Given the wunderkind’s habit of moving on once he had gotten what there was to get out of any given act, it’s an open question whether “Black Pearl” would have received the same loving care if this had been recorded first (unclear whether it was), released first (it was) and been a hit (it wasn’t).

Stevens’ delivery was remarkable here–a rougher voiced Ray Charles. Ray without the genius if you like….

…which only makes the ache burn a little deeper.

And, yes, it still sounds like a Phil Spector record.

TRACKING PHIL SPECTOR….(CD Review)

A few days back, Greil Marcus, who trashed Phil Spector’s Back to Mono box when it came out, recommended it to someone who wanted to know where she should start if she wanted to get to know Spector’s music.

Very Trumpian I thought–doubly so if he was just being mean–but it did put me in the mood to revisit the box…on headphones.

Listening to Spector at this distance creates an audio equivalent of double-vision for us obsessives. No matter how glorious the sound in your ears is, and no matter how completely you are able to forget the gentleman is a psychopathic murderer, there is always the high probability that someone, somewhere has written about how, in order to really hear it, you need to have the original Philles single…and maybe a Bang and Olufsen (at least) to play it on.

Or the rare European-only vinyl pressing from the sixties.

Or the original tapes that somebody heard in their “truest” form on some bootleg version that was playing down the hall while they were meditating in their college dorm in 1968.

Or when they were hanging out with Phil at his home studio during the first of his several hundred retirements back in the sixties.

I’m not sure all those people are wrong either.

I can personally attest that the reissue MGM 45 I purchased “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” on, which listed Bill Medley as the producer, blows all other versions away.

And, even if you can blow all that out of your head (and, when the best records are playing, you can), there’s still the fact that Phil Spector isn’t best heard on a box set featuring upwards of sixty tracks. His greatest work is too intense and his workaday efforts too mundane to make the experience anything but disorienting. Just when you’re thinking one more wall of *&&#@ strings will either make you drive a splinter under your eyelids or send you off to sleep, some bit of genius brings Paradise heaving back into view (though, not, I hasten to add, on the record of that name, on which the Shangri-Las blew the Ronettes away).

One thing I did notice this time around, though, was that Paradise came heaving into view most often according to a distinct pattern.

Again and again, my cheap headphones (ain’t no Bang and Olufsen at my house, alas) kept delivering the notion that Spector did his best work when he was working with a new voice.

And, usually, it was a Seasoned Pro’s voice.

Gene Pitney…

Darlene Love….

Ronnie Spector (the partial exception to the Seasoned Pro rule–she had made records but was still living at home when he met her)…

Bill Medley….

Bobby Hatfield…

Tina Turner…

Sonny Charles…

In every case, Spector soon tired of whatever quality he had heard in them…and (with a brief exception for Darlene Love, whose power he diluted by parceling out her records under various names, least often her own) subsequent productions–or business arrangements–suffered accordingly.

The usual method for burying anyone who hung around too long (usually no more than a record or two), was to do just that.

Bury them.

Their voices anyway.

Because one thing Phil Spector liked to remind all his singers of, was his ability to make them go away, often at the very moment when one more brilliant arrangement (usually provided by Jack Nitzsche, though there were others), was begging for the Wall of Sound to be dialed back a bit and let the lead singer shine.

The one exception was the former Ronnie Bennett.

Her voice, he was never quite able to tame.

God knows he tried.

On record after record.

And when that didn’t quite work–when he couldn’t quite make her irrelevant to her own records the way he had done with literally everyone else, even Darlene Love–he found other ways. Like marrying her and locking her up in his mansion and killing her career and tormenting her for years until she ran away (carrying her shoes down the mansion’s driveway so she wouldn’t make any noise) and finally stalking her and terrorizing her with death threats everybody thought she was crazy to take so seriously until he finally acted out on Lana Clarkson.

The gift she left him was a box set that bends, but never quite breaks.

Nearly all the hidden treasures are hers.

“WOWSA” AND ART WITH A CAPITAL “A” (At the Multiplex: July, 2017…Redux)

Well, I saw two more “now showing” movies in July, in addition to Baby Driver, which I wrote about here. Just thought I would sum them up for you:

Wonder Woman (d. Patty Jenkins) and Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan)

These pictures are all there is to know about either movie.

[As movies, that is. I’m leaving out the Think Pieces devoted to wondering why Hollywood posters now feature so many women with their shapely rears turned to the camera or knowing why so many aging Brits who survived Dunkirk now insist it wasn’t worth it.]

Both movies and Think Pieces came to the same, unstated conclusion.

On Earth, wanking is all ye know…and all ye need know.

CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose Ends #115)

A painting by Winston Churchill….

Gifted to Vivien Leigh, the lead in his favorite film, That Hamilton Woman, in 1951, the year A Streetcar Named Desire was released…

…featuring the performance of which she later wrote, Blanche “is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

I’ve always wondered if she tipped Brando as well. It couldn’t have been easy for the Method actor to watch someone demonstrate a level of commitment neither he nor anyone could match by breaking down mentally in front of him (and a  movie camera)…because the part demanded it.

In any case, she was sent home from her next film set in a strait jacket.

She kept Churchill’s painting by her bed for the rest of her life, so it would be the first thing she saw when she woke up.

She only made 53, but I’m inclined to believe the painting may have added a year or two.

The painting is being auctioned off by her grandchildren in September. One more thing I wish I hadn’t lived to see….

Though I’d probably feel different if I had the money to buy it!

HERE’S TO SATURDAY…AND SMILING (June Foray, R.I.P.)

“[Jay] and Bill Scott [head writer and voice of Bullwinkle J. Moose] started telling me about this idea they had about a moose and a squirrel. I thought it was a cockeyed idea, but after the second martini, I thought it was wonderful.”

(June Foray, to the Los Angeles Times, in 2011. She was the voice of Rocky the Squirrel, Natasha Fatale, Cindy Lou Who…and hundreds more who stayed in our heads, even if we had to watch cartoons at the neighbor’s house. Having worked into the twenty-first century, she died yesterday, eight weeks short of her 100th birthday. If you’re counting up those in Hollywood who spread more happiness, you won’t need your second hand….or your second finger.)