ROMAN HOLIDAY IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR (And Then There Was Hollywood….Fifth Rumination)

Roman Holiday (1953)
D. William Wyler

There’s a famous anecdote about the discovery of Audrey Hepburn, from the notoriously unreliable Anita Loos, which is too good not to be true.

Colette, the famous French authoress of the Gigi stories, had refused all English language requests for rights to the stories for decades until she saw Loos’s stage adaptation of her own Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She agreed to sell the Broadway rights to Gigi if Loos would do the book. Loos signed on.

The rights were bought, Loos wrote her adaption, the theater was booked and the cast and crew assembled. As the date for official rehearsals drew nigh, the only thing missing was an actress right for the title role. In the midst of the New York producers developing itchy scalps and premonitions of doom, Loos received a telegram from Colette that read:

Have found Gigi. Come at once.

Loos rounded up her pal Paulette Goddard (the actress who David Selznick had finally settled on for Scarlett O’Hara once upon a time, until the last second discovery of then virtually unknown Vivien Leigh altered the Cosmos) and they caught the overnight express to Paris.

When they arrived at their hotel, they were told that Colette had sent a package to their room.

In the room, they found a model’s portfolio lying on the bed. No message.

Loos thumbed through the portfolio without comment. Then she handed it to Goddard.

Goddard leafed through the pictures, put the portfolio back on the bed and said:

“Maybe she lisps or something.”

Within a few weeks Audrey Hepburn was cast for the lead in the Broadway version of Gigi.

A star was born.

Except not quite.

Hepburn won good reviews on Broadway, but with only bit film roles to her credit (her cameo in The Lavender Hill Mob is dazzling) might well have been destined for a career limited to stage stardom….except that, just as her touring obligations to Gigi were winding down, Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons turned out to be unavailable for a script written by blacklisted screenwriting ace Dalton Trumbo, and William Wyler spotted her for his upcoming film, the first comedy he had done in nearly twenty years.

He called for a screen test. She passed. Gregory Peck got the male lead (which Cary Grant had turned down). They were off.

A few weeks into the shoot, Peck, who had a contract that stated only his name would appear above the title, called the producers and insisted Hepburn’s name be moved above the title as well.

It wasn’t altruism or self-deprecation, he later claimed.

He just didn’t want to look like an idiot.

Thus….a star was born.

I knew exactly none of that the first time I saw Roman Holiday.

TBS ran it after midnight when I was in college circa the very early eighties. I was then living in a studio apartment two blocks from FSU’s campus where I had learned to kill fleets of German cockroaches with my bare hands because I couldn’t always afford traps.

I could never reach the spray fast enough, and it was better than letting the nasty buggers get away.

The television was black and white. Nineteen inch.

Cable came with the rent and had maybe thirteen channels.

Roman Holiday had three and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide.

If  VHS existed, I didn’t know about it.

I was nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t know Audrey Hepburn from a stripper. Gregory Peck I’d heard of, which was more than I could say for William Wyler.

I’m setting the scene so you’l have a sense of the atmosphere in which I was struck by the lightning that struck Collette and Anita Loos and Paulette Goddard once upon a time.

I didn’t even have the defense mechanism available to Goddard.

Roman Holiday was a talkie and the talk was by Dalton Trumbo.

And Audrey Hepburn, she did not lisp.

*   *   *   *

For the next twenty-five years–until I grew old enough to understand John Ford–Roman Holiday was my favorite movie.

I only saw it half-a-dozen times, far less than I saw other movies that were nowhere near my favorite. Anyone who has seen it once might understand.

Yes, it is a comedy. But it is also an elegy and elegaic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy, not to mention the hardest kind of elegy. Even now, I’m not sure I want to examine its effects too closely. The degree to which Civilization has receded since 1980–let alone 1953–has made the final scene, a scene that made a friend of mine once declare “that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen,” punch even harder.

Was it really not so long ago that you could make a mainstream film introducing a breakout star (on her way to becoming a universally acknowledged icon and, less acknowledged, one of the best scene-for-scene actors in the history of film) with the expectation of an audience who understood that life, like glory, is fleeting?

Now there is no “mainstream,” hence, nowhere to for concepts like breaking out or iconography or history or film to go.

That’s the Lost World effect these days of a film that can, in production pitch terms, be described as a simple fairy tale: The Princess and the Peasant, though we’ve also traveled a distance that makes this variation–the Princess and the Newspaperman–even more far-fetched.

This is one of those rare movies that I revisit in hopes I’ll spot some way it might have taken a different turn, might have somehow come out different, knowing all the while such hopes are in vain.

I wonder if it would matter as much–hurt as much–if the social types who provide the narrative engine for Roman Holiday (or any romance, comedic or otherwise) were still recognizable in an Age when the human types barely are.

Whatever the consequences for Civilization, the consequences for story-telling have been devastating. Hard to expect individual stories to resonate when humanity itself has no narrative and, increasingly, no excuse for its own existence except consumption and excitement, the emptiest excuses us humans have so far been able to imagine.

More of everything please. That will sustain us!

Sure it will.

I think one reason Roman Holiday‘s absurdist tone and melancholy ending hit so hard in 1980 (harder as the years went by and I read the teeth-clenching reviews from the old codgers–Stanley Kaufman, David Thomson, the usual suspects–who wondered if you had to have lived through the War to really connect with it), is that I already knew the kind of stories I wanted to write weren’t going to have any agency in the world I was going to have to live in.

Looking back, I’m not surprised I was “clinically depressed” in those days and that Roman Holiday, wonderful as it was and is, only deepened that depression. It’s a bit disorienting to realize, all at once, that the world isn’t going to produce any more Audrey Hepburns, not even in the fantasy world of the movies–that we’re all doomed to live in a time and place where, one way or another, everyone lisps.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2016 Edition)

As before, in reverse order, excluding Manchester By the Sea, which I wrote about here (17 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: As before, “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

December 11–From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it came to the multiplex and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since the eighties. And because it still packs a punch no matter the screen size. Strong hints of the stretched-beyond-reason formalism that would mark the rest of Zinnemann’s career are already present. The movie has a de-lib-er-ate pace. It’s as if Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who left Europe well before the rise of the Nazis and lost both his parents in the Holocaust, wanted to spend the rest of his career arresting time. No modern audience, bereft of memory, would sit still for it.

December 15–Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the thrill of it. When I saw this in the theater, nobody in a packed house twitched. That’s despite the fact that at least some, like me, must have known the ending, since it’s a film which takes few liberties with the last known plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I never tire of it. Perhaps because the real life event it depicts has that thing writers of fiction often spend entire lives searching for: the Perfect Plot. Singer made a decision to strip that Plot to its bare, pulp thriller bones and it moves. Going by in the background–and sinking in more with each repeated visit–is a depiction of a fully functioning police state which has rarely been bettered. And, finally, for Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg saying “No one will be spared” to a man whose execution date is printed across the final frame.

December 17–How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler, Umpteenth Viewing)

For those faces and who wouldn’t? Oh sure, it’s a lovely comedy caper about stealing that statue (and who wouldn’t?), which belongs to the face on the right. And, as she puts it so eloquently, “You don’t think I would steal something that didn’t belong to me?” But I’d watch those faces doing piano recitals or planting petunias. Who wouldn’t?

December 18–Fun With Dick and Jane (1977, Ted Kotcheff, Second Viewing)

Because I hadn’t seen it in a while and wanted to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good. It’s still not better than pretty good. It moves along okay and has some fun moments. Best bits are still when Jane’s “Jane” goes all feminist though–never stronger than in her two piece by the pool. That and trying to guess which Jane is striving to communicate with us across time and space.

December 19–In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray, Fourth Viewing)

To commend whatever higher power assured that the King and Queen of noir, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, made at least one film together, and that a director of Ray’s quality (he was then Grahame’s husband, though they were separated during the filming) was on hand to watch over things. It’s one of the few truly destabilizing films. There are no tricks–no surrealism, no funky dream sequences, no smoke dissolves, not even envelope-pushing sex or violence. The title is earned: by dialogue, performance, mood, setting, jagged rhythms. There’s interesting commentary in the new Criterion package which suggests both Bogart and Grahame were playing the screen characters closest to their real selves. Bogart’s real self would be dead in a few years. Grahame’s would end up sleeping with Ray’s son by another marriage when he was thirteen and marrying him when he was of age. None of that is in the plot here. All of it is in the air There’s a reason I’ve only seen it four times despite it being one of the ten best films I’ve seen once.

December 19–Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sidney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because who doesn’t want to relive 1975? Of course, everything 1975 dreaded, which this film does a fine job of conveying, has long since come and gone. Everything except one thing: the persistent metastasizing of the Security State. The movie slows down a bit too much in the middle but the beginning and end couldn’t be better, or more prescient.

December 23–Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Anthony Mann’s last great western and Gary Cooper’s last great performance. And for a thousand grace notes along the way, with Arthur O’Connell’s ability to wring tragedy from the fate of a cowardly fool touching me deepest this time around. Oh, and nobody could stage shootouts like Mann. Nor could anyone so deeply personalize violence….and never more deeply than here, where the set up is comic and the payoffs so indelibly brutal that the comedy goes clean out of my head and finds me utterly unprepared for it the next time around. Which might be why the have-done-with-it courage of Julie London’s rape victim (first spiritually, then physically, and it’s hard to say which is worse) never quite struck all the way home before.

December 25–Tiger Bay (1959, J. Lee Thompson, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of the great thrillers; for the lively presence of working class, dockside Wales just before it was swept under by the tides of History; for the decency of John Mills “being himself” subverting what could have been a Javert-like role; for all sorts of other good reasons. But, of course, mostly for the startling, unprecedented, presence of twelve-year-old Hayley Mills, subsequently unrivaled, even by her. That presence is force multiplied by the film’s real plot–and real tragedy–which is a love story between star-crossed outsiders, separated not so much by the circumstance of a murder one of them has committed, but by a stitch in time that has left them man and girl instead of man and woman or even man and teenager. Perhaps Gloria Grahame would have known what to do. Horst Bucholz’s Bronislav Korchinsky does not. It is perhaps not coincidence that his best English-language work occurs here, opposite the only actress who could have loosened him up.

December 26–Eye of the Needle (1981, Richard Marquand, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the finely etched performances by Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Ken Follett’s good source novel made the forgivable mistake of portraying “The Needle”–a German super spy who has obtained knowledge certain of the Normandy invasion and is the only source an increasingly paranoid Hitler (see Valkyrie) trusts to give it to him straight–as a simple sociopath. More by the quality of his performance than anything obvious in the script, Sutherland conveys a man caught by a pang of conscience which cannot quite override his loyalty to a country he has not seen for years and must half-suspect he would no longer recognize. That allows Nelligan to become unhinged not so much by the presence of a monster, but the presence of this particular monster, who, only a minute before, seemed so much like a man she had dreamed into existence. That would frighten any woman into begging, “Stop. Please stop!” as she hunts him through the final scenes of one of the great modern thrillers. Marquand soon after got hung up in the universes of Star Wars and Bob Dylan and, coincidentally or not, died an early death. Who knows whether he had great things in him or this was just one of those lucky one-offs. I’ll continue to savor it, either way.

December 27–The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Forget Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford. This is the one where Gloria Grahame had chemistry with the carpet, not to mention the coffee pot. She looks like she could have sex with the air just by walking through it and leave the air begging for more. My favorite Lang and Lang is one of my Top Five directors. I have no idea why I can watch this truly disturbing movie over and over. I’m sure it does not speak well of me. But the way she says “And I did it!”  once the air and the coffee pots don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore is probably some sort of…influence.

Happy New Year!

MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.

REPUBLIC PICTURES BLOGATHON…ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (I Watch Westerns: Take One)

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Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s is hosting a blogathon devoted to Republic Pictures and he’s been kind enough to include me. I’m hardly in the league of the western devotees who frequent Toby’s place when it comes to deep knowledge of the subject, but I do have a deep connection to one of the studio’s signature films so I thought I’d put in my two cents. Please click over to 50 Westerns from the 50s (it’s on my regular blog roll or you can link here) and check out the other entries. You can have a lot of interest in Golden Age westerns and still learn something every time you visit either Toby’s site or Colin’s at Riding the High Country (also on my regular blogroll). I certainly do. They both have extensive blogrolls of their own, incidentally, which make for excellent adventures in further research.

For any of Toby’s readers who find yourself here for the first time, this is a pop culture site with a particular emphasis on classic rock and soul, so I don’t specialize in westerns (though I really need to get back to writing more about them). But I do write about them occasionally and I have a couple of ongoing categories devoted to John Ford which might be of interest and which I really do intend to get back to very shortly! They can be found in the blogroll at the right. You can also follow the links within the post to some further thoughts on Gail Russell, among other things. There’s also a friendly search engine if you want to look up, say, Anthony Mann or John Wayne. Please know that if you want to comment on an older piece I will see it and respond.

Now to business….

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What I know about Republic Pictures is what every junior grade film buff knows.

Herb Yates. Tight-fisted. Quick buck. No fancy-schmancy. Seat of your pants operation.

All the stuff you can pick up here and there from folks who may or may not know of whence they speak.

What I know about Angel and the Badman, besides it being made for Republic, is what I see when I pop it in one of the modern devices few were conceiving could give their day’s work such a long afterlife back in Republic’s not-quite-as-seat-of-the-pants-as-it-probably-seemed heyday.

All of which makes me think there is such a thing as cultural auteurism and that Republic’s was as distinctly American as real apple pie or double-header baseball or any of those other things that used to mark us off and now seem like relics of a rapidly receding, ever more elusive past.

I doubt any film the studio put out could have been made in Sweden or Italy.

Angel and the Badman certainly couldn’t.

It probably shouldn’t have amounted to much as it was, American or otherwise.

The director and producer were both first timers, albeit first timers who had worked their way around the block more than once in other capacities before they got to the head of those particular lines. The female lead was a notoriously shy ingenue whose life was already on the brink of wreckage and disaster. The supporting cast was purely stock, except for maybe the aging, silent-era cowboy taking on one of his last work-where-I-can-get-it character parts. The location shooting was solid but hardly inspired.

Going by his reputation, then, it’s about what you’d think Herb Yates would come up with circa 1947.

And, if so, more power to him. Or, if you like, more power to his memory and the memory of his little studio that could.

You stick your nose in there often enough, and you might occasionally–or even frequently–run into something that amounts to more than just a pretty good living.

Of course, sometimes, mostly later on, Yates would team up with a Frank Borzage or a John Ford, and the chance at making something enduring would lean in a little closer. But Angel and the Badman proved (as I’m sure plenty of his other specifically non-auteurish projects did, but I’m sticking to this one because it only takes one and this is the one I know best) he didn’t need all that.

It endures and it says something about us.

1947’s Oscar nominees combined could hardly claim more.

*  *  *  *

That first time producer was John Wayne and, if he weren’t such an iconic movie star, we might be more inclined to remember what a formidable producer he actually was.

He showed his savvy right here, at the beginning. The first time director he wanted, James Edward Grant, turned in a solid job and, though he only directed one more film, he also became Wayne’s favorite go-to screenwriter. The cripplingly shy female lead did what she often did and gave an indelible performance which nobody credited as “acting” no matter how unlike her other indelible non-acting performances, or how unlike anybody else’s pure acting job, it was. The aging cowboy put a beautiful capstone on his career without breaking a sweat. The stock company put the glue in the cracks just like they were supposed to.

And while this sort of thing happened a fair amount in Hollywood’s golden years, I’d argue the pieces rarely fell into place so beautifully as they did here.

The folks who read this aren’t likely to need reminding of Wayne’s own formidable acting skill, but I don’t see this one put among his top-line performances as often as it should be. It’s his great transitional role, delivered in the same year he made Red River (you want a lesson in acting, try a double bill of those two made-in-forty-six specials). Red River has been justly celebrated as the role where he stretched, matured, played older, got John Ford to admit “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.” It’s all of that.

But I’d argue that what he did here, working for himself, was just as grand. He took on the role of “the kid”–ultra-familiar to his core audience from dozens of truly B-westerns and serials, some of which, contracts being what they were, he kept right on playing after a similar role in Stagecoach made him a star–one last time.

And he made the kid’s transition into a world his character should have rejected out of hand seem not merely plausible but so inevitable that almost anyone watching the movie for the first time will have the satisfaction of seeing the change coming and saying, of course, to themselves when the final credits roll.

No mean trick that, because, by then, you might have forgotten who he really was at the beginning…a man even Gail Russell didn’t have at hello.

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A man who might have become Ethan Edwards as readily as he remained the Ringo Kid…

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And in case you wonder how much acting skill that took, her “hello” was in the old style, when everybody on a second-line Hollywood lot knew what nobody on any lot knows now, which is how to film an entrance.

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So, okay, maybe she doesn’t have him at hello. Nobody could. But she at least has his attention. Because nobody wouldn’t give her that.

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So forget the double bill. You could just watch that minute-and-a-half and have done with the acting class.

Because, in a sense, that’s the whole “movie” part of the movie right there.

The Quaker girl’s spell. The hell-raising cowboy’s attempt at resisting.

Her attempts to give in to him without losing herself. His attempt at remaining himself, and finding whether it will be worth it to give in.

Simple. You could probably explain it to Herb Yates in the traditional “you got two minutes.”

If Angel and the Badman stopped right there, just carried that story to any one of its logical conclusions (even the one Hollywood was bound to demand), it would, at very least, be what most critics, be they industrial or high-brow, seem to think. Entertaining diversion. Good little western. Not bad for a Republic effort. Etc., etc. etc.

Making the Angel a Quaker gives it more than a spin, though.

We don’t have a lot of narratives about Quakers. In American life, they’ve always punched way above their weight. Look at any movement toward freedom and you find them (abolition, women’s rights) or their principles (civil rights, war resistance) at the foundation. In American narrative, whether purveyed by novelists, dramatists, filmmakers or historians, they hardly register.

On that level, Angel and the Badman, probably conceived as a Hollywood pitch that a tight-fisted producer could go for, really is, in the American vein, the little picture that could. What should have been a gimmick–what really was a gimmick even in a film as fine as Witness (made nearly forty years later with the Quakers replaced by the Amish, lovely people who really do make a point of standing outside of history)–takes hold. It takes hold in a way that more serious minded efforts don’t. No less than William Wyler tried it on with Friendly Persuasion a decade later and it was just fine. That and no more.

Angel and the Badman is something more.

I don’t mean it’s a tract. Far from it.

The film’s running argument as to whether the Friends’ beliefs and lifestyle can co-exist with a violent world without being protected by violent men, doesn’t go terribly deep (though I’d argue it goes deeper than Friendly Persuasion, in part because it doesn’t try as hard).

But it lays out the fundamentals of the argument extremely well and without proselytizing or even drawing much attention to the tug and pull.

And that’s where John Wayne’s inherent generosity, his best quality as an actor, producer and (probably) man shone through.

He got that this was Gail Russell’s movie. That it wasn’t just a traditional love story, beautifully as that part is handled, but one where ways of life counted more than the lives themselves.

I give the credit to him because I really doubt that it occurred to Herb Yates or even James Edward Grant that she even could carry a movie that had John Wayne in it, let alone that it would fall over on its side if she didn’t. He seems to have believed that she could carry a love story where the girl has to make it clear to the boy (and it’s worth remembering that Wayne, pushing forty, could still convey hell-raising boyishness convincingly–that acting thing again), that she will follow him anywhere but she won’t abandon her core convictions.

And, oh by the way, he was right.

Her beauty alone might give a man pause, even an untamed boy-man who defines himself by his untamability.

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But it wouldn’t hold him at the end. Not unless those core convictions had worked their way past his defenses over time even more thoroughly than his all-American animal magnetism (part cowboy-anticipating-movie-stardom, part movie-star-summoning-the-mythos-of-the-cowboy) worked its way past hers in the first instant, when he was barely conscious of her. So much so that this…

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could produce this…

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a mere moment after he had convinced himself (and everyone else) that he was still this…

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The very baddest of the badmen…

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Who would never be anything else.

Russell’s Penny Worth had more closeups than I care to count in this movie that runs on closeups. And for a Quaker girl, she sure got into a lot of clinches. So, on top of everything else, it’s one of the truly fine Hollywood romances.

But it wouldn’t register nearly as deeply or distinctively without the back story–without her ability to convey both the overpowering sexual chemistry and the absolute unwillingness to abandon her belief, even if she abandons her home and family, not as though they represented contradictions being resolved, but as though they were two sides of the same coin.

A conventional reading of the plot resolution, and boy there are a lot of them so I don’t have to guess, would contend that it’s simplistic, or unrealistic, even miraculous. And, on paper, this reading would be right.

The Badman can be with the Angel, on her terms, only because the old cowboy who set out to haunt them…

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is finally there to protect them…

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..with, I might add, two shots that are too close together to have possibly come from a repeating rifle fired by the same man.

But that misses the point.

In the real world behind the fantasy worlds we work out in movies and elsewhere, the pull of the just is a little more powerful than a cynic, supposedly contending for “realism,” might want to admit. The fight for the freedom of the spirit is always going on behind the fight for something more temporal. It’s the real reason the temporal fights are carried on so bitterly and for so long. After all, there are plenty of beautiful girls in the world.

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Some of whom are even willing to love a Badman…to dream they, believing only in their particular dream, might be the one who makes him see the light…

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But Angel and the Badman, made for a Saturday afternoon audience, under the rudest all-American circumstances, isn’t just a first class entertainment. Thanks to the classiness of more than a few of those involved and a culture, no longer extant (be it Hollywood’s or America’s) that once gave them room to breathe, it has a certain grace that transcends even the most considerable and conscientious craft. It offers a reason for remembering why the believers in the possibility of a better world are so often the instigators of fights that can’t possibly be won until the moment they are.

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WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Pet Peeve Fulfillment!)

No maxim–just an excuse to rub my hands and cackle with life-affirming glee!

I guess it’s one of human nature’s moderately perverse traits: The satisfaction to be had from finding a perfect example of a pet peeve. (My just-found example of this one can be read here, if you have sufficient patience.)

One of my very major pet peeves happens to be book reviewers who insert their own opinions about the subject of a book in place of what they are presumably being paid for, which is their opinion of the book itself. (This happens a lot with biographies in particular: i.e., “I’m a huge fan of Olivier (or Churchill, or whoever) and here’s what I know and love about him. Oh, by the way, so-and-so has just written a book on the subject, which makes me very happy because it gives me a chance to share with you what I, myself, happen to think about the eminent significance of this very book-worthy subject.”)

One of my other very major pet peeves is book reviewers who simply recite information they have gleaned from the book itself as filler in place of actual analysis concerning the general value of this information or the manner in which it has been presented by the author of the book in question.

Now, Philip French’s recent review of Mark Harris’ Five Came Back (which I found while I was scouring the net for general opinion after my own review was published at Broadway World) may not be a truly “perfect” example of these two peeves: He does mention Harris’ name three times in a 1,000 word review and I suppose real perfection would involve reaching a point where absolutely no mention of the author is deemed necessary at all. This name-dropping (in a review of an author’s own book) is no doubt a sacrifice for French’s sort. After all, there are at least three words here he could have used putting forth his own views of the whole affair had he not felt obligated to mention the book’s mere author a time or three.

Still, I think it’s likely as close to this kind of peeve-fulfillment as one can hope to get. (Just for comparison’s sake, incidentally, I counted up my own stats and found I mentioned Harris sixteen times in 2,300 words, which I think means I can, at least this once–and laying aside my pet peeve concerning those who investigate themselves!–absolve myself of blatant hypocrisy….Okay, I better move on. I suddenly feel like a government agency.)

However, French has gone the usual nonsense one better.

He turned up yet another major pet peeve–one which I didn’t even know I had because I had not previously run across such a glaring example of it.

This involves inserting one’s own opinions on the book’s subject by supplying a quote which is not actually in the book and pretending that it is–and doing so to make a false point.

To wit:

“None, however, made a real success as an independent producer, and this excellent book is ultimately a tale of disappointment and disillusionment. But there is a heartening moment in 1950 at the height of the McCarthy era, as vindictive rightwing investigators descended on Hollywood. The deeply conservative Cecil B DeMille and his reactionary cronies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals attempted to depose the liberal Joseph L Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Writers Guild and impose a loyalty oath on all members. Wyler, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Capra came together in a grand reunion to oppose the move and they carried the day. This was the famous meeting at which Ford stood up and began by identifying himself: ‘My name is John Ford and I make westerns. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B DeMille–and he certainly knows how to give it to them… But I don’t like you, CB, I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.’

“None made a more direct and subtle statement about the prospects before them.”

[NOTE: I’ll refrain from twisting my fragile mind and spirit in knots trying to suss out the possibilities of a single statement being both direct (which Ford’s statement certainly was) and subtle (which it certainly was not). There’s a lot of that sort of evil genius at work in this review, but I’ve got more important fish to fry just now. So….]

To put it bluntly, the Ford quote–quite famous in its own right–is not in Harris’ book.

Maybe it should have been. French certainly seems to think so. But to pretend that it is, so that one can also pretend that the five directors Harris wrote about, in his “excellent book” concerning their war experiences, came back to lead lives of “disappointment and disillusionment,” in which the only really memorable event was not any of the numerous Oscars they subsequently won or classic, era-defining films they subsequently made, but a single political meeting which Harris mentions only in passing and does not quote from at all (as French clearly implies), or attach any singular importance to (as French also implies), is, well….

Perfect!