Favorite Movies Set in OLD HOLLYWOOD

Below is a list of my favorite movies set in Hollywood’s past, before 1960: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN OLD HOLLYWOOD

1. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this musical classic about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies. Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen.

2. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) – Robert Zemeckis directed this adaptation of Gary Wolfe’s 1981 novel, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?”, in which a 1940s private detective who must exonerate a cartoon star “Toon” for the murder of a wealthy businessman. Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer and Christopher Lloyd starred.

3. “Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War” (1980) – Tony Curtis starred as producer David O. Selznick in the second episode of the miniseries, “Moviola”. The television movie featured Selznick’s search for the right actress to portray the leading character in his movie adaptation of “Gone With the Wind”.

4. “The Aviator” (2004) – Martin Scorsese produced and directed this biopic about mogul Howard Hughes’ experiences as a filmmaker and aviator between 1927 and 1947. Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio starred.

5. “Hitchcock” (2012) – Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren starred in this comedy-drama about the tumultuous marriage between director-producer Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Alma Reville during the former’s making of his 1960 hit, “Psycho”. Sacha Gervasi directed.

6. “Trumbo” (2015) – Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston starred in this biopic about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and his troubles after being jailed and blacklisted for being a member of the Communist Party. Directed by Jay Roach, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren co-starred.

7. “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) – Vincente Minelli directed this melodrama about the impact of a Hollywood producer on the lives of three people he had worked with and betrayed. Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell starred.

8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter directed.

9. “Hail, Caesar!” (2016) – Ethan and Joel Coen produced and directed this fictional account in the life of studio executive/fixer, Eddie Mannix. The movie starred Josh Brolin.

10. “The Artist” (2011) – Michel Hazanavicius wrote and directed this Academy Award winning movie about a silent screen star and the disruption of his life and career by the emergence of talking pictures. Oscar winner Jean Dujardin and Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo starred.

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“SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” (1952) Review

“SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” (1952) Review

There are certain movies in this world that I cannot be objective about – one way or the other. One of those movies happened to be the 1952 MGM musical, “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”

Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” was the brain child of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) producer and songwriter, Arthur Freed. While his 1951 musical “AN AMERICAN IN PARIS” was in its last stages of production, Freed came up with the idea of a musical that depicted – somewhat – the transition from silent films to talking pictures in Hollywood, during the late 1920. He recruited Broadway playwrights Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had written three previous musicals for the studio, to write a screenplay that revolved around a collection of songs he had co-written with Nacio Herb Brown during the same period that the movie is set.

“SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” begins at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, where a premiere is being held for Monumental Pictures’ latest release – “The Royal Rascal”. Starring the film’s protagonist Don Lockwood and his leading lady, Lina Lamont, the movie is a big hit with the audience. On his way to a party held by the studio’s head, R.F. Simpson, Don manages to avoid a group of screaming fans by hitching a ride with a young woman named Kathy Seldon. The two have a brief argument over the merits of screen and stage acting before Kathy delivers him to Simpson’s home. During the party, Simpson reveals his plans to convert the studio to talking pictures following the success of Warner Brothers’ 1927 release, “THE JAZZ SINGER”.

Monumental’s employees and contract players finally realize that Simpson was serious when orders for Don and Lina’s next assignment – “The Dueling Cavalier” – to be converted into a talking picture. However, the production is beset by a few problems. One, Don has to contend with his leading lady, the shallow and conniving Lina Lamont, being convinced that they are meant to be great lovers in real life. Two, Don has fallen in love with Kathy Seldon, whom he discovers is a minor contract player on the Monumental lot. Three, no one – including the film’s director Roscoe Dexter – has no idea of how to film a talking picture, let alone deal with the new sound equipment. And worst of all, Lina possesses a grating voice and strong New York accent that no diction coach can erase. Despite these problems, Don continues to pursue Kathy and Monumental Pictures soldiers on in its attempt to produce and release its first talking picture.

As many know, “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” is considered one of the best Hollywood musicals ever made. And honestly, I would be the last to argue against this opinion. But upon my recent viewing of the film, I realized that I had one or two problems with the movie. Yes . . . definitely two. One of those problems proved to be the Cosmo Brown character portrayed by Donald O’Connor. Do not get me wrong. I love the character. But . . . what exactly was his position at Monumental Pictures? The movie began with flashbacks featuring Don and Cosmo’s careers as barely successful vaudevillian song-and-dance men, their arrival in Southern California, Don’s early career as a stunt man, Cosmo’s role as a studio musician, and Don’s start as a major star and Lina Lamont’s leading man. Also, Cosmo seemed to serve as Don’s sole member of his entourage in Hollywood. Yet, by the end of the film, he has become head of Monumental Pictures’ music department, due to a few ideas he had about saving “The Dueling Cavalier”? That was all it took for Cosmo to unintentionally force the studio’s previous music department’s head out of a job? That seemed a bit too much for me to swallow. I was also disturbed by one scene in which Lina Lamont managed to intimidate studio chief R.F. Simpson into acquiescing to her every demand. I found that scenario rather hard to swallow. I do not care what kind of contract she had. I simply cannot see any Hollywood studio willing to agree with one that would give any contract player that level of power. Not even in a movie.

My bigger problem with “SINGIN IN THE RAIN” proved to be the film’s second half. It seemed that by the time Cosmo, Don and Kathy discussed how to save the studio’s first talking picture, the movie’s narrative was in danger of running out of steam. Of course, we all know that the movie had to deal with Lina’s downfall and Kathy’s ascension as a star. But I found it disturbing that screenwriters had to include a seventeen-minute ballet – the famous “Broadway Melody” – to stretch out the film. Without it, the movie’s running time would have lasted roughly 86 minutes. Hmmm . . . one would think that screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green could have stretched out the film’s narrative a little better than that. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed the “Broadway Melody” . . . well, most of it. I must confess that I am not a fan of the segment that featured Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and a long white scarf. Needless to say, I found it extremely boring! Every time the ballet came to this point, I have to press that FastForward button on my DVD remote to skip past it.

Despite these quibbles, I love “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”. Why deny it? One, I enjoyed the story. I thought Comden and Green had created a very entertaining and romanticized story about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies in the late 1920s. Not only did I find it entertaining, I also found it extremely funny. Among the film’s best moments include Don Lockwood’s amusing and rather exaggerated recollection of his and Cosmo Brown’s years in vaudeville and their arrival in Hollywood; Don and Kathy’s rather funny first meeting on the streets; the revelation of Lina Lamont’s awful voice; the hilarious and chaotic filming of “The Dueling Cavalier”; and the equally hilarious test screening of the film that proved to be a disaster. There were just so many moments that left me in a state of uncontrolled laughter.

As for the film’s narrative – it is simple enough. “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” is about the Hollywood’s transition from silent movies to talking films via the experiences of a fictional movie studio. I realize that this might sound like pretentious bullshit, but there were times that I found myself wondering if Don Lockwood served as a metaphor for Monumental Pictures. Or if Lina Lamont and Kathy Seldon symbolized the silent and upcoming sound eras. Okay, that does sound like pretentious bullshit. But I do find it odd that Don eventually eases into a relationship with Kathy around the same time that Monumental embraces talking pictures. You know what? Perhaps I should back off and simply state that I enjoyed the film’s comedic narrative about the transition to sound and leave it at that.

Of course, I cannot discuss “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” without bringing up the film’s musical numbers. I learned that most of the songs were written by the movie’s producer, Arthur Freed and his former partner, Nacio Herb Brown. Comden and Green wrote two of the film’s songs – “Make ‘Em Laugh” (which strongly resembled Cole Porter’s tune, “Be a Clown”) and “Moses Supposes” (with Roger Edens). But if I had to be honest, the choreography that accompanied most of these songs made those songs memorable to me. This was especially the case for “Make ‘Em Laugh”“Moses Supposes”“Good Morning” and “Singin’ in the Rain”.

“Make ‘Em Laugh” featured a delightfully frenetic dance number by Donald O’Connor that still boggles the mind after 66 years. For a guy who claimed that he was basically a hoofer, this extraordinary dance number proved that he was a lot more. O’Connor was also featured in two dance numbers with star Gene Kelly. And one of them was “Moses Supposes”. Although I found the song amusing, but not particularly memorable, I thought Kelly and O’Connor’s dancing was superb. In fact, I would consider their dance routine to be among the best I have seen on film. “Good Morning”, a song that was featured in one of MGM’s past films, was also charming and peppy. I could say the same about the dance number by Kelly, O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. I could . . . but I would also like to add that this dance number conveyed that the trio had a magical screen chemistry, which is why it has always been a favorite of mine. Now, the “Singin in the Rain” was a pleasant song written and published back in 1927 and if I must be honest, Gene Kelly did not utilize any special dance steps for his performance. And yet . . . there is something special about it. The entire number struck me as an ultimate expression of unadulterated joy. And it reminded me of a happy moment during my childhood when my sister, brother and I were outside of our apartment building scampering on the lawn during a rain shower.

There were other musical numbers that I enjoyed. “All I Do Is Dream of You” is a delightful song-and-dance number performed by Debbie Reynolds and a group of chorus girls. This scene must have marked the first time moviegoers saw how talented the actress truly was. I also enjoyed Kelly and O’Connor’s first dance number in the movie, “Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)”, which served as a part of Don Lockwood’s hilarious early recollections of him and Cosmo Brown as part of a vaudeville act. And of course, there was the “Broadway Melody” ballet. Yes, I admit that I did not care for one part of it; which involved Kelly, Cyd Charisse and a long scarf. However, the rest of the ballet struck me as outstanding . . . especially that sexy-as-hell dance number between Kelly and Charisse. I will be the first to admit that “Beautiful Girls” number struck me as a bit of a bore. However, I was entertained by the number’s fashion show (something that many studios used to include in their movies between the end of the 1920s to the beginning of the 1940s) that featured some of Walter Plunkett’s most colorful costume designs:

What can I say about the performances in “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”? They were outstanding. Even those performances from supporting characters like Millard Mitchell, a hilarious Douglas Crawley, Kathleen Freeman, Madge Blake and a very young Rita Moreno proved to be very entertaining. The movie’s best performance came from Jean Hagen, who hilariously portrayed the vain and talentless Lina Lamont, whose unattractive voice threatened to end her career with the emergence of talking pictures. Hagen, who had earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, had based her performance on Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn character from the play, “BORN YESTERDAY”. Hagen had been Holliday’s understudy. What I found impressive about Hagen’s portrayal is that not only did I find her Lina Lamont beneath contempt, a small part of me found her a bit pathetic and sad. Because she had only appeared in the “Broadway Melody” ballet, Cyd Charisse did not have a speaking role. But her superb and sexy dance number with Kelly re-charged her movie career for greater glory throughout the 1950s.

Another cast member who earned an acting award was Donald O’Connor, who won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for portraying Don Lockwood’s closest friend, the musically inclined Cosmo Brown. Aside from his brilliant dancing, O’Connor gave a delicious performance as the sardonic and witty musician, who seemed to take great pleasure at taking pot shots at Lina Lamont. Aspiring actress Kathy Selden proved to be Debbie Reynolds’ sixth role in her long film and television career. Was it the role that finally led her to stardom? Probably. For most of the film, Kathy Selden is a nice, peppy girl with ambitions to make it big in films. I would have dismissed Reynolds’ performance as that of a safe, leading lady if it were not for her dancing talents that had emerged in this film (thanks to Kelly’s tutoring). However, there is one scene – namely Kathy Seldon’s first meeting with actor Don Lockwood – that foreshadowed her brilliant talent for comedic acting.

When people discuss Gene Kelly’s performance in “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”, they usually talk about his . . . well, his dance numbers. Especially the “Broadway Melody” ballet, his duet with O’Connor in the “Moses Supposes” number, and of course . . . the “Singin’ in the Rain” dance. As much as I enjoyed his dancing performance, I had to admit that I also enjoyed his portrayal of Don Lockwood. I liked how Kelly made it clear that although Don’s wit is not as sharp as Cosmo’s, it still existed and that he can be a very good comedic actor. This was especially clear in those scenes in which he has to fight off Lina’s constant pursuit of him. One truly funny moment featured a sequence in which he shot a series of insults at Lina, while they filmed a scene from the silent version of “The Dueling Cavalier”. Kelly was also very funny when his character, Don Lockwood, gave a hilarious account of his and Cosmo’s early years on the vaudevillian circuit and in Hollywood. More importantly, I enjoyed how Kelly skillfully conveyed Don’s insecurities and fear of the latter’s career fading, after his initial encounter with Kathy Seldon’s faux pretentious attitude toward movie acting.

Yes, “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” is not perfect. But . . . I cannot deny that I believe it is one of the best movie musicals I have ever seen, hands down. It is a masterpiece, thanks to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s entertaining and funny screenplay, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s direction of both the narrative and musical scenes and wonderful performances by a cast led by Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. To this day, I find it hard to believe that following its initial release, it was only a modest hit.

 

Ten Favorite Movie Musicals

Below is a list of my ten favorite movie musicals (seven of them are period pieces) . . . so far: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIE MUSICALS

1. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Oscar winner Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke starred in Walt Disney’s Oscar winning adaptation of P.L. Travers’ literary series about a magical English nanny. Robert Stevenson directed.

2. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this musical classic about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies. Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen.

3. “Hello Dolly!” (1969) – Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau starred in this colorful adaptation of David Merrick’s 1964 Broadway hit musical about a matchmaker in late 19th century New York. Gene Kelly directed.

4. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) – Angela Landsbury and David Tomlinson starred in this entertaining adaptation of Mary Norton’s novels about a woman studying to become a witch, who takes in three London children evacuated to the country during World War II. Robert Stevenson directed.

5. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-Johns starred in this adaptation of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1971 Broadway play about the lives of high-school students during their senior year in the late 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

6. “42nd Street” (1933) – Lloyd Bacon directed this musical about the preparation of a Broadway musical during the Great Depression. Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler and George Brent starred.

7. “Dreamgirls” (2006) – Bill Condon wrote and directed this adaptation of the 1981 Broadway musical about the travails of a female singing group from Detroit during the 1960s and 1970s. Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Oscar nominee Eddie Murphy and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson starred.

8. “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1967) – Robert Morse starred in this hilarious adaptation of the 1961 Broadway musical about an ambitious New York window washer using a “how-to” book to rise up the corporate ladder of a wicket company. David Swift wrote and directed the film.

9. “1776” (1972) – William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1969 Broadway musical about the creation and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Peter H. Hunt directed.

10. “The Gay Divorcee” (1934) – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in this adaptation of the 1932 Broadway musical, “The Gay Divorce” about an American woman who mistakes a song-and-dance man as the professional correspondent, who had been hired to help her get a divorce. Mark Sandrich directed.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1920s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1920s

1-Some Like It Hot

1. “Some Like It Hot” (1959) – Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote with I.A.L. Diamond this still hilarious tale about two Chicago jazz musicians who witness a mob hit and flee by joining an all-girls band headed for Florida, disguised as women. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon starred.

2-Bullets Over Broadway

2. “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994) – Woody Allen directed and co-wrote with Douglas McGrath this funny tale about a struggling playwright forced to cast a mobster’s untalented girlfriend in his latest drama in order to get it produced. John Cusack, Oscar winner Dianne Weist, Jennifer Tilly, and Chazz Palminteri starred.

3-Singin in the Rain

3. “Singin in the Rain” (1952) – A movie studio in 1927 Hollywood is forced to make the difficult and rather funny transition from silent pictures to talkies. Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this highly entertaining film that was directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen.

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4. “The Great Gatsby” (2013) Baz Luhrmann produced and directed this energetic and what I believe is the best adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire star.

5-Five Little Pigs

5. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Although presently set in the late 1930s, this excellent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel features many flashbacks in which a philandering painter was murdered in the 1920s. David Suchet starred as Hercule Poirot.

6-The Cats Meow

6. “The Cat’s Meow” (2001) – Peter Bogdanovich directed this well-made, fictionalized account of producer Thomas Ince’s mysterious death aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in November 1924. Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard and Cary Elwes starred.

7-The Painted Veil

7. “The Painted Veil” (2006) – John Curran directed this excellent adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about a British doctor trapped in a loveless marriage with an unfaithful who goes to a small Chinese village to fight a cholera outbreak. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg and Liev Schreiber starred.

8-Changeling

8. “Changeling” (2008) – Clint Eastwood directed this excellent account of a real-life missing persons case and police corruption in 1928 Los Angeles. Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly, Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore starred.

9-Chicago

9. “Chicago” (2002) – Rob Marshall directed this excellent adaptation of the 1975 stage musical about celebrity, scandal, and corruption in Jazz Age Chicago. Renee Zellweger, Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, and Richard Gere starred.

10-Millers Crossing

10. “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) – The Coen Brothers co-wrote and co-directed this intriguing crime drama about an adviser to a Prohibition-era crime boss who tries to keep the peace between warring mobs, but gets caught in divided loyalties. Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney and John Tuturro starred.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

 

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

This 1962 movie was among the last of the old-fashioned “epic” films that was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Filmed using the Cinerama widescreen process, it featured an all-star cast directed by at least three directors. 

After making the decision to use the Cinerama wide-screen process, MGM decided to produce a cinematic adaptation ofLIFE magazine’s 1959 series of articles about the history of the American West. Screenwriters James R. Webb and John Gay (uncredited) achieved this by focusing the film on two to three generations of family that migrated westward from western New York, to Southern Ohio, to California and finally to the deserts of Arizona. The story stretched out in a period of fifty (50) years from the late 1830s to the late 1880s. According to Wikipedia, the movie was set between 1839 and 1889. Yet, Webb and Gay’s script never indicated this. The movie consisted of five segments that were directed by three directors, Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall.

“The Rivers”, which was directed by Henry Hathaway, focused on the Prescott family’s journey from western New York to Southern Ohio, in an attempt to reach the Illinois country via the Erie Canal and the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins, who falls in love with eldest daughter, Eve; encounter murderous river pirates; and are caught in some dangerous rapids during their trip down the Ohio River. The last part of their journey ends in Southern Ohio, when the patriarch and matriarch of the Prescotts are drowned and Eve decides to remain there. She eventually marries Linus and her younger sister, Lilith decides to head to St. Louis.

In “The Plains”, Lilith Prescott is a dance hall entertainer in St. Louis, when she receives news of an inheritance – a California gold mine – from a former patron. In order to join a California-bound wagon train, Lilith becomes the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Agatha Clegg. She also becomes the romantic object of two men – the hard-nosed wagonmaster Roger Morgan (who has a ranch in California) and a professional gambler named Cleve Van Valen. Lilith eventually forms an attachment to Cleve. But when her inheritance turns out to be a bust upon their arrival in California, Cleve abandons her. He eventually reconciles with her on a Sacramento River steamboat and the two marry. Hathaway also directed.

John Ford directed “The Civil War”, a short segment about the experiences of Zeb Rawlins’ (Eve and Linus’ elder son) at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. Although Zeb survives, his father was killed during the battle, and his mother died before his return to the family’s Ohio farm. Zeb decides to remain in the Army after the war.

“The Railroad” was about Zeb’s experiences as an Army officer during the construction of the railroad during the late 1860s. He tries and fails to keep the peace between the construction crew led by a man named Mike King and the local Arapaho tribe. The Arapho incites a buffalo stampede through the railroad camp after King breaks another promise. And Zeb resigns from the Army. George Marshall directed.

Hathaway directed the final segment, “The Outlaws”, which featured Zeb’s last days as a law officer, as he tries to prevent a group of outlaws led by a man named Charlie Gant from stealing a shipment of gold. After he is successful, Zeb and his family join his widowed aunt Lilith on a trip to her new Arizona ranch.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won three won – Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It is also considered a favorite of director Ron Howard. I might as well be honest. I have always liked “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. If I had not, I would have never purchased the DVD set. But I cannot see how it was ever nominated for Best Picture, let alone won the Best Screenplay Oscar. It was NOT that great. To me, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was a mediocre epic that featured a small handful of excellent performances, great photography and a superb score.

The fifty year period that spanned “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” struck me as more suitable for a television miniseries, instead of a movie – even if it had a running time of 162 minutes. There was too much going on in this film and its time span of fifty years was simply too long. The 2005 miniseries, “INTO THE WEST” had a similar premise, but it had the good luck to be aired in a six-part miniseries that ran for 552 minutes. And because of the lack of balance between the story’s premise/time span and its running time, the story about the Prescott-Rawlins family seemed half-empty . . . and rushed.

The best of the five segments are the first two directed by Henry Hathaway – “The River” and “The Plains”, which featured the Prescotts treks from New York, to Ohio. Although not perfect, thanks to some plot inconsistency and historical inaccuracy. What makes these two segments superior to the other three is that are longer and if I must be frank, more substantial. I could not decide between the two segments on which was my favorite. I enjoyed viewing the family’s journey down the Ohio River and the exciting battle with the river pirates. On the other hand, both Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck’s performances made “The Plains” very enjoyable for me.

But the worst of the three segments is the third one directed by John Ford – namely “The Civil War”. I hate to say this, but John Wayne did not make an effective William T. Sherman. The recently deceased Henry Morgan did a slightly better job as Ulysses S. Grant – frankly, by saying as little as possible. As for the segment, the screenwriters and Ford did not even bother to feature any plausible battle scenes of Shiloh. Instead, the audience was subjected to a quick montage of Civil War scenes from other MGM movies – probably 1957’s “RAINTREE COUNTRY”. The only good thing about this segment was the beginning scene, when Zeb said good-bye to his mother and younger brother . . . and the last scene, when he said good-bye and handed over his share of the family farm to his brother.

I enjoyed the work of the cinematography team led by the legendary William H. Daniels very much. I noticed that a great deal of the movie was shot on location in many of the national parks in the United States. However, the Cinerama process took away some of the grandeur with the curved lens, which made it impossible for Daniels and the others to film any effective close ups. And has anyone ever notice that whenever two of the actors seemed to facing each other, their lines of sight seemed to be slightly off? It must have been hell for the actors to face off each other in a scene, while being unnaturally positioned for the camera.

There were certain aspects of “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” that made it enjoyable for me. Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, George Peppard, Gregory Peck, Thelma Ritter, Henry Fonda, Lee J.Cobb and Eli Wallach gave the best performances, as far as I am concerned. Spencer Tracy did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. But I especially have to commend Reynolds, Baker and Peppard for damn near carrying this film. Without them, this movie would have folded like a sheet of paper. There were some performances that did not ring true to me. According to one scene that featured Linus Rawlings’ grave, Eve’s husband and Zeb’s father was born in 1810. I hate to say this, but James Stewart was too old – at the age of 53 or 54 – to be portraying a 29 year-old man. He gave an entertaining performance, but he was too damn old. Karl Malden, who portrayed Eve and Lilith’s father, struck me as a bit too hammy for my tastes. So were Robert Preston, who portrayed the gauche wagonmaster Roger Morgan; and Richard Widmark, who portrayed the railroad boss Mike King. Everyone else was . . . okay.

What was the best thing about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? The music. Period. It . . . was . . . superb. Every time I hear the first notes of Alfred Newman’s score at the beginning of the movie, I feel goosebumps. I love it that much. As much as I enjoyed John Addison’s score for “TOM JONES”, I find it mind boggling that it beat out Newman’s score for“HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I just cannot conceive this. Newman also provided 19th century music from the era for the movie and it was used beautifully . . . especially in “The Plains” segment. With Reynolds portraying a dance hall performer, she provided moviegoers with entertaining renditions of songs like “What Was Your Name in the East?”“Raise a Ruckus” and the movie’s theme song, “Home in the Meadows”.

What else can I say about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? It is an entertaining movie. I cannot deny this. It featured first rate performances by the leads Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker and George Peppard. It featured beautiful photography shot by a team of cinematographers led by William Daniels. And it featured some gorgeous music, which included a superb score written by Alfred Newman. But it is a flawed movie tainted by historical inaccuracy and a story that would have been served best in a television miniseries. I am still astounded that it managed to earn a Best Picture Academy Award.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

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Below is Part One to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

I. Introduction

The sprawling 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” focused upon the fifty (50) years history of the Prescott-Rawlins family between 1839 and 1889. The movie was divided into five sections – “The Rivers”“The Plains”“The Civil War”“The Railroad” and “The Outlaws”. Westbound migration was featured in the movie’s first two segments – “The River” and “The Plains”.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” opens in 1839 (I think) with the Prescotts, a family from upstate New York, westbound to settle on new land in Illinois. After a trip along the Erie Canal, the Prescotts and their traveling companions, the Harveys from Scotland, build flatboats for the westbound journey on the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins (James Stewart), who is eastbound to sell his furs in Pittsburgh. The Prescotts’ oldest daughter, Eve (Carroll Baker), and Linus fall in love. After a disastrous encounter with river rapids that led to the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Prescott; Eve decides to settle at the very location of their deaths in Southern Ohio and accept Linus’ marriage proposal. Younger sister Lilith Prescott (Debbie Reynolds) decides to move on.

“The Plains” picks up over a decade later, with Lilith as a dance hall performer in St. Louis. She learns from an attorney that she has inherited a California gold claim from a now deceased customer. Lilith travels to Independence, where she joins a California-bound wagon train by becoming the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Aggie Clegg (Thelma Ritter), willing to use Lilith’s looks to attract eligible men for marriage. Lilith also attracts the attention of two men, wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) and a roguish gambler named Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck).

II. History vs. Hollywood

To this day, I never understood why screenwriter James R. Webb allowed the Prescotts and the Harveys to travel across the Erie Canal. It is obvious that he had every intention of having them settle in Southern Ohio, along the River. So why use that route? According to a 1840 map I had seen, the Erie Canal was a waterway that stretched from Albany to Buffalo in upstate New York.

This meant that the Prescotts and Harveys’s first leg of their journey ended at Buffalo, along the shores of Lake Erie. Are we really supposed to believe that the two families then journeyed from Buffalo to the banks of the Ohio River, in order to reach Illinois, when they could have easily traveled near the U.S.-Canada border to reach their destination? And Webb failed to reveal how they reached the Ohio River without a wagon. He could have allowed Eve Prescott and the other surviving members of the family to settle in Illinois or Ohio near one of the Great Lakes . . . or avoid the Erie Canal altogether and end up in Southern Ohio. Unfortunately, the screenwriter settled for a convoluted route. Even worse, he had mountain man Linus Rawlins traveling toward Pittsburgh to sell furs. Really? In 1839? Linus could have easily sold his furs further west in St. Louis or more importantly, Independence in western Missouri, without having to cross the Mississippi River.

When Lilith Prescott traveled to California after inheriting her California gold claim over a decade later, she chose the correct route – the Oregon/California Trails. However, Webb, director Henry Hathaway, and the producers decide to include nearly every cliché regarding western migration.

One, gambler Cleve Van Valen tried to join Roger Morgan’s wagon train in Independence, in order to make acquaintance with Lilith. He was told to get lost. Cleve managed to catch up with the wagon train some 100 miles west of Independence. Yet, the terrain looked suspiciously arid for eastern Kansas. The wagon trains used in this production were very large. In fact, they struck me as looking larger than a typical Conestoga wagon. One scene in the movie featured Cleve and a group of male emigrants playing poker inside one wagon . . . while it was traveling. This was Hollywood history at its worse. And guess what? Those wagons were pulled by horses, not oxen or mules.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” never featured any well known landmarks along the Oregon/California Trails. I suspect this was due to the movie’s constraining time for each segment. However, there was time to feature a large scale attack on the wagon train by a horde of Cheyenne warriors. And this attack was made against a large and well-armed wagon train. In reality, there would have never been such an attack in the first place. And if such a thing had happened, the Cheyenne would have been seriously wiped out.

I cannot deny that “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was an entertaining film. But in the end, it turned out to be too much “Hollywood” and not enough “History”.