“TAP ROOTS” (1948) Review

“TAP ROOT” (1948) Review

I am sure that many are aware of Mississippi-born Confederate soldier-turned-Unionist Newton Knight and his formation of the “Free State of Jones”, which opposed Confederate forces during the U.S. Civil War. I first heard about Knight and his men while watching Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary, “THE CIVIL WAR”. But I had no idea that knowledge of this little corner of Civil War history went back even further.

Recently, Hollywood released a movie version about Knight and his followers in the 2016 historical drama, “FREE STATE OF JONES”. However . . . some seventy-four years earlier, a novel titled “Tap Roots”, which had been written by James H. Street, hit the bookstores. It told the story of a cotton planter, his family and a newspaper publisher; who had decided to remain neutral during the first year of the Civil War. Unfortunately, their decision to remain neutral led to disastrous consequences for the planter and his family, along with other local men who decided to follow them. Six years later in 1948, Universal Pictures made a movie adaptation of Street’s novel.

In a nutshell . . . “TAP ROOT” begins in the fall of 1860. Northern Mississippi plantation owner Big Sam Dabney and his son Hoab express concern over Abraham Lincoln’s election as the 16th president and the possibility of Southern states seceding from the Union. Both men begin to consider having Levington County in Lebanon Valley, location of the family’s cotton plantation, remain neutral if a civil war breaks out. Meanwhile, Hoab’s older daughter, Morna Dabney, becomes engaged with Army officer, Clay McIvor. Younger sister Aven is jealous, due to also being in love with Clay. As for Morna, local newspaper owner Keith Alexander becomes attracted to her.

Before 1860 ends, Big Sam dies, leaving Hoab in full control of the family’s neutral stance. And poor Morna has a riding accident, leaving her physically disabled and her engagement to Clay in jeopardy. Apparently, the latter is unable to maintain interest in a disabled woman and transforms his sexual interest to Morna’s younger sister, Aven. This gives Keith the opportunity to court Morna and help her recover from Clay’s rejection. However, Mississippi secedes from the Union, driving Hoab, Keith and the Dabney family’s Choctaw friend, Tishomingo, to organize Levington County’s neutral stance and secession from Mississippi.

There are aspects of “TAP ROOTS” that I found admirable. Alexander Golitzen’s production designs for a Northern Mississippi community between 1860 and 1861 struck me as pretty admirable, if not mind blowing. I could say the same about Yvonne Wood’s costume designs. However, there were some signs of 1940s fashion getting in the way, especially in the men’s costumes. The shoulders for Van Heflin’s jackets struck me as so wide that I found myself wondering if he had portrayed a time traveler from the 1940s. On the other hand, I found Winton C. Hooch and Lionel Lindon’s photography of the Southern California and North Carolina locations rather beautiful, thanks to its sharp color. And I thought director George Marshall did an admirable job with the film’s action scenes. I was especially impressed by the final conflict between Levington County’s “rebels” and the local Confederate forces. Between Marshall’s direction, Hooch and Lindon’s photography, and Milton Carruth’s editing, that final action sequence proved to be one of the film’s finer aspects.

If I must be honest, I did not have any problems with the performances featured in “TAP ROOTS”. Well . . . with most of the performances. Van Heflin gave an entertaining, yet commanding performance as the cynical newspaper editor Keith Alexander. Susan Hayward was equally commanding as Southern belle Moana Dabney, who endured her own trials while her own personal life fell apart. I did not care for the character of Clay McIvor, who struck me as something of a jerk; but I cannot deny that Whitfield Connor did a solid job in bringing his character to life. A very young Julie London really held her own as Moana’s younger sister, Aven Dabney, who managed to win Clay’s love from Moana, following the latter’s riding accident. Russell Simpson gave a entertaining performance as Moana’s colorful grandfather, Big Sam Dabney. Ruby Dandridge, mother of Dorothy Dandridge, gave a solid performance as the Dabneys’ housekeeper, Dabby. And I can say the same about Richard Long’s portrayal of Moana’s younger brother, Bruce Dabney; Arthur Shields as Reverend Kirkland; and Sondra Rogers as Shellie Dabney.

Despite the solid performances that permeated “TAP ROOTS”, two of them proved to be problematic for me. First, there was Ward Bond’s portrayal of Hoab Dabney, the Mississippi planter who not only inherit the family’s cotton plantation following his father’s death, but also the latter’s plans for a neutral Mississippi. I might as well say it. I found Bond’s performance to be an exercise in histrionics. I found this surprising since Bond has never struck me as a hammy acting. I wish that director George Marshall had found a way to rein in his acting – especially in one scene in which Hoab came into conflict with Moana over her past relationship with Clay McIvor. Alas, I thought Bond gave his hammiest performance in that one scene. The other problematic performance came from Boris Karloff, who portrayed the Dabney family’s Choctaw friend and retainer, Tishomingo. Mind you, Karloff gave a competent and subtle performance as one of the few sensible characters in this movie. And although many may have been put off by a British actor portraying a Native American, I was surprised to discover that Karloff had possessed both English and East Indian ancestry from both of his parents. I do not know if that gave the actor a pass, considering he still lacked any Native American ancestry. But if I really had a problem with Karloff’s performance is that he had portrayed Tishomingo as if the character was an Englishman. Even if Karloff had been portraying a white American, I still would have found his performance slightly problematic.

And what about the narrative for “TAP ROOTS”? Did I like it? Honestly? No. For me, the 1948 movie had failed to impress me. And this is a pity. I believe the problem stemmed from the movie’s original source, the 1942 novel. Author James H. Street had claimed he was inspired by the life of Newton Knight, when he wrote his novel. However, out of fear that Knight’s life was too controversial – namely his common-law marriage to former slave Rachel Knight – Street changed the nature of Knight’s story. The leading characters of “TAP ROOTS” were portrayed as members of Mississippi’s planter class. They opposed slavery – at least one or two characters had claimed this – but also owned slaves. But aside from the Dabneys’ “faithful” housekeeper Dabby, all other slaves were minor characters who barely spoke. If a movie is going to have its main characters claim to be anti-slavery, why ignore the topic for the rest of the film? Newton Knight’s grandfather was a major slave owner in northern Mississippi during the early 19th century. But Knight and his father had opposed slavery and became yeoman farmers who never owned slaves. Knight had been an Army deserter and managed to successfully opposed the Confederate authority in Jones County between 1863 and 1865. The Daubey family and Keith Alexander had no such success in “TAP ROOTS”. And I never understood this. Why did Street and later, the movie’s writers did not follow Knight’s Civil War experiences? What was the point of creating this story if they were not willing to closely follow Knight’s conflict with the Confederate authorities? Why not allow the Daubey family to be yeoman farmers who opposed slavery? Street and the filmmakers could have still kept out Newton Knight’s relationship with Rachel Knight.

Instead, I found myself watching a movie in which the main protagonists claimed they opposed slavery, yet practiced it and barely touched upon the subject for most of the film. The movie literally dragged its feet between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. And although I disliked Moana Dabney’s romance with the unworthy Clay McIvor, I found Keith Alexander’s “courtship” of her rather troubling. In Keith’s attempt to get Moana to forget about Clay, he resorted to bouts of manhandling her that seemed to border on sexual assault. For some reason, this reminded me of the Scarlett O’Hara/Rhett Butler relationship from “GONE WITH THE WIND”. And not in a good way. I also had a problem with the film’s portrayal of Lebanon Valley’s citizens. I noticed that the film seemed to portray them as mindless citizens who followed the Dabneys’ anti-Confederate stance without any real explanation. Like the Dabney slaves, Hoab’s followers lacked any real agency. Did author James Street, along with the filmmakers of this movie really lacked the courage to convey a story about how a Southern-born yeoman farmer and others from his class had successfully fought against the Confederacy? Or even exploring his anti-slavery stance? Back in the 1940s?

In the end, this is my real problem with “TAP ROOTS”. James Street and producer Walter Wanger took a historical event from the Civil War and used fiction – a novel and its Hollywood adaptation – to render it toothless. Its main historical figure Newton Knight had been transformed into a borderline hysterical and controlling cotton planter and member of the elite. The story failed to explore what led many of the planter’s combatants to follow him. The story barely touched upon the topic of anti-slavery, while including slaves as minor and background characters. And the movie dumped some tepid attempt at a “GONE WITH THE WIND” clone romance to keep movie goers interested. The movie had some virtues. But in the end, the movie vague adaptation of Newton Knight’s Civil War experiences simply fell flat. I hope and pray I am never inclined to watch this film again.

“THE HORSE SOLDIERS” (1959) Review

“THE HORSE SOLDIERS” (1959) Review

Many of the Westerns produced and/or directed by John Ford were usually set during the post-Civil War era. Yet, the topic of the 1861-1865 conflict managed to worm its way or have some kind of influence upon either those films’ narratives or its characters. However, I can only recall two films directed by Ford that were actually set during the war. And one of them is the 1959 film, “THE HORSE SOLDIERS”.

Not only is “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” one of Ford’s rare Civil War productions, it is also one of his few films that is based on a historical event or figure. The 1959 movie is a loose adaptation of Harold Sinclair’s 1956 novel. And both Ford’s movie and Sinclair’s novel is a fictionalized account of then Colonel Benjamin Grierson‘s Raid through Mississippi and Northern Louisiana in 1863. The movie began with the fictional version of Grierson, Colonel John Marlowe, receiving orders from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman to lead his brigade behind Confederate lines from La Grange, Tennessee to destroy a major railroad and supply depot at Newton Station, Mississippi. Marlowe’s mission is to destroy the Confederate supply line and divert enemy’s army from Grant’s new plan to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi. A cynical army doctor named Major Henry Kendall is been assigned to accompany the brigade. The brigade stops at a Mississippi plantation named Greenbriar for a brief respite. Greenbriar’s mistress, Miss Hannah Hunter,and her slave housekeeper Lukey manages to eavesdrop on a staff meeting, while Marlowe discusses his battle strategy. To protect the mission’s secrecy, Marlowe forces the two women to accompany the brigade.

Since the film is a fictionalized account of this historic event, all of the characters are fictional creations – with the exception of Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Instead of portraying Grierson, leading man John Wayne portrayed a cavalry brigade commander named John Marlowe. Like Grierson, Marlowe was a civilian before the war. Whereas Grierson was a former music teacher and band leader, the Marlowe character’s former occupation turned out to be a railroad construction engineer. Grierson had been married during the Civil War. Marlowe was a widower. More importantly, Wayne was roughly in his early 50s when he shot the film. Grierson was three months shy of his 37th birthday during the actual raid. And since this movie is a fictionalized account of the raid, there were other differences between its narrative and the actual historical event.

Most film critics tend express enjoyment of “THE HORSE SOLDIERS”, but at the same time, dismiss it as one of Ford’s lesser works. How do I feel about this? I honestly do not know. Some of of Ford’s most highly acclaimed films are not particularly favorites of mine. However, I do consider “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” to be one of my favorite Ford movies. My attitude could be attributed to being a Civil War history buff. But there have been plenty of Civil War movie and television productions that I simply do not like.

Mind you, “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” had its problems. I found some of the performances either slightly over-the-top . . . to the point of some characters coming off as one-note caricatures. A good example would be the two Confederate deserters that Marlowe’s brigade had encountered. I find it ironic that although African-American characters like the maid Lukey were not portrayed with any real depth, they did not strike me as one-dimensional as the Confederate deserters or the military school commandant/reverend that Marlowe and his men had also encountered. Even some of the men under Marlowe’s command nearly struck me as one-dimensional – like Deacon Clump; Major Richard Gray, who served as leader of the brigade’s scouts; and a handful of other enlisted characters. Even the film’s leading female character, Hannah Hunter, initially came off as a caricature of Scarlett O’Hara. Fortunately, her character managed to develop throughout most of the film.

There were two aspects of the plot that left me scratching my head. I understand that Marlowe had forced Hannah Hunter and her maid Lukey to accompany his forces during the raid, because they had overheard his military plans. A part of me wondered why on earth did he stop at Miss Hunter’s plantation and prematurely exposed his brigade’s presence in Confederate-held Northern Mississippi in the first place? Following the brigade’s encounter with two Confederate deserters and an elderly judge who wanted to capture them, Marlowe allowed the judge (who came from Newton Station) to take the deserters captive and return to the Mississippi town. First of all, Union authorities tend to offer amnesty and restoration of U.S. citizenship to Confederate deserters – at least by 1863. And why would Marlowe be stupid enough to allow that judge – whether he had his prisoners or not – to return to Newton Station and warn its citizens of the incoming Union forces? Throughout most of the film, Marlowe managed to project an air of professionalism, despite his lack of pre-war experience or training as an Army officer. Yet, he made these two stupid decisions regarding the brigade’s stop at Greenbriar and the two Confederate deserters. And the screenplay never acknowledge this stupidity.

Not only did Benjamin Grierson and his brigade destroyed Confederate rail tracks, trains, bridges, storehouses and warehouses, the brigade also freed slaves. And yet . . . I do not recall any slaves being emancipated by Marlowe’s forces in the film. Why Ford and the film’s two screenwriters – John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin had failed to include this in the movie, I do not know. Racism perhaps? Yet, “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” did not ignore the topic, thanks to Lukey’s presence and Major Kendall’s snide comments about the South’s dependence on slavery. The film was willing to make the occasional vague reference to slavery. Yet . . . it ignored Grierson’s anti-slavery actions during the raid. And the African-Americans encountered by the fictional Marlowe’s brigade in the movie remained enslaved. Ever since I first saw Ford’s 1956 movie, “THE SEARCHERS”, some of his films have always struck me as being politically confusing – as if he could never make up his mind whether some of the messages and themes were conservative or liberal. For me, “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” is another example of his political confusion.

Although I had my problems with “THE HORSE SOLDIERS”, I still managed to enjoy it very much. It helped that the movie benefited from a famous historical event like “Grierson’s Raid” in the first place. This allowed screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin to include exciting action sequences like the brigade’s occasional encounters with pursuing Confederate forces, the actual Newton Station attack, the brigade’s tension-filled effort to evade Confederate forces, while traveling through a Louisiana swamp; and an amusing battle encounter with students from a local military school. I was especially impressed with the Newton Station attack and the film’s last battle sequence that featured the brigade’s efforts to overcome a Confederate-held bridge in order to evade pursuing enemy forces and ride on to Union-held Baton Rouge. I thought Ford, along with film editor Jack Murray did an exceptional job with these two major action sequences. Not only did these two sequences managed to emphasize the heat, the blood and tragedy of war. Actually, there was two other sequences that did an excellent job of emphasizing the tragic nature of war – Major Kendall and a local doctor’s efforts to save the wounded soldiers following the Newton Station battle and Lukey’s death.

When it comes to costume designs in a John Ford movie, one can always count on them being rather mediocre – especially in one of his period films. The only Ford period film I can recall that featured eye-catching costumes was his 1936 movie, “MARY OF SCOTLAND”“THE HORSE SOLDIERS” featured one major female character and a scattering of minor ones. Yet, the women’s costumes in this film looked as if it came straight out of Hollywood warehouse. In fact, I checked the movie’s IMDB listing. Frank Beeston Jr. and Ann Peck supervised the film’s costumes. But they did not serve as costume designers. There was no costume designer for the film. Auuughhh! . . . frustrating! Come to think of it, there was no production designer for the film. I find this odd, considering a good deal of the movie was set at the Greenbriar plantation and another major setting was Newton Station. However, I should not be surprised. Aside from the natural beauties of Mississippi and Louisiana, I found nothing exceptional about the film’s production designs.

However, there were two aspects of “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” I truly enjoyed. One of them proved to be William H. Clothier’s photography of Mississippi and Louisiana for the film. Frankly, I found his images to be quite breathtaking – beautiful, sharp and original – as shown in the images below:

If there is one thing I can say about most John Ford films – you can always count upon a first-rate score to support its narratives. “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” marked the only time composer David Buttolph worked on a Ford production. But in my personal opinion, I thought he did an excellent job in providing the film’s score. He also wrote a first-rate title song for the film titled “I Left My Love”, which I felt perfectly captured the ambiance of the U.S. Calvary during the Civil War.

Earlier, I had faulted some of the performances featured in “THE HORSE SOLDIERS”, complaining that they had struck me as over-the-top and one-dimensional. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about all of the performances. There were some performances that I found either entertaining, very impressive or both. Granted, I found the performances of both Denver Pyle and Strother Martin, who portrayed the two Confederate deserters, rather broad and clichéd. Yet, I cannot deny they gave very entertaining performances. It is not surprising that the pair eventually became successful character actors. Another performance that caught my attention came from Willis Bouchey, who portrayed one of Marlowe’s regimental commanders Colonel Phil Secord. Bouchey’s Colonel Secord was an ambitious officer who hoped to use his military success for political office and second-guessed a good deal of Marlowe’s decisions. Granted, Bouchey’s performance did not strike me as clichéd as Pyle and Martin’s. But there were moments that it came dangerously close. And I must admit that he also gave a colorful performance. Another colorful performance came from Bing Russell, who portrayed the aggressive trooper Dunker. He must have been a very good actor, because the character came dangerously close to being one of those clichéd characters usually found in Western movies about the U.S. Army. But Russell managed to keep it tight and did an excellent job in conveying Dunker’s tragic fate.

Tennis champion Althea Gibson had been cast as Hannah Hunter’s personal slave, Lukey. Surprisingly, despite the role and the fact that Ms. Gibson was an experienced actress, one would think Lukey dripped with the slave/mammy cliché. I was surprised to discover that after reading Mahin and Rackin’s screenplay, she refused to portray Lukey unless they get rid of the obvious clichés and “slave dialect”. And even more surprising, Ford had capitulated to her demands, despite his past refusal to do so with other performers. Needless to say, Gibson did her best to prevent Lukey from becoming a racial stereotype and gave a pretty competent performance. She had one of the best lines in the movie. Judson Pratt gave a curious, yet very interesting performance as the brigade’s Sergeant Major Kirby. The character was a competent Army veteran, whose only major flaw proved to be his alcoholism. I cannot deny that the film’s use of Kirby’s drinking habit as comic relief was hard to watch. In fact, I found it a little distasteful. Kirby became one of those stock characters from an old Hollywood Western – the alcoholic Irish-American soldier. But Pratt did a good job in conveying Kirby’s competence. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Ken Curtis, O.Z. Whitehead, Carleton Young, Hank Worden, William Leslie, Hoot Gibson, Anna Lee, Basil Ruysdael, Ron Hagerthy and Russell Simpson.

It is a good thing the Hannah Hunter character proved to be a complex and character, because there were times when Mahin and Rackin’s screenplay came dangerously close to portraying her as a Southern belle cliché. However, the writing pair allowed the Miss Hunter to develop. Their efforts were helped by a first-class performance by Constance Towers. Mind you, the actress’ Southern accent did not strike me as convincing, especially in her early scenes. Thankfully, she rose above the “damn Yankees” cliché and gave an interesting portrait forced to rise above her privileged background and survive the turmoils of war. If I had my choice of the most sympathetic character in this film, it would be Major Henry ‘Hank’ Kendall, the brigade’s medical officer. William Holden gave an excellent performance as the observant, compassionate and uber-competent doctor, forced to endure Colonel Marlowe’s hostility and bitter comments about the medical profession. For myself, I believe the Kendall character had one flaw. He came off as a very ideal character – a Gary Stu, if I must be honest. If it was not for Holden’s wry and cynical performance, I would have regarded him as the least interesting character in this film. “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” would mark the first time that John Wayne portrayed a historical figure (or an adaptation of said figure) that was much younger than he was during the film’s setting. Even though John Marlowe could have been portrayed by a younger actor, casting Wayne in the role did not harm the film. Wayne had the good luck to portray one of the film’s most interesting characters. Superficially, Marlowe was the type many filmgoers would regard as typical in Wayne’s filmography – manly, competent and tough. But Marlowe also proved to be a complicated man haunted by the ghost of his wife, who had been killed by an incompetent doctor. Wayne not only skillfully conveyed Marlowe’s petty and ugly bullying of Major Kendall, but also gave a first-rate soliloquy that revealed the drunken officer’s tragic memories of his wife’s death at the hands of an incompetent surgeon.

I realize that “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” has its flaws. It is not regarded as one of John Ford’s best films. I am also aware that the movie had failed to make a profit. This was attributed to John Wayne and William Holden’s high salaries. But as I had stated earlier, it is still one of my favorite Ford movies. Being a Civil War history buff did not influence my opinion. I have seen a good number of Civil War movies that I either disliked or regarded as mediocre or absolute crap. I simply cannot regard “THE HORSE SOLDIERS” as absolute crap. And this is due to John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin’s screenplay, John Ford’s excellent direction and some excellent and interesting performances by a cast led by Wayne and Holden.

“FEUD” Season One – “Bette and Joan” (2017) Episode Ranking

Below is my ranking of the episodes from Season One (and the only season so far) of the F/X series called “FEUD”. Titled “Bette and Joan” and created by Ryan Murphy, the season starred Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon:

 

“FEUD” SEASON ONE – “BETTE AND JOAN” (2017) EPISODE RANKING

 

1. (1.05) “And the Winner Is… (The Oscars of 1963)” – The fallout from the Oscar nominations for “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” leads to underhanded tactics from Joan Crawford, while co-star Bette Davis relishes the opportunity to break a record.

 

 

2. (1.02) “The Other Woman” – With production on “Baby Jane?” underway, Bette and Joan form an alliance, but outside forces in the form of Warner Brothers studio chief Jack Warner, director Robert Aldrich and an unsuspecting bit player conspire against them.

 

 

3. (1.07) “Abandoned!” – Following the beginning of production for “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, the feud between Bette and Joan intensifies. Meanwhile, Bette reveals her vulnerabilities to Aldrich during their affair.

 

 

4. (1.03) “Mommie Dearest” – The “Baby Jane” production reaches its climax, while Bette and Joan clash over every last detail. And both actresses face private struggles.

 

 

5. (1.01) “Pilot” – Cast aside by Hollywood and struggling to maintain their film careers, Bette and Joan sign up for “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” before they commence upon a feud.

 

 

6. (1.06) “Hagsploitation” – Hungry for another hit after “Baby Jane?”, Jack Warner pressures Aldrich into bringing the original team back together for a second project – “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”. Meanwhile, Joan receives a surprising blackmail threat from her brother.

 

 

7. (1.08) “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?” – In this finale, Joan accepts a leading role on a new film (her last one), despite her deteriorating health. Faced with a possible new rival, Bette reflects on her misplaced feud with Joan.

 

 

8. (1.04) “More or Less” – When “Baby Jane?” opens in movie theaters, Bette and Joan face uncertain prospects, Aldrich deals with his own personal and professional difficulties, and his assistant Pauline Jameson makes a surprising offer.

 

Favorite Episodes of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” (1984-1992)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from the 1984-1992 BBC series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE”. The series starred Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple:

 

FAVORITE EPISODES OF “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” (1984-1992)

 

1. “A Murder Is Announced” (1985) – An unusual announcement in the newspaper leads the curious inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn to Letitia Blacklock’s home, where they become witnesses to a murder.

 

 

2. “Sleeping Murder” (1987) – When a young bride moves into a small town villa, long repressed childhood memories of witnessing a murder come to the surface. She and her husband seeks Miss Jane Marple’s help in solving the murder.

 

 

3. “A Caribbean Mystery” (1989) – While on vacation at a West Indian resort hotel, Miss Marple correctly suspects that the apparently natural death of a retired British major is actually the work of a murderer planning yet another killing.

 

 

4. “A Pocket Full of Rye” (1985) – When a handful of grain is found in the pocket of a murdered businessman, Miss Marple seeks a murderer with a penchant for nursery rhymes.

 

 

5. “The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side” (1992) – At a reception for a fading film star shooting a screen comeback at Miss Marple’s home village of St. Mary’s Mead, a gushing fan is poisoned by a drink meant for the actress.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” (2019) Review

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” (2019) Review

When I had first learned that producer-director Quentin Tarantino had plans to make a movie about “Old Hollywood”, I assumed that it would be set during the early 20th century – at least sometime between the 1920s and the 1940s. I had no idea that the movie would be set near the end of the 1960s.

The reason behind my initial assumption was that I have never considered the 1960s decade to be a part of . . . “Old Hollywood”. For me, that era in film history had ended by the late 1950s. I eventually learned that a good number of movie stars – Rock Hudson being one of them – had retained contracts with the industries movie studios even during the Sixties. Even those who had transferred from movie to television productions. Then . . . I heard that the movie would be about the LaBianca-Tate Murders from August 1969. Familiar with the level of violence featured in past Tarantino movies, I was pretty determined to avoid this movie. I am used to the violence featured in the director’s past movies. But I really could not see myself sitting in a movie theater and watching a re-creation of the murder of actress Sharon Tate, Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring and a few other friends at the hands of Charles Manson’s Family. I had seen the 1976 movie, “HELTER SKELTER” when I was a kid. Once was enough and that was only a two-part television movie. But when I had eventually learned that “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” was a revisionist movie like his 2009 film, “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, I decided to give it a chance.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” covered a six month period near the end of the 1960s – from February to August 1969. To be honest, the movie is divided into two time periods. Two-thirds of the movie is set during a 36-hour period in early Februrary 1969. The last third of the film is set during the afternoon and evening hours of August 8-9, 1969. The movie is about the experiences of two men – Hollywood television actor Rick Dalton and his friend/stunt man/chauffeur Cliff Booth. Following the cancellation of his television series, “Bounty Law”, Rick had been making guest appearances in various television shows as villains. Casting agent Marvin Schwarz warns Rick that the longer he continues appearing in television episodes as the villain, his career will eventually die and no one will remember him from “Bounty Law”. The agent suggests that Rick consider going to Europe to star in an Italian western or two. And Cliff find his career as a Hollywood stuntman over due to rumors that he may have killed his wife and an altercation with Bruce Lee on the set of “THE GREEN HORNET”. Only his job as Rick’s chauffeur/handyman has allowed Cliff to earn any cash, thanks to the actor’s alcoholism and collection of DUIs that led to the removal his driver’s license.

Rick has also acquired new neighbors – Polish-born director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate – both with Hollywood careers that seemed to be on the upswing. The couple had just began leasing the home of music producer Terry Melcher. Rick has dreams of befriending them as a means to revive his career. Meanwhile, he contemplates accepting Marvin’s suggestion, while he begins work on his current job – a guest appearance as another villain in the pilot episode of the TV western called “LANCER”. As for Cliff, he becomes acquainted with a beautiful hitchhiker named Pussycat. She turns out to be a member of the Manson Family, who are staying at Spahn Ranch, where he and Rick used to film “Bounty Law”. Cliff’s encounter with the ranch’s owner, the blind and aging George Spahn and members of the Manson Family foreshadows a later encounter on that infamous night, six months later.

While contemplating his career, I noticed all of the four movies made by Quentin Tarantino in the past ten years were period pieces. All of them . . . from “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS” to this current film, “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”. I would never consider the other three films as nostalgic, but a part of me cannot help but wonder if I could say the same about this latest one. The pacing for “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” struck me as a lot more detailed, relaxed and reflective than any of his previous movies. It almost seemed as if Tarantino was paying some kind of loving tribute to the end of the old Hollywood studio system. For me, this seemed like both a good thing and a bad one.

Tarantino always had a reputation for scenes that featured long stretches of dialogue or detailed action sequences. And yes, the pacing in his films – with the exception of scenes featuring action or revelations of previous mysteries – can be a tad slow upon first viewing. But “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” marked the first time I can recall such a small amount of violence or action. Tarantino seemed more evoking a sense of the past than in any other of his period films. For “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”, it was a good thing for the film managed to permeate the end of the 1960s in Los Angeles and the Hollywood Studio system thanks to Tarantino’s direction, Barbara Ling’s superb production designs, Arianne Phillips’ costume designs and the art direction led by Richard L. Johnson.

On the other hand, Tarantino’s in-depth peek into Los Angeles 1969 also had a negative impact . . . a minor one, if I must be honest. This slow exploration also included a look into actress Sharon Tate’s life . . . at least in the first two-thirds of the film. Basically, the movie reflected a peek into the daily life of the actress – attending a party at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, visiting a bookstore in the Westwood Village, and watching her latest film (“THE WRECKING CREW”) at the theater. I realize that Tarantino was trying to pay some kind of homage to Tate, but I found this . . . homage rather dragged the film’s pacing.

There were two other aspects of “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” that I found troubling. One brief scene early in the film featured an appearance by Charles Manson at the Polanski-Tate home, searching for music producer Terry Melcher, who owned it. In real life, Manson had visited the house on several occasions, searching for the music producer. These visits had led to the Tate-LaBianca murders. But the movie only featured one visit by Manson and it happened early in the film . . . six months before the night of August 8-9. I believe this is where Tarantino’s narrative structure for the film had failed. I belief the film’s second act, which is set during that very night, should have began at least a few days or a week or two earlier, allowing one or two more visits by Manson to 10050 Cielo Drive and setting up his plan to send some of his followers to kill its inhabitants.

And there was Cliff’s infamous fight with Bruce Lee that outraged a good number of critics and moviegoers and led them to accuse Tarantino of disrespct toward the actor/martial artist and racism. Many took umbrage at Tarantino’s portrayal of Lee as a braggadocio who needed to be taken down by a white man in a fight – namely Cliff. If I must honest, I felt the same. I still do . . . somewhat. I recently discovered that one of the production companies backing the film is Bona Film Group, a Chinese organization controlled by Yu Dong and Jeffrey Chan. As producers and co-financiers of the film, why did Bona Film Group fail to protest against the Booth-Lee encounter? Did the company’s executives have a personal grudge against the late martial artist? Was this lack of protest due to some unpopularity of Lee in mainland China? Or did the production company simply not cared? One minor nitpick . . . actor Mike Moh’s hairstyle for Lee was a bit too long for that 1966 or 1967 flashback. Personally, I think Tarantino should have never added that scene in the first place. It was not that relevant to the film’s overall narrative. Or he could have easily allowed Cliff to have a fight with a fictional character, instead of Lee . . . anything to avoid the unnecessary controversy that followed.

Despite these flaws, I really enjoyed “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”. As I had stated earlier, I really enjoyed the film’s atmospheric setting of the Hollywood community at the end of the 1960s. The movie also did an excellent job in conveying Tarantino’s talent for creating a narrative structure for his films. The director allowed moviegoers a peak into a Hollywood industry that was in the process of change from the old studio system to the industry’s American New Wave era between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. This transistion was conveyed in the film not only marked by Rick Dalton’s anxiety over his foundering career, but also capped by the Manson Family’s attack upon Cielo Drive. However, Rick was not the only one anxious about his future. Cliff Booth faced professional oblivion following Rick’s marriage to an Italian actress in the film’s second half. Despite their close relationship, Rick made it obvious that he could not afford to keep Cliff in his employ. The night of August 8-9 was supposed to be his last night in Rick’s employ. What is also interesting about this film is that like “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”, it ended on an ambiguous note. Was Rick’s career ever salvaged? Also, many have forgotten that on the following evening, Charles Manson himself led a second attack upon Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood. Did the revisionist ending of “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” prevent these murders? I wonder.

The movie also featured many sequences that I found very enjoyable to watch. They also help set up and maintain the film’s narrative. These scenes included Marvin Schwarz’s frank assessment of Rick’s career, Polanski and Tate’s appearance at a Playboy Mansion party, Rick’s delightful interactions with an eight year-old actress named Trudi Fraser on the “LANCER” set that helped him turn in a memorable performance, Rick’s breakdown in a trailer after flubbing his lines, and Cliff’s meeting with Pussycat. But there were two scenes that really stood out for me. One of those scenes were Cliff’s encounter with the Manson family at Spahn’s Ranch seemed like Tarantino’s take on what happened between “the family” and a stuntman named Donald Shea in late August 1969. I thought Tarantino did a superb job with this scene. It was well-paced, filled with a great deal of tension.

I can say the same about the movie’s last sequence that featured the Manson Family’s attack upon Cielo Drive during the night of August 8-9. This is where Tarantino’ use of historical revision came into play. The director-writer used Rick’s constant complaints about “hippies”, his celebrity as a former television star and Cliff’s previous encounter with the Manson Family to re-direct the latter’s attack from the Polanski-Tate household to the Dalton household. And what unfolded was chaotic, occasionally funny and yes, very scary. It truly was a well shot and well-acted sequence.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” featured a good deal of cameos – probably a lot more than any previous Tarantino film (I could be wrong, since I have not seen all of his films). Making solid cameos were Damian Lewis, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant (as actor James Stacy), Luke Perry (as actor Wayne Maunder), Damon Herriman (as Charles Manson), Ramón Franco, Lena Durnham, Rumer Willis, Martin Kove, Clu Galagher, Rebecca Gayheart, Brenda Vaccaro, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins, Jr., James Remar, and Toni Basil. The movie also featured some very memorable supporting performances – especially from the likes of Al Pacino, who delightfully portrayed casting agent Marvin Schwarz; an entertaining Kurt Russell who not only portrayed stunt gaffer Randy Miller, but also served as the film’s narrator; Zoë Bell, who was equally entertaining as Randy’s stunt gaffer wife Janet; Mike Moh, who gave a colorful performance as Bruce Lee; Lorenza Izzo, as Rick’s wife Francesca Capucci; a rather frightening Dakota Fanning as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Manson family member; Austin Butler as the very intimidating Manson family member “Tex”, Maya Hawke as “Flower Child”; Nicholas Hammond as actor-director Sam Wanamaker; Rafał Zawierucha as Roman Polanski; Julia Butters as the delightful child actor Trudi Fraser; a very charming Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring; the always entertaining Bruce Dern as George Spahn; Damian Lewis, who was surprisingly effective as a witty Steve McQueen; and Margaret Qualley, who was very memorable as Manson Family member “Pussycat”.

I will be the first admit that Tarantino made little use of Sharon Tate in this film. It was quite clear that her presence really served as a catalyst for Tarantino’s story and possibly a muse. But I cannot deny that Margot Robbie gave a very charming and ellubient performance as the late actress. Brad Pitt, on the other hand, gave a very subtle yet memorable performance as former stuntman Cliff Booth, whose career had seen better days. This was due to the mysterious circumstances behind the death of Cliff’s wife. Many believe he may have killed her and got away with the crime. And Pitt managed to reflect this ambiguity in his performance and in his eyes. There were times when it seemed there was a bit of a “cool superhero” element in the character that at times, made it a bit difficult for me to relate to him. But thanks to Pitt’s natural screen persona and a very subtle performance, I was able to do so in the end.

If I had to choose the most complex character in the entire movie, it would have to be former television star Rick Dalton. And I cannot deny that Leonardo DiCaprio did an exceptional job of conveying this character to the movie screen. Thanks to DiCaprio’s performance and Tarantino, Rick is such a conumdrum. One could label him as one of those actors from the late 1950s and early 1960s, who became television stars and later tried to make the transition to film. I have read many comments that Rick has a conservative outlook on his tastes and acting skills that will forever limit him from becoming a star in Hollywood’s New Age in films. This is very apparent in Rick’s pompadour hairstyle in the film’s first half, his occasional rants against hippies and his reluctant to adapt to the new Hollywood. And yet . . . Rick eventually concedes to Schwarz’s suggestion that he try Italian westerns, he changes his hairstyle and wardrobe to reflect the fashions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he seeks to make social connections with Polanski and Tate to further his career. Rick is also an alcoholic and might be bipolar. DiCaprio did an excellent job in conveying Rick’s emotional state that reflect these traits.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” is not my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, it has became my favorite film of 2019. I do not think it has a chance of winning any of the big prizes during the awards season of 2019-2020. I have a deep suspicion that the media and the Hollywood community is not as enamoured of it as I am. Which is okay . . . to each his or her own. But damn it, the movie was superb. I have heard rumors that Tarantino plans to retire from filmmaking. Personally, I think this is a mistake on his part. Perhaps he wants to end his career on a high note. And “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” is certainly a reflection of it, thanks to Tarantino’s direction, his screenplay, the movie’s production values and especially the cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. But I hope that Tarantino continues to make movies.

 

“ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” (1948) Review

 

 

“ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” (1948) Review

I will be the first to admit that I have been a fan of several movies starring Errol Flynn for years. Ever since I was in my early teens. However, my preference for Flynn movies tend to be for those that were released during the first five years of his Hollywood career – between 1935 and 1941. However, I recently took a chance on viewing one of his films made during the second decade of his Hollywood career – the 1948 adventure film, “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”.

The character of Don Juan had originated some time in the early 17th century – actually in the 1630 Spanish play by Tirso de Molina called “El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra” (“The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest”). Only in de Molina’s play, the character of Don Juan was portrayed as an evil man who seduced women, thanks to his ability to manipulate language and disguise his appearance. Over the next century or two, Don Juan had transformed into a wealthy libertine, who devotes his life to seducing women in the belief that he had plenty of time to repent later for his sins.

In the 1948 movie directed by Vincent Sherman, Flynn’s character is a Spanish nobleman named Don Juan de Maraña, a charming libertine, whose penchant for seducing women has landed him in scandal after scandal for many years. The movie opened in the last few years of Elizabethan England, when Don Juan is caught in a diplomatic scandal after a dalliance with the British fiancée of a Spanish nobleman. An old family friend and Spain’s ambassador to England, Count de Polan, advises Don Juan to return to Spain as soon as possible. He also sends a letter to Queen Margaret of Spain and consort to King Philip III, recommending that Don Juan serves as the Spanish court’s fencing instructor to rehabilitate the latter’s reputation.

Upon his arrival in Spain, Don Juan discovers that the country is under the thumb of the king’s premier minister, Duke de Lorca, who also has the weak-willed Philip under this thumb. Don Juan also falls secretly in love with Margaret, but remains a staunchly loyal subject to both her and the king. Don Juan discovers a treacherous plan by de Lorca, who is holding the loyal Count de Polan as a secret prisoner. The Duke plans to depose the monarchs, usurp their power over Spain, and declare war on England. With the support of his friends at court, Don Juan heroically defends the Queen and the King against de Lorca and his henchmen.

If I did not know any better, I would have sworn that “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” reminded me of Flynn’s 1940 movie, “THE SEA HAWK”. Like the 1940 film, Flynn’s character is trying to save his country and monarch from a scheming prime minister, plotting to take control of the throne. But there are differences. One, he is in love with a married royal figure, instead of a single noblewoman. Also, the film’s narrative remains firmly land-locked, unlike the 1940 movie. And unlike “THE SEA HAWK”“ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” has a strong underlying streak of comedy in its narrative and in its portrayal of most of the main characters.

Do I have any complaints about “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”? Not really. The worst I can say about the film is that it seemed to lack an edge that a good number of Flynn’s earlier swashbucklers had possessed back in the mid-to-late 1930s. Despite the plot regarding the Duke de Lorca’s oppression of Spain and his plot to assume control of the throne, the screenplay written by Herbert Dalmas, George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz just seemed to lack some kind of real edge or darkness that could be found in “THE SEA HAWK” and a few of his other films between 1935 and 1941.

On the other hand, I cannot deny that “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” was a joy to watch. I found it to be a very entertaining film. It possessed a strong comedic streak. Some of Flynn’s other adventure films had their moments of comedy, but a part of me began to wonder if “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” was basically a comedy-adventure. It certainly seemed so. And you know what? The strong comedic element really worked. I believe the topic of Don Juan’s womanizing behavior provided a great deal of strong humor for this film.

Comedy or not, “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” provided some good dramatic moments – especially in scenes featuring the main character’s interactions with Queen Margaret and the Duke de Lorca. And since this is an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, I have to bring up the film’s action scenes. The movie did feature its share of action scenes, but I can only think of two that really impressed me. One featured Don Juan’s fencing students fighting de Lorca’s men around the beginning of the last action scene. The other happened to be Don Juan’s main duel against the Duke de Lorca. It is fortunate that both Flynn and Robert Douglas were experienced on screen/stage fencers. Mind you, I still regard Flynn’s duel against Henry Daniell’s double in “THE SEA HAWK” as my favorite sword fight to feature the Australian actor. But I cannot deny that both he and Douglas managed to provide a first-rate duel in the movie’s final action scene.

The performances in “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” were excellent. The movie provided either solid or first-rate supporting performances from Romney Brent, Robert Warwick, Helen Westcott, Fortunio Bonanova Jerry Austin, Mary Stuart and Douglas Kennedy. I was surprised to find Ann Rutherford, who was a MGM contract player in the late 1930s and early 1940s in this film. She gave a funny, yet sly performance as Dona Elena, the amorous older sister of one of Don Juan’s students. Una O’Connor, a veteran of Flynn’s two earlier films, provided a breath of comedic fresh air as the maid of one of Flynn’s conquests. I was also surprised to find future television star Raymond Burr as Captain Alverez, one of the Duke de Lorca’s villainous henchmen. I thought he gave a very solid performance. Robert Douglas, who must have made a career of portraying villains, was very effective as the traitorous and scheming Duke de Lorca. “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” proved to be the last of 13 or 14 movies that Alan Hale co-starred with Flynn. Not only did Hale give a highly entertaining performance as Leporello, Don Juan’s personal servant; both he and Flynn managed to continue their great screen chemistry they had maintained for over a decade.

I have to be honest. I thought Viveca Lindfors gave a strong and excellent performance as the high-minded and no-nonsense Queen Margaret. But for some reason, she seemed out-of-place in this movie and as Flynn’s co-star. I think her presence in this film would have worked if there had been a lot less humor in the story. I could say that portraying Don Juan de Maraña seemed like a walk in the park for Errol Flynn. He seemed to portray the role so effortlessly. I suspect that certain film historians would be inclined to dismiss his performance . . . as they are inclined to dismiss his talent as an actor altogether. But I must admit that Don Juan has become one of my favorite Flynn roles. Mind you, I thought he handled his dramatic scenes with Viveca Lindfors and Robert Douglas with great skill. But I found Flynn’s comedic acting in this movie to be exquisite. This was especially apparent in scenes in which Don Juan had expressed annoyance by the unwanted attention of enamored women or mild resentment by his inability to put his seductive reputation behind him.

Overall, I really enjoyed “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”. I thought director Vincent Sherman did an excellent job of using Herbert Dalmas, George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz’s screenplay to create an adventurous tale that also included romance, intrigue, action and a great deal of humor. And Sherman also worked well with a top-notched cast led by the talented and woefully underappreciated Errol Flynn.

“THE LAST TYCOON” (1976) Review

“THE LAST TYCOON” (1976) Review

What is there to say about the 1976 movie, “THE LAST TYCOON”? Well . . . it was adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel, which had remained at the time of his death in 1941. It proved to be the last movie directed by Elia Kazan. And it starred Robert De Niro.

Actually, there is more to say about “THE LAST TYCOON”. It told the story of Monroe Stahr, Fitzgerald’s literary version of the legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production chief, Irving Thalberg. Stahr served as production chief of a major Hollywood studio in the mid-1930s. The movie unfolds with Stahr juggling his time with emotional actors and directors, and several frustrated screenwriters. Stahr also deals with more pressing conflicts like the newly created Writers Guild of America, a union organizer from the East Coast and the growing resentment his boss and head of the studio, Pat Brady. During all this activity and growing turmoil, Stahr finds himself torn between two young women. One of those women is Brady’s only child, a recent college graduate named Cecilia who is infatuated with Stahr. The other is an Irish beauty with a troubled past named Kathleen Moore, with whom Stahr falls in love and eventually obsessed. Unfortunately for Stahr, Kathleen is engaged to another man.

The production values for “THE LAST TYCOON” struck me as first rate. Well . . . almost. I enjoyed Victor J. Kemper’s sharp and colorful photography. I also enjoyed Jack T. Collis’ art direction, which I thought effectively conveyed the locations of the Hollywood community during the 1930s. But I feel that Collis’ art direction would not have been as effective without Gene Callahan’s production designs. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must have also been impressed by both Collis and Callahan. The two men ended up receiving Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. On the other hand, I am not surprised that Anna Hill Johnstone and Anthea Sylbert’s costume designs had failed to win any nominations. Do not get me wrong. They were not terrible. But . . . I did notice that like some of the hairstyles worn by the actresses in the film, the fashion styles of the 1970s tend to creep in.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Well . . . with most of them. May I be frank? Robert De Niro seemed to be an embodiment of Monroe Stahr . . . or should I say Irving Thalberg? De Niro did an excellent job in conveying Stahr’s obsessive nature – whether it was creating movies or falling in love with Kathleen Moore. A second standout performance came from Theresa Russell, who portrayed Cecilia Brady, the daughter of the studio chief. Russell did an excellent job in portraying both Cecilia’s passion for Stahr and her no-nonsense intelligence. Robert Mitchum was superb as Pat Brady, the studio chief who took his daughter’s intelligence for granted and who resented Stahr’s genius as a movie producer.

Both Tony Curtis and Jeanne Moreau gave excellent performances as Rodriguez and Didi, two Hollywood stars, whose egos and insecurities threaten a film they are currently shooting. Jack Nicholson provided a strong, yet quiet presence as an East Coast union official visiting Hollywood to organize the industry’s employees. The movie also featured solid performances from Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Donald Pleasance, Peter Strauss, Tige Andrews and Anjelica Huston. “THE LAST TYCOON” also featured Ingrid Boulting as Kathleen Moore, the woman who captured Monroe Stahr’s heart. How did I feel about her? Hmmmm . . . she was not a terrible actress. But I was not particularly impressed by her performance. She seemed to spend most of the movie trying to iconic or remote . . . a 1970s version of Greta Garbo. And it did not work for me.

For me, the real problem with “THE LAST TYCOON” was its narrative. Quite frankly, I thought it sucked. Mind you, I thought the film’s explorations of life at movie studio in the 1930s seemed interesting. What made this work is that most of this exploration was told from Monroe Stahr’s point-of-view. I cannot deny that the film’s peek into the old Hollywood studio system was interesting. But instead of fashioning a narrative from this topic or at least from studio politics, screenwriter Harold Pinter had decided revolve the film’s plot around the Monroe Stahr-Kathleen Moore love story. I can understand why he did this. F. Scott Fitzgerald did the same in the unfinished novel. The problem was that Stahr’s romance with Kathleen bored the hell out of me. One, the entire romance almost seemed on-sided on Stahr’s part. And two, both Robert De Niro and Ingrid Boulting lacked any chemistry whatsoever. Every time the pair shared the screen, I found myself struggling to stay awake. Perhaps Pinter could have done a better job in connecting the Stahr-Moore romance with studio politics . . . who knows? Unfortunately, I felt as if I was watching a movie with two different narratives that barely connected – and with the major (and boring) subplot overshadowing the minor one. Pity.

Would I ever watch “THE LAST TYCOON” again? I honestly cannot answer that question. It is a beautiful looking film, thanks to men like Jack T. Collis and Gene Callahan. I also cannot deny the film’s peek into the old Hollywood studio system and politics managed to somewhat fascinate me. Unfortunately, the movie was dominated by a dull love story that bored me senseless. So, would I ever watch this movie again? Right now, I would say no. I do not think so.

 

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“CAMILLE” (1936) Review

“CAMILLE” (1936) Review

I am about to confess to something many might regard as sacrilegious. I have never regarded Greta Garbo as one of my favorite actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I had nothing against her . . . personally. But I realized that I could barely recall any of her movies that were personal favorites of mine. Because of this, I was very reluctant to do a re-watch of one of Garbo’s most famous films, “CAMILLE”.

Produced by Irving Thalberg and directed by George Cukor, “CAMILLE” is based upon the 1848 novel and 1852 play “La Dame aux Camélias” (“The Lady with the Camellias”) by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The movie told the story of Marguerite Gautier, a woman of low-class birth who rose to become one of Paris’ top courtesans. Debt-ridden from helping friends and suffering from tuberculosis, Marguerite hopes to attract the attention of an aristocrat named Baron de Varville as her next “client” at the opera. However, just as she manages to attract the Baron’s attention, Marguerite meets a young member of the bourgeois gentry named Armand Duval and instant attraction flares up between them. The attraction eventually develops into love. But external influences – including Marguerite’s debts – threatens their potential for happiness.

I have not seen “CAMILLE” in a long time. A long time. There is a good chance I have not seen it since I was in my early twenties. But something . . . I have no idea what . . . led me to watch this film after so many years. In the end, the only regret that I managed to feel was that I had ignored this movie for so long.

Did I have any problems with “CAMILLE”? Perhaps a few. I noticed that the movie’s narrative began in 1847 and ended roughly a year later. I think. But considering the story’s setting, I found it surprising that the narrative never touched upon the political upheavals that swept throughout Europe between early 1848 and early 1849. In France, the upheaval was known as the French Revolution of 1848. During this event, the French king Louis Philippe I was overthrown in February 1848. Four months later, many Parisian workers had unsuccessfully risen in insurrection against the conservative Second Republic government. I realize that “CAMILLE” is not a political movie. But considering the film’s setting and the fact that one character had plans for a diplomatic career (Armand Duval) and another was a wealthy aristocrat (Baron de Varville), I found odd that the political upheaval was never touched upon.

I also had mixed feelings about the costumes created by legendary Hollywood designer, Adrian. I realize that the man had a reputation for creating some of Hollywood’s most memorable and famous costumes. But . . . I do not know. Oh, yes I do. I think Adrian should have stuck to modern day costumes. His period costumes were not bad. Some of them have actually impressed me. A good example would be this particular costume from “CAMILLE” – namely Marguerite’s dark velvet riding habit:

I also admired how Adrian managed to re-capture the fashion for men during the 1840s:

On the other hands, I had problems with gowns the ones worn by Greta Garbo in the images below:

 

I was inclined to complain about the sequins featured in the costumes, but I discovered that they had been worn as part of fashion for thousands of years – including the 19th century. But I have other problems with the above costumes. One, they looked as if they came from some cheap costume warehouse. And two, Garbo looked as if she was about to be consumed by the voluminous amount of material used to create those gowns. Or could it be that Garbo lacked the figure for the fashions of the mid 19th-century? No . . . I do not believe that is a good excuse. I am certain that Western women of the 1840s came in different shapes and sizes as they do today. It is possible that Adrian had simply failed to design Garbo’s costumes in a way that would fit her perfectly. As a high-priced courtesan, Marguerite Gautier had the funds to purchase a wardrobe filled with clothes tailored to fit her. I do not think that Adrian took the time to fit Garbo’s costumes. Or perhaps she did not give him the time.

Otherwise, I cannot think of any other complaints about “CAMILLE”. If I must be brutally honest, I think it is one of the best motion picture love stories I have ever seen, hands down. Ever. I was surprised that Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the man who had written classics such as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”, had written “La Dame aux Camélias” when he was roughly 23 years old. And screenwriters James Hilton, Zoë Akins and Frances Marion did a superb job in adapting Dumas’ story.

“CAMILLE” could have easily developed into one of those sappy love stories that in which only external forces stood in the lovers’ way. And yes, Dumas’ tale featured those “forces” that stood in the way of Marguerite and Armand’s relationship – Baron Varville, Marguerite’s bank account, her friends and Armand’s father. But there were other forces in play. Namely, Marguerite and Armand. Between her passive aggressive personality, her penchant for evading the truth and her inability to handle her finances; Marguerite had put herself into a situation that made it nearly impossible to have a genuine romance with Armand, let alone anyone. And poor Armand. I could say that he was completely faultless in this romance. Yes, he was naive. Armand was also hot-tempered, rash and a bit too stubborn and proud for his own good. Considering the state of her health, I do not believe Marguerite’s romance with Armand was destined to last very long. However, I feel that it were not for their personal flaws, the pair could have enjoyed more time together than they actually had.

Many still regard Greta Garbo’s performance as Marguerite Gautier as her finest performance. As I had hinted earlier in this review, I have only seen less than a handful of Garbo’s movies. But I cannot deny that she gave a brilliant performance as the cynical, yet warm-hearted courtesan. Although Garbo was a healthy looking woman most of her life, I do admire how she utilized body language and facial expressions to convey Marguerite’s questionable health and languid lifestyle. I have always suspected that Robert Taylor was one of the underrated actors in Hollywood history. He had been in Hollywood for two years by the time he shot “CAMILLE”. Many critics tend to focus on Garbo’s performance when discussing the movie. As I had pointed out, she gave a superb performance. But so did Taylor, as Armand. He did an excellent job in conveying Armand’s character from a very naive young man to someone who is a bit more cynical and mature. And yet, Taylor made sure to retain Armand’s temper and stubbornness.

Another excellent performance came from Henry Daniell, who portrayed Marguerite’s “client”, Baron Varville. Daniell not only skillfully conveyed Varville’s cool and arrogant nature, but also the character’s slight infatuation with Marguerite, but also the latter’s pain in facing the reality of Marguerite’s true feelings for him. Laura Hope Crewes, famous for her role in the 1939 Best Picture winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, gave a very entertaining performance as one of Marguerite’s closest friends, a veteran courtesan named Prudence Duvernoy. It is a shame that Crewes never earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. Her Prudence is a skillful mixture of friendly warmth and a mercenary nature. “CAMILLE” also featured first-rate performances from the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Rex O’Malley, Leonore Ulric, Jessie Ralph and Elizabeth Allan.

I was astounded to learn that “CAMILLE” had earned only one Academy Award nomination – Greta Garbo for Best Actress. And she lost to Luise Rainer’s performance in “THE GREAT ZIEGFELD” . . . much to the surprise of the Hollywood community. Hell, I am not only shocked that “THE GREAT ZIEGFELD” had also won Best Picture, I am flabbergasted that “CAMILLE” did not even earn a Best Picture nomination, along with nominations for the leading actor, a screenplay nomination or a Best Direction nod for George Cukor. How did this travesty happen? A superb movie like “CAMILLE”?

The discovery of the limited amount of acclaim that “CAMILLE” had earned back in late 1936/1937, this only convinces me how irrelevant that the Academy Awards truly are. Thankfully, movie fans still have the movie to enjoy for years to come, thanks to George Cukor’s superb direction; a great screenplay by the likes of James Hilton, Zoë Akins and the legendary Frances Marion; and a superb cast led by the iconic Greta Garbo and the excellent Robert Taylor.

 

 

“THE LAST TYCOON” (2016-2017) Episodes Ranking

Below is my ranking of the episodes from “THE LAST TYCOON”, Amazon Studios’ 2016-2017 loose adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1941 unfinished novel that was published posthumously. Developed by Billy Ray, the limited series starred Matt Bomer as Monroe Stahr:

 

“THE LAST TYCOON” (2016-2017) EPISODES RANKING

 

1. (1.08) “An Enemy Among Us” – While production chief Monroe Stahr commence upon a campaign to secure Brady-American Pictures first Oscar nominations, studio chief Pat Brady seeks for a solution to balance the studio’s account books and get the Board of Directors off his back. Meanwhile, starlet-to-be Kathleen Moore plots to escape from her dangerous deception.

 

2. (1.03) “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” – Brady proves his worth as studio chief as he plans to woo film star Margo Taft to sign up with Brady-American. Due to the loan he had given Brady, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer tries to interfere in the studio’s projects. Brady’s daughter Celia forms a connection with office boy Max Miner. And Monroe’s relationship with Kathleen blossoms.

 

3. (1.09) “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar” – In this season finale that focuses on the Academy Awards ceremony, Brady makes a decision that causes a rift between him and Monroe and Celia. Monroe and Kathleen grapple with the emotional fallout of her deception.

 

4. (1.06) “A Brady-American Christmas” – During the Christmas holiday, Stahr encourages Kathleen to join Fritz Lang’s secluded rehearsal, leaving him alone on Christmas Eve. Brady schemes to boost ticket sales for “Angels on the Avenue”. Celia and Max are brought closer by tragedy.

 

5. (1.01) “Pilot” – The series premiere and pilot introduces Monroe as Brady-American Pictures’ production chief, who constantly clashes with Brady over the content of the studio’s films, fends of Celia’s infatuation with him and falls in love with Kathleen, whose nationality reminds him of his late wife, Minna Davis.

 

6. (1.06) “Eine Kleine Reichmusik” – Stahr orchestrates an extravagant Hollywood party that masks a secret agenda involving Austrian-Jewish musicians. Brady continues to courts Margo Taft to become Brady-American’s permanent leading lady. And Celia becomes aware of director Fritz Lang’s provocative private life.

 

7. (1.04) “Burying the Boy Genius” – The death of MGM production chief Irving Thalberg sends shock waves throughout the Hollywood industry and leaves Brady pondering over Monroe’s shaky health. Meanwhile, the latter risks his budding relationship with Kathleen to save a movie and Brady American.

 

8. (1.07) “A More Perfect Union” – Brady hatches a bold business ploy that has sweeping consequences for the studio’s employees and forces Monroe to contain the repercussions. Kathleen struggles to manage her tangled web of half-truths.

 

9. (1.02) “Nobody Recasts Like Monroe” – Monroe continues his pursuit of Kathleen, who rejects the idea of being a replacement for Minna. Pat Brady’s pet project has a devastating debut, forcing him to accept Monroe’s help. Celia gets cozy in her role as producer, so Hackett takes it upon himself to give her an education.

“FLAME OVER INDIA” (1959) Review

“FLAME OVER INDIA” (1959) Review

I have seen my share of movie and television productions set during the heyday of the British Empire over the years. They have featured narratives that range from being rabidly pro-Imperial to being highly critical of British Imperial policies and society. Recently, I re-discovered an old movie that seemed to straddle between the two styles of this genre, the 1959 adventure film, “FLAME OVER INDIA aka NORTH WEST FRONTIER”.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, “FLAME OVER INDIA” began in the North West Frontier of 1905 British India, when a Hindu Maharajah asks British Army Captain William Scott to take his young son and heir, Prince Kishan, to the safety of the British Governor’s residence in Haserabad, due to a Muslim uprising in his province. Accompanying them is the prince’s nanny/governess, an American widow named Mrs. Catherine Wyatt. They leave shortly before the rebels storm the palace and kill the Maharajah. Upon their arrival in Haserabad, Captain Scott and Mrs. Wyatt learn that Muslim rebels threaten to overrun the Residency, due to knowledge of the young prince’s arrival. The Residency’s Governor, Sir John Wyndham, informs Captain Scott that he must take Prince Kishan to the safety of Kalapur. Scott discovers an old train, the Empress of India, and decides to use it to get Kishan and Mrs. Wyatt to safety. Because of the danger of developing siege in Haserabad, other passengers join Scott, Mrs. Wyatt and Kishan on the journey:

*Gupta – the Empress of India’s driver
*Lady Wyndham – Sir John’s wife
*Peter van Leyden – a Dutch biracial anti-Imperialist journalist
*Mr. Bridie – one of Sir John’s government aides
*Mr. Peters – an arms dealer who does business with all sides
*Two Indian sergeants acting as Captain Scott’s aides

There are some aspects of “FLAME OVER INDIA” that did not particularly impress me. Actually, I can only think of two. In one scene, the Empress of India’s passengers had come across a train that had departed Haserabad earlier in the film. Apparently, the rebels had massacred all of the train’s passengers, leaving behind one infant still alive. Now, I realize that this scene is supposed to be some kind of allegory of the religious strife that marred Britain’s partition from India in 1947 and its role in that strife. The problem is that this scene would have been more suited for a story set during that period, instead of a movie set in 1905. I also had a problem with the film’s final action sequence. It is not terrible, but it struck me as a bit anti-climatic. Especially since it ended with the Empress of India’s passengers evading capture by the train’s entrance into a two-mile long hillside tunnel that led to the safety of Kalapur.

Overall, I thought “FLAME OVER INDIA” was a first-rate movie that seamlessly combined the elements of two genres – action and drama. At first glance, it seemed Captain Scott using a train to convey young Kishan to the safety of Kalapur offered no real challenges – especially against pursuers on horseback. Scott and Gupta had initially planned to sneak the passengers out of Haserabad by freewheeling the Empress of India down a gradient and out of the rail yard, but the train’s whistle unexpectedly blows, alerting the rebels to their departure. The screenwriters ensure that the Empress and its passengers encounter other obstacles to make it difficult to evade their pursuers – including torn up tracks, the train’s nearly empty water tank, the train full of massacred passengers, a bomb-damaged viaduct/bridge and a spy in their midst. If I had a choice for my favorite action sequence, it would be the one in which the Empress of India passengers attempt to fix the sabotaged tracks in the middle of a gun battle. It is a pity that this incident occurred midway in the film.

More importantly, “FLAME OVER INDIA” is an excellent drama in which the political situation – the rebellion within Kishan’s province – served as a reflection of the divisions in British India around the turn of the 20th century and the Britons’ role in its origin. In fact, this topic manifested in a tense scene featuring an argument between Captain Scott and Peter van Leyden following the passengers’ discovery of the train massacre. Earlier, I had commented that “FLAME OVER INDIA” seemed to straddle between those rabidly pro-Imperial movies to those highly critical of British Empire. The quarrel between Captain Scott and van Leyden over the train massacre and British Imperial policy seemed to personify this “no Man’s Land” between the genre’s two styles. But the movie also featured other characters who seemed to represent not only these two positions on Imperial policies, but also that middle ground. Even Captain Scott’s characters seemed to be on the verge of that middle ground by the film’s end.

I have seen “FLAME OVER INDIA” on many occasions, but it finally occurred to me that it reminded me of another film. I noticed that one of the screenwriters was Frank Nugent, who had written the screenplays for several of John Ford’s movies between 1948 and 1963. Although Nugent never worked on one of Ford’s best films, “STAGECOACH”, I realized that “FLAME OVER INDIA” bore a strong resemblance to the Oscar winning 1939 film. Like “STAGECOACH”, this film is about a group of people who undertake a long-distance journey through dangerous territory. And like the 1939 movie, it is also a strong character study of people from different backgrounds, personalities and philosophies. Whereas “STAGECOACH” seemed more like an exploration of class (and regional) differences between late 19th century Americans, “FLAME OVER INDIA” is more of an exploration of the impact of the British Empire upon the movie’s main characters – the Europeans, one American, one Eurasian and two Asians. The ironic aspect of the film’s theme is that even young Kishan, who served mainly as the movie’s catalyst, had the last word about the British presence in India, near the end.

“FLAME OVER INDIA” struck me as a colorful looking film, thanks to its technical crew. The movie was shot at Pinewood Studios, and also on location in India and Spain. And I must say that cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did a beautiful job with his photography for both locations. And I must admit that I really admired how he balanced his close-up, far-shots and zooming . . . especially during the film’s opening sequence that depicted the Muslim rebels overrunning the palace of Kishan’s father. I was also impressed by Frederick Wilson’s editing of J. Lee Thompson’s direction of the action sequences – especially the opening sequence and that featuring the repair of the damaged tracks. Between Thompson and Wilson, they managed to fill the movie with a great deal of action, suspense and drama. I also enjoyed Yvonne Caffin’s Edwardian costumes for the film. But like her work for the 1958 movie, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”, they did not strike me as particularly mind-blowing, but they certainly did not look cheap or straight out of a costume warehouse.

The 1959 movie did not exactly have a large cast . . . unless one would consider the number of extras. But I have to say that I did not have anything negative to say about the performances in “FLAME OVER INDIA”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim, and Basil Hoskins. Both S.M. Asgaralli and Sam Chowdhary, who portrayed the two sepoys under Scott’s command, had spoken at least two or three lines between them and still managed to effectively convey the idea of competent soldiers. And Govind Raja Ross gave a very charming performance as the young Prince Kishan. He was not the best child actor I have ever seen, but I found him charming.

However, the film’s best performances came the major supporting cast members and the two leads. I cannot say that Ursula Jeans gave a complex performance. After all, I could never regard her character, Lady Windham, as flexible. But Jeans did an excellent job in conveying the conservative, yet ladylike “memsahib” of the British Empire. Eugene Deckers gave a very entertaining performance as the witty and cynical arms dealer, Mr. Peters. In fact, I would say that Deckers gave the most entertaining performance in the film. Wilfrid Hyde-White gave a charming, yet poignant performance as the mild-mannered, yet very open-minded government aide, Mr. Bridie. Hyde-White did such a good job in conveying his character’s likability that even a hostile character like Peter van Leyden recognized him for the tolerant person he was. While checking I.S. Johar’s filmography on the IMDB site, I noticed that he made very few English-speaking films, one of them being the 1978 Agatha Christie movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”. Personally, I believe his role as the effervescent, yet skilled train engineer/driver, Gupta, to be a breath of fresh air, in compare to his role in the 1978 murder mystery. Johar not only gave a first-rate performance, he managed to create a crackling screen chemistry with leading man Kenneth More.

If I had my choice for the best performance in “FLAME OVER INDIA”, I would choose Herbert Lom’s portrayal of the biracial journalist, Peter van Leyden. Lom did an excellent job in conveying his character’s intelligence, penchant for confrontations and complex anger toward the British presence in India and European colonialism in general. Lom’s Peter van Leyden may have been an unpleasant character, but what he had to say about colonialism and the British attitude toward the subcontinent’s natives resonated with a great deal of truth. The producers of “FLAME OVER INDIA” had originally considered Olivia de Havilland for the role of Prince Kishan’s widowed governess, Mrs. Catherine Wyatt. However, the former was unavailable and they turned to American actress Lauren Bacall to portray the role. One would not expect an American character in a film set in British India. And yet . . . Bacall gave such a first-rate performance as the forthright, yet slightly cynical Mrs. Wyatt that I never gave it another thought. More importantly, she also managed to create a strong, yet natural screen chemistry with More, which took me by surprise. Speaking of Kenneth More, he gave a strong and intelligent performance as the movie’s leading character, Captain William Scott. In a way, More’s portrayal of Scott struck me as rather odd. Superficially, his Scott seemed like the typical British Army officer who believed in the righteousness of the British Empire and regarded its Indian subjects as children. And yet, Scott seemed to be a bit more complicated. He preached like a typically bigoted colonial and behaved like a more tolerant man who had a tight friendship with the likes of Gupta and treated the two sepoys (soldiers) under him as competent fighting men, instead of children who needed to be constantly supervised. Like I had said, More’s Scott proved to be something different from the usual military character in a British Imperial film. Then again, the movie had been made over a decade after India’s independence.

I may have a few quibbles about “FLAME OVER INDIA”, but overall I really enjoyed the film. It might be one of the few British Empire movies that I truly enjoyed before the more ambiguous Imperial films of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The film’s screenwriters also created a first-rate adventure film that also proved to be a complex drama and character study. “FLAME OVER INDIA” also benefited from first-rate cinematography from the legendary Geoffrey Unsworth, excellent acting from a cast led by Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall, and superb direction from J. Lee Thompson. I believe there is nothing further for me to say.