Least Favorite Movie Period Dramas

Below is a list of ten of my least favorite movie period dramas:

 

LEAST FAVORITE MOVIE PERIOD DRAMAS

1. “Legends of the Fall” (1992) – Edward Zwick directed this dull and overrated adaptaion of Jim Harrison’s 1979 novella about the lives of a Montana ranching family during the early 20th century. Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins starred.

2. “Barbary Coast” (1935) – Howard Hawks directed this turgid tale about an Eastern woman who arrives in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and comes between a corrupt gambler/saloon keeper and a miner. Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea starred.

3. “Mayerling” (1968) – Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve starred in this lavish, yet dull account of the tragic romance between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his mistress, Baroness Maria Vetsera. Terence Young directed.

4. “Idlewild” (2006) – André 3000 and Big Boi starred in this confusing and badly written musical set during Depression Era Georgia. Bryan Barber directed.

5. “Becky Sharp” (1935) – Miriam Hopkins earned a surprising Best Actress nomination (surprising to me) in this unsatisfying adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1847-48 novel, “Vanity Fair”. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the movie is known as being the first full-length production in Technicolor.

6. “Gods and Generals” (2003) – Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall starred in this adaptation of Jeff Shaara’s 1996 Civil War novel and prequel to the much superior 1993 movie, “Gettysburg”. Ronald Maxwell directed.

7. “The Hindenburg” (1975) – Robert Wise directed this rather dull account of the Hindenburg air disaster. The movie starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft.

8. “Anna Karenna” (2012) – Joe Wright directed this stagey adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel. Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson starred.

9. “Glorious 39” (2009) – Stephen Poliakoff directed this slow and pretentious thriller about a young woman who discovers that her family are pro-appreasers who wish for Britain to seek peace with Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. Romola Garai starred.

10. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) – Tim Burton directed this dull and overrated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”. Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp starred.

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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

I have seen a good number of television and movie Westerns in my time. But I find it rather odd that it is hard – almost difficult – to find a well known story set during the California Gold Rush era. And I find that rather surprising, considering many historians regard it as one of the most interesting periods in the history of the American Old West.

Of the movies and television productions I have come across, one of them is the 1935 Western, “BARBARY COAST”. Directed by Howard Hawks and adapted from Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book, the movie told the story about one Mary Rutledge, a young woman from the East Coast who arrives in 1850 San Francisco to marry the wealthy owner of a local saloon. She learns from a group of men at the wharf that her fiancé had been killed – probably murdered the owner of the Bella Donna restaurant, one Louis Chamalis. Upon meeting Chamalis at his establishment, Mary agrees to be his companion for both economic and personal reasons. She eventually ends up running a crooked roulette wheel at the Bella Donna and becoming Chamalis’ escort. But despite her own larceny, Mary (who becomes known as “the Swan), becomes disenchanted with Chamalis’ bloody methods of maintaining power within San Francisco’s Barbary Coast neighborhood. He even manages to coerce a newspaper owner named Colonel Cobb, who had accused Chamalis of a past murder, into keeping silent. During a morning ride in the countryside, Mary meets and falls in love with a handsome gold miner named Jim Carmichael. Life eventually becomes more difficult for Mary, as she finds herself torn between Jim’s idyllic love and Chamalis’ luxurious lifestyle and his obsessive passion for her.

Judging from my recap of “BARBARY COAST”, it is easy to see that the movie is more than just a Western. It seemed to be part crime melodrama, part romance, part Western and part adventure story. “BARBARY COAST” seemed to have the makings of a good old-fashioned costume epic that was very popular with Hollywood studios during the mid-to-late 1930s. If there is one scene in the movie that truly personified its epic status, it is one of the opening sequences that featured Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and her first meeting with Louis Chamalis. Mary’s first viewing of the socializing inside the Bella Donna is filled with details and reeked with atmosphere. Frankly, I consider this scene an artistic triumph for both director Howard Hawks and the movie’s art director, Richard Day.

“BARBARY COAST” went through four screenwriters and five script revisions to make it to the screen. The movie began as a tale about San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, but ended up as a love triangle within the setting. This was due to the Production Code that was recently enforced by Joseph Breen. The latter objected to the original screenplay’s frank portrayal of the San Francisco neighborhood’s activities. By changing the screenplay into a love story in which the heroine finds redemption through love for a decent sort, the filmmakers finally managed to gain approval from Breen. Although Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were credited as the movie’s writers, screenwriters Stephen Longstreet and Edward Chodorov also worked on the script, but did not receive any screen credit. Personally, I had no problems with this choice. Thanks to Hawks’ direction, moviegoers still managed to get a few peeps on just how sordid and corrupt San Francisco was during the Gold Rush.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea. I would not consider their performances as memorable or outstanding, but all three gave solid performances that more or less kept the movie on track. I found this a miracle, considering the emotional rifts that seemed to permeate the set during production. As it turned out, Robinson and Hopkins could barely stand each other. However . . . there were moments when Robinson and McCrea’s performances were in danger of being less than competent. Robinson nearly veered into the realm of over-the-top melodrama while conveying his character’s jealousy in the movie’s last twenty minutes. And McCrea came off as a bit of a stiff in most of his early scenes. Only with Walter Brennan, did the actor truly conveyed his sharp acting skills. As for Hopkins . . . well, she gave a better performance in this movie than she did in the film for which she had earned an Oscar nomination – namely “BECKY SHARP”.

The movie also featured competent performances from the likes of Walter Brennan, Frank Craven, Harry Carey, and Donald Meek. But if I had to give a prize for the most interesting performance in the film, I would give it Brian Donlevy for his portrayal of Louis Chamalis’ ruthless enforcer, Knuckles Jacoby. Superficially, Donlevy’s Knuckles is portrayed as the typical movie villain’s minion, who usually stands around wearing a menacing expression. Donlevy did all this and at the same time, managed to inject a little pathos in a character who found himself in a legally desperation situation, thanks to his loyalty toward his employer.

But you know what? Despite some of the performances – especially Brian Donlevy’s and the movie’s production values, I did not like “BARBARY COAST”. Not one bit. There were at least two reasons for this dislike. One, I was not that fond of Omar Kiam’s costume designs – namely the ones for Miriam Hopkins. The problem with her costumes is that Kiam seemed incapable of determining whether the movie is set in 1850 or 1935. Honestly. A peek at the costume worn by the actress in the image below should convey the contradicting nature of her costume:

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The other . . . and bigger reason why I disliked “BARBARY COAST” is that the plot ended up disappointing me so much. This movie had the potential to be one of the blockbuster costume dramas shown in movie theaters during the mid-to-late 1930s. If only Joseph Breen and the Censor Board had allowed the filmmakers to somewhat follow Asbury’s book and explore the colorful history of San Francisco from the mid-1840s to the California Gold Rush period of the early-to-mid 1850s. Despite the colorful opening featuring Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and the subplot about the Louis Chamalis-Colonel Cobb conflict, “BARBARY COAST” was merely reduced to a 90 minute turgid melodrama about a love triangle between a gold digger, a villain with a penchant for being a drama queen, and stiff-necked gold miner and poet who only seemed to come alive in the company of his crotchety companion. To make matters worse, the movie ended with Mary and Jim Carmichael floating around San Francisco Bay, hidden by the darkness and fog, while evading the increasingly jealous Chamalis, before they can board a clipper ship bound for the East Coast. I mean, honestly . . . really?

I have nothing else to say about “BARBARY COAST”. What else is there to say? Judging from the numerous reviews I have read online, a good number of people seemed to have a high regard for it. However, I simply do not feel the same. Neither director Howard Hawks; screenwriters Ben Hetch and Charles MacArthur; and a cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea could prevent me from feeling only disappointed. Pity.

“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”.