Thursday, July 31, 2014

Zanuck's Factually Challenged Presidential Tribute

"Now I know why the Democratic Party chose a jackass for a mascot."

Professor Henry Holmes (Charles Coburn)

Being something of a historian, I guess I hold historical movies — depending upon the subject, some are also known as "biopics" — to a high factual standard.

Most historical movies can't live up to those standards — but I'll cut such a movie some slack if it is generally faithful to the spirit of the truth.

I learned early in my life that truth really is stranger than fiction so I generally think that true stories rarely, if ever, need to be embellished. Hollywood is all too willing to sacrifice accuracy for drama, as far as I am concerned, but, as I say, I'm willing to overlook some discrepancies.

The movie "Wilson" — which was the story of America's 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, and made its debut 70 years ago tomorrow — had several such errors, but they were the kinds of things most people wouldn't necessarily know.

For example, in scenes showing Washington, D.C., on the day of Wilson's first inauguration as president, the city was shown with the trees and grass in a lush springtime green with flowers blooming. That wouldn't be possible in just about any part of the country today because modern presidents take the oath of office in January. In Wilson's day, presidents took the oath in March — by which time flowers may well be blooming here in Texas, but it is unlikely in D.C., where the average high in March is about 56° and the average low is just below 38°.

And I read in a biography of Wilson that the day of his first inauguration was cold and breezy — with snow.

Once I become aware of one factual error in an historical movie, I start consciously watching for others. And they certainly were there to be found in "Wilson." Woodrow Wilson was president from 1913 to 1921, and he died in 1924, but, in the part of the movie that covered his national campaign for his League of Nations proposal, numerous car models could be seen that probably didn't exist until the 1940s.

There were several details like that. For example, there is a shot that was set on that same inaugural day showing the Washington Monument's reflection in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. That is certainly the kind of scene that almost any modern American would recognize as the nation's capital — but the reflecting pool did not exist until a few years after Wilson left office.

But let's go back to the inaugural day. There was a scene in the movie in which Wilson and his family were being shown around the White House after he had taken his oath of office, and they came across a portrait of Wilson's predecessor, William Howard Taft. It didn't just appear in passing on the screen; the Wilsons pointed it out and talked about it.

My understanding is that the official portrait of a president is neither completed nor hung on the day that president leaves office.

Now, having said all that ...

I understand that producer Darryl F. Zanuck was a great admirer of Wilson, and Zanuck wanted to make a film tribute to him. But it was a flop at the box office, and Zanuck was plunged into a deep depression by that. For several years, no one mentioned the movie in his presence.

That seems like a shame to me because, other than its profitability, the movie appears to have been a success. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won five. Director Henry King and Canadian–born actor Alexander Knox (who, in an unusual leading role for him, played Wilson) were both nominated but lost to "Going My Way."

And, while it had its share of factual errors, as I have already established, it was faithful — by and large — to the spirit of the historical record.

I don't know if the factual errors affected the movie's box–office receipts. Probably didn't. But if Zanuck was that careless about the details, if he was in too much of a hurry to get the movie into the theaters to worry about its accuracy, that could have adversely affected the movie's box–office performance. Not immediately, of course, but possibly quite soon after its release. Many of those who saw it in 1944 would have been old enough to remember Wilson's presidency, and major issues with the movie about his life were bound to spread by word of mouth.

Actually, there's an interesting story about the premiere of "Wilson." Zanuck decided to unveil his homage in his hometown of Wahoo, Nebraska. Wahoo's population was probably less than 3,000 in 1944.

Anyway, apparently there was a pretty good–sized crowd for opening night, but, on the second night, Zanuck observed that there was practically no one in the theater. He asked the theater owner why that was so, and the answer was that the folks in Wahoo never cared much for Wilson when he was president, and they weren't going to pay to see him in a movie.

Reportedly, Zanuck left his hometown, which had been a big disappointment for him. In the days before the premiere, he had gone on a kind of sentimental journey to visit all the places he remembered from his childhood, but each had been a letdown. The people and places from his childhood were nothing like he remembered.

Then he found out that his hometown didn't share his admiration for Woodrow Wilson. That must have been the last straw.

I guess it's true. You can't go home again.

And, apparently, Zanuck didn't for the remainder of his life.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Enmity at First Glance

Did you ever see "The Shop Around the Corner" with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan?

It was a romantic comedy about two co–workers in a Budapest gift shop in the 1930s who couldn't stand each other — and had no idea that, in reality, they were each other's secret pen pals and had fallen in love.

That's a familiar plotline for anyone who saw "You've Got Mail" with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan a few years ago.

Or "In the Good Old Summertime," a musical starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson that premiered on this date in 1949.

In this version, they weren't in Budapest. They were in Chicago, it was the turn of the century, and the store was a music store. Other than that, the plot was pretty much the same.

Oh, and it was a musical. Did I mention that? Of course I did. Well, it just about goes without saying, doesn't it? Nearly everything Judy Garland did involved music.

And, in "In the Good Old Summertime," Garland not only sang, she also sold music.

Garland was multi–dimensional. She had great talent and could do many things well.

Fred Astaire said Garland was "the greatest entertainer who ever lived," a designation she earned long before she made "In the Good Old Summertime." She added to that reputation with "In the Good Old Summertime."

Craig Butler of wrote that Garland was "in superb voice" and "in peak comedic form, delivering an exceptional performance." No argument.

"In the Good Old Summertime" introduced the world to the song "Merry Christmas" — sung by Garland, of course — which apparently became a holiday staple for some people.

Its popularity had faded considerably by the time I came along. In fact, I can't recall ever hearing it during a Christmas season.

Johnny Mathis and Bette Midler recorded versions of it, but I don't think it was ever regarded as the holiday standard that, say, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (from Garland's movie "Meet Me in St. Louis" five years earlier) turned out to be.

I'm not the fan of Van Johnson that some people are, and I certainly wouldn't rate his performance in almost anything ahead of Jimmy Stewart's. But I will say that, for a musical version of this story, Johnson was clearly preferable to Stewart. Stewart might have been able to sing, but I doubt that his singing voice could match Johnson's.

"In the Good Old Summertime" was noteworthy for a couple of other reasons, too.

Buster Keaton, the famed silent–movie star, made one of his appearances in a non–silent movie as Hickey the shop owner's nephew in "In the Good Old Summertime." He'd been serving as a comedy consultant for MGM, and it was decided that he was the only one who could execute the moves he suggested. Butler observed that he was "largely wasted" in his role. Again, no argument.

The other noteworthy point was that Garland's daughter, 18–month–old Liza Minnelli, made an on–screen appearance in Johnson's arms in the final scene.

Some folks believe it was Minnelli's movie debut — but it wasn't. That was in "Easter Parade," another one of her mother's musicals, in 1948.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mistaken Identity Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

"In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only the expedient exaggeration."

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant)

"Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," Cary Grant once told an interviewer. "Even I want to be Cary Grant."

It always seemed to me that that was especially true of Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Oh, I know, he had some run–ins with some not–so–nice folks who tried to kill him, but no one was as suave as Cary Grant, even when someone was trying to kill him.

I guess his identity was quite a dilemma for him, on screen or off. Like most of the folks in Hollywood, his screen persona (and name) differed from real life. He was born Archie Leach in England and came to the United States in his teens. He legally changed his name to Cary Grant when he became a naturalized citizen.

(The Cary part came from a character he once portrayed in a play. He chose the surname Grant from a list of options the studio gave him — because the CG combination had already proven successful for stars like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.)

I suppose he always felt torn between his roots and his professional persona.

Combine Grant with Alfred Hitchcock in a movie about mistaken identity.

Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, and I have seen most, if not all, of his movies. He is remembered as a master of suspense, and that was certainly an element of his style — he said he preferred suspense to surprise — but there were certain themes he explored more often than others. I suppose one of the most prominent was the one of mistaken identity. Offhand, I can think of at least half a dozen movies Hitchcock made that dealt with mistaken identity.

I'm inclined to think that the one that premiered 55 years ago today, "North by Northwest," was his best.

A pretty good case could be made for "Vertigo," I suppose. The same could be said for "Shadow of a Doubt" and "The Wrong Man."

The case is weaker for some of Hitchcock's other mistaken identity motif efforts of which I am aware.

But stacked up against "North by Northwest," everything else comes up short — in my opinion, anyway.

I have mentioned Hitchcock's famous cameo appearances on this blog before. At first they came well into his movies, but, as audiences became increasingly aware of them, there was a tendency for viewers to focus too much on spotting Hitchcock before they gave their full attention to the plot.

Consequently, Hitchcock began having his cameo appearances earlier and earlier. Late in his career, it was a sign of just how much he wanted his audiences to follow the story; if he was eager for viewers to concentrate on the story — and he usually was — he got his cameo out of the way very early.

Only three of his movies had quicker cameos than "North by Northwest." In fact, the cameo came while the opening credits were still rolling. Hitch didn't want the viewers to miss a thing.

Come to think of it, rolling is probably a pretty good word for "North by Northwest" because it hit the ground running and kept charging along until the end.

I guess that is why Hitch was in a hurry to get down to business. He must have felt he had no time to waste.

As much as I like "North by Northwest," though, I will readily admit that it isn't perfect.

Probably the most famous image from "North by Northwest" was of Grant running from the crop–dusting plane that was intent on killing him.

Frankly, I didn't think that was too sharp of ol' Cary. I mean, the plane was dusting crops where there were no crops. I never did find out exactly what his character was thinking.

After all, enough strange things had already happened. If I found myself standing out in the middle of freakin' nowhere and I saw a crop–dusting plane dusting crops where there were no crops — and I knew that some bad people had been trying to kill me — I do believe I wouldn't keep standing there.

But that's just me. Hitchcock's movies sometimes had a logic all their own.

And then, of course, there was that iconic chase across Mount Rushmore. It was great, nothing else like it on film, but I had to admit that the ending was rather ambiguous.

I mean, just how did Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint manage to get off whichever president's face that was?

I know that movies, both then and now, often require the audience to believe whatever it sees on the screen — but that really was asking a lot of the viewers. They really deserved to know more than Saint was in a perilous predicament and managed to get out of it — somehow.

Isn't that asking a bit much?

Well, I guess you can get away with it if you're Alfred Hitchcock.

Oh, and Grant and Saint must have gotten married in the interim.

This was 1959, after all. Ike was still president. Married couples couldn't even be seen in the same bed together on TV for another decade or so, and here were Grant and Saint about to get it on just as their train went into a tunnel.

You didn't have to be Fellini to figure that one out.

But perhaps I am being too picky.

"North by Northwest" was only nominated for three Oscars in the year of "Ben–Hur" — and lost all three.

The Conscience of the Docks

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."

Terry (Marlon Brando)
American Film Institute's third–greatest movie quote

"On the Waterfront," which premiered 60 years ago today, was a classic story about mob informers set on the waterfront of the Northeast. If it had the ring of truth to it, it is because the tale was loosely based on some Pulitzer Prize–winning true stories that were originally published in the New York Sun.

The American Film Institute ranked "On the Waterfront" #19 in its list of the Top 100 movies of all time. Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy, the never–was professional boxer, was rated the #23 hero of all time.

Lee J. Cobb played a union boss with mob ties who ruled the docks with an iron fist. Local law enforcement knew he was behind some murders, but no one on the waterfront was willing to inform on him, preferring to remain alive and working.

Rod Steiger played Cobb's right–hand man; Brando was his brother. Apparently, Brando was once a boxer with a lot of promise, but his brother (on instructions from Cobb) told him to lose a fight intentionally. Cobb had placed a bet on Brando's opponent.

The memory of that gnawed at Brando, who went on to work on the docks instead of contending for a boxing championship.

Brando's character was smitten with Eva Marie Saint, who played the sister of another dockworker. Brando was used as bait to lure her brother, who was about to testify against Cobb, into an ambush, in which he was killed. Brando thought they were only going to "lean" on him and resented playing any kind of role, albeit unknowingly, in the other man's death.

Saint and a priest (played by Karl Malden) persuaded Brando to testify against the union boss. His decision cost his brother his life, and it nearly cost him his own when Cobb's henchmen beat him up.

"Conscience," Brando's character said. "That stuff can drive you nuts."

Indeed it can.

"On the Waterfront" was nominated for 12 Oscars and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

Incidentally, you can see "On the Waterfront" in a couple of weeks on Turner Classic Movies' Aug. 11 salute to Marlon Brando during TCM's annual "Summer Under the Stars."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up

This has already been a noteworthy year for Beatles fans.

February marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in America and their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Earlier this month was the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the Beatles' first movie, "A Hard Day's Night," and the LP that contained the songs from the movie.

At the end of the year will come the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' fourth album, "Beatles For Sale," which was sandwiched between the albums that were tied to the Beatles' first two movies — and, as a consequence, is often overlooked, even though it had a lot of significance in the evolution of the Beatles as a band.

But I'll talk about that in a few months.

Today's Beatles news comes to us from the American West Coast, from Los Angeles' Griffith Park — frequently called Los Angeles' Central Park, although Griffith Park actually is bigger and rougher — where a pine tree was planted in memory of Beatle George Harrison in 2004. Harrison died in 2001.

Well, it turns out that a new tree will have to be planted in its place. Why? Because the old one has been killed ... by beetles!

I'm sorry about the tree, but I can't tell you how appropriate it is for this to be a news story at this time. I and my colleagues at the community college where I am an adjunct journalism professor have been conducting a workshop this week for area high school students who are interested in journalism. It's been a crash course in all the basics of news coverage, including the things that make a story newsworthy — and a reminder of the things that drew me to this business in the first place.

This is one of those stories that proves that truth really is stranger than fiction.

Introducing the All-Starr Band

This was filmed in Los Angeles at the end of the 1989 tour, but Joe Walsh
also played "Rocky Mountain Way" when I saw the All–Starr Band in July.

Twenty–five years ago today, former Beatle Ringo Starr and his recently formed All–Starr Band opened their first–ever tour — 30 cities in six weeks.

That first show took place here in Dallas at an outdoor arena, and I was there. So were about 10,000 other people, including two friends with whom I rode from Denton, about 35 miles north of Dallas.

Apparently there was some anxiety backstage. I couldn't tell from the audience.

"I was real nervous before I went on," Ringo told the New York Times. "I kept thinking, What's it like? What do you do? All those madnesses go through your brain. But once you're out there, you see that people haven't come to see you get nervous. They've come to have a good time. And we're having a good time, too."

Accompanying Starr on that visit to Dallas were Joe Walsh, Levon Helm, Billy Preston, Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, Jim Keltner and Dr. John. I heard that Bruce Springsteen was a guest at one stop during that tour. Paul Shaffer and John Candy were guests, too.

I don't recall any special guests when I saw the band, but that was OK with me. The band by itself was enough.

When I was younger, I hoped that, if I ever saw any of the Beatles in person, I would get to see John Lennon, but Ringo is the only Beatle I have ever seen to date.

I got to hear all the songs I wanted to hear him sing ("It Don't Come Easy," "Yellow Submarine," "Act Naturally," "With A Little Help From My Friends") — as well as the songs the others played.

The rest of the band members performed what were probably their best–known songs. It was like getting to see a string of mini–concerts.

Along with "Rocky Mountain Way," I heard Joe Walsh sing "Desperado" and "Life in the Fast Lane." Never got to see the Eagles in concert so that kind of filled that gap for me.

Levon Helm performed "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek." Likewise, I never saw the Band in concert, either. Check off another one.

Billy Preston sang "Nothing From Nothing" (I've heard he sang "Will It Go Round in Circles" when the band played in Japan). Dr. John sang "Right Place, Wrong Time."

It was a great evening — the All–Starr Band under the stars.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Seeking 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'

Milly (Jane Powell): Well, it wouldn't hurt you to learn some manners, too.

Adam (Howard Keel): What do I need manners for? I already got me a wife.

I think I must have seen "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" on TV when I was small. It is just the kind of movie that my grandmother loved, and it is not a reach for me to imagine her watching it with my mother.

I have no distinct memory of that, and I could be wrong. But some of the shots — and the music that goes with them — are so familiar, it is as if, whenever I watch it, the movie is tapping on some mostly forgotten memory buried deep in my brain.

It's more than that, I suppose. The images of 19th–century Oregon in that movie match my mental picture of the Old West. But, for some reason, my picture of a pioneer woman isn't of Jane Powell. It is of Debbie Reynolds. Strange. Perhaps I am confusing "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," which premiered 60 years ago today, with "How the West Was Won" in my mind?

Maybe someday I will remember — and it will all seem so obvious to me, as things often do in hindsight, why it has been lodged in my brain all these years. What was it, I would like to know, about "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" that stood out for me? Was it the music?

Actually, none of the music in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" struck me as exceptional. None of the songs made the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 movie songs of all time. The movie received five Oscar nominations; not one was for Best Song.

Yet AFI did rank the movie #21 among movie musicals.


People who know more about movie musicals than I do have told me "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" is perhaps the best of MGM's musicals from the 1950s.

That is quite a claim, considering that MGM was synonymous with musical excellence, especially in the '50s with movies like "An American in Paris" and "Singin' in the Rain" earlier in the decade. "The Band Wagon," considered a classic today but hardly a blockbuster when it was at the theaters, came out a year before "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

It was a time when television was keeping more and more people away from the theaters. MGM released what is regarded as its last great musical, "Gigi," in 1958. The genre sputtered along through the '60s and '70s — fueled by other studios — and seemed to reach its zenith when "Chicago" won Best Picture in 2003.

The entertainment landscape was already shifting when audiences watched Powell and Howard Keel sing and dance in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

The movie musical wasn't dead — but it was moving in that direction. To remain viable in the years ahead, musicals would have to be even more lavish, more outlandish. They would have to have a few tricks up their sleeves.

One trick was color. Color television was available in 1954 — but it was still new and very expensive. It was a real status symbol to own a color TV in those days.

Routine color programming of TV series was still more than a decade away. Meanwhile, more movies were being made in color.

To emphasize the color — and to differentiate between them — the seven brothers of the title wore differently colored shirts.

I have to concede that Keel and Powell were a good match on the screen, even if their relationship was a little odd. They met when Keel, the oldest of the seven brothers, came to town for supplies — and "get a wife" was on his to–do list.

Inexplicably, he did find a bride (Powell) and took her back to his rural home, which he shared with his six brothers. Powell not only met his brothers for the first time, she learned of their existence at the same time. And it became her mission to clean them up and make them presentable to court brides of their own.

Her character was also a bit of a feminist for that time. She resisted the idea that a wife was only good for cooking and cleaning.

And the dancing in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" was extraordinary — better than most, in my opinion. I suppose much of that was due to the fact that about half of the brothers were played by professional dancers. That paid some nice dividends in the barn–raising scene, which still has some of the most astonishingly athletic dance moves I have ever seen on film.

Unfortunately, co–star Julie Newmar, who did have professional dance training, was paired with one of the brothers who did not. Consequently, her character and her beau could be seen off to the side during some of the dance numbers. Her only dancing came with the other bride wannabes.

She went on to a certain amount of fame a decade later as the villain Catwoman on TV's Batman.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Good, Not Great, Gangster Movie

"I don't love life much, but I don't hate it enough to stick my head in front of a screw's bullet."

Frank (James Cagney)

Although they did other things in their movie careers — and did them well — James Cagney and George Raft are remembered mostly for their gangster movies.

I'm not talking about film noir movies, those upscale crime movies that were more melodrama than anything else and usually featured a private investigator (but might feature almost any kind of character) as the main figure in the story.

Gangster movies were in a genre of their own — a subgenre, really, of the general crime film genre. Typically, they dealt with organized crime, and they were frequently set in prisons.

And many were like "Each Dawn I Die," which premiered 75 years ago tomorrow. They were about innocent men who had been wrongfully imprisoned. That was a very familiar theme.

Anyway, given the reputations Cagney and Raft enjoyed, it was surprising to me when I discovered that "Each Dawn I Die" was the only movie they made together.

Well, not quite. Seven years earlier, Raft made a brief, uncredited appearance in one of Cagney's movies. Raft was also in another Cagney movie, this one about boxing, around the same time, but his appearance in that one also was very short.

So, in reality, "Each Dawn I Die" was the only movie ever made that featured both Cagney and Raft in what amounted to co–leading roles.

Cagney played a reporter trying to expose a corrupt district attorney who was running for governor. He got framed for vehicular manslaughter and was sent to prison.

In prison, Cagney met Raft, a gangster doing a life sentence. They worked together, and Raft became indebted to Cagney after Cagney saved his life.

At first, Cagney's character tried to keep his distance from the other inmates, but, thanks to the use of nearly every gangster movie cliche imaginable, he got worn down to the point where he was just another sour prisoner.

That was due, in no small part, to the refusal of his plea to the parole board, which was led by the man who was responsible for Cagney's conviction — and he had been appointed by the man Cagney had tried to expose — now the governor of the state.

It seemed all the cards were stacked against Cagney so he enlisted Raft's help in getting his name cleared.

OK, it was a routine gangster story. It certainly wasn't original. But, while we may recognize it today for what it was, at the time it was a big hit — and Warner Bros. offered Raft a long–term contract.

For folks who didn't mind a cliche–ridden, shoot–'em–up gangster movie, especially one with Cagney, it was an entertaining experience.

Director William Keighley deserved a lot of the credit. He was a studio team player, capable of doing good work no matter the topic, and he produced a good, if not great, gangster movie in "Each Dawn I Die."

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men ...

Tulley Bascombe (Peter Sellers): Men of Fenwick, where you hear the name of Grand Fenwick do your hearts swell with pride?

Men of Fenwick: Yes!

Tulley Bascombe: And if your country calls, will you rush to enlist?

Men of Fenwick: No!

Tulley Bascombe: Oh.

When I was in high school, the dramatically inclined students put together a production of "The Mouse That Roared." It was good, but it really wasn't even close to the movie by the same name that premiered 55 years ago today.

Of course, when you have seen Peter Sellers playing multiple roles — five years before "Dr. Strangelove" — anything less will seem second rate. Nothing against my former schoolmates. Sellers was just the best.

It is the ultimate underdog story — or should that be undermouse?

See, the story was about a teensy–weensy country (fictional, of course) that faced an economic crisis when a cheap American knockoff of its lone export — wine — hit the market.

The prime minister (Sellers) had a plan — declare war on the United States. The grand duchess (also played by Sellers) who believed the president of the United States was Calvin Coolidge didn't think the country could win such a war.

But winning would not be the objective, the prime minister said. The weak little country (whose soldiers resembled characters in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail") would surrender, after which American foreign aid would refill the country's coffers.

At first, the country's general (also played by Sellers) appeared to be too inept to lead any kind of army across the street, let alone into battle (however faux it might be).

It was hard enough for them to cross the Atlantic.

No one knew they were coming, and the seasick general apparently spent most of the trip bent over the ship's railing. At one point, the ship encountered the Queen Elizabeth on its way to England. Its officers tried to tell the smaller ship that the United States' east coast was conducting an air raid drill, and city streets were deserted.

They got a shower of arrows for their trouble, and the soldiers continued on their mission to land in New York and promptly surrender to someone in authority.

They were baffled when they arrived in New York. There was no one to be seen.

All they wanted to do was surrender. They were all pumped up to give up.

But then they happened to find a newspaper that explained everything — the air raid drill and the work on a new nuclear weapon that would make the ones used against Japan look like blowtorches.

Sellers and his soldiers stumbled on to the science professor who created this new weapon and his daughter (Jean Seberg). The two were captured and taken back to the teeny–tiny country.

And, suddenly, the teeny–tiny country had the upper hand in the confrontation with America. It wasn't so teeny–tiny in the eyes of the world anymore.

The satire was a little harsh at times, but it had its memorable moments, too, as all good Peter Sellers movies did.

And, as most good Sellers movies also did, it made some insightful observations — about international relations, military policy, economic policy.

It's really a matter of perspective. The nice thing about satire as opposed to black comedy is that satire is usually positive even though it pokes fun, and even if it does drift into harsh territory at times — whereas black comedy is almost always negative.

It's about the emphasis.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

'Eyes Wide Shut' Was Psychological More Than Sexual

Some people think "Eyes Wide Shut," which premiered 15 years ago today, was a fitting finale for director Stanley Kubrick.

Some folks don't.

I saw many trademark Kubrick touches in the movie, and the story was very much in his style — if Kubrick had a style. His movies differed so much in content from each other that I suppose it really isn't accurate to refer to his style in any context other than camerawork.

He could do comedy, he could do satire, and he could do drama.

He had something of a reputation, and so did the source material for his movie, an Austrian novella, "Dream Story," that was published more than 70 years earlier. "Eyes Wide Shut" dealt with the thoughts and personal conversions a Manhattan doctor experienced after his wife told him she had fantasized about having an affair.

Kubrick died shortly after the completion of filming.

I've never read the book so I don't know if the two are described in it as attractive or plain. I suppose it doesn't matter too much in a book, where a reader can imagine characters to be anything that isn't spelled out for them by the author.

It is different in a movie. A character's appearance leaves little to the imagination in a movie. If the book isn't specific — and even if it is — the viewer has to accept the appearance that is given in the movie. Through casting, acting, direction, even story revision, all of the heavy lifting is done for the observer; his/her images will be those created by the writer(s), director and actors.

In casting his movie, Kubrick put two actors in the roles of the husband and wife whose reputations for sexually charged performances preceded them — Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. At the time, they happened to be real–life spouses, which probably raised their level of intensity in the movie. They split up a couple of years later.

Anyway, the talk before "Eyes Wide Shut" made its debut was that it was going to be a sexy movie. Given the nature of the trailers that had been showing in theaters, that is certainly easy to understand.

But it occurred to me as I watched it that Kubrick may have taken a page from Alfred Hitchcock's playbook.

Hitchcock was known for his cameo appearances in his movies; when it was brought to his attention that audiences had been watching for his cameo and didn't settle in for the story until they saw him, Hitchcock began positioning his cameos earlier and earlier in his movies.

In Kubrick's case, audiences were expecting nudity so my guess is that he tossed them a crumb. The audience saw Kidman changing clothes for a party very early (and very briefly) in the movie.

To me, it was as if Kubrick was saying, "OK, there's the nudity. Now, let's focus on the story."

As nearly as I could tell, the story was about jealousy and obsession.

(I've seen this movie six or seven times, at least. I'm still not sure what it was trying to say. It seems to be saying something different each time I watch it.)

That wasn't the end of the nudity, of course.

In fact, the story was about sex and titillation — as well as jealousy and obsession — and nudity, too, but the nudity didn't tend to take the viewers where they probably thought they were going. It may seem like a strange dichotomy, but sex and nudity don't necessarily go hand in hand in the movies — especially a Kubrick movie. Nudity in "Eyes Wide Shut" was treated almost casually. So was sex, for that matter.

Make no mistake, though, there was lots of nudity — and there was some sex, too — but it was interesting that the next time the audience saw Kidman (only about a minute later), she was doing something decidedly not erotic (although some might argue that it was intimate) — sitting on the toilet — while Cruise put the finishing touches on his appearance.

And they were conversing in the way that married people do. She asked about her hair. Did it look all right? He said it looked great. She said he hadn't looked at it — so he did and repeated his compliment.

The night after the party — which was a nice blend of significant moments and red herrings — Cruise and Kidman fired up a joint and engaged in some candid conversation, in which Kidman told Cruise she had fantasized about having an affair — with an anonymous naval officer she had seen during their vacation in Cape Cod a year earlier.

Kidman felt drawn to him, like a moth to a flame. "If he wanted me," she told Cruise, "I would give up everything." She expressed relief that one day he disappeared and never returned. It meant she wouldn't have to make such a choice.

That mental image really lit a fire under Cruise, and he embarked on a two–night odyssey through New York's sexual underworld.

The odyssey took him to many places, and he didn't have to look too hard to find opportunities to be unfaithful to Kidman. Such opportunities found him.

He dabbled in them, was tempted by them, nearly succumbed to them at times.

I guess this was the thing about "Eyes Wide Shut" that I found especially fascinating — Cruise's transformation from a kind of stuffy yet high–minded sort to a no–holds–barred sexual adventurer, all because his wife had told him that she had fantasized about having an affair.

And yet ...

He never gave in to the temptation.

At one point, while making arrangements for a costume to wear to an orgy (which was hosted by an unidentified secret society), Cruise met a young girl (Leelee Sobieski), the daughter of the owner of the costume shop. When Cruise came back the next day to return the costume, the shop owner strongly implied that his daughter was available for sexual favors.

(Some people think Sobieski, who was 13 when filming began and 16 when it ended, bears a resemblance to Helen Hunt, who was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood at the time. I could see hints of a young Hunt in Sobieski's face in "Eyes Wide Shut," but, overall, as she has grown older, I see less and less of it.

(I guess that was consistent for me. I once worked with a woman who told me she was a dead ringer for Julia Roberts. I didn't see that, either.)

Other interesting angles of the story:

Sydney Pollack played the wealthy patient who hosted the first party and was revealed to have been one of the guests at the orgy. Originally, Harvey Keitel was cast in that role, but he dropped out — as did Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was cast to play Marion, the daughter of one of Cruise's old friends — because of another commitment.

Marion's father was dying, and Cruise was summoned to his side. In the movie, Marion tells Cruise she loves him and kisses him. Marie Richardson played the role instead.

Some movie reviewers classified "Eyes Wide Shut" as an erotic thriller. It was even marketed that way. But that really was misleading.

The final product was really more of a psychological thriller, partly because of things that were done in the editing process.

Apparently, the sexual content was even more graphic than people saw on their movie screens, but, to avoid an NC–17 rating, certain techniques were used to mute it.

That was done after Kubrick had died. Who knows if he would have agreed to what was done?

Of that attempt to mute the content, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "[I]t is done well, even though it should not have been done at all. ... 'Eyes Wide Shut' should have been released as [Kubrick] made it."

Sounds a lot like the argument I made against "colorizing" black–and–white movies. A movie is a work of art, and the director is the artist. Since the advent of color in the movies, it has always been an artistic decision whether to use it — although the cost played an important role in that decision for many years.

The content of a movie is even more of an artistic decision so I agree with Ebert. The edits should not have been done at all — even if leaving the film as it was meant an NC–17 rating.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Movie With No Story

"You've got a nice place. It's not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud."

Wyatt (Peter Fonda)

"Easy Rider," which premiered on this day in 1969, is part time capsule, buried in the late 1960s, and part timeless road/buddy picture.

The basic story was that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda had pulled off a cocaine deal and were riding their motorcycles through the southwestern United States. The backstory was missing, though.

Every time I have seen it, I have thought that parts were hopelessly dated and other parts were relevant — but they haven't been the same each time. It is (pardon the pun) a moving target.

Well, I suppose the violent ending is mostly a reflection of the deep division in American society in those days and probably always will be seen that way — but, even there, one can see relevance to modern times.

While there were undeniably rough moments to get through in "Easy Rider," the flip side was the joy the lead characters — Hopper, Fonda and Jack Nicholson — experienced on their journey.

And that, to me, sums up the '60s.

There was a lot of pain and a lot of conflict. There were demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and demonstrations for civil rights.

But there were also moments of bliss and pure joy. Young people reveled in their freedom as perhaps no other generation before them. Some felt threatened by that. Others were liberated by it.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that people like Henry Fonda (Peter's father) — and, certainly, his more conservative friends in the movie community — were bewildered by "Easy Rider." It didn't have a story.

That sort of went against the conventional grain.

"[I]n fact, director Dennis Hopper has done an old and respectable thing," Ebert wrote. "He has told his story in cinematic shorthand, instead of spelling it out in dreary detail. Fifty years ago, Hollywood figured out that if you put the good guys in white hats you could eliminate 10 minutes of explanation from every Western. Hopper has applied this technique to the motorcycle movie."

I'm not entirely sure that is what Hopper did — at least, not deliberately.

"If you follow the story closely in 'Easy Rider,' you find out it isn't there," Ebert wrote. "The rough cut of the movie reportedly ran over three hours, and Hopper edited it to a reasonable length by throwing out the story details and keeping the rest. So the heroes are suspended in an invisible story, like falcons on an invisible current of air. You can't see it, but it holds them up."

There was a lot of talk, around the time that "Easy Rider" was showing on the big screens of America, of gaps. That wasn't really new, I guess. Five years earlier, "Dr. Strangelove" mocked the politicians and their "missile gap" rhetoric. By 1969, the culture was awash with angst about all kinds of gaps — between the generations, the races, the genders, you name it.

(Several small children could be seen in a segment of the story that took place in a hippie commune. One of those children, Henry's granddaughter and Peter's daughter, 5–year–old Bridget Fonda, was making her movie debut, about 20 years before her breakthrough part in "The Godfather Part III.")

Those gaps were becoming increasingly violent, too. So the ending of "Easy Rider," as obscene as it was, was the only way the movie could have ended — to end it any other way would have robbed the story of its meaning.

Even if, as Ebert said, the movie had no story.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Through the Eyes of Forrest Gump

"I don't know if Momma was right or if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental–like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks)

I didn't go to see Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump" when it was showing at the theaters. In fact, I don't think its debut, 20 years ago today, made much of a ripple in my personal radar.

That isn't surprising, I guess. I only vaguely remembered the book upon which it was based.

I still remember the tagline of the movie: "The world will never be the same once you've seen it through the eyes of Forrest Gump." When I finally got around to seeing it, I had to admit that was true.

But, although I really enjoyed the movie, when I think of "Forrest Gump," I am reminded of grim periods in my life.

I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, which included teaching a writing lab, and one day in the fall of 1994, I got into a discussion with my writing lab students about "Forrest Gump," which had turned into a box–office blockbuster.

I remarked that I thought I was the only person left who had not seen it, and one of my students, Jason, said that he had not seen it, either. Jason wasn't the best writer I ever had in one of my classes, but he was a hard worker, and that means something to me. I have known several people who succeeded at what they did — not because they were the best at it but because they gave the most effort. I thought Jason was one of those people.

I don't know if Jason ever saw "Forrest Gump." Jason lived in one of the frathouses on the OU campus, and, near the end of that semester, he and his frathouse brothers participated in an end–of–the–semester ritual that involved shaking a flagpole outside the house. They had been doing this for years, perhaps decades, without incident, but, on this particular occasion, the flagpole snapped and fell on Jason, crushing his skull.

He was rushed to the hospital, where he was kept alive for a few hours, but he died the next day.

About five months later, my mother and father were having dinner with friends on a Friday night when what is known as a supercell storm came through the Dallas–Fort Worth area, dumping a lot of water in an area that was already saturated from unusually heavy spring rains. There was no place for the water to go, creating a flash flood situation.

On their way home from dinner, my parents' car stalled in the rapidly rising water, and they got out to look for higher ground. Mom was swept away in the flood waters and drowned. Dad was pinned between the guardrail and the car, which probably saved his life but left him with a pinched nerve in his left arm. Dad is left–handed, and his injury left him without the use of his dominant arm — until his physical therapist was able to restore much of it.

That summer, I stayed with Dad and helped him do the things he really wasn't capable of doing for himself — like cooking his meals, doing his laundry, even helping him dress. We watched a lot of movies on video tape that summer, one of which was "Forrest Gump." Turned out Dad had not seen it, either, which made me wonder if Mom ever did. They almost always went to movies together.

I really enjoyed the movie. I'm a history buff — as regular readers of my blogs no doubt know — so I enjoyed the way that Forrest wound up being in the vicinity of — if not directly involved in — most of the significant events in American history in the latter 20th century.

I particularly enjoyed the scene in which he was a guest at the Watergate Hotel and called security to complain about the flashlights shining in a suite of offices across from his room. The lights were keeping him awake. Of course, the flashlights belonged to the burglars in the offices of the Democratic National Committee, and the very next thing that was shown was the familiar tape of Richard Nixon announcing his resignation two years later.

(As a history buff, I appreciated one of the little touches in that scene. When Forrest called security, the person on the other end identified himself as Frank Wills. That was the real name of the security guard who discovered the Watergate break–in.)

According to Forrest Gump's account, he had been a pretty influential fellow, sometimes deliberately, usually unintentionally. He met presidents, he was on hand for major historic events, like George Wallace's famed stand in the schoolhouse door (while Gump was a student at the University of Alabama), and he delivered what came to be known as Gumpisms, pearls of wisdom expressed as only Gump could.

Every time I watch it, I ask myself, Could anyone other than Tom Hanks have played Forrest nearly as well? It's hard to imagine, but the role might have been played by John Travolta or Bill Murray. Would either have been better? I don't know, but I do know it would have been much different.

Gump, of course, was regarded as slow. Early in the movie, his mother (Sally Field) was told that her son was "different" and would need special schooling, but she didn't accept that. "You have to do the best with what God gave you," she told him.

Of course, you can't mention "Forrest Gump" without mentioning "My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." The American Film Institute rated it the #40 movie quote of all time.

Forrest always sought to please his mother so he didn't focus on the negative. Most of the time, he focused on the positive, even when he was in pain. Even when it made no sense.

"Mama always said dying was a part of life," he said. "I sure wish it wasn't."

Initially, I guess that was my favorite Gumpism, which isn't surprising, given what I had been through in the weeks and months before I finally saw "Forrest Gump."

But, after repeated viewings of the movie, I decided that my favorite Gumpism came when Forrest and Jenny (Robin Wright) were walking together and came upon the house where she had been abused as a child. She started throwing rock after rock at the house, some bouncing off the wall, others shattering the glass in the windows, before she collapsed in a heap on the ground.

"Sometimes," Gump the narrator said, "there aren't enough rocks."

"Forrest Gump" introduced me to two actors I didn't recall seeing before.

One was Gary Sinise (Lieutenant Dan), who had been in movies for nearly 10 years when "Forest Gump" made its debut. I had seen some of his movies, but I had no memory of seeing him in them. He made quite an impression on me in "Forrest Gump," though, and I followed his career closely in the years that followed.

Lieutenant Dan was one of those guys who came from a long line of soldiers who gave their lives in service to the nation. Forrest saved his life during a battle, and Dan resented it, believing that Forrest deprived him of the glorious combat death his ancestors had.

Back stateside, Dan, who lost both of his legs, encountered Gump and demanded to know what people were always asking him. "Have you found Jesus yet?" he asked.

"I didn't know I was supposed to be looking for him," Gump replied.

As Forrest later observed, Lieutenant Dan "made his peace with God" — and he made his peace with Forrest, too. By the end of the movie, they were close friends.

The other actor was Haley Joel Osment.

"Forrest Gump" was only his second movie, but he did a good job as Forrest Jr. The next few years saw him appearing mostly on TV shows, but, in 1999, he was in one of the best supernatural flicks ever made — "The Sixth Sense."

Few careers have begun so well.

"Forrest Gump" won six of 13 Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director (Zemeckis) and Best Actor (Hanks).

A Hard Day's Journey Into Night

"It's been a hard day's night
And I've been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night
I should be sleeping like a log
But when I get home to you
I find the things that you do
Will make me feel all right"

John Lennon and Paul McCartney

The Beatles made four movies.

The first one, "A Hard Day's Night," made its debut on this date in 1964. The soundtrack album was released a few days later, racing to the top of the charts and staying there for 14 weeks.

If you're planning to watch the movie for the first time, though, here's my advice: Don't look for much of a plot.

The movie refused to take itself seriously, which was a good thing, really, because the Beatles never seemed to take themselves seriously. They seemed to be amused by how seriously the rest of us took them.

The world took everything they said or did as a pearl of ancient wisdom — which may have accounted for the enthusiastic response to "A Hard Day's Night." It was fun. It was cheeky.

The movie always reminds me of a group of kids playing with their father's video camera. They had adventurous spirits, and they liked to try new things, never knowing if the outcome of their experimentation would be good or bad. (That doesn't change the fact that the music in "A Hard Day's Night" was very good.)

The Beatles just seemed to shrug things off.

"It was clear from the outset that 'A Hard Day's Night' was in a different category from the rock musicals that had starred Elvis and his imitators," wrote film critic Roger Ebert. "It was smart, it was irreverent, it didn't take itself seriously, and it was shot and edited by Richard Lester in an electrifying black–and–white, semi–documentary style that seemed to follow the boys during a day in their lives. And it was charged with the personalities of the Beatles."

For example ...
Reporter: How did you find America?

John: Turned left at Greenland.

And ...
Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?

Ringo: Um, no. I'm a mocker.

And, of course ...
Reporter: Do you often see your father?

Paul: No, actually, we're just good friends.

I've been listening to the Beatles all my life. I've seen all their movies more than once, and I think I have discovered the secret (if that is what it is) of the Beatles' remarkable success.

The mere act of creating something — music, a movie, a book, whatever — was liberating, fulfilling for them. If it was commercially successful, so much the better — but that wasn't their primary concern. Like everyone else, they appreciated what money could do for them, but it wasn't what motivated them. The main thing was to create — and leave it to others to decide whether it was good or not.

"A Hard Day's Night" was a success both commercially and critically. Credit for the title was usually given to Ringo Starr, who said, "We went to do a job, and we'd worked all day and we happened to work all night. I came up still thinking it was day, I suppose, and I said, 'It's been a hard day...' and I looked around and saw it was dark so I said, '...night!' So we came to A Hard Day's Night."

Thus, a song/movie title that so many have treated as inspired actually came into being in an almost casual way — and from the most unlikely of the Beatles.

I am always fascinated by how something simple can evolve into something extraordinary — and, in hindsight, take on a kind of preordained aura. That's how "A Hard Day's Night," both the album and the movie, has always seemed to me.

It was nominated for two Oscars — Best Original Screenplay and Best Adaptation or Treatment Score — and lost both.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Dawn of the Age of Elvis

Sixty years ago today, 19–year–old Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right (Mama)" at Sun Studio in Memphis.

It was the first commercial recording of Presley's career, and it launched him to superstardom.

There are stories of some noteworthy recordings that were made at Sun Studio, which opened 4½ years before Elvis recorded "That's All Right (Mama)" there and changed everything for himself and the studio, but the studio struggled at first, and, apparently, it would record anything in its early years.

In fact, the studio's slogan was "We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime." That included recording special events like weddings and baptisms and graduations, and anyone could walk in off the street and make a record — for a fee. That's what Elvis did.

It wasn't his first #1 hit — that was "Heartbreak Hotel" about 18 months later. In fact, it wasn't even the first recording he made at Sun. But it was released a couple of weeks later and went on to become a reasonably big regional hit.

Elvis was really before my time. In fact, I have rarely owned an Elvis album in my life.

I have to give all credit for my first such purchase to my friend Brady, who shared with me his recording of Elvis' Sun sessions — and told me a bit about Elvis' history with Sun. Until that time, I don't think I had heard "That's All Right (Mama)" — or "Blue Moon of Kentucky," the other noteworthy song he recorded 60 years ago.

But I liked them well enough that I went out to get a copy of that record.

It was in August 1953 when Elvis, a recent high school graduate, first walked through the doors of Sun Studio and met a receptionist, who asked him about his musical style. What kind of music did he play? "I sing all kinds," he replied. The receptionist repeatedly asked him who he sounded like. "I don't sound like nobody," he kept saying.

On that occasion, he recorded two songs ("My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin"). The receptionist made a note that he was a "good ballad singer."

Nothing came of it. Nor did anything come from a second session in January 1954, when Elvis recorded "I'll Never Stand In Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You."

Sam Phillips, the original owner of the studio, was looking for a white singer who sound like he was black; he thought such a performer would be a huge success. He invited Elvis to record some songs on this night in 1954, but the session yielded little until near the end. Elvis started playing "That's All Right (Mama)," a hyped–up version of a 1949 blues number by Arthur Crudup, and the studio musicians who had been working with him that night joined in.

Phillips asked them to start over, and he recorded what they played. It wound up being the demo that he shopped around to local DJs and led to a single that was released on July 19, 1954 — with "Blue Moon of Kentucky," originally a Bill Monroe bluegrass tune that Presley gave a rock 'n' roll makeover, on the B side.

And the rest was rock 'n' roll history.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

When the Hays Code Started Enforcing Movie Censorship

If "It Happened One Night" had been made a few months later, Claudette Colbert
might not have been able to get away with making this iconic scene.

Eighty years ago, the motion picture industry began enforcing the Hays Code, a production code informally named after Hollywood's chief censor, Will Hays.

The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), later the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted the code in 1930, began enforcing it in 1934 and dropped it entirely in 1968 in favor of a ratings system, but, for nearly 35 years, the Hays Code acted as censor for motion pictures. What was acceptable (by implication) and what was not acceptable was spelled out in two lists — the "Don'ts" and the "Be Carefuls."

The Production Code was written by a Catholic layman and a Jesuit priest. As a result, it had decidedly Catholic undertones.

The "Don'ts" were 11 things that "shall not appear in pictures ... irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:"
Pointed profanity — by either title or lip — this includes the words 'God,' 'Lord,' 'Jesus,' 'Christ' (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), 'hell,' 'damn,' 'Gawd,' and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity — in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
White slavery;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth — in fact or in silhouette;
Children's sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed.

Those were the things that were not allowed under any circumstances. Some probably were rarely, if ever, included in pre–1934 movies, but the Hayes Code went ahead and spelled it out, anyway.

The items on the "Be Careful" list could be permitted, but movie producers had to be very careful. Hence, the title. There were more than twice as many of those:
The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing [sic] in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
The use of firearms;
Theft, robbery, safe–cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too–detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Third–degree methods;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
First–night scenes;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
Surgical operations;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law–enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing.

By the late 1960s, the Hays Code had simply become unenforceable.

I majored in journalism. I worked for newspapers and a trade magazine. I have taught and am teaching journalism students.

And I have very strong opinions about censorship.

I understand that there are times when it is a necessary evil, but it should be severely restricted. If an exception to a general censorship policy is to be made, it should favor the one being censored, not the one doing the censoring.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were mentioned in the First Amendment to the Constitution for a pretty good reason. The Founding Fathers knew that those freedoms were — and are — essential.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

A Flawless Dramatization of a Murder Trial

"Twelve people go off into a room: 12 different minds, 12 different hearts, from 12 different walks of life; 12 sets of eyes, ears, shapes and sizes. And these 12 people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind — unanimous. It's one of the miracles of man's disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries."

Parnell (Arthur O'Connell)

Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors, and he gave many astonishing performances in his career.

One of my favorites was in Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder," which premiered on this date in 1959. My personal opinion is that it was flawless.

In the movie, Ben Gazzara played a young soldier who killed a man for allegedly raping and beating his wife (Lee Remick). One small problem, though. No evidence of a rape could be found. Stewart, a small–town lawyer, was retained to defend him in court, and Stewart discovered via interviews and his own observations that the defendant was jealous and possessive and his wife apparently had been promiscuous.

That would be a hard sell in court.

The alternative theory of what happened went something like this: Remick and the man were lovers. Gazzara found out about it, killed the man and beat up Remick, then coerced her into backing up his version of events. That would sound more logical to a small–town jury, especially given Gazzara's defense.

Gazzara said he was not guilty because he had been in the grip of an irresistible impulse, a rather complicated mostly legal concept that seemed to offer a plausible explanation for what happened — but was seen as hard for juries to get their minds around.

And I speak from experience.

At one time, I covered the police beat in a rather modestly sized county in Arkansas, which also meant covering local trials from time to time. In that capacity, I observed the usual courtroom procedures, from selecting a jury to examining and cross–examining witnesses.

I witnessed attempts to explain complicated legal concepts to largely rural juries, and I have a great deal of respect for any lawyer who tries to do it. It's a lot more difficult than a casual observer might think.

I also got to observe judicial sidebars, in which the attorneys for both sides would approach the bench and confer on issues, usually out of earshot of those in the courtroom.

Such a conference in "Anatomy of a Murder" never fails to amuse me. It concerned the alleged rape of the defendant's wife and the panties she had worn that night, which were unaccounted for.

The rape had been mentioned in a witness' testimony, and the judge felt it was necessary, at that point, to fully address the subject of rape, and that meant introducing the topic of the panties.

"There's a certain light connotation attached to the word 'panties,'" the judge said. "Can we find another name for them?"

"I never heard my wife call 'em anything else," the local prosecuting attorney said.

The judge looked at Stewart. "Mr. Biegler?"

"I'm a bachelor, your honor," Stewart replied.

"That's a great help," the judge said and turned to the prosecuting attorney from the state capitol (George C. Scott). "Mr. Dancer?"

"When I was overseas during the war," he said, "I learned a French word. I'm afraid that might be slightly suggestive."

"Most French words are," said the judge.

Always makes me laugh. Never fails.

Then the judge announced to the court, "For the benefit of the jury, but more especially for the spectators, the garment mentioned in the testimony was, to be exact, Mrs. Manion's panties."

As one might expect, hoots of laughter greeted this announcement, and the judge continued.

"I wanted to get your snickering over and done with. This pair of panties will be mentioned again over the course of this trial, and when it is, there will not be one laughter, one snicker, one giggle or even one smirk in my courtroom. There is nothing comic about a pair of panties that resulted in the violent death of one man and the possible incarceration of another."

That is precisely the sort of thing that the judges I covered would have said, too.

The conclusion of a courtroom drama, like that of a murder mystery, should never be revealed to someone who has not yet seen (or read) it — so, to be on the safe side, I won't tell you what happened.

I will tell you it was a very realistic depiction of a trial. It even took on some legal subjects about which I often wondered when I was covering the police beat.

In particular, I wondered the same thing that Gazzara's character wondered when the judge instructed the jury to disregard a certain piece of testimony.

Gazzara leaned over to Stewart and whispered, "How can a jury disregard what it's already heard?"

And, in perhaps the most honest line in the movie, Stewart replied, "They can't, lieutenant. They can't."

"Anatomy of a Murder" received seven Oscar nominations, including two for Best Supporting Actor (Scott and O'Connell), but not one for the Duke Ellington jazz music that gave the movie such a distinctive flavor.

It probably wouldn't have mattered if the music had been nominated, though. It was the year of "Ben–Hur," and "Anatomy of a Murder" lost four Oscars to that movie alone.