Monday, May 7, 2018

Sentimental Journey: Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons"

Wonderful opening narration married to sublime images.

Among cinephiles, that crazy, obsessed handful of barely human species for whom movies--no, cinema--is all, the career of Orson Welles is a puzzle and a paradox, an oeuvre maddeningly incomplete. Welles' first film, the exquisite and audacious--yet far from perfect--masterpiece, Citizen Kane, has been acknowledged as one of the greatest films of the Twentieth Century. Great and influential as that movie is, however, the remainder of the director's work suffered from interference from studio bosses, Welles' own bad judgement and bad luck. Until 1942, Welles had the best luck of almost any creature to walk the earth--or at least the studio lots of Hollywood. After that and through to his death in 1985, Welles suffered some of the worst luck of those same creatures.

The bad luck began with Welles' second feature at RKO Studios, The Magnificent Ambersons, a film that may be his most personal. Evidently, Ambersons' author Booth Tarkington knew, or at least had met Orson's inventor father, Richard Welles, and Orson, for the rest of his life, insisted the character of Eugene Morgan (played by Joseph Cotton in the film), whose invention and design of the automobile brings about the death of the Nineteenth Century in a small Indiana town, was based on his own father. Whether true or not, the important thing is that Welles believed it.

Welles' own life paralleled the story's main character, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt). Welles' first name was George, and he was called Georgie by his mother just as Isabel Minafer (Dolores Costello), George's mother, refers to him in the film. Like George, Welles was spoiled as a child and dreaded by his fellow classmates in school, much as Ambersons protagonist is despised by the townsfolk who cannot wait for the rich, spoiled brat to get his comeuppance. It is these comparisons that may have prevented Welles from taking on the role of George, a part he clearly understood but which may have been too close to him personally. Ambersons was the only production of Mercury Productions in which Welles would not play a substantial part.

A little backstory: Orson Welles' Citizen Kane opened in May 1941 to critical acclaim and public indifference. RKO Studios, which had courted Welles, wanted his second feature to be more commercial and less controversial. Welles was happy to give the studio masterworks, but they would not bring RKO what it craved more than artistic respect--financial solvency (RKO was a company seemingly always on the brink of monetary ruin). Kane wasn't particularly costly (final cost was $800,000), but considering all the hoopla and controversy the film caused related to its subject, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, RKO was hoping it would see a substantial profit from its investment. That did not come to pass. Consequently, with his second feature Welles was pressured by the studio boss, George Schaefer, to agree to film a more acceptable subject. RKO's agreement with the filmmaker did not include the all-important right to final cut, a clause that served as the agreement's most significant change as well as the single biggest factor in Welles' trouble with the studio's management during The Magnificent Ambersons’ production.

Welles with his photographer, Stanley Cortez.

The film's theme--the reason Welles was so drawn to the material--was that of progress squashing, stomping, and rolling over a more tranquil, slower, more civilized period of American history. The film lays out its intention from the opening scene with narrator Welles immediately establishing the film as a nostalgia piece: " The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873..." Welles once said that he was against his modern age, that progress could be taken as not progress at all, but a step back in civilization, which is precisely what Ambersons sets out to prove. Using the automobile as a device of destruction, Welles' shows how its invention brutally left behind the Nineteenth Century with its traditions of fancy dress balls, sleigh rides, and serenades. The Ambersons serve an illustration of the Nineteenth Century denizens who paid the price for progress.

The Magnificent Ambersons deals with the personal relationships of six main characters: Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), a widower, whose love for Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) sets the plot in motion. Early in the story, Iabel jilts Eugene and marries Wilbur Minafer whose only child, the spoiled George (Tim Holt), is a catalyst for the family's downfall. George's adverse reaction to Eugene's attentions to his mother after Wilbur dies that is the heart of the story. George's Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), Wilbur's spinster sister, also longs for Eugene. Lastly, there is Lucy (Anne Baxter) Eugene's only child, who George loves but cannot have him, and Jack Amberson (Ray Collins), Isabel's older brother and the most likable person in the film (and my favorite).

My favorite scene in Magnificent Ambersons : Jack's goodbye to George in the new train station

Filming on Ambersons began in late October 1941, some five months after Citizen Kane's premiere, and lasted three months, wrapping in late January 1942. (By this time Welles had been approached by the U.S.State Department and Nelson Rockefeller to film Carnival in Brazil as part of an effort to boost friendly relations with South America as part of the United States' Good Neighbor Policy. After the United States had joined World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, South America was seen as a country particularly vulnerable to Nazi take over.) World War II proved a significant factor in RKO's decision making once filming on Ambersons was completed and  unsuccessful previews were under way.

Filming began with high hopes and spirits soaring. Yet, according to Robert L. Carringer's definitive study on the film, The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, as the filming of the scenes related to George's decidedly Oedipal relationship with his mother approached, Welles grew "increasingly moody and irritable." Welles had an intense relationship with his mother before she died when he was nine. It was at this moment that Nelson Rockefeller approached RKO and Welles with the South America project. According to Carringer, Welles accepted enthusiastically, both for the project and to distance himself from Ambersons. In February 1942, Welles headed down to Rio. While he was in South America, Orson Welles' luck took a permanent turn for the worse.

Orson rides again!

According to Welles, RKO was "to send a moviola (a machine used to edit film) and cutters (editors) to Rio. Never happened." Welles was in communication with his chief cutter, Robert Wise, who he had also worked with on Citizen Kane. Along with Jack Moss, Welles business manager, Wise was essentially given control of the film with Orson, of course, dictating his instructions via telegraph and sketchy phone connections. Eyeing an Easter opening in April, RKO decided to have hold a preview for the film in Pomona, California, an agricultural town east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Valley, on March 17, 1942. Ambersons  running time for that preview was 131 minutes. The main feature playing that night was a musical called The Fleet's In starring Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken, and William Holden. The audience seems to have been made up mostly of youngsters seeking a good time, and they enjoyed the main feature. Then came Ambersons, which the audience nearly jeered Ambersons off the screen with walkouts aplenty. The preview cards the patrons filled out only confirmed the worst for Schaefer and the New York money men: Welles' brooding, complex, film was not what the good people of Pomona--or possibly anyone, anywhere--had bargained for. "More Chekhov than Tarkington," as Joseph Cotton wrote in a memo to Welles. Did Welles know what he had? Not being present to gauge the previews certainly didn't help matters. The next day RKO's executives were planning ways to cut the film to a more reasonable length, with whole scenes and character motivations left on the cutting room floor. Another preview was held in more hospitable Pasadena, California. The film was shorter--roughly 117 minutes, per studio documents--with cuts instructed by Welles when informed of the Pomona disaster.

Eugene and Isabel dance in the Ambersons mansion

RKO figured that with so much being cut extensive retakes would be needed. With Welles still in South America, editor Wise and assistant director Freddie Fleck re-shot some scenes mostly for the second half of the film. Additionally, previews were held in Inglewood, Pasadena, and Long Beach in April and May to a better, though still muted, response. At least we put "together a version that people would sit through and not walk out on," was the mindset of Wise, Fleck, Welles business manager Jack Moss, and others. The powers at RKO decided that it had the best version and released The Magnificent Ambersons in July 1942, playing on a double bill with a concoction named Mexican Spitfire Has a Baby. 

Orson Welles' fans often speak of The Magnificent Ambersons with reverence or solemness. With bravura direction, Welles reached a level of maturity, and, at times, a subtlety beyond his 26 years. Ambersons is nearly an old man's film, which is something I like best about the film. The film has sentimentality in the best sense of the word, for Welles was one of cinema's poets of lost worlds and past regrets in a society waiting for no one. As with his other, best known films, Welles presents Ambersons starkly, with truth and honest human emotion that downplay the gooey aspects that many directors cannot avoid, conveying a power and force that is often surprising.

Welles, on set with Tim Holt

The fate that befell Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons was as sad as the fate that befell its titular family. The story of a proud family teetering on the precipice of disaster was a prelude to the rest of Welles' life both professional and personal. If in 1942 Orson Welles was American cinema's Napoleon trying to conquer every aspect of theatricals, whether that be stage, motion pictures, or radio, then The Magnificent Ambersons was his Waterloo.

Books: The Magnifient Ambersons: A Reconstruction by Robert L. Carringer
           The Great Movies by William Bayer
           This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum
          Orson Welles, Volume Two: Hello Americans by Simon Callow

Photos: Web images

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Underrated Gem: Herbert Ross' Goodbye, Mr. Chips

When I think of musical films from 1960 to 1972, some have been praised to the sky and back--some deservedly so (Cabaret), some less so (The Sound of Music). Other, however, are forgotten not quite so deservedly. Some of these movies are written off as prime examples of what was wrong with Hollywood in the 1960s. To many, Tinseltown was out of step and out of fashion with the tenor of the time--the Vietnam War and its related protests, assassinations, race riots, civil rights movements, free speech, and the general anti-establishment vibe of many young people. 

In spite of all this cultural upheaval, Hollywood was still turning out limp Doris Day romantic comedies, ordinary westerns, and flat dramas that audiences were no longer interested in seeing. Every once in a while, however, the studios managed to extract a diamond from the increasingly dusty coalmine of old Hollywood  One such understated, underrated gem is 1969's musical remake of the 1939 Robert Donat-Greer Garson classic, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Based on that popular, Oscar-winning 1939 film (that I find dull and extremely difficult to watch from start to finish) and adapted from James Hilton's novel, the 1969 version of Chips was a long time in the making. It started around 1962 with film composer, Andre Previn, approaching MGM studio heads with an idea of transforming one of the studio's beloved classics into a musical. Metro gave Previn the green light, though musicals of the early Sixties were risky. Despite a recent slew of successfully filmed Broadway adaptations, including West Side Story, The Music Man, and Gypsy, there were just as many flops or disappointments (Porgy and Bess; Can-Can; Flower Drum Song) to offset them. At the time, if audiences named the best known musical movie actor, it probably was Elvis Presley.

With the release of Warner Brothers' mega-budgeted My Fair Lady in 1964--an enormous money maker ($34 million rentals, $72 million gross) that won eight Oscars--a musical onslaught that properly caught fire with the unforeseen bonanza of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music began. The Sound of Music (1965) became an absolute phenomenon, supplanting Gone with the Wind's twenty-six year run as the most financially successful movie ever made. At this point every studio in town was searching for the next Sound of Music. Columbia came up with the big hit, Funny Girl (1968), which unleashed Barbra Streisand on the world, and Columbia had another big winner with Oliver! (1968's Oscar winner for Best Picture), a musical based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. On tap across the valley at Universal was a splashy Ross Hunter extravaganza that was very popular, Thoroughly Modern Millie, with (again) Julie Andrews as a 1920's flapper.

In this mad scramble for musical success, however, more than a few duds were released. Fox, which should have known better, tried topping the success of Sound of Music with some ultra-budgeted failures like Star!, the film that reunited Julie Andrews with her Sound of Music director, Robert Wise; Doctor Dolittle, with Rex Harrison as the title character who talked to the animals; and the biggest of them all, a $24 million production of Hello, Dolly!, with a miscast Streisand, far too young for the role of matchmaker Dolly Levi, in an exceedingly lavish production. Sweet Charity, with Bob Fosse getting his big-time break as choreographer and film director after years working on Broadway and as an actor in small roles in film, was nevertheless a box office failure with just $8 million return on a $20 million budget. Warners struck out with the inflated Camelot and an interesting attempt at Finian's Rainbow made by an up-and-coming Francis Ford Coppola, starring Fred Astaire in his first film musical since 1957's Silk Stockings. Similarly, Paramount came up with a trio of not uninteresting financial losers: Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon; Blake Edwards' Darling Lili starring his wife, Julie Andrews, and Rock Hudson; and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, with Vincente Minnelli directing the ubiquitous Barbra Streisand through the rigors of time travel and ESP.

Together again : Rex and Julie, the reunion that almost was 

With all that activity going on around town, MGM's slate for its latest musical was remarkably low key. When first announced in late 1964, Goodbye, Mr. Chips' original plan was to have Vincente Minnelli directing the musical, with music and lyrics by Andre and Dory Previn, and playwright Terence Rattigan taking on the adaptation and making it relevant to a contemporary Sixties audience.  Former agent, the ambitious Arthur P. Jacobs, produced, a task he also performed at Fox with Dolittle. MGM was trying hard for a reunion of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, the co-stars of My Fair Lady on Broadway, as Chipping and his young vivacious wife, Katherine. Harrison was announced as the lead in January 1965.Then just as suddenly Harrison was out. Richard Burton then became the role's front runner. Then Burton was out, too. Andrews, by this time, had cooled on the idea of playing second fiddle to either Harrison or Burton. Sophia Loren let MGM know she was interested. Also up for the part of Mrs. Chipping was Samantha Eggar and Audrey Hepburn. Meanwhile, Minnelli was replaced by Gower Champion, who, in turn, bowed out. Finally, Herbert Ross, choreographer on Funny Girl and Doctor Dolittle was named to the director's chair. When Peter O'Toole, lured by the Rattigan script, signed on to play Chipping, with pop singer Petula Clark, fresh from Finian's Rainbow, to play Katherine, Goodbye, Mr. Chips was ready to begin filming at last.

Make no mistake: Chips is O'Toole's movie

With a budget of $9 million, the musical Chips, although pricey, pales in comparison to other roadshow production costs like Paint Your Wagon ($20 million), Hello, Dolly! ($24 million), Darling Lili ($25 million), and Star! ($14 million). The production was an exquisitely crafted work that was underappreciated upon release in 1969. And that neglected attitude persists to this day. Critics trashed the film, calling Goodbye, Mr. Chips a travesty to the memory of the original {Clive Hirschhorn in his book, The Hollywood Musical called O'Toole's performance "unconvincing and unappealing"}. Critics particularly took issue with the updates made to the story: While the original took place from the 1870s to the early 1930s, the remake spanned the 1920s to the 1960s. The story of Chipping's wife Katherine was another point of departure, with her character changing from a suffragette who dies in child birth to a musical comedy star of the London stage who (spoilers!) is killed during a World War II air raid. Then there was the problem of O'Toole's inability to sing the musical score of Leslie Bricusse. O'Toole wisely plays his musical moments with a talk/sing style that works at least as well as Rex Harrison's in My Fair Lady. Petula Clark is given the tough job of keeping Katherine modern and vivacious to contemporary audiences, yet touching enough for us to see what Chipping sees in her. That she didn't go on to have a successful movie career says more about Petula Clark being at the wrong place at the wrong time than it does about her talent, which is considerable. She would have to be to keep up with her co-star.

Peter O'Toole here with real-life wife, Sian Phillips, as the outrageously flamboyant Ursula Mossbank, though I swear she's Tallulah Bankhead. Phillips steals every scene in which she appears. 

After the larger-than-life characters he had portrayed since 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, here O'Toole seems to relish the ordinariness of Chipping's orderly life. When Chipping meets Clark's music hall performer, he doesn't know what to do; rather, Katherine makes the first move, inviting Chipping to a party and demonstrating what different worlds each comes from. It also demonstrates that those differences are what will also hold them together later in the story. Few aspects of Goodbye, Mr. Chips indicate that this is Herbert Ross's directorial debut. The film wasn't an easy shoot, and the director pulls it off with the style and ease of a veteran helmer. Ross was clearly born to be a film director, and Chips set him on the path to other first rate entertainments, including Funny Lady, The Last of Sheila, The Goodbye Girl, and The Turning Point. And that is only some of his output from the Seventies.

It isn't surprising that this remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips wasn't a hit with the public or the critics. In movies, 1969 was possibly the peak for youth culture, with releases like Easy Rider and Woodstock competing successfully against more traditional fare. O'Toole's Oscar nomination for Best Actor is seen as something of a miracle, yet it is much deserved. He won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. Unfortunately, nearly all the rest of the movie was forgotten come awards time, with the lone exception being the film's musical score. That Sian Phillips was over looked was especially disappointing. These days the film has its share of champions (including myself): IMDb has a 7 rating of 10, and Rotten Tomatoes ranks the film as "Fresh" with a 70%.

Books: Road-Show: The Fall of Musicals in the 1960s by Matthew Kennedy
           The MGM Story by John Douglas Eames
           The Hollywood Musicals by Clive Hirschhorn
           Peter O'Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers
Internet: IMDb
               Rotten Tomatoes
               Production photos             
Video :  Turner Classic Movies            

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Confessional: Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

Forgive me fellow film buffs, I'm a sinner. In movies many people fail to appreciate, I find my guiltiest pleasures. MGM's 1962 remake of its Oscar-winning 1935 success, Mutiny on the Bounty, has gone down in movie history as one of the most notorious productions of 1960's cinema. Alongside 20th Century-Fox's true disaster, Cleopatra, Bounty's primary claim to fame is as one of the films that killed Hollywood; picked the pocketbook of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; ended the career of an Oscar-winning veteran director; and stuck a dagger so deep in the heart of its star's image and prestige that it took a decade for his reputation to recover.

MGM's 1959 remake of Ben-Hur was the real culprit. That film was such a colossal hit, both financially and critically--it won an amazing eleven Oscars, including Best Picture--that its producers put into play a slew of remakes of the company's past hits: Cimarron, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Mutiny on the Bounty. All of these films were costly and ran into budget problems. Bounty was, without a doubt, the most beloved of the bunch, mostly because Clark Gable, who played Fletcher Christian, the lead, in the 1935 original version, had passed away in early 1960, approximately the same time that Marlon Brando agreed to play the role in the remake. Famed British director Carol Reed (The Third Man, Fallen Idol, Odd Man Out) was tapped to helm the massive production. Noted thespians Trevor Howard as by-the-book Captain Bligh, Richard Harris, and Hugh Griffith also signed on.

The recreation of HMS Bounty

From the beginning, the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty was beset with problems. Filming was scheduled to begin in Tahiti on October 15, 1960; however, the full-scale replica of the HMS Bounty was not ready in time, and the script by famed writer Eric Ambler was a mess that pleased no one. Ambler eventually quit and was replaced by veteran screenwriter, Charles Lederer. Filming finally began in December, but by then the monsoon season had begun, so the entire company packed up and returned to the MGM studios in Culver City, California, to shoot interiors. Around this time, Carol Reed decided this Bounty was doomed to sink and, unlike a real captain, refused to go down with the ship, resigning as the film's director. He was replaced by the Oscar-winning Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front), and the Bounty was set to sail again.

One of the film's impressive action sequences

Interiors' filming began at MGM Studios in February 1961 with the company returning to Tahiti for location shooting in late March. Filming dragged on for months, with final scenes shot in October, nearly a full year after initial filming began. Problems with the script were the main concern, although many in the company pointed the finger at Brando and his unprofessional behavior as the real source of delays in filming. Reportedly, Bounty's lead did not get along with director Milestone (Milestone evidently told MGM studio chief Sol Siegel, "This guy Brando is going to ruin you"). According to Milestone's estimate, Brando's behavior cost the film $6 million beyond budget.

Brando was never really satisfied with the script, which was rewritten daily; the actor was more intrigued by the Pitcairn Island section of the film than the actual mutiny (veteran writer Ben Hecht was drafted for this section of the film). Off screen, Brando had an affair with Tarita Teriipia, the local Polyensian restaurant dishwasher selected to portray Maimiti, Fletcher Christian's love interest. The two married in August 1962 after Teriipia became pregnant. Along with his new wife, Brando also fell in love with Tahiti. He eventually purchased a cluster of islands near the film's location. Co-stars Trevor Howard and Richard Harris accused Brando of chronic lateness to the set, and his habit of changing his interpretation of Christian from scene to scene perplexed and irritated the other actors.

Upon completion, the film took the much of 1962 to edit, shape, and market in preparation for its premiere in November. Brando showed up at the film's premiere but left in a huff when his British accent was jeered by the audience. Reviews were pretty scathing, with critics saving most of their vitriol for Brando. While they admired the spectacle of the film, most reviewers felt Brando's unorthodox portrayal--the antithesis of Gable's robust, manly take on Christian--was an embarrassment. Brando tended to see Christian as a foppish--almost effeminate--character, which left audiences and critics bewildered.

Feeling sabotaged by Brando, MGM held him responsible for the movie's enormous cost overruns (final cost was $19 million ... on a $9 million budget). With Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra breaking the Fox studios, even casual moviegoers of the day were fed up with stories of overindulged stars. Brando's reputation had taken a big hit with the cost overruns on his directorial debut, One-Eyed Jacks, the year before (original budget $1.8 million, final cost $6 million), and to some he was an easy target to blame for the cost overruns. Although Mutiny on the Bounty nabbed six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, the movie, which grossed $13.6 million (more than $100 million in 2017 dollars), left the studio with roughly half that much. That huge final cost nearly sunk MGM. The studio reported a loss of $17 million the following year (though it was ultimately bailed out in 1965 with the enormous success of Dr. Zhivago).

"You remarkable pig!"
Fletcher Christian takes command of the HMS Bounty

My first encounter with Mutiny on the Bounty was an afternoon showing([s]--the movie showed over two days) complete with commercials and pan-and-scan on a 19-inch black and white TV. Despite these drawbacks--some of which I didn't realize at the time--I was enthralled by the movie, especially Brando's unique interpretation of Fletcher Christian. This seems to be the first of several movies (The Missouri Breaks, The Formula, Island of Dr. Moreau to name a few) in which the Method actor went over the top with a performance. In Bounty, while it's true that his British accent comes and goes at times, his performance is a real star turn. Whether battling Bligh, calming the crew, or enjoying Maimiti, for me, the performance is one of Brando's most entertaining. In spite of his entertaining style, however, Brando's reputation as an actor and as a bankable star took a serious hit with Bounty's poor box office and critical drubbing. It was the start of a long, brutal decade of flops (some of them quite good and still undervalued) for the one time red-hot star until 1972's The Godfather put Brando back in the good graces of the Hollywood establishment. Not that he cared. After more than twenty years as a film star, Brando recognized the shallowness of such public displays of affection, as his refusal to accept his Best Actor Oscar in 1973 showed.

Holding off the Bounty crew's desire for revenge,
Christian assures Bligh there will be no more bloodshed aboard ship.

In spite of its enduring reputation as a disaster, Mutiny on the Bounty is an extremely enjoyable film. It has scope in its filming and tension in its telling. I imagine that contemporary critics were commenting as much on the behind-the-scenes gossip as on the actual film. Robert Surtees' photography magnificently captures the Bounty's voyage to Tahiti while also framing the dramatic sequences superbly. Bronislaw Kaper provides a majestic film score, while the physical production, including the full scale recreation of the HMS Bounty, is first rate. The script and dialogue are fresh and memorable (Christian to Bligh: "You remarkable pig! You can thank whatever pig god you pray to you haven't turned me into a murderer") and at times witty, and Trevor Howard's Bligh is a worthy adversary. Surprisingly for a film with a three-hour running time that had more than one director, the movie doesn't feel long or sluggish, especially when compared to other epics of the day (Cleopatra, The Alamo, Fall of the Roman Empire). As an historical document I'm sure this version of Bounty, as well as the other two (the 1935 original starring Gable and one from 1984, starring Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh are just as good) are lacking in actual fact. Like most films that depict an historical event, dramatic license is inevitable. Today, more than fifty-plus years after its premiere, Mutiny on the Bounty seems impressively well made and very entertaining. Don't believe the naysayers who compare it unfavorably with either the 1935 or the 1984 version; this Bounty sails on as one of my favorite guilty pleasures. 

Sources: IMDb
               The Films of Marlon Brando by Tony Thomas
               Senses of Cinema
               Images from the Internet

Friday, August 18, 2017

Blacklisted Westerns: Johnny Guitar and High Noon

2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was the mechanism for Washington's investigation into Communism and its influence on the Hollywood and the movies. Two of the most famous films made during the era were High Noon and Johnny Guitar. While High Noon was an instant hit both critically and financially, Johnny Guitar was not, though it has acquired a cult following through the years.

Unleashed on movie theaters across America in 1954, Johnny Guitar is not only a blacklisted movie but also a feminist western, giving it a unique place in cinema history. Directed by cult favorite Nicholas Ray for B-movie studio Republic Pictures, Johnny Guitar is unlike any other western. In spite of its title, Johnny Guitar is dominated by its two female leads played by Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford. And that's only the beginning of the gender role swapping that occurs throughout the story. Sterling Hayden, playing the title character and, ostensibly, the male lead, pines for Crawford's character, Vienna. Then there is McCambridge's Emma. Emma is angry and on edge from her first appearance, bitter over The Dancin' Kid's (played by Scott Brady) attraction to Vienna. Adding to the mix is Turkey, the youngest member of The Dancin' Kid's gang, who seeks Vienna's approval, if not more. These two women dominate the action and the men involved in it. Critics have suggested that Emma and Vienna may have had a lesbian affair prior to the movie's action and that Emma is jealous of Vienna's relationship with The Dancin' Kid because she wants Vienna for herself. Heaven knows what audiences made of it at the time.

Sterling Hayden as the title character

According to Wikipedia, Crawford and Ray had a production deal set up at Paramount for a project called Lisbon, which was rejected by the studio as too expensive. Crawford then took it to Republic Pictures and brought Ray along as associate producer. At the time, Republic was the biggest and best B-movie studio in town and had been trying to crack the A-list with films like its recent hit, John Ford's The Quiet Man. Republic Pictures specialized in westerns, and Crawford's package seemed ideal to Republic's chief, Herbert J. Yates. Besides the female slant on a traditionally male genre, what also makes Johnny Guitar notable is how the storyline about a group of powerful people--mostly men--that works to force Crawford's Vienna out of her successful business (a casino) parallels the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee.

Johnny Guitar released to middling critical and financial success. The film did garner, however, a cult following, especially with French critics of the day. Jean Luc Godard praised it, and Francois Truffaut admiringly called Johnny Guitar a "phony western." As for me, I also find a lot to admire in the movie. From its wonderfully descriptive dialog to Victor Young's magnificently emotional score and Harry Stradling's atmospheric, evocative color photography--the sandstorm near the movie's start is particularly memorable--I find Johnny Guitar original and entertaining. It is a unique "western" that looks better and better as the years pass.

The cast gathers

High Noon was an entirely different gunfight. Written by Carl Foreman, directed by Fred Zinnemann, and produced on a shoestring budget of approximately $750,000 (about $7 million in 2017 dollars) by independent filmmaker Stanley Kramer (Champion, The Men, The Wild One, The Defiant Ones), the film is considered an allegory of the blacklist. These three filmmakers, liberals all, were tested by the pressures of the blacklist, with Foreman moving to England in the middle of High Noon's production due to his HUAC testimony. Interestingly, the movie's star, Gary Cooper, who was a conservative and had testified in 1947 as a friendly witness, got along with his left-leaning colleagues, something his friends John Wayne and Howard Hawks couldn't abide.

The director with his leading man

High Noon is a more traditional western than Johnny Guitar, yet some see High Noon as less a western and more a message, or "social problem," movie. Some also view the movie as a suspense film in a western setting, which is a pretty apt description. The fact that High Noon can be classified as something other than a strict western is one thing detractors hold against it. Until the gunfight at the climax of the picture, High Noon also doesn't adhere to the conventional situations of the genre: no cattle drive or barroom brawl or pictureque landscape with wagon trains. Except for a brief segment in which Cooper's Marshal Will Kane attempts to leave town with his bride, Amy (Grace Kelly in her second feature), the entire movie takes place in the confined space of the town, Hadleyville.

High Noon pushed boundaries in other ways too. The community that Will Kane protects are basically cowards. Seeking help to back him up in his inevitable confrontation with Frank Miller and his gang, Cooper goes practically door to door asking his so-called friends for help only to be turned away. Even the church congregation turns on him. Will Kane's experience paralleled what many left-leaning actors, directors, and screenwriters faced during this era of fear and paranoia in Hollywood. People subpoenaed to testify before HUAC found themselves shunned by colleagues and friends, and blacklisted by the major film studios, making it impossible to find work if they didn't cooperate with HUAC. When Foreman was called to testify, he admitted he had been a member of the Communist Party until just after World War II. Because he refused to offer names of other Communist Party members, however, Foreman was blacklisted and could no longer find work in Hollywood.

Man alone: The iconic image 

When the Oscar nominations were announced early in 1953, High Noon led the way with seven nominations (alongside Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man), including a nod for Best Picture, Best Actor, for which Gary Cooper won, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The film took home three statues for Song, Score, and Editing.

The fallout from the success of High Noon was catastrophic for the filmmakers' personal relationships and challenging, at best, for their professional careers. Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman's friendship and partnership ended when Foreman's associate producer credit was withdrawn from the film, and Kramer tried to get Foreman removed from the production. While Zinnemann, Cooper, and others came to Foreman's aid, the screenwriter eventually fled to England to seek work. After completing High Noon, the last picture of his United Artists deal, Kramer headed to Columbia, where he had a signed a lucrative contract. While he had some success with The Caine Mutiny and The Wild One, the Columbia contract did not bring the bounty of commercial or critical successes the studio hoped for. By 1955, Kramer was back with United Artists, though as a director rather than a producer. Fred Zinnemann won an Oscar for his direction of another classic, From Here to Eternity, the year after High Noon's release, starting a remarkable run of movies that lasted well into the 1970s. Gary Cooper emerged from High Noon bigger than ever. Cooper appeared and remained on the Top Ten Box Office Stars list until 1957, four years before his death from cancer at the age of 60 in 1961.

Carl Foreman survived, although his career was permanently damaged by the 1950s' Hollywood blacklist. In Europe, he wrote a few screenplays using an alias, including the colossal hit, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Because he was still on the blacklist, his name, along with co-writer and fellow blacklist victim, Michael Wilson, was not used. The author of the book on which the screenplay was based, Pierre Boulle, received sole authorship on the film, which won an Oscar for its screenplay.

Carl Foreman eventually broke free of the blacklist, forming his own production company, and writing and producing the classic World War II action film, The Guns of Navarone, in 1961. His company also made Born Free, a big financial hit, in 1966. His last credit was for the script of 1980's disaster film, When Time Ran Out, a dismal failure. Both Foreman and Michael Wilson's names were posthumously reinstated to the film of The Bridge on the River Kwai and the Best Screenplay Oscar in 1984, the same year Foreman died of cancer at the age of 69.

Sources: Wikipedia
               Stanley Kramer Film Maker by Donald Spoto
               Reel Facts by Cobbett Steinberg
               High Noon and Johnny Guitar DVD {Olive Films}

Edited by Susannah Northart
Written by Nick Patterson

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Confessional: Sex and the Single Girl

Confession is one of the best known sacraments of the Catholic Church. Though this is not a religious blog, per se, movies are certainly my religion of choice. Therefore, I have decided to embark on a new series to be used as often the mood strikes me. In The Confessional, I will discuss certain movies that I have come to embrace for strictly personal reasons. These movies are my guilty pleasures--ones I find entertaining, enlightening, and/or just plain fun that critics, scholars, and historians have neglected, forgotten, or perhaps never even seen. I hope you will allow me this indulgence. 

One of my first great memories of watching movies on television is the night my older sister and I stayed up late on a Saturday to watch Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis in the comedy, Sex and the Single Girl. We laughed and laughed at Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall's funny dance (they were doing the Twist) in which nothing but their arms seemed to move; Larry Storch's bewildered CHP ("My motorcycle. My motorcycle!"); Rudy, Mel Ferrer's exasperating, shallow, wannabe gigolo co-worker of Wood's Dr. Helen Gurley Brown ("Oh, shut up, Rudy!"), and a myriad of other scene stealers. Coming home from a night out, my parents couldn't figure out what my sister and I found so amusing.

Poster art for the film

If I remember correctly, I saw the movie for the first time in the late 1960s when it was just a few years old. I'm sure it was my sister's idea to watch the movie; at ten, I was far too young to appreciate the finer points of pretty much any movie. Not that SatSG has finer points. The movie was a kind of mid-Sixties screwball comedy disguised as a sex romp before the sexual revolution took place. By today's standards, it is more than a little bit innocent (or, you know, retrograde) in its attitude toward its titular subjects.

After supposedly saving his life, Natalie Wood's Helen Brown brings Curtis' Bob Weston
back to her place to dry off in one of the film's sexiest scenes.

A little background: Sex and the Single Girl was a non-fiction, self-help book written by Helen Gurley Brown. Originally published in 1962, the book attempted to aid single girls who wish to explore the world, including being single, having a career, and sex without marriage. Brown's book tried to show single women that a life alternative to the standard one of love and marriage might be both possible and preferable.

Sex and the Single Girl, the book, was a bestseller, but when Warner Brothers acquired the film rights, the studio had no idea how to adapt it for the screen. Ultimately, Warners kept only the book's title and its author's name for the main character. The rest of it went in the trash can. The studio had to make something (fictional--a documentary wasn't even considered) out of nothing, so why not a sex farce? Push convention as far as the early 1960s would allow, mix the ingredients, throw it against the wall, and see what stuck.

Bob Weston, playboy extraordinaire, listens as his next door neighbor,
Frank Broderick (Henry Fonda), pours out his marital grief. 

What stuck was a sexy, occasionally raunchy, chauvinistic time capsule that was popular enough with audiences to land the film on Variety's list of the top twenty highest grossing movies of 1964. Though not popular today--seldom even remembered--Sex and the Single Girl does, indeed, transport me to a time when women in movies were still called girls (which never fails to knock me sideways), and the old (wink, wink) it's-ok-for-men-to-fool-around-but-women-cannot-even-look-at-a-man double standard still applied. The early-to-mid Sixties were rife with these kind of films, usually brought to America's movie screens with Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Sandra Dee, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon, and Debbie Reynolds, among others. Some had a genuine wit or point of view (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) or were disguised as something other than they were (How to Murder Your WifeBreakfast at Tiffany's), yet they all amounted to the same thing: the virgin will not become a nun ... or stay single.

In spite of its deep roots in traditional boy-meets-girl storytelling, Sex and the Single Girl was ahead of its time in some respects. After all, Sex and the City basically navigated the same terrain thirty-plus years later, albeit with a more contemporary (i.e., liberated) perspective. Appreciation of Sex and the Single Girl may depend on the viewer's frame of mind. When I first saw it, the storyline of a hack journalist setting out to expose the virginity of a sex therapist was titillating to me in the extreme. No matter how tame it looks today, there is a pretty frisky scene in the film in which Wood and Curtis turn down the lights while clothed only in revealing robes. Racy!

The movie plays out a veritable potpourri of mid-Sixties angst and cultural cliches. Tony Curtis's playboy character, Bob Weston, writes for STOP, a "filthy rag" of a magazine run almost exclusively by white, middle-aged-to-old men (fact is, Curtis seems the youngest, and he was nearly forty at the time). The clinic where Natalie Wood's Dr. Helen Gurley Brown works is as sexist as the STOP staff. And Bob's neighbors, Frank and Sylvia Broderick (he's a sad sack; she's a shrew), hilariously played by Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall, are crazy for each other yet do nothing but fight. When I watch the movie now, it's hard not to believe in that notion of the early Sixties as a more innocent time. I take joy in its extremely simple pleasures--broad comic farce played by an expert cast, the suggestion that a naked back is as sexy as a naked front, and a resolution in which they all live happily ever after.

If only life could be like this. <sigh>

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Crush of the Week: Carroll Baker

She turned 86 on May 28, 2017. That sounds awfully old for an actress whose film persona oozed sex. But however brief her reign, Carroll Baker was the mid-Sixties answer to the vacuum left by Marilyn Monroe's death.

Baker as Jean Harlow in the 1965 film Harlow:
The film pretty much ended her career in Hollywood.

Before her career went the route of sex, cheesecake, and Playboy photo shoots, playing Jean Harlow wannabes in movies like The Carpetbaggers and a version of the real Harlow in the 1965 film of the same name, Carroll Baker was a talented actress. A product of New York's Actor's Studio, Baker's film debut came in an Esther Williams movie called Easy to Love in 1953. 1956 was Baker's breakout year with two films both regarded as classics: George Stevens' sprawling rendering of Edna Ferber's epic novel of Texas oil and cattle, Giant, and Elia Kazan's take on Tennessee Williams' seamy, steamy Baby Doll, with Ms. Baker in the title role as Karl Malden's child bride.

Amazing billboard at New York City's Astor Theater

Giant was one of 1956's most anticipated movies after the recent death of its star, James Dean. Giant is a huge film, sprawling and not quite certain of whether it wants to be a love story or a social drama about class distinction and racial equality. Baker plays Luz Benedict II, the oldest daughter of Bick and Leslie Benedict as played by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor (her brother is played by future biker and wild man, Dennis Hopper. Some family!). Baker's Luz falls hard for Dean's Jett Rink, an all-around scoundrel, whose real love for Taylor's Leslie is unrequited. A scene between Baker and Dean--a favorite of mine--takes place in his new hotel shortly before its grand opening. Dean's Jett--by now an alcoholic mess--proposes marriage, which Baker's Luz gently talks him out of.

Carroll Baker's other film that year--the one that sealed her cinematic fate--was Kazan's Baby Doll. Based on Tennessee Williams' play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Baby Doll was condemned upon release by the Catholic Church. The film is a comically absurd yet extremely suggestive study of misogyny and greed. From scene one, Baker nearly dominates the screen as Baby Doll, more than keeping pace with the masterful work of her co-stars, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden. Malden--always good--brings the ignorance and lust of Baby Doll's husband, Archie, front and center.

Carroll Baker in the nightie that gave birth to the term "Baby Doll."

Carroll Baker does an terrific job as the flirtatious yet virginal Baby Doll. Whether parading around in her short,"babydoll" nightgown or eating an ice cream cone in the back seat of a convertible, Baby Doll appears aware of her sexuality, yet maintains an innocence as she remains ignorant of the lust she generates in the entire male population of her Mississippi town. The eroticism of Baker's scenes with Archie's rival, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), is intense even sixty-plus years removed. It's a wonder the film got made at all. Baby Doll was the scandalous movie of its day, though still classy enough to gain four Oscar nominations: Carroll Baker for Best Actress, Mildred Dunnock for Best Supporting Actress (as Aunt Rose Comfort), Tennessee Williams for Best Screenplay, and Boris Kaufman for his magnificent cinematography.

Under contract to Warner Bros., after Baby Doll Baker declined the part of Diana Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon and went on suspension, missing out on MGM's version of The Brothers Karamazov. The Warner's contract also prevented Baker from making MGM's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Three Faces of Eve at Fox. Clearly her contract was holding her back.

When the suspension was lifted Baker made The Big Country. Directed by William Wyler, this 1958 western is often overlooked when great films of that genre are discussed, but the film is a good one and a big one. Starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning role, it did well at the box office. Baker is good as Patricia Terrill, a woman completely different from Baby Doll.

Owing Warner's one more film on her contract, after The Big Country, Baker played in The Miracle. Then she moved across town to Paramount for a comedy with the "King," Clark Gable, But Not For Me, an enjoyable film, after which she found herself in a film as controversial as Baby Doll.

1961's Something Wild was directed by Baker's then-husband, Jack Garfein. Financed by Baker and Garfein, Something Wild was meant to prove to Hollywood that Garfein was a top flight filmmaker and get Baker's career as a serious actress back on the track. Unfortunately, it nearly ruined it.

Something Wild tells the story of Mary Ann (Baker), a college student who is brutally raped one night while walking home from school, and the effect the rape has on her psyche. Traumatized, a suicidal Mary Ann is stopped from jumping off a bridge by Mike (Ralph Meeker), a lonely auto mechanic. Sympathetic, he takes her back to his small apartment, tells her to stay until she feels ready to go home, and leaves. He comes back several hours later, drunk, and makes stumbling advances, grabbing her. Fighting back she kicks him and hits him in the face, but he will not let her leave. Mike asks her to marry him, but she refuses. Though Mary Ann manages to escape one day when Mike leaves the door unlocked, after wandering the city and sleeping in Central Park, she returns to Mike.

Baker as a rape victim in the independently made Something Wild, 1961

The film got mixed notices from critics and a cold shoulder from filmgoers. Something Wild was ignored for years before a small cult surged around the film, started by bloggers like me. Seen today the film plays ambiguously. Its tone is mysterious, and its subject is disturbing even by today's standards. Its technical work anticipates the ground-breaking work to come later in the Sixties and into the Seventies with much location work in New York City. But the film's failure pushed Baker back to Hollywood with its mega-watt stars and big budget features.  

Baker, Debbie Reynolds, Karl Malden, and Agnes Moorhead
in the epic How The West Was Won, 1962

First up was 1962's How The West Was Won. Filmed in Cinerama and top lined with heavy hitting stars like John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, and Richard Widmark, HTWWW is an entertaining (yet not always accurate) ride through the history of the American West. The film is broken up into five sections: The Rivers, 1839; The Plains, 1851; The Civil War, 1861-1865; The Railroad, 1868; and The Outlaws, 1889. More important for Baker was the movie's huge box office, making nearly $50 million worldwide and giving her the biggest success since her Giant days. Next came the movie, which I will forever associate with Ms. Baker, 1964's frolic, The Carpetbaggers.

The chandelier scene from 1964's The Carpetbaggers

In 1964, I was five years old. In my young brain, Carroll Baker was (suddenly) the naughtiest woman I had ever seen. And it is with this film that her sex symbol status is reinforced, though the Carroll Baker of 1964 was not the same woman as Carroll Baker of 1956. She had matured into an even more beautiful woman. I don't know when The Carpetbaggers was first shown on network television, but when it did, I was watching it in our family room, probably sitting on the shag carpet, eating popcorn, and wondering what it was all about. I didn't know a a thing about Alan Ladd, who played Nevada Smith a.k.a., Max Sand, or George Peppard who played Jonas Cord (based--very loosely--on Howard Hughes), but I sure as hell thought I knew what Ms. Baker as Rina Marlowe (supposedly based on Jean Harlow) was up to when she was scantily clad on top of the chandelier or rolling around on a bed telling Peppard to "love me, Jonas, love me!"

The Carpetbaggers was the biggest financial success of 1964 ($28 million gross in US) and became one of those bad-movies-I-love, a camp classic alongside 1967's so-bad-it's-good Valley of the Dolls. The result of all this box office gold was a boon to Ms. Baker's career as an international sex symbol. After the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, audiences and press were on the lookout for the next blonde bombshell, and Baker was the first flavor of the month to appear. Unleashed on the American public in the spring of 1964, the film pushed the censors of the day about as far as they could go, including a brief nude scene with Ms. Baker.

Baker embraces a young Indian girl in John Ford's swan song to
the American West, Cheyenne Autumn. Dolores Del Rio is on the left.

John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn was the great director's swan song to the western form he loved so much, and also served as his tribute to the American Indian, which he has been accused of misrepresenting in previous films. Based on actual events, the film about 300 starved and weary Cheyennes trek from their reservation in Oklahoma territory back to their home in Wyoming takes Baker, who plays a Quaker school teacher, about as far from the sleazy world of Harold Robbins as possible. Baker's subsequent films were The Greatest Story Ever Told,  George Stevens' ponderous take on the life of Christ, in which she had a cameo; Sylvia, a drama with Peter Lawford, Aldo Ray, Joanne Dru, and Edmund O'Brien with Baker as a scheming prostitute; the entertaining yet hard to find Mister Moses with the always watchable Robert Mitchum as a con man trying to convince an African tribe to relocate for their own safety; and Harlow, a biopic very loosely based on a book about the first blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow. A movie that blatantly disregarded the facts, Harlow is true trash, albeit with a good cast (Red Buttons, Peter Lawford, Angela Lansbury, Martin Balsam), that brought Baker back to the land of The Carpetbaggers (i.e., sex, sin, and scandal). This time out, however, the film did poor business.

This post-Carpetbaggers flurry of failures effectively ended Baker's career in Hollywood. In the late Sixties, Baker relocated to Italy where she made a slew of thrillers with names like Orgasmo; The Sweet Body of Deborah; So Sweet ... So Perverse; and Her Harem. In June 1969, The New York Times published the article titled, "Whatever Happened to Baby Doll?," which sums up what audiences in America were wondering. Her European stay, which lasted about ten years, did bring financial stability for the actress, whose films were successful there but got limited bookings in the States. In 1977, Baker returned stateside in Andy Warhol's Bad as the owner of a beauty shop who makes extra money by operating a murder-for-hire side business.

Baker in 1969's The Sweet Body of Deborah, one of her many European films
that got limited playing in American theaters

Back in the US, Baker made the low budget The Sky is Falling, reuniting with her Giant co-star, Dennis Hopper, who was also in the career doldrums. Baker also appeared in stage productions of Bell, Book and Candle; W. Somerset Maugham's Rain; and Lucy Crown, which was based on a story by Irwin Shaw. Divorced from Jack Garfein in 1969, Baker married for a third time in 1978 to British actor, Donald Burton. During the 1980s Baker began her long career as a character actress in films, including The Watcher in the Woods opposite Bette Davis; Bob Fosse's last film, 1983's Star 80, about the brief, tragic life of Playboy centerfold and budding actress Dorothy Stratten; Ironweed with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep; and Kindergarten Cop, a big money-spinner starring former bodybuilder and future California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Baker remained busy in television as well, appearing in Murder, She Wrote and L.A. Law, among other series. Her final film was 2000's Another Woman's Husband. I haven't seen much of her post-Sixties work, but I will always be grateful to Carroll Baker's Rina Marlowe, a performance that taught me what sex symbols are all about.

Sources : IMDB
                 Baby Doll : An Autobiography by Carroll Baker
                Images courtesy of the Internet
                Baby, I Don't Care by Lee Server

Monday, July 3, 2017

Hollywood's Endless Bummer

Ok, so, this is a letter of complaint. In my long, long history of movie-going, I don't think I've seen the likes of the box office--much less creative--returns from the summer's "blockbusters" since ... well, actually I can't think of a worse time to be an avid moviegoer.

Another in an unending number of Alien sequels

Hollywood, running itself into the ground out of an intense fear of failure, is giving us tent pole sequels and pre-fab titles like Baywatch, which was neither an extraordinary--or even mediocre--television show. Baywatch the movie has suffered a worse fate. It was dead on arrival, one of 2017 summer movie season's many casualties. I have to ask the question: Who the f*** are running these studios? Why oh why can't these Hollywood movie conglomerates remove their heads from their backsides and come up with something worthwhile? Remakes, retreads, reboots, sequels, prequels, and rip-offs dominate and strangle our cinema screens. Turning back the clock seems to be the go-to action rather than actual creativity.

Does this poster really make you want to see this movie?

There are many, many, many things wrong with Hollywood and its movies today, and one of the biggest flaws is the advertising. I mean, the Baywatch movie was DOA anyway, but its poster doesn't do it any favors. Other movies this season include a reboot of The Mummy franchise, Universal Pictures' effort to relaunch its classic horror icon. When I heard about this project, I questioned its validity. I mean, why make another Mummy movie? I understand that Universal has a strategy to remake its classic monster movies, bringing them up to date with the best CGI money can buy and signing a big, big star. With that combo who needs a original script? Well, I guess John Q. Public decided he did. The Mummy was budgeted at $125 million. As of this past weekend the film's has grossed about $75 million in the USA. Not exactly overwhelming box offices numbers.

Screen capture from the original 1932 version  of The Mummy

Poster for The Mummy, 2017
Compare this with the previous picture and tell me which one looks creepier.


All of this isn't new. Many critics have voiced this opinion before: Hollywood is creatively barren, especially when it comes to the summer movie season. There was a time when summer movie fare wasn't all sequels, comic books, and special effects. But something happened in the past twenty or thirty  years. Success is one of the curses of the film business: Hollywood always thinks it can create, capture, seal, and maintain lighting in a bottle. But Hollywood is most exciting when a movie that no one thought would amount to much defies the odds and becomes a huge hit. Star Wars did it. So did Jaws. Home Alone is another example. The Matrix was unleashed without its own studio knowing the impact it would make. Like them or loathe them, these movies became box office record breakers, and they were all surprise hits. Even James Cameron's Titanic was predicted to flop due to its enormous cost. Yet the film became a phenomenon that millions went to see over and over again. And that leads me to another gripe I have with Hollywood: tracking box office returns.

Websites such as Box Office Mojo as well as more traditional sites like Variety report on the weekly returns of Hollywood's latest movie releases. However, these organizations routinely post results on a movie's gross intake. That is misleading. True box office success is the return on investment to the studio producing a movie. In other words, box office success is not about grosses but about rentals, and they account for about half a film's box office intake. Rentals are what the studios get back after theaters take their share. Gross doesn't mean anything. When The Godfather became an all-time box office success, it was a movie's rentals that was the standard, and that figure was approximately $100 million (around 500 million in 2017 dollars) in 1972-73. And that was only in North America. How many films today can make that claim? Today's movies--especially summer movies--are like television reruns. Alien: Convenant; Spider-Man: Homecoming; The Mummy; Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales; Transformers: The Last Knight; Cars 3; Despicable Me 3; and on and on. Of course, there are a few adult-themed films out there (My Cousin Rachel and The Beguiled, for example), but these movies are pushed so far under the radar that it's difficult even to find them in smaller markets. High quality as they may be, these movies get almost no publicity and are not tracked by programs like Entertainment Tonight due to their small theatrical roll out (around 750 screens versus 2,000-3,000 screens for the upcoming Spider-Man release). Consequently, the public is not aware these films are even out there.

With all this said, it's not just the major film studios that catch the brunt of my disdain. A good portion of it must go to today's movie-going public. People don't want to see something good--something that moves them, makes them laugh or cry. What was the last romantic comedy--once a staple of filmmaking--you saw? Was it any good? I cannot remember one. To me, it seems folks don't want to be surprised by the emotions a good movie may generate. It's like a mantra: give us the familiar s*** that we have seen over and over again. Reruns.

Any era in which The Rock is the country's number one box office draw is in trouble. Can anyone remember a line of dialogue from any movie of the past five years? Nothing like, "We're gonna need a bigger boat" or "Go ahead, make my day" or "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" or "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." No? Me neither. Now I hear Paramount is moving forward with a sequel to (cue sarcasm) that all-time great movie, Top Gun. Is this what America and countries around the globe want? This latest example of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy is due to explode (like a bomb?) into your local cinemas in July 2019. Gee, I can hardly wait.