Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book Review: THE LUCKY SOUTHERN STAR--REFLECTIONS FROM THE BLACK LAGOON




At Monster Bash this June not only did I get to meet actress Julie Adams, I also bought a copy of her autobiography. THE LUCKY SOUTHERN STAR--REFLECTIONS FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (co-written by Julie's son Mitchell Danton) is the story of a woman who has had an amazing professional acting career.

Adams starts out with her childhood in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression, and her dreams of becoming a movie star. Through her determination and attitude she broke into films in the late 1940s and soon afterward was signed to a contract to Universal Studios. While at Universal Julie appeared in some of her most well-remembered films, including of course CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

Julie devotes an entire chapter to BLACK LAGOON, and includes some very rare behind-the-scenes photos. Certainly her role in this film has made her something of an icon to monster movie fans....but if there is any genre Julie should be associated with it should probably be the Western.

Reading this book makes one realize there was far more to Julie Adams' career than one monster movie. Just a partial list of her leading men would include James Stewart, Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, Robert Ryan, Charlton Heston, and even Elvis Presley. After leaving Universal Julie appeared as a guest star in some of the most famous TV shows of all time, such as "Bonanza", "Perry Mason", "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". She even played a villain in an episode of "The Big Valley", where she tortured Barbara Stanwyck! In the 1970s Julie began playing various roles on the stage, while still continuing to do film and TV work. Her career continues into the 21st Century, with roles in such shows as "Lost" and "CSI:NY" and a cameo in Oliver Stone's WORLD TRADE CENTER.

This book is filled with dozens of stunning photos of Julie taken throughout her career. The inside covers contain color pictures of numerous posters of films that Julie appeared in. There is also a complete listing of Julie's film and TV credits.

If I had to sum up this book in one word, it would be "positive". The actress does not go out of her way to denigrate anyone, or tell any wild tales. If you are looking for any catty comments or juicy stories, you're not going to find them here. Some readers might be disappointed in this, but I personally think it is refreshing--and it is more than likely a major reason why Julie Adams has had such a long career in the entertainment industry.

In the epilogue of THE LUCKY SOUTHERN STAR Mitchell Danton explains that the real reason he wanted this book written was that he wanted people to know there was more to his mother's career than just CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. He's absolutely right--the entire career of Julie Adams does deserve to be highlighted. Very few performers can boast a resume like hers.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

Book Review: THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT

 






Greg Mank is the pre-eminent historian of the classic Hollywood horror film. His latest book is THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT, published by McFarland & Company.

In this volume Mank devotes 13 chapters to what he calls dark alleys of classic horror cinema. Among the subjects are the sad life of DRACULA actress Helen Chandler, the making of Paramount's wild pre-code thriller MURDERS IN THE ZOO, and the production histories of CAT PEOPLE and THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. We also encounter along the way tales about John Barrymore, Lionel Atwill, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, and Carl Laemmle Jr.

Most of the subjects in this book have been touched on by Mank before...but as usual with this writer there's always something new to be had, such as a forgotten incident that has been unearthed, or a fresh take on a film the reader thinks he or she knows all about.

The genius of Mank is that he gives each person he writes about a well-defined personality--making that person come alive as a real human being. Mank can also take the production history of the cheapest "B" monster movie and present it as an epic adventure in film making. Just about every monster movie fan knows the basic facts of the great horror films. Mank can take those facts (along with the dozens of new ones he seems to discover in every one of his books) and spin a story that gives you the feeling that the movies he covers are brand new--or at least need revisiting.

Mank's unique writing style--a combination of gossip, interviews, documented fact, and analysis--makes for entertaining reading. Mank clearly loves classic horror films, and that comes out in every page. You get the feeling that Mank himself is sitting in a room talking about monster movies with you personally.

It must be pointed out that some of the personalities featured in THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT suffered as much horror off-screen as they did on-screen (Mr. Mank told me at this Summer's Monster Bash that he felt like he might have needed rehab after finishing the book). Despite that, this is not a depressing volume, simply because there is so much joy and affection for the classic horror genre and the men and women who contributed to it.

I must also point out that, as usual with any Greg Mank book, there's dozens of rare photos, most of which I've never seen before. How can there be any unpublished photos left of the likes of Karloff, Atwill, Carradine, etc.? Somehow Mank provides them.

Gregory William Mank has been one of my favorite writers since I first read his IT'S ALIVE! when I was a teenager back in the 1980s. This makes me rather biased when it comes to his work....but in all honesty no classic horror film fan can go wrong in obtaining a copy of THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE




Last night I finally got to see a documentary I had been looking forward to since I had first heard about it: JODOROWSKY'S DUNE, directed by Frank Pavich.

In the mid-1970s, surrealist film director Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to make an adaptation of Frank Herbert's famed science-fiction novel Dune. I knew about this project from an article featured in Cinefantastique magazine back in the 1980s. This documentary shows how expansive Jodorowsky's vision for the film was. Jodorowsky put together a team of artists and designers, including H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, and Jean (Moebius) Giraud, and assembled a huge book containing the entire screenplay of the film in storyboard form, along with various pre-production drawings and costume designs. The book is a stunning piece of work, and it is really the star of this documentary--I don't know why Jodorowsky just doesn't reproduce the book and sell it as a limited edition keepsake.

Jodorowsky also hired Dan O'Bannon to do the FX (after seeing a screening of O'Bannon's work in DARK STAR). The special effects, if they had been attempted, would have been way beyond anything ever accomplished at the time. Jodorowsky also had plans to use different rock groups for different segments of the film's music--one of the groups he approached was Pink Floyd.

The cast would have included such names as Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, and Mick Jagger. The role of the main hero, young Paul, was going to be played by Jodorowsky's son (who was being trained in martial arts seven days a week to prepare for the role).

Frank Pavich goes to the storyboards time and again to give the viewer a rough approximation of what this never-made movie might have looked like. Pavich has had some of the storyboards and drawings animated, and these, combined with the Vangelis-like music of Kurt Stenzel, give off a genuinely creepy atmosphere.

While I watching JODOROWSKY'S DUNE, I was impressed by Jodorowsky's plans....but at the same time I kept saying to myself, "There's NO WAY this guy would have been able to pull this off." You have to remember that this was the mid-1970s, before STAR WARS had been made. To get his version of DUNE off the ground Jodorowsky would have needed major financing from a major studio--and I highly doubt any Hollywood company would have wanted to work with someone like Jodorowsky on such a major project. Jodorowsky was (and is) a true avant-garde maverick, a director who is as far from the mainstream as you can get. The documentary seems to imply that it is a shame someone as wildly creative as Jodorowsky did not get his work finished. I honestly believe that Jodorowsky might not ever have finished it--or even if he did, it would have never lived up to what he was trying to accomplish.

At the end of the documentary Jodorowsky ashamedly expresses his happiness that David Lynch's 1984 version of DUNE was a flop. But one of the reasons Lynch's DUNE wasn't successful was that many saw it as just too weird. Jodorowsky's DUNE, if it had been made, would have been twenty times weirder. Alejandro Jodorowsky makes David Lynch look normal.

The intriguing thing about "unfinished" or "unmade" films is that we can never be disappointed in them. Talk to anyone who has made or worked on a film, large or small, and they will tell you that no matter how you prepare and organize, changes and compromises have to be made along the way. Jodorowsky's attitude of "art and vision above all" is a respectable one, but it's hard to see how that would have worked when dealing with a major feature film. Jodorowsky's version of DUNE would probably work best as a graphic novel instead of a movie. Still, this is a fascinating documentary, and I especially recommend it to those who are creative artists themselves.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Our Disposable Culture





According to industry sources, the Fourth of July American movie box office gross was the lowest in about ten years. Of course, there really wasn't all that much to choose from if you wanted to go and see something. The shelf life of a "major" summer blockbuster these days seems to be the same as a loaf of bread. A movie gets all sorts of hype leading up to its release, it has a big opening weekend.....and about a week later it's almost forgotten.

The latest TRANSFORMERS entry is the first movie this summer to be No. 1 at the box office for two consecutive weeks. That's another example of how we live in a sound-bite society, where anything that happened five minutes ago is already considered old news. In May I wrote a blog post about the 30th anniversary of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. I remember that during 1984 that movie played all summer long, and I'm sure it was No. 1 for more than a couple weeks.

The first "big" movie of this summer season was GODZILLA....and then the hype turned to the new X-MEN feature....and then came MALEFICENT, where the mainstream media took the opportunity to talk about how Angelina Jolie is supposedly one of the greatest women to ever walk the earth. Then came the teenage romance movie, and then 22 JUMP STREET (??), and now TRANSFORMERS. I'm sure these movies are still making money (especially in other countries) and I'm sure they will all do well on the home video market....but will any of these films have the stature of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM? What I mean by that is, will they pass the reference test? If, say, 5, 10, or even 20 years from now, you reference any of those movies in a joke, or use a line a dialogue from any of them....will people automatically know what you are talking about?

Nowadays if a subject is not a "trending topic", it gets pushed aside. One movie that I have seen this summer is JERSEY BOYS, directed by Clint Eastwood. This is a film based on a popular Broadway musical, directed by one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history....and it's not making a lot of money, and getting very little media attention. A film like JERSEY BOYS doesn't have much of a chance in today's marketplace. (It must be pointed out that Warners should have had the sense to release JERSEY BOYS in the fall, where it would have had a better audience.)

There seems to be a lack of permanence in the movies and TV shows of today, which is why geeks like me are constantly watching TCM or the MeTV Network. Maybe that just reflects my narrow point of view. I'm about the least trendy person in the world (even though I'm writing a blog...ironic, ain't it?). But I can't help but think that the film culture of today is pretty thin. The only recent major mainstream release that appears to have had any type of lasting mark is Disney's FROZEN. The fact that FROZEN is an animated film says a lot about where the movie industry is at present.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon: THE HORSE SOLDIERS





The legendary John Ford was a huge Civil War buff. He was fond of telling people that several of his ancestors fought in the conflict, and he even went so far to say that some of them fought on both sides. The Civil War is touched upon in a number of Ford's films, but it wasn't until 1959 that Ford directed a full-length theatrical feature with a Civil War story: THE HORSE SOLDIERS.

On the surface THE HORSE SOLDIERS would appear to have all the ingredients of a great epic historical film. It has a great director, two huge stars (John Wayne and William Holden), a script based on one of the Civil War's most interesting incidents, and location shooting in the very area where those incidents happened. The end result, however, is not considered among one of John Ford's best works.

THE HORSE SOLDIERS is based on a novel by Harold Sinclair. The novel was inspired by the feats of Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson, who in 1863 led a brigade behind enemy lines into Mississippi and Louisiana to damage Confederate supply lines. John Wayne plays Colonel John Marlowe, a character based on Grierson. The film starts with Marlowe being given his orders by none other than Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. As Marlowe prepares for the raid he is saddled with a truculent Army doctor, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden). From the very beginning Marlowe and Kendall start sniping at one another. We later learn that Marlowe has a thing against doctors because he watched his wife die on an operating table--but that explanation seems a bit contrived.

The antagonistic relationship between Marlowe and Kendall is one of the film's biggest problems. Both characters wind up looking like pouting kids instead of professional soldiers (as a matter of fact, the Duke comes off as a bit of a jerk throughout the entire picture). It is hard for the audience to get involved in the story when the two leading men come off as annoying. Holden had of course made several period films before THE HORSE SOLDIERS, but here he acts (and looks) like a man from 1959 instead of a man from 1863.

Another element of the screenplay of John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin that seems contrived is the character of feisty Southern belle Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), who Marlowe is forced to take along on the raid. Hannah Hunter is obviously one of those obligatory female characters that are placed into a male-dominated story. The role of Hannah seems almost tailor-made for Maureen O'Hara. Constance Towers is good in the part, and she is certainly attractive, but one has to wonder what THE HORSE SOLDIERS would have been like if Maureen O'Hara had been in it. At the very end of the film, Marlowe declares his love for Hannah. This is a development that comes totally out of left field, and as such doesn't make much of an impact.

What THE HORSE SOLDIERS does have going for it is the magnificent color cinematography of William Clothier. The movie looks fantastic, thanks to Clothier's work and the pictorial sense of Ford. Like most Ford movies, you could freeze-frame just about any scene and it would look like a painting. The location shooting in Mississippi and Louisiana certainly helps THE HORSE SOLDIERS look as authentic as possible.

This is a Civil War film that tries to pack in as much Civil War detail as possible. Not only do we get to see Grant and Sherman, the Andersonville prison camp is mentioned several times. We see railroad ties heated over a fire and twisted into knots, cavalry battles, deserters and bushwhackers, slave communities, and a amputation (there must be a rule that every Civil War film must have an amputation). THE HORSE SOLDIERS tries to be scrupulously fair to both the North and South, with the result being that the movie isn't as dramatic or moving as it should be.

The most remembered scene of THE HORSE SOLDIERS concerns Marlowe's command being attacked by the entire student body of a military cadet school. This sequence was based on a real Civil War incident during the Battle of New Market, in which students from the Virginia Military Institute took part.

The cast of THE HORSE SOLDIERS features several of John Ford's famed stock company, including Hank Worden, Ken Curtis, Jack Pennick, and Denver Pyle. One of the bit players was longtime stuntman Fred Kennedy. During the filming of THE HORSE SOLDIERS, Kennedy died while performing a horse fall. Kennedy's death devastated Ford, who lost interest in working on the rest of the film. One has to assume that if Kennedy had not died, Ford might have done more to make the film come out better.

THE HORSE SOLDIERS has been called a "minor" Ford film. Most "minor" Ford pictures are way better than the "great" films of others. The movie looks great, and it has many of the little Ford touches. In the background details it is probably one of the most accurate Civil War films ever made. Unfortunately the characters portrayed by John Wayne, William Holden, and Constance Towers veer toward generic Hollywood stereotypes.  THE HORSE SOLDIERS has all the makings of a great film, but it just doesn't quite get there. Ford biographers Scott Eyman and Joseph McBride have very few good things to say about it. John Ford would visit the Civil War again--he directed an episode of "Wagon Train" dealing with Ulysses Grant, and he directed the Civil War episode of HOW THE WEST WAS WON. But he never made a truly great full-length Civil War movie, and one wishes that he had.









Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Book Review: THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA




This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Italian film director Mario Bava. Bava is best known as a master of the fantastic and macabre, and nearly every one of the movies he directed has a large cult following. Bava was not only a director--he was also an expert cinematographer and special effects artist (sometimes doing all three jobs at once).

Troy Howarth's THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA covers all of Bava's "official" directorial credits (Bava may have had a hand in directing numerous other features). This is a revised and expanded edition of an earlier book by Howarth.

Writing about Mario Bava and his films is not an easy task, for the simple reason that Bava's work is better watched then read about. Bava was a true visual stylist, and a generic description of his output just does not do the man justice. Thankfully, Troy Howarth keeps the plot synopsis for each movie short and spends more time discussing and analyzing each feature. Howarth points out the similar themes that run through Bava's work, and the author does this without being pretentious. This is a very well-written book, but it is still fairly accessible to the average reader.

Howarth is obviously a Mario Bava fan, but he avoids automatically proclaiming that everything Bava directed is pure genius. Almost every one of Bava's films had some sort of production difficulty, and some of them were basically wastes of Bava's talent. Howarth points out the strengths and weaknesses of each entry, and the author makes those who are familiar with Bava's films see them in a new light.

Most of the photos and stills in the book are in color, and many of them are very rare. Scattered throughout the volume are several pictures of Bava film posters (some more interesting than the movies they are advertising). This book is published by Midnight Marquee Press, and I'd like to point out the fine job that Midnight Marquee has done over the years in bringing out genre-related film books. THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA has a nice, clean design, and Gary & Susan Svehla of Midnight Marquee should be proud of releasing this book.

THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA has contributions from Lamberto Bava (Mario's son), Luigi Cozzi, David Del Valle, and Roberto Curti. Included in the book are vintage interviews with Mario Bava and a recent talk with Barbara Steele. There's also a chapter on the home video history of Bava's films by the author. This is a great idea, and it is one that I hope more film writers will attempt (after all, most viewers now experience older films for the first time at home).

Those who have experienced the film world of Mario Bava will enjoy this book the best. For those who are not well acquainted with the director or his movies, I would honestly say those people should watch Bava's work first before reading about it (BLACK SUNDAY would be the best film to start out with). Mario Bava is certainly not what one would call a "mainstream" filmmaker, and that is probably one of the reasons why he is held in such high esteem by so many film buffs. Troy Howarth has done a fine job celebrating the movie career of Mario Bava. The best compliment I can give to this book is that it made me want to see most of Bava's films again (and yes, I have most of them on DVD).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

If You Have To Shoot, Shoot....Don't Blog





The recent passing of actor Eli Wallach prompted a number of tributes to the man on the internet. All of these tributes mentioned Wallach's role as Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. As a matter of fact, GBU was just about the only movie mentioned in most of the posts. In a way, this does Eli Wallach a bit of a disservice. Wallach had a long and varied screen career, and a lot of his performances deserve to be better known.

The fact that Wallach's passing brought out so many mentions of his portrayal of Tuco is testimony to how much THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is ingrained in popular culture. If you go back and read most of the original reviews of GBU when it first came out, you will find that just about every critic considered it violent junk. Sergio Leone really was ahead of his time. GBU is my second-favorite movie (next to the original 1977 version of STAR WARS) and I've been fascinated by it every since I first saw it way back on TV in the 1980s.

I not only know just about every line of dialogue from GBU, I also know just about every camera angle. I watch it about two or three times a year, and the more and more I see it, the more I realize how magnificent a job Eli Wallach did.

Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (also known as "The Rat") is not a decent guy. He's a thief, a liar, and a cheat. He's vicious, cruel, dirty, and obnoxious. His list of "known" crimes is so long that it becomes a running gag. But despite all that....you wind up liking Tuco. He's so full of energy and vitality that you can't take your eyes off him when he appears on the screen. He's the heart and soul of GBU.

Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef may be billed ahead of Wallach in the credits, but make no mistake--Wallach is the film's leading man. He's the one who gets the most screen time, and the one who gets the most dialogue (Wallach says more lines in two minutes than Eastwood does in the whole DOLLARS trilogy). Even when Tuco isn't really doing anything, he's doing something. He's constantly scratching or rubbing himself, or making faces, or taking in his surroundings. Look at the scene where Tuco is observing a Civil War battle being fought right in front of him. Tuco has the wide-eyed wonderment of a child--and it's no wonder, since in many ways Tuco is a child (albeit one who has a deadly proficiency with firearms). Also notice the legendary "Ecstasy of Gold" sequence--Tuco's running around the graveyard in search of a certain tombstone reminds me of a kid running around a playground in search of a lost toy.

There's another thing that's appealing about Tuco--he's genuinely funny (even though the character is not trying to be funny). I've read stories that during the making of GBU, Sergio Leone was so tickled by Wallach's antics that the director basically let the actor decide how to play the role. The result was that Clint Eastwood (to his own bemusement) wound up being a supporting actor in a movie supposedly built around him.

Not only is Tuco the most appealing character, he's also the only one that is really human. The characters of Eastwood and Van Cleef are almost unemotional superheroes, with no real ties to anyone whatsoever. Tuco, however, has a wife (maybe several), and we actually meet his brother, a priest (in one of the best, and most surprising, scenes in any of Leone's films). During the running time of GBU we experience every single facet of Tuco's personality. At the end of the film we feel that we know him--and you certainly can't say the same thing about the characters of Eastwood and Van Cleef.

Most American actors of the mid-1960s would have looked at a role like Tuco as something of an insult (especially in a movie like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY). At the time of the making of GBU Eli Wallach already had a distinguished acting pedigree. He could have turned his nose up at a character like Tuco....but instead he took it and ran with it. He not only stole a film right out from under the nose of a legendary movie star, he also firmly cemented a place for himself in cinema history.

I was going to end this by saying that it would be a shame if Eli Wallach is remembered for nothing more than being Tuco....but, really, it wouldn't be a shame at all.