Wednesday, April 16, 2014

THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS




This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. You can view the complete blogathon schedule here: http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2014/03/announcing-james-stewart-blogathon.html


James Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time. He had a number of great film credits on his resume, but for the purposes of this post I chose a movie that doesn't get a lot of attention: THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, directed and co-written by Billy Wilder and released by Warner Bros. in 1957.

The movie is based on Charles Lindbergh's famous solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Today Charles Lindbergh is considered politically incorrect, due to his isolationist stance before WWII and recent revelations about his personal life. But for most of the 20th Century Lindbergh was one of the most famous people in the world, and many looked upon him as a hero.

At first glance it would seem that THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS would have not only the wrong actor in the leading role, but the wrong director as well. At the time of the flight, Lindbergh was 25 years old. At the time of the film's production, James Stewart was pushing 50. Stewart wanted to play Lindbergh very badly. Not only was Lindbergh something of a personal hero to Stewart, the actor was an accomplished pilot who had flown bomber missions during WWII. Stewart won the part despite misgivings from the Warner studio.

Just like Stewart, Billy Wilder had been inspired by Lindbergh's flight and wanted to be involved in a film about the famed aviator. Wilder was best known for his cynical satires on contemporary American culture, and he did not seem to be the type to direct a heart-warming biography.

THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is based on Lindbergh's book about his famous flight. Lindbergh had final say in just about every aspect of the movie's production, which limited Billy Wilder on what he could and could not do. The story sticks mainly to the flight, with various flashbacks sprinkled in. For the most part James Stewart is all by himself--his best dialogue moment is with a fly that happens to be in the cockpit of his plane. Stewart plays a number of scenes in that cockpit, without anyone (or anything) to react to.

The thing is, Stewart makes those scenes work. You totally believe that Stewart is Lindbergh, and that he is flying all alone above the Atlantic. There's no way that Stewart could pull off being 25, or even looking like Lindbergh--so Stewart gives a "Jimmy Stewart" type of performance. It is the honesty and conviction that Stewart projects that allows him to portray Lindbergh.

My favorite scene in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is when Stewart as Lindbergh discovers he is flying over the coast of Ireland, giving proof that he is on the right course. Stewart plays the scene with such wonderful emotion that the viewer can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm.

A younger actor may have been technically right for the role of Lindbergh, but would that actor have had the stature and the personality to carry a major film all by himself? James Stewart had that stature and personality. You may not think of Stewart as Lindbergh at the beginning of the story, but by the end he has you convinced--not through a special makeup or a funny voice, but by an inner earnestness that enabled the actor to make his audience accept him in whatever role he played.

THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is a well-intentioned film, but it is not a great one. The lighthearted flashbacks used in the film are not all that entertaining, and they distract from the main story. Without his usual acerbic wit, Billy Wilder's attempts at comedy fall flat. The biggest problem with THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is that we never really get to know Charles Lindbergh (which I am sure is what the real Lindbergh wanted). All we find out about him is that he loves to fly, and he supposedly looks and acts like Jimmy Stewart. If we were allowed more of a glimpse into Lindbergh's character, his accomplishment would have resonated more with the movie audience.

The film does have some good points other than Stewart, such as the excellent aerial sequences (three different Spirit of St. Louis replicas were built and used for the film), and the magnificent musical score by Franz Waxman.

THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS went overlong in its shooting schedule and over budget. When the film was released it did not do well at the box office or with critics. It is not considered a major success for either Billy Wilder or James Stewart, and when one takes into account how Charles Lindbergh is looked at today, the film's legacy probably won't increase much in the future.

But it should be viewed by anyone who is a James Stewart fan. The actor had just about everything going against him in this role....but he still gave his usual impressive performance. If I had to describe James Stewart's acting style in one word, it would have to be "sincerity". It is that sincerity that allowed James Stewart to convince viewers that he really was that 25 year-old man who stunned the world back in 1927.



Monday, April 14, 2014

The 20th Anniversary Of Turner Classic Movies




It was on this day twenty years ago that the Turner Classic Movies TV cable channel premiered. (I have to admit that I found out this fact from reading Vincent Paterno's "Carole & Co." blog entry today.)

Of course TCM is a huge part of most film buffs' lives. I know there are some out there who probably think of TCM as a channel for "old people", but I've heard that its viewers come from all age groups and backgrounds. It is more than just an "old movie channel"--it happens to be one of the most eclectic spots on modern day television. Where else can you see silent movies, cult horror films, foreign productions, and major Hollywood studio entries--all in the same week?

TCM has changed the way classic films are looked at by a mainstream audience. Literally hundreds and hundreds of movies that would never see the light of day have been exposed to brand new viewers because of TCM. A number of films have been released on home video, or have been restored and saved from destruction, simply because they got attention from being aired on TCM. For that fact alone the channel deserves accolades.

I know that TCM has widened my movie viewing habits. When I was younger I didn't really know much about regular 1930s Hollywood product, being that I was such a monster movie fan. Watching TCM introduced me to the fabulous "Pre-Code" era (roughly 1930-1934), one of the most interesting and intriguing of all movie genres. The idea of Pre-Code becoming a brand name, and sort of a cottage industry, really started with TCM.

I even got into--wait for it--the Busby Berkeley/Warner Bros. musicals of the early 30s because of TCM. I would see these things, and then I would realize I knew all the music--because I had spent almost my entire life watching "Looney Tunes" and "Merry Melodies" cartoons. And the music for those cartoons came from the Warner Bros. musicals.

Through TCM I have been exposed to several types of films that I would probably never have gotten a chance to see. One of the great things about being a film buff is that you can't see everything....which means you are always making discoveries. Yes, there are plenty of films that I watch over and over again....but it's really exciting to scroll down the TCM schedule and spot a film that you may have never seen, but have heard about for some reason.

What's really great about TCM now is that it is available in HD, and the channel shows widescreen films in their correct aspect ratio. And...they still don't have any commercials.

Watching TCM doesn't make you a snob, or a nerd. It means that you are able to look beyond the usual ordinary TV trash and appreciate one of the greatest art forms in the world. Happy Birthday to TCM.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER




I have to admit I probably wasn't going to go see CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER on the big screen. But after hearing so many people talk about how it was, in their opinion, the best Marvel movie ever, I decided to check it out.

Is THE WINTER SOLDIER the best Marvel movie of all time? Well, it certainly ranks right up there. It is more of a "Marvel Universe" tale instead of a Captain America story--the film has huge parts for Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. The story details the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D--and does it in a way that hearkens back to the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. The casting of Robert Redford in a key role makes sense, considering he starred in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR--Redford even spends most of the movie wearing a 1970s-style three-piece suit. And is that the Watergate building off in the distance behind S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters?

This latest Marvel Studios product is like most of their others--it is well-made, entertaining, and fun to watch. The action sequences are more believable, and more intense, than most comic-book movies. The CGI has been ramped down a bit for this entry (that is, until the finale). I wouldn't say that this is a dark film...but it has a different vibe than most of the Marvel output. THE WINTER SOLDIER taps into the ongoing debate about security & surveillance vs. personal freedom--but it does it in a way that avoids angering people politically.

You have to give Marvel Studios a lot of credit for taking numerous lead and subsidiary characters and featuring them over a series of different films (and a TV show), and making the whole thing work. The Marvel Studios "universe" is unique in film history--at least, I can't think of any other example. The only thing that comes to mind is the Universal Monsters series of the 1940s, where Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster starred in their own films, were then pitted against each other, and then co-starred with Universal's Abbott & Costello.

I've often wondered when the whole movie comic-book genre was going to start to fall off. After so many entries, people would have to get tired of these type of films eventually....at least you'd think they'd start to. But the huge success of THE WINTER SOLDIER (I believe that this movie has made more money in a couple weeks than the first Captain America movie did during its entire run) proves that audiences still go for this product--especially when it is made by Marvel Studios. These are pure popcorn films, made for the general public, not for obsessed fanboys. There is a bit of geekiness to them, but not enough to drive away mainstream viewers. That's the Marvel Studios formula. It is one that might annoy hardcore comic book fans and elitist film buffs, but movies are made to make money and to be seen--and no one is doing that better right now than Marvel. You don't have to be a huge comic-book fan, or even a huge Marvel fan, to enjoy these films. I'm a DC fan, but I can watch these adventures and still be entertained.

DC Comics, which is owned by Warners, is so far behind the curve movie-wise that it's not even a contest anymore. Captain America is a perfect example. This is a superhero that on the surface might seem a little boring--he's honest, upright, and patriotic....kind of like Superman. But while DC/Warners seem to have no clue on how to present Superman on the big screen, Marvel has done an excellent job in portraying the Captain, along with many other characters that would seem impossible to transfer to the cinema.

Marvel Studios is on a roll right now, and it doesn't seem that they are going to slow down anytime soon. It looks like Disney might be planning to do the same thing with the Star Wars universe that Marvel is doing with theirs on-screen. Like it or not, comic-book movies are going to continue to dominate the industry for what looks like years to come.


Oh, by the way....I still think the best Marvel-based film is X-MEN.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: THE SEARCHERS--The Making Of An American Legend





THE SEARCHERS, directed by John Ford, happens to be one of my favorite films of all time. So I was certainly interested in reading the book THE SEARCHERS--The Making of an American Legend, written by Glenn Frankel. This is more than the usual "making of" volume--it is really two different books in one.

The first part of the book details the life and history of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker. During a Comanche raid on her family's homestead in 1836, Cynthia Ann was abducted and spent the next several years living among her captors. She married a Comanche warrior and had two sons by him. For years various people searched for Cynthia Ann in the hope of bringing her back to her family. She was found in 1861 and spent the rest of her short life living unhappily with white relatives.

Frankel recounts Cynthia Ann's story, along with her half-Comanche son Quanah (who became something of a celebrity in his own right in the early part of the 20th Century). Some film fans might be dismayed that half of this book is taken up by Cynthia Ann's real-life tale, but any Western expert will know that the lives of Cynthia Ann and Quanah not only influenced THE SEARCHERS, but untold numbers of other Western films and TV shows. The journey of Cynthia Ann reads almost like a fictional narrative--mostly because it reminds one of so many Hollywood Western tales.

Before Frankel gets to the filming of THE SEARCHERS, he examines the life and work of the author Alan LeMay, the man who wrote the novel on which the movie was based. LeMay had been a long-time Hollywood screenwriter and had actually directed a film (facts I did not know). Even so, LeMay wanted nothing to do with John Ford's version of his work because the author knew how difficult it would be to get along with the idiosyncratic director.

Frankel then gets to the film, recounting how important producer Merian C. Cooper was to the project, and how THE SEARCHERS was kind of a "comeback" vehicle for John Ford. Frankel also examines two men who almost never get mentioned in the context of THE SEARCHERS--multi-millionaire C. V. Whitney, who bankrolled the project, and John Ford's son Pat, who was a production assistant on the film.

The location filming of THE SEARCHERS in Monument Valley is covered, along with the relationship between John Ford, John Wayne, and other members of the cast & crew. (John Ford is my favorite film director of all time, and I love watching his films....but I don't think I would have wanted to spend too much time with him.)

Frankel points out that THE SEARCHERS was not a major success, financially or critically, when it was first released. Over the years the film's reputation continued to grow and grow, to the point where it is now universally considered one of the greatest films of all time.

I think the real reason Frankel wrote this book is that he was doing his own "search"--a search for why the legend of Cynthia Ann Parker, and the legend of the film influenced by her, has had such a powerful hold on American culture. Thankfully the author doesn't get too intellectual, or too politically correct--he points out several times how violent and terrible the Comanches could be. The dual nature of this book may hinder one's enjoyment of it--some may wish for less American history and more film history, and some may think the opposite. I happen to be a history buff and a film buff, so I enjoyed this volume.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)





The best way that I can convey the enormity of Mickey Rooney's film career is by stating this--he made his movie debut in 1926, and he was still making movie appearances in the last couple years. That means he had film credits in a mind-boggling ten different decades.

In the late 1930s and the early 1940s, the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mickey Rooney was America's most popular movie star.

Rooney survived a number of personal crises and wound up outlasting (and outliving) nearly every one of his contemporaries.

It's safe to say that no other present or future performer will ever have a career like Mickey Rooney.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Leonardo DiCaprio: The Ultimate 21st Century American Movie Bad Guy




While watching THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, it struck me that Leonardo DiCaprio has now become the perfect example of the cinematic ugly American. Just think about the roles that he has played in the last decade: Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, the con artist of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, an evil slave owner in DJANGO UNCHAINED, Jay Gatsby in THE GREAT GATSBY, and now a obnoxious financial swindler.

DiCaprio achieved breakout success after starring in James Cameron's TITANIC. One would assume after playing the lead role in one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, DiCaprio would wind up getting a number of typical leading man roles. But he hasn't, mainly due to his association with director Martin Scorsese. Despite playing a variety of notorious characters, DiCaprio is considered a major star, and he has been nominated for five Academy Awards.

If DiCaprio had wound up playing "normal" leading man roles, I don't think he would be anywhere near as big as he is now. The fact is that DiCaprio is best when he is being an absolute jerk on screen. There just something about Leo....he has a certain smugness about him, a snarky attitude. (Just look at the photo above--it sums up DiCaprio's screen persona to a T.) DiCaprio's babyface looks accentuate his on-screen villainy rather than detract from it. He always reminds me of the guys in high school who were good-looking and well-off and knew it.

Something else that makes Leo a great bad guy--his cinematic temper tantrums. When one of his characters goes off, they act worse than a three year-old. It's a different kind of anger than say, a De Niro or a Pacino would have.

Even when DiCaprio isn't really supposed to be a "bad guy", you still don't like him all that much. Let's take a look at THE GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE DEPARTED (which is almost a modern-day remake of GANGS). In both films DiCaprio is a lower-class punk who falls under the sway of, and eventually betrays, a charismatic, vicious crime boss (Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, respectively). In each case DiCaprio may nominally be the "hero", but you still wind up not being all that sympathetic toward him. He comes off as a underhanded rat.

Does anyone remember the 1998 version of THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK? In that movie DiCaprio played dual roles--twins--and as the evil twin he came off way, way better than when he was the good twin.

After TITANIC came out there was a huge backlash toward the film and DiCaprio, a backlash that is still going on to this day. (TITANIC is always high on one of those "Worst movies to win Best Picture Oscar" lists.) I think now people respect DiCaprio's acting ability (at least, I think they are beginning to), but I also think DiCaprio still isn't very popular among the general public. His association with Scorsese is the real reason for most of his box office success (THE GREAT GATSBY was a bomb, at least in America). I do have to say that DiCaprio is a very good actor--but he's really a character actor, not a major leading man. In the future will DiCaprio continue working with Scorsese, or will he find a "heroic" role and put his career on a different path like Robert Downey Jr. did after starring as Iron Man?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET




Do you enjoy watching unlikable people engaging in abhorrent behavior? Do you enjoy watching people take drugs and engage in bizarre sexual acts? And do you like spending three hours watching all of these things? Then THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is the movie for you.

This is a film directed by Martin Scorsese--but this time around he's portraying the lives of white-collar criminals instead of gangsters and hoods. There's no overt violence in WOLF--and it seems because of that Scorsese decided to turn the volume knob up to No. 11, so to speak. This picture is three full hours of unbridled excess and obnoxious characters.

The story is based on real-life financial swindler Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). From the beginning Belfort is a overbearing, arrogant, greedy jerk. It's a part that DiCaprio plays very well--heck, that type of role has become DiCaprio's screen persona (I'll be writing a blog on Leo's film career very soon). Belfort is a sex/drugs/money addict, with no conscience whatsoever. I don't believe every movie has to have a decent character in the lead, but after spending three hours experiencing Belfort's lifestyle you feel like taking a shower.

Of course Martin Scorsese has made several films featuring disreputable people. The difference between those films and WOLF is that in the earlier Scorsese works, he attracted the audience's interest through a suspenseful storyline. The threat of violence in Scorsese's world magnified and propelled the plot. In WOLF you have white collar crime, which is very hard to show cinematically. Instead of shootings or beatings, Socrsese piles on the sex, drugs and lies to the point where it just gets tiresome.

As one would expect from Scorsese, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a very well-made production. Scorsese, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker use just about every cinematic trick in the book. The one trick that was left out is the point of it all. Is this movie a dark comedy? Is it a satire? Is it an indictment of American capitalistic greed? If it is, that's a bit ironic, considering that WOLF is a multi-million dollar production featuring multi-millon dollar performers. Every single character in WOLF, with the exception of the FBI agent who takes Belfort down, is a detestable individual. There's no counterpoint to all the lying and cheating; we don't see any victims of these financial crimes. Even at the climax it's hard to say that Belfort got what he deserved--he wound up writing a book and having a major feature film based on his life (he even has a cameo in this movie).

Jordan Belfort's story could have easily been told in about an hour instead of three. It was hard work for me to watch this film--and it's not because I was offended by it. I think Scorsese was trying to match the film's style to Belfort's excessive life. If Belfort really did all these things, then Scorsese succeeded. Personally, I believe he succeeded too well. Spending an entire afternoon watching rich amoral people act like jerks just isn't very entertaining to me, no matter how great the director is.