Thursday, August 28, 2014

façade: hal ashby's third act


Hal Ashby, who would have turned 80 last September, enjoyed a brief but exhilarating directing career. The former editor (an Oscar winner for 1967's "In the Heat of the Night") helmed eleven narrative films, plus one documentary, in a span of about 15 years.

His debut, 1970's fabulous "The Landlord," was something of a happy accident. Norman Jewison had commissioned Kristen Hunter's novel to direct himself, but pre-production work on "Fiddler on the Roof" sidelined him and he generously handed the material to Ashby, his house editor.

A year later came the seminal "Harold and Maude" which, like "The Landlord," was not immediately embraced by critics or audiences.

This was Ashby's Act One as a budding auteur.

His Act Two was something of a jaw-dropper - rich, beautifully realized films starting with "The Last Detail" in 1973 and continuing with an almost breathlessness with "Shampoo," "Bound for Glory," "Coming Home" and "Being There." Much of what is written these days about Ashby revovles around these titles.





Ashby with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon on
"Harold and Maude," perhaps his signature film
Ashby's Act Three, however, produced during a particularly troubling time in his private life, is no less interesting. His choice of material was as personal and idiosyncratic as ever and his eye for casting remained fresh and sure. Less sure was his directorial confidence but the shared erratic quality of his final four films only make them more fascinating.

Either by accident or perhaps on purpose, Ashby's work on "Second-Hand Hearts" (1981), "Lookin' to Get Out" (1982), "The Slugger's Wife" (1985) and "Eight Million Ways to Die" (1986) mirrored much of the expressionism that John Cassavetes was specializing in at the time.

"Second-Hand Hearts" (aka, "The Hamster of Happiness"), a shaggy-dog tale about losers, offers the singular team of Robert Blake and Barbara Harris, who are compulsively watchable here. "Second-Hand Hearts" may be a genuine lost title, but "Lookin' to Get Out" recently made it to DVD in a narratively enhanced version that restores footage excised by Paramount. Ashby managed to take a buddy gambling film here and somehow twist it into something vaguely existential.

More mainstream and middlebrow, "The Slugger's Wife," an original screenplay by Neil Simon, comes with an unexpected melancholy with Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca DeMornay, fine performers who never hit the big time, as two people - a ballplayer and a singer not entirely made for each other. The film lingers almost in spite of itself.

Martin Ritt puts in a bit as the wittily named Burly DeVito, manager of the Atlanta Braves, the team for which O'Keefe slugs.

Much more memorable but no less erratic is "Eight Million Ways to Die," an atmospherically sordid character study with Jeff Bridges outstanding as detective who uses booze to self-destruct, seesawing between his planned rehabilitation and the vices that permate his personal/professional lives. Rosanna Arquette and Alexandra Paul are the atypical female leads here.

Ashby's documentary was The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" (1983). Trailing off towards the end, he directed Neil Young in something called "Solo Trans" (1984); the pilot of Dennis Franz' TV series, ""Beverly Hills Buntz" (1987) and his last, "Jake's Journey," a 1988 British TV film with Graham Chapman and Peter Cook.

He died in in December of that year of liver and colon cancer.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

cinema obscura: Richard Quine's "So This Is Paris" (1955)

Richard Quine is largely noted for his work at Columbia, where he started out as a contract player (he was sodajerk Frank Lippincott in Roz Russell's "My Sister Eileen") and then segued into directing there (the musical version of "My Sister Eileen," among others).

He made his directorial debut at Columbia in 1954 with "Drive a Crooked Road" (co-written by colleague and friend, Blake Edwards, one of several of their collaborations) and became a reliable house director there the same year with the marvelous "Pushover" (starring his muse, Kim Novak).

But Quine also ventured out to other studios for such titles as "The World of Suzie Wong," "Sex and the Single Girl," "The Moonshine War," "Hotel" and the film of Arthur Kopit's quirky play, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad" (which starred Russell).

In 1955, the year he made the excellent "My Sister Eileen" for Columbia, Quine was loaned out to Universal for another musical, "So This Is Paris," a throwaway charmer starring a singing and dancing Tony Curtis as an avid, skirt-chasing sailor. With Gene Nelson (on Curtis' right above) and Paul Gilbert (on his left), the film can be mistaken for nothing less than a tracing-over of "On the Town," only set in Paris rather than New York.

The naturally engaging Gloria DeHaven (also above) has the Vera-Ellen role of a showgirl who isn't exactly what she seems to be. Corinne Calvet, the low-rent, G-rated Brigette Bardot of her day, and Mary Corday are the two other gals who team up with the ... gobs. (Quine's movie was alternately titled "So This is Paree" and, yes, "Three Gobs in Paris.")

If you know the drill, you know the rest.


"So This Is Paris" is one of those B-musicals (if there is such a genre) that were prominent during the early- to mid-1950s, when the studios still had expansive music departments and when musicals were still accepted, no questions asked, by audiences. In fact, Janet Leigh, Curtis' wife at the time, starred in two of her own - James V. Kern's "Two Tickets to Broadway" (1951), which happened to co-star DeHaven, and Quine's aforementioned "My Sister Eileen" (1955).

By the way, Curtis played another sex-sick soldier on the loose in Paris in Blake Edwards' difficult-to-see "The Perfect Furlough" (1958) and Leigh teamed up with him (one of their many films together) as a no-nonsense Army psychologist keeping tabs on him by acting as chaperone.

Friday, August 15, 2014

cinema obscura: Carl Foreman's "The Victors" (1963)

George Hamilton (from left), Vince Edwards, Jim Mitchum and George Peppard in "The Victors"

Note: Carl Foreman's anti-war epic from 1963, "The Victors," a lost film, was originally profiled here as a cinema obscura entry on December 6, 2007, in conjunction with a rare screening of the full-length roadshow version on The Military Channel, scheduled for January 19 of the following year. Since then, the film has surfaced in its full version, courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, on March 1, 2010 and is scheduled for a showing at 3 p.m. on tomorrow (Saturday, August 16) at The Billy Wilder Theater of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.  Is it just possible that, at long last, a DVD release will follow? (Apparently, a DVD has already been released in the UK.) Let's hope so. Below is the original cinema obscura essay and the initial comments posted at that time.

The sole directorial effort of Carl Foreman, the prolific writer and producer, "The Victors" remains one of the most powerful of anti-war films. 

It was one of Columbia's major productions of 1963 - a three-hour (plus intermission) roadshow production for which the studio harbored Oscar fantasies. The studio's other big Oscar bid that year was Otto Preminger's equally sprawling "The Cardinal." But while "The Cardinal" has surfaced on VHS, Laser and DVD, "The Victors" continues to sit on some shelf at Sony.

Neglected.

Shot in widescreen and black-&-white by Christopher Challis and boasting a huge international cast, "The Victors" works essentially as a series of short stories about the various members of an infantry squad as it treks from Sicily to Germany during the final weeks of World War II, crosscutting their interpersonal relationships with those they share with the enemy and with assorted women. Foreman, who wrote his own script, keeps his film big and hulking, while also managing to concentrate on the human interest in his vignettes.

Peter Fonda, for example, pops up as a soldier obsessed with saving a puppy from the ravages of war; Eli Wallach plays a harsh sergeant who has his face blown off in combat;  George Hamilton is a G.I. disillusioned when the woman he falls for becomes a prostitute; and, in the finale, Albert Finney appears as a drunken Russian soldier whose face-to-face encounter with the disgusted Hamilton neatly sums up the insanity of war. (A bit of trivia: Romy Schneider, pictured left, played Hamilton's love interest and, although her name remained in the credits, her role was completely deleted from the film when CBS aired the movie for the first time in the late '60s.)

The best moment in the film, for my money, is the stark sequence when a young American deserter is executed in the snow while Frank Sinatra's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" plays in the background.

There's more, but I haven't been able to see the film in years and it is quickly disappearing from my mind.

As a writer, Foreman worked largely with producer-director Stanley Kramer, penning both including "Home of the Brave" (1949) and "The Men" (1950). His last film in tandem with Kramer would be the Fred Zinnemann-directed "High Noon" (1952), whose release coincided with Foreman's "hostile" testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. His refusal to cooperate ultimately led to his blacklisting.

Foreman would continue to write movies, using assorted pseudonyms (including Derek Frye) and often without taking credit at all. It was pretty much known that he wrote the screenplay for David Lean's 1957 Oscar-winning "The Bridge on the River Kwai," although credit would go to Pierre Boule, the French author who wrote the novel upon which "Kawi" was based. Boule subsequently took home the Oscar for Best Screenplay, although the Academy would honor Foreman for his contribution in 1985, following his death from brain cancer the year before.

As a producer, Forman was responsible for such fine films as "Born Free," "Young Winston" and, best of all, John Dexter's 1970 "The Virgin Soldiers," another vivid (and lost) anti-war film starring Hywell Bennett (and whatever happened to him?), Lynn Redgrave and Nigel Davenport.

But, for me,"The Victors" remains his towering achievement.

Friday, August 08, 2014

bernstein, sondheim & spielberg


Steven Spielberg pretty much confirmed an on-going rumor - that he will remake "West Side Story" - on a recent edition of ABC's "Good Morning, America." Appearing in tandem with Oprah Winfrey to promote Friday's opening of "The Hundred-Foot Journey," which they produced, Spielberg was asked about the rumor and said that the project is in the works.

"West Side Story" would be Spielberg's first film musical, following the lead of his occasional collaborator, Tom Hanks, whose Playtone company was behind Phyllida Law's "Mamma Mia!" (2008).  That's if one doesn't count "1941" (1979), a criminally underrated film (especially in its 146-minute director's cut) that moved like a songless musical. (See the USO dance sequence.)  "1941" should have been a flat-out, full-fledged musical.

Anyway, as someone who isn't a fan of the original 1961 WSS (although, full disclosure, I loved it as a kid), this is awesome news.

The problem is Ernest Lehman's script by way of Arthur Laurents' book for the play.  Lehman was way to faithful to Laurents' contribution.  The dialogue, which Lehman kept intact, is particularly arch.

Tellingly, on GMA today, Spielberg sung praises of Bernstein's music and Sondheim's lyrics, but said nothing of Laurents' book.  Hopefully, that means that the script and dialogue will be overhauled for the remake.  I assume that the project's one other key contribution, Jerome Robbins' landmark choreography, will be retained/restaged for the new film.

But one never knows.

The original film was co-directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, until Robbins was unceremoniously dropped from the production.

Of the Oscar wins for the film, the most questionable went to supporting players Rita Moreno (who, at age 30, was too old for her role) and George Chakiris (at best, a competent actor).  Unbelievably, they won over "Judgment at Nuremberg's" Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift.

In a recent interview, Moreno claimed that everyone expected Garland to win for "sentimental" reasons.  No, everyone thought Garland would win because she deserved to win.  Ditto Clift.  And the fact is, Moreno and Chakiris won only because "Wests Side Story" swept the Oscars that year.

Everyone drank the WSS kool-aid prior to the 1962 Oscarcast.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

façade: James Shigeta, matinee idol


Note: The actor James Shigeta died on July 28 at age 81; this essay was originally published on June 18, 2008 and the initial ten comments were posted during that time period.

Turner's impressively ambitious and nakedly revealing investigation of how the film industry has seen and portrayed Asians in movies has run the gamut as one might expect of the fastidious TCM, capturing some wonderful, laudatory highs and far, far too many lows.

The series kicked off with Cecil B. DeMille's fascinating "The Cheat," a 1915 silent film that introduced the iconic Sessue Hayakawa to Western audiences, and included Yasujiro Ozu's recent Father's Day entry, his 1942 masterwork of self-sacrifice, "There Was a Father"/"Chichi Ariki."

In between, there have been titles about the struggles of Asian actors and filmmakers to present their authentic vision, as well as the struggles, too often in vain, of Caucasian filmmakers to portray them.

Forget about the slant-eye make-up applied to the likes of Katharine Hepburn. For the most part, Hollywood's view has been routinely, almost casually, insensitive and decidedly unempathetic.

Joining TCM's Robert Osborne for some serious discussions about such matters has been Dr. Peter X Feng, editor of "Screening Asian Americans" and author of "Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video." And there have been added insight provided by filmmaker Wayne Wang, writer Amy Tan, film scholar Elaine Mae Woo, film producer Janet Yang, actresses Lauren Tom, Ming Wen, Rosalind Chao, France Nuyen, Nancy Kwan and Miiko Taka, among others, and ... James Shigeta.

For a brief, shining moment, the talented and very handsome James Shigeta was poised to be a major Hollywood leading man. In the space of two years, Shigeta was auspiciously showcased in no fewer than five films of impressive diversity - Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono" (1959), his debut film; James Clavell's "Walk Like a Dragon" (1960); George Marshall's "Cry for Happy" (1961); Etienne Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil" (1961), and Henry Koster's film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Flower Drum Song" (1961).

With a line-up like that, Shigeta should have had it made. He was the definition of a matinee idol. But it was to be only temporary.

For some bizarre reason, what seemed to be a flourishing film career came to a halt, with Shigeta spending most of his time playing guest roles on TV series ("Burke's Law," "Dr. Kildare," "Ben Casey," "Perry Mason" and the like). Apparently, Hollywood wasn't color-blind after all. Later on, he had roles in Charles Jarrott's "Lost Horizon" musical remake (1973), a disaster with a Burt Bacharach-Hal David score; Jack Smight's "Midway" (1976) and, still later, John McTiernan's "Die Hard" (1988). But his movie career, for all intents and purposes, never really got back on track.

What happened? For the life of me, I can't understand why Hollwood - so good at exploiting people - let Jim Shigeta be so criminally neglected. Is it naïve to think there was a whiff of racisim was at play here?

Four of those film films in which Shigeta excelled, demonstrating his versatility, are being aired as part of Turner's invaluable "Asian Images in Film" series, starting early June 19th, at 1:30 a.m. (est) with "Walk Like a Dragon," in which Shigeta plays a proud immigrant in 1870’s California caught in a love triangle with a Chinese woman (Nobu McCarthy) and a tough cowboy (Jack Lord). Mel Tormé co-stars for director Clavell, the writer who, of course, helmed TV's "Shogun."

At 8 p.m. (est) on June 19th, Turner will screen Périer's "A Bridge to the Sun"/"Pont vers le soleil," a true story about a Tennessee blonde (Carroll Baker) who married a Japanese diplomat (Shigeta) before World War II, then followed him to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This film contains, arguably, Shigeta's best screen performance.

Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono," Shigeta's first film, will be shown at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24th. In this Los Angeles-set noir, Shigeta plays a detective who finds himself in a love triangle with his partner (Glenn Corbett) and a woman (the late, wonderful Victoria Shaw) who is entangled in their current murder investigation. Not surprising for Fuller, "The Crimson Kimino" was ahead of its time, both for its exploration of racism and its romance between an Asian man and a Caucasian woman, something Shigeta would explore again in "A Bridge to the Sun."

At 11:30 p.m. (est) on June 24th, Koster's terrific, unfairly underrated "Flower Drum Song" unreels. Full disclosure: This is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, largely because it doesn't follow the usual R-&-H forumla. Lacking the team's penchant for pretention and preachiness, this look at Asian life in San Franciaco is modern, lively and quite jazzy. A tale of generational conflicts and hard-dying traditions, the material casts Shigeta, in his last major film role, as a conflicted guy caught between being Chinese and American.

"Flower Drum Song" features an all-Asian cast, save for one Caucasian role - that of a white derelict (Herman Rudin) who robs Master Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) on his doorstep. Nice touch. I love it.

Shigeta, whose deep, natural baritone always added a natural authority to his line readings, did his own singing in the film - an endearing, lilting work that has improved with age. It's terrific.

Note in Passing: The only major Shigeta film missing from Turner's line-up is Marshall's "Cry for Happy," a wartime comedy that starred Glenn Ford, Donald O'Connor and Miiko Taka and which paired Shigeta with his "Flower Drum Song" co-star, Miyoshi Umeki.

(Artwork: James Shigeta in his prime; with Carroll Baker in Périer's breakthrough "A Bridge to the Sun"; being interviewed by filmmaker Arthur Dong during the Spotlight tribute to him at the 24th San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival in 2006, and Nancy Kawn, aglow in wide screen, in the Hermes Pan-choreographed "Grant Avenue" number from Koster's terrific "Flower Drum Song.")