The fool in charge: Carl Reiner, 1922 – 2020

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Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be a fool but you’re the fool in charge. — Carl Reiner

By Scott Ross

For years I’ve been maintaining a short list of people who aren’t allowed to die. Unfortunately, the list is not preemptive; through no fault of my own, people keep falling off it: Jack Lemmon, Jerry Goldsmith, Larry Gelbart, Blake Edwards, Elmer Bernstein, Peter Ustinov, Miklós Rózsa, Billy Wilder, Alex North, Gore Vidal, William Goldman, Harlan Ellison, Toni Morrison, Barbara Cook, Hal Prince, my mother. So far, at least, Carol Burnett, Lalo Schifrin, Julie Andrews, Lily Tomlin, Sheldon Harnick, Maggie Smith, Mel Brooks and (especially) Dick Van Dyke are keeping faith with me. But recently that unconscionable rat Carl Reiner took his leave, which is just simply not cricket.

Actually, to live in decent health for 98 years, to remain compos mentos and in one’s own home, and to die in one’s sleep, is the consummation I suppose most devoutly to be wished by nearly everyone, and the most illusive; if there’s such a thing as a good death (and I think there is) that surely qualifies. But what a chunk of my life that man took with him! From what glories do we who worship talent and supplicate ourselves at the altar of comic genius bask in the reflective glow! If Carl Reiner had done nothing more than create, produce, write and guide for five glorious seasons that apotheosis of near-perfection The Dick Van Dyke Show, he would have more than earned his keep, not to mention the keep of at least another dozen.

I won’t append the phrase “like him” to that sentiment because there was no one remotely like him. Carl Reiner was a nonpareil. A one-off. A show-biz Renaissance (“Reinaissance”?) man: Actor, “writer without portfolio” (his own later description of himself in the Sid Caesar years), writer with portfolio, producer, director, novelist, playwright, screenwright, comedian. Even Mel Brooks, his closest contemporary (who not so coincidentally also happened to be his best friend) is less of a polymath, and not nearly as prolific: During the first year of the Van Dyke show — and remember, television seasons were much longer then — Reiner wrote 20 of the 30 episodes that aired; the following year he wrote 21 of 31. If any series can be described as one man’s work, The Dick Van Dyke Show was it.

The Dick Van Dyke Show - RoseMarie, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Dick Van Dyke

It was, perhaps, the show he was destined to create. As the writer-director Michael Mahler had Charles Kuralt observe in their 1994 appreciation “The Dick Van Dyke Show” Remembered, unlike with any other television situation comedy of the time, when Rob Petrie walked through the door and said, “Laura, I’m home,” we knew where he’d been, and what he’d been doing. And although Reiner himself was not an official writer on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, let alone (as Rob was for Alan Brady) Head Writer, he’d spent hours in those famed writers’ rooms between 1950 and 1957, throwing out ideas and lines of dialogue, yelling to be heard over the din of raging egos and, when he was lucky or especially inspired, getting something into a sketch in which he would also likely be performing. (Reiner was regarded as one of the best second bananas in the business then; after the 2,000 Year Old Man exploded into the popular consciousness in the early 1960s, he became known as the best.) He knew in his bones how that competitive/collaborative process worked — even if the Brady show had a much-reduced staff of three — and how the various “types” collected there contributed to the assembling of a great variety show. And if Rob was Carl, more or less, it’s no secret that Buddy Sorrell was largely an older and more curmudgeonly Mel Brooks, and Sally Rogers an amalgam of Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond. The Reiners, like the Petries, also lived in New Rochelle and also had neighbors called Jerry and Millie. While the Reiners had three children rather than one, and if Caesar was not the vain and dismissive, megalomaniac martinet Alan Brady proved to be… well, there has to be some fiction in a fictional series, hasn’t there?

Reiner wrote the pilot (Head of the Family) and the initial 13 episodes for himself, but Sheldon Leonard, the show’s eventual executive producer, thought Carl Reiner miscast, as himself. Having seen the pilot, I have to say he was right. Dick Van Dyke was a much better Carl Reiner than Carl Reiner. While both men are (oh, God… were!) charming — and Reiner was known to be a mensch — there is something inherently warm about Van Dyke that comes across without effort. Whatever indefinable alchemy informs these things, Reiner was a much more effective Alan Brady, a man with whom he had next to nothing in common, than he was a Rob Petrie. The Head of the Family pilot revealed Reiner’s creative cleverness, but not his comedic range. There is certainly nothing in it as hilariously memorable as Alan’s achingly funny confrontation with Laura Petrie over exposing his baldness on a television game-show in Bill Persky and Sam Denoff’s marvelous “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth”: Piling his various toupées on top of his head while demonstrating their uses, literally growling into the telephone, using a styrofoam head for a bongo and walking stiff-legged with his cane like a demented comic version of Everett Sloane in The Lady from Shanghai while grinning maniacally and shouting, “Oh, happy days are here again…” It’s a masterpiece in miniature, a comedic performance so touched with genius it practically levitates the television.

Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth - Carl Reiner as Alan Brady

What separates The Dick Van Dyke Show from the overwhelming rest of its sit-com rivals of the period is not merely the specificity of its show-biz milieu, the genuine affection between, and sexiness of, Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore or even the fulsome nature of the characterizations, both as Reiner conceived his ensemble and as he so brilliantly cast it. As either Jean Giraudoux or George Burns once noted, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” But the television comedy that lasts — or at least, lasted before the age of Larry David — is grounded in something more than humor. All in the Family confronted adult issues that no television show, and certainly no comedy, had ever dared touch. M*A*S*H (which the people involved were always quick to point out was not a sit-com) endured, and endures, because at its core were serious matters, addressed with as much honesty as hilarity. Even I Love Lucy, for all that we remember it best for its star’s often magnificently funny antics, was essentially about two people who however much they might have exasperated each other were also crazily in love. The Van Dyke show embodies something I think of as the comedy of embarrassment: These were essentially very decent people, and most of the humor around them sprang from their desire to be kind, to each other and to the world around them. Like benevolent reverse Basil Fawltys, they make a sticky situation worse by trying to make it better, or through an inability to let others down even when one or more of the characters (usually Rob) were being imposed upon. Their impulse to decency inevitably gums up the works. And that basic set-up springs from the god-head; the man who created those characters, and wrote those shows, was a human being.

The Dick Van Dyke Show - writer's room (Resized)

Richard Deacon, Dick Van Dyke, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, 1961. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

And God, the show was funny. Even as a small, pre-kindergarten aged child, when I watched The Dick Van Dyke Show in morning syndication I knew, without really understanding much of the verbal humor, that I was seeing something special. The first episode that grabbed me, I remember, was the 1963 “The Sam Pomerantz Scandals,” and for reasons anyone who was once a child can understand: The Laurel and Hardy routine by Van Dyke and Henry Calvin. (I was also absolutely delighted by the “I Am a Fine Musician” musical number. I had never heard the word “piccolo” before, and I at first thought Mary Tyler Moore was singing “pickle loaf,” which I regarded then, and think of now, as a vomit-inducing gastronomic atrocity.) Coincidentally last winter I re-watched the entire series, as I do every few years, this time in the nicely remastered Blu-ray set. Of 158 episodes, there are perhaps a half-dozen that are mediocre and two that are downright poor (“The Bad Old Days” and “The Twizzle,” both in Season One). That leaves 150 terrific shows and probably more episodes that may be certified as classic than can be claimed by any other comedy series, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which probably comes closest to the standard of weekly excellence Reiner & Co. pioneered and describes a level of achievement almost unheard of in the world of television comedy.

Reiner himself was responsible for the two, to me, funniest moments of the entire five-season run: Sally’s reaction to Joe Coogan in “The Life and Love of Joe Coogan” (“Where’s this tall, good-looking, charming priest?!? you wanted me to meet?”) and the following exchange, from “Who Owes Who What?”:

Mel: Oh, is that the comedy spot?
Buddy (Pointing to Mel’s head): No, Bubblehead — this is the comedy-spot.
Mel: Rob!
Rob: Buddy—
Buddy: Sally!
Sally: Mel!
Mel: Rob!
Rob: Sally!
Sally: Buddy!
Buddy: Go ahead, Curly, it’s your turn. Say, “Rob.”
Mel: Rob!!!
Buddy/Sally (Simultaneously, applauding): Beautiful. / Oh, wonderful, wonderful.


Oh, God - Burns, Denver

Even though he was one of the stars of Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, Reiner didn’t see himself as someone an audience could believe might carry a variety show as Sid did, so for the first few episodes in which he appears as Alan Brady he’s seen, in increasingly elaborate set-ups, only from the back. Yet he was certainly becoming, by that time, an extremely familiar face to audiences, what with (aside from the seven years with Caesar) roles in the movies Happy Anniversary and The Gazebo (both 1959) and The Thrill of It (which he also wrote) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (both 1963). While his first two screenplays (Thrill and the 1965 The Art of Love) were, coming from him, steps backwards, appearing in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) gave him greater visibility, and directing the movie of Enter Laughing (based on the Joseph Stein adaptation of Reiner’s own, very funny, autobiographical first novel, the screenplay for which which he authored with the playwright, and that is really coming at a piece of material from both ends) brought him some cachet, leading to The Comic (1966) with Van Dyke;  the black comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970) with its infamous “tush-biting scene”; Oh, God! (1997) a lovely collaboration with his old Caesar compatriot Larry Gelbart that was almost shockingly successful at the box-office, even in the year of Star Wars; four projects with Steve Martin, beginning with the trivial but occasionally hilarious The Jerk (1979) and culminating with the blissfully funny fantasy All of Me (1984) co-starring a luminous Lily Tomlin.

All of Me - Reiner and cast

All of Me: Reiner, Victoria Tennant, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and Richard Libertini. (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Reiner was a great appreciator, and booster, of comic talent but couldn’t always launch a performer as successfully as he did Martin or Van Dyke. Reni Santoni, the star of Enter Laughing, didn’t exactly set the comedic world on fire (maybe because he was Spanish/Corsican and playing one of America’s most famous Jews?), nor did Robert Lindsay, for whom Reiner wrote and directed the flop Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool in 1989. And if I say that, Oh, God! and All of Me excepted, I don’t think Carl Reiner’s comedy film work in toto was as great as what he did on and for television or, with Mel Brooks, on recordings, don’t think I’m being dismissive; everyone concerned with the Van Dyke show knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime gig, and that they’d be very, very lucky if anything afterward was ever as good, or as much fun. And aside from Mary Poppins for Dick and The Mary Tyler Moore Show for Mary, nothing really was.

As I re-watch The Dick Van Dyke Show periodically, so too do I listen, usually about once a year, to the 2,000 Year Old Man recordings. Most comedy albums just make you smile after the first (or third, or 10th if it’s a classic) listening. The Brooks/Reiner collaborations are not merely perennially funny. They are gut-bustingly funny. Recorded with little advance preparation, and no scripts, they are vinyl evidence of two comedic genii flying, by the seat of their pants, into the stratosphere — the equivalent in comedy terms of Louis Armstrong improvising “West End Blues” or that astonishing held note by Miles Davis on the release of “Moon Dreams.” Reiner maintained that Brooks was never funnier than when he was panicked, and that not knowing what question Carl was about to throw at him pushed his nimble brain into those realms of inventiveness that leave listeners of these sessions breathless, with both laughter and dazzlement; it’s almost impossible to imagine a comedian’s mind working that fast. But our delight, and our appreciation, goes not only to Brooks but to Reiner. Without his impeccable sense of timing, or his probing (and, dare one say it, merrily sadistic) prompts, there’d be no comedy. We are listening not to a single brilliant man but to two, each riffing off the other’s words, anticipating each other almost telepathically: Laughter, without a net.

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, 1974. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The style of the interviews was an outgrowth of Reiner and Caesar’s recurring Professor sketches and the albums featured encounters, not merely with the dapper bimillennial himself but with such immortal figures as the diet expert Dr. Felix Wheird, the head of Narzi Films Herr Adolph Hartler, the Greek artist Mercurio Mercurochrome, the filmmaker Federico Fettuccine, Warren Bland of the L.M.N.O.P. ad agency, and from The New Technique Psychiatric Society, those sterling avatars of the psychiatric profession Drs. Havika ben Hollywood (pronounced “Hollavoo”), Buck Mitcheson and Sabu Panchali. I was just listening to that track again, doubled over in laughter at bits I’ve probably heard, and laughed at, a couple of dozen times. There were two fools on those sessions, equally in charge. Now there is only one. And he’d better stay out of a Ferrari, or any small Italian car. I can only take so much in one century.

This is probably the first time in 80 years Carl Reiner did something that didn’t get a laugh.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: June 2020

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By Scott Ross

Gaily, Gaily (1969) I first saw this one on television (if you remember when each of the three then-major networks ran theatrical movies on a weekly basis, you are officially old) and remember very little about it except that it was loud and sometimes frenetic, that the very young Beau Bridges was appealing, that Brian Keith was his usual splendid self, and that the production design evoking turn-of-the-century Chicago was impressive. Seeing the picture again I note that it is loud and frenetic, that Beau Bridges is appealing, that Brian Keith is… but need I go on? Sometimes, with movies, one’s adolescent memories offer a more reliable guide than might be supposed.

Gaily, Gaily - Bridges, Keith
Considering the gifts of its director, Norman Jewison, and the richness of its nominal source material, there’s absolutely no excuse for Gaily, Gaily‘s being so ephemeral and insignificant. Ben Hecht’s 1962 book of reminiscence is so delightful, so fulsomely reconstructed, so alternately bittersweet and cynical, and so chock-full of possibilities for cinematic adaptation, that the movie’s eschewing nearly every one of them is utterly flabbergasting. The only anecdote Abram S. Ginnes used in his largely witless screenplay — the attempt by a hustling reporter (Keith, in the movie) to abet a quack doctor’s plan of resurrecting a hanged felon via a new miracle injection — is foolishly extended at the climax, in which the dead Bridges gets a shot of the stuff, vibrates wildly on the slab and returns to life. This vitiates the original anecdote, and the movie’s own joke payoff of it. To what end? And what are we to make, at the movie’s finish, of the series of shock-cuts by Jewison revealing the stage-lights and unfinished rafters of the elaborate main whorehouse set?* That it’s all a joke? That nothing is to be believed?

Even Hecht wasn’t that cynical.


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Crack-Up (1946) As a filmmaker, Irving Reis was a great radio director. Crack-Up is a mildly diverting RKO mystery in which you are asked to believe Pat O’Brien as a lecturer on art and Herbert Marshall as a cop. Throughout, the effect of Citizen Kane‘s visual palette on lesser moviemakers is obvious (Orson Welles’ old Mercury stalwarts Erskine Sanford and Ray Collins even show up as two of the villains) but nearly every sequence and shot is over-extended, as if Reis was afraid the proverbial illiterate yokel in the back row wouldn’t be able to follow otherwise. The best things in the picture are a scene between O’Brien and an elderly, cantankerous train station agent (Guy Beach… I think) and a sequence set in a Times Square arcade similar to the one immortalized in The Bandwagon, which also has the virtue of one good punchline, spoken by Harry Monty. Marshall, who lost a leg after being shot in the knee by a sniper during World War I, is required to move, in full-shot, rather more often than seems entirely necessary and in a manner that borders on cruelty. The oddest thing about the movie is the way the otherwise effective Leigh Harline score was mixed, either by the RKO sound editors in 1946 — which seems unlikely — or by whoever prepared this one for home video release; every note is blared at you at double the volume, at least, of the dialogue. Why?


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The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser’s glorious swashbuckler, cut in twain by its producers and wonderful in any format. The StudioCanal Blu-ray is so sumptuous it may make your mouth water.


Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, Ryan O'Neal

Paper Moon (1973) A gorgeous evocation by Peter Bogdanovich of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the beautiful Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray, that looks even better today than it did 47 years ago. Paramount: Why is this essential 1970s American classic not available on Blu-ray?


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Nickelodeon: Director’s Cut (Black and white) and Original Theatrical Version (1976) A stylish amalgam of two scripts that really didn’t mesh. It’s that, as well as the compromised casting, that keep that kept this entertaining and often delightful picture about the early days of American movies from potential greatness.


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Monster in a Box (1992) As with Jonathan Demme in 1987 (and very much unlike that rank egotist Steven Soderbergh in 1996) the director Nick Broomfield respected his writer and star Spalding Gray, getting out of his way and letting his idiosyncratic style of presentation carry the day.  Although perhaps inevitably none of the movies of his monologues after Swimming to Cambodia had the force and feel of originality that attended that landmark picture, Gray was such a genial, intelligent and almost gleefully neurotic figure that anything he had to say was worth hearing. Here he grapples, almost literally, with the expanding bulk of his first — alas, only — novel, Impossible Vacation while contemplating nirvana of a temporary sort (the Los Angeles sun); deliberate anguish visited, as it so often is, upon others by the United States government (the war in Nicaragua); the less lethal battle of writer and subject; and the elation that quickly turns to despair (Gray’s almost universally-reviled performance as the Stage Manager in the Lincoln Center Our Town). And that Gray can eventually find as well as humor some small comfort in an unscheduled incident during the play’s wrenching final scene of projectile vomiting by the young actor playing Wally Webb (Shane Culkin, older brother of Macauley, if it matters) is somehow entirely unsurprising.


The Bridge on the River Kwai - Hayakawa, Guinness

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) A beautifully observed epic that is, essentially, a chamber play with tragic overtones and which works on several levels: As a straight adventure saga, a stirring prison-break drama, a battle of wills, and a moving meditation on the folly of pride.


Texasville - resizedTexasville (1990) Peter Bogdanovich’s follow-up to his and Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. It doesn’t have the weight or the gravitas of its predecessor, but it doesn’t try to. As with the book on which it’s based the picture is its own shambling, affable self. And like Shorty, Jeff Bridges’ pet Queensland Blue in the story, it asks to be taken not for what it might be, but only as what it is.


Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City (1990)
Picture This

George Hickenlooper’s rather strange documentary about the town that inspired Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and in which Peter Bogdanovich filmed it, and the making of the 1990 Texasville. Timothy Bottoms later claimed he reprised his role as Sonny in the sequel so he could produce this documentary, but aside from some unconvincing ruminations  which seem to be undone by Cybill Shepherd’s spontaneous behavior toward him in front of Hickenlooper’s camera, I could detect little of the bitterness the actor supposedly nurtured toward everyone on Picture Show for their alleged nastiness and lack of professionalism. A couple of Archer City residents grouse, with an inarticulate vehemence that smacks of sheer phoniness, about the production company, but as the town is reaping the financial rewards of hosting a Hollywood crew, that too seems weirdly like a put-up job for the documentarians. The DVD was obviously taken from a video source rather than the original film, and its ugliness as an artifact is mitigated only by the self-effacing charm of Bogdanovich and isolated moments such as those of McMurtry’s mother humorously telling tales on herself.


Hell House - McDowell at the climax

The Legend of Hell House (1973) Perhaps the most genuinely unnerving spook-story of its era. It still packs a wallop.


*A mansion, by the way, whose lush appointments were more likely to be seen in the residence of a Rockefeller than in the digs occupied by a clutch of Second City whores.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Home again, home again: “Texasville” (1990)

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By Scott Ross

Larry McMurtry has made a habit of revisiting the characters of his novels on an irregular basis, and Texasville was the first of three examining the ageing characters of his The Last Picture Show. While that book (his third following Horseman, Pass By which was filmed as Hud) concentrated largely on the hapless romantic Sonny Crawford and saw things mostly through his eyes, Texasville swings the emphasis to Sonny’s best friend Duane Moore (“Jackson” in the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich adaptation of Picture Show) and it’s a canny shift: As Ruth Popper, his onetime married lover observes, Sonny was sad in high school. He’s also a bachelor. Duane, an extrovert who gets depressed and has reason to, is essentially happy. And as a married man with grown and younger children, several lovers in various states of marriage and oil wells that brought him unexpected ’80s wealth and are now bankrupting him, his life is intrinsically more complicated than Sonny’s, and with more characters to bang up against.

The book, which like the movie is set in 1984, has an antic, satirical tone very much at odds with the more somber realities of The Last Picture Show, although its core is deadly serious: Aside from Duane’s impending financial ruin and the recurrent question of whether he can hold onto his decades-long marriage with the wry, T-shirt slogan-wearing Karla, the town itself is facing both an uncertain future and an impending centennial celebration; Sonny seems to be drifting into a kind of dreamy madness centered around a past that has been dead for years; and Jacy Farrow, the bored and wealthy flirt who upset both Duane’s existence and Sonny’s in 1954 (’51 in the movie), has returned following the accidental death in Europe of her young son.

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There was a lot to get into the narrative — McMurtry’s novel is 600 pages — and Bogdanovich, returning to the characters he rendered so vividly in The Last Picture Show, did honor both to them and to the book, although he had to cut nearly a half-hour from the release print, which he restored in 1992 for a Movie Channel airing. (The missing footage, alas, is not included, even as deleted scenes or extras, on the old MGM Home Video DVD, the only available version.) The writer-director even improved upon the original in not depicting Duane and Karla’s pubescent twins as the budding psychopaths of the novel, children so horrific in every way that the reader cannot comprehend how their parents have not had them ritually slaughtered as a warning to other whelps of Satan.

Aside from Sam Bottoms and Ben Johnson, whose characters died during the action of The Last Picture Show, and Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mom (she and her husband were killed in a private plane crash between books) all the major players returned for Texasville: Jeff Bridges as Duane, Cybill Shepherd as Jacy, Timothy Bottoms as Sonny, Cloris Leachman as Ruth, Randy Quaid as Lester Marlow and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, and it will surprise no one that they were as effective in their roles in 1990 as they were in 1971, Bridges in particular, and not merely because he quite obviously gained a great deal of weight to play the middle-aged Duane. He uses the extra padding in his walk, which, humorously, lies somewhere between a macho Texas strut and a waddle. Annie Potts gets Karla exactly right, and there is also terrific support from the large supporting cast, especially Pearl Jones as the Jackson’s blasé housekeeper, Su Hyatt as one of Duane’s lovers who is also involved with Duane’s older son Dickie and finding deep satisfaction with him, and William McNamara as the boy himself. McNamara is just pretty enough to make you understand why Dickie makes the legs of so many young girls and middle-aged women go wobbly, and just sweet enough to illustrate how he keeps them all in a state of collective delirium: He’s like Jacy when she was young, but with an innate generosity of spirit, and a genuine interest in his conquests, that Jacy never pretended to have.

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This woman, however, is not that girl. She’s gone away, and lived, and lost, and her European life, as much as her grief, has made her less self-absorbed; she has humor now, and compassion, where Jacy only previously had a vague, slow-boiling discontent. Shepherd carries the loss lightly, for the most part, until the bittersweet climax, when she lowers her defenses, radiantly. Leachman’s Ruth too has mellowed; as an elderly woman she understands that having been given love was what mattered, not the having lost it, and she sees everyone around her with a bracing, unsentimental clarity. And Bottoms’ Sonny is the quiet, tragic figure of the story, his mind, unable to process either his old losses or his essential sadness, slowly becoming mired in 1951.

Bogdanovich made The Last Picture Show in black-and-white in part because, while location scouting in Texas, he realized that color made even the scrubbiest backgrounds look too pretty. Texasville proves him correct: No matter how desolate the landscape, and despite the cinematographer Nicholas von Sternberg’s efforts, the color film softens it. But as with the previous picture, Bogdanovich’s direction is assured — even more so 20 years later — and his trademark long scenes played in full are such a welcome change from what, by 1990, had become the nervous, MTV-directed, norm that it constitutes almost a revolutionary act to depict two human beings talking together in one space and without a series of increasingly frenetic cuts.

Texasville - Bridges and Bogdanovich

Texasville doesn’t have the weight or the gravitas of its predecessor, but it doesn’t try to. As with the book on which it’s based the picture is its own shambling, affable self. And like Shorty, Duane’s rambunctious Queensland Blue dog, it asks to be accepted not for what it might be, but only as what it is.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

To live like a human being: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)

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You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills — they go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules — when the only important thing is how to live like a human being! — William Holden to Jack Hawkins

By Scott Ross

I still remember with vividness when this one-time record-holding Academy Award picture was first shown on American television. ABC, which aired it, promoted it heavily for the week preceding the telecast, and as a result it did not take long for this 5-year old to get Kenneth J. Alford’s World War I “Colonel Bogey March” stuck in his head. How could it not, when every child I knew was singing a set of parody lyrics which ran:

Comet! It makes your teeth turn green
Comet! It tastes like gasoline
Comet! It makes you vomit
So buy some Comet, and vomit today!

The “rude words” added by soldiers after the march was written (“Bollocks — and the same to you! / Bollocks — they make a lovely stew…”) were models of wit by comparison, as was the Second World War edition, which was sung for years after, under the title “Hitler, He’s Only Got One Ball.”

The Bridge on the River Kwai - Guinness I

Having finally sat down recently and read Pierre Boulle’s original novel (The Bridge Over the River Kwai) preparatory to watching the movie again I thought I might have more to say about the David Lean-directed picture, a longtime favorite. That I don’t, I ascribe to its general excellence, to the rather fine patched-together script (by Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson and, without credit, Lean himself),* to Jack Hildyard’s superb widescreen cinematography, and to the splendid central performances; Alec Guinness in particular deserved every plaudit and award he received for his unstinting portrait of a courageous, mad martinet more concerned with form than his own possible treason. It’s still, and regardless of how many times one has seen it, a beautifully observed epic that is, essentially, a chamber play with tragic overtones and which works on several levels: As a straight adventure saga, a stirring prison-break drama, a battle of wills, and a moving meditation on the folly of pride.

I will note that both the book (to a greater extent) and the movie (to a lesser) exhibit a marked European chauvanism toward the Japanese. I am referring, not to their brutality in the camps (and elsewhere), which is sufficiently documented, but to the Occidental belief that “the Japs” don’t know how to build bridges and that their engineers must be shown the way by their intellectually superior British captives. But then, as is well known, the victors get to write the history; it’s for us, who come later, to sort it all out. The only other demerits the picture earns are for its climactic moments: The blowing up of the bridge and the train’s subsequent plunge into the river, while unarguably impressive (it must have been triply so on a CinemaScope screen) lacks something I can’t define — an epic scope, perhaps, or more interesting camera angles.† Whatever it is, Buster Keaton’s similar sequence in the 1927 The General is both more staggering as a physical achievement, and more moving. And the final helicopter pull-back of the carnage at the end, done to match the opening and closing shots of hawks observing our human foibles, doesn’t really work, for the simple reason that no bird flies backwards.

The Bridge on the River Kwai - Guinness
That first television broadcast, by the way, was so successful (a then-record audience of 76 million) the three networks — and there were only three then, the burgeoning NET notwithstanding — soon began clamoring for the broadcast rights to other big Hollywood pictures. While one can deplore the conditions (cut up for commercials, often censored, and rendered visually meaningless by that barbaric practice of yore, Pan&Scan) the practice of showing pictures on a weekly basis had great benefits for someone like me, who got hooked on “old” movies because ABC, NBC and CBS each had a designated movie night (Sundays, Saturdays and Fridays, respectively), allowing me between the crucial ages of 9 and 16 to see, and to cherish, fare as divergent as Around the World in 80 Days, The Apartment, Gigi, The Manchurian Candidate, The Great Race, Sweet Charity, The World of Henry Orient, The French Connection, Irma La Douce, The Guns of Navarone, A Shot in the Dark, An American in Paris and the early James Bond films… as well as countless flops and potboilers, which if nothing else taught me the difference between trash and popular art) and developed in me a lifelong passion for the art-form. I’d always been excited by going to the movies, but seeing them on a regular basis, at home, honed my appreciation. Group viewing was also, often, the only activity my entire family engaged in that didn’t end in argument or tears.

Truncated these televised movies may have been, peppered with ads and robbed of some expressive dialogue (and, later, sexuality).‡ But they were there. Available. Now if they exist at all, they’re streamed… and seldom by young people.


*No one else who deserved it got the credit either; Foreman and Wilson were both blacklisted, and when the Oscar was given out it was awarded to Boulle, the credited scenarist, who didn’t speak or write English.

†The explosions also seem to be at the top of the bridge rather than on the pilings, where we’ve seen the explosives placed.

‡Speaking of censorship, I note that on the otherwise splendid Sony Blu-ray, the word “barbarians” in one of Guinness’ lines has been effectively removed, drowned out by atmospheric sound-effects. But that’s the way of things now: Disclaimers on cartoons and soundtrack meddling as a means of signalling corporate virtue.

Thanks to my friend Eliot M. Camarena for the editorial assistance!

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Violent delights: “Romeo and Juliet” (1968)

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These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
     — Friar Lawrence, Act 2, Scene 6

By Scott Ross

Just as it is nearly impossible to express to people younger than me, who have grown up with the series, what a complete phenomenon Star Wars was when it was released in 1977 and why its approach to well-worn narrative traditions was so shockingly new and different, it would be almost equally difficult to adequately explain to the young today how a movie of a Shakespeare tragedy could, in 1968, become such an international sensation. If you didn’t grow up with street protests and an awareness that there was a thing called The Generation Gap which was bifurcating the country as effectively as the Vietnam war, and with the growing sense that young people were altering the broader culture in almost every way imaginable, you might, looking at Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, appreciate its liveliness and its beauty but be at a loss to understand why it was fervently loved at the time.

It should be understood that, prior to Zeffirelli, no other cinematic edition (and there had been many) of this play about the doomed romance between the 17 year-old Veronan and his 13-year old paramour, had anything close to age-appropriate actors in the leading roles. George Cukor’s disastrous 1936 attempt coupled the 43 year-old Leslie Howard with the 34-year old Norma Shearer, and even Laurence Harvey was 26 when he played Romeo for Renato Castellani in 1954. To see these two as Shakespeare envisaged them (and remember that, at the Globe, while Romeo might have been older, Juliet would almost certainly have been played by a boy whose voice had not yet changed), avid and desperately young — not to mention staggeringly pretty — was a rush, especially in the Act Three, Scene Five “morning after” sequence, where they are unabashedly depicted as naked, newly married lovers. For a teenage audience in 1968 seeing the almost perfectly endowed Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in bed, the old showbiz pun “There won’t be a dry seat in the house” would not have been out of place.

Aware that casting so young meant a concomitant lack of expertise, Zeffirelli (and his co-scenarists, Franco Brusati and Masolino D’Amico) cut the text considerably. And since Shakespeare’s lovers are as in love with words as with each other — they’re drunk on the language they use together — this is a loss, although, perhaps surprisingly, not a fatal one. Between Danilo Donati’s sumptuous costumes, Renzo Mongiardino’s beautifully realized production design, the rich photography by Pasqualino De Santis,* and Zeffirelli’s swift, sometimes powerful, direction, you’re less aware of the cuts that you would be at a live performance. (The director is especially good at the scenes of violence, making excellent use of the summer heat and dust that cause tempers to easily flare and then boil over.) And of course, other than at the National Theatre, you’d seldom get to see a cast as varied as this one, or as good: John McEnery’s melancholic Mercutio, as witty as he is exasperating; Pat Heywood, earthy and warmhearted as Juliet’s Nurse; Milo O’Shea’s Friar Lawrence, both humane in his approach to the lovers and unwavering in his refusal to countenance their over-emotive nonsense; Michael York, his hair uncharacteristically dyed dark, as a quintessentially hot-blooded Tybalt; Robert Stephens’ exasperated Prince; and the understated opening and closing narration by Laurence Olivier. (He also dubbed Montague and, reportedly, other roles as well.)

Nino Rota’s glorious musical score was not merely one of his finest, but added considerably to the movie’s cultural ubiquity: During the masked ball at which the lovers meet, an almost heartbreakingly young-looking singer (Glen Weston) performs a complex Rota ballad called “What Is a Youth?,” with pointed lyrics by Eugene Walter. The pop radio version, seeming to take its cue as much from Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story lyrics as from Romeo and Juliet, was called “A Time for Us,” and eschewed the original’s earned pessimism in favor of a more palatable conventional romanticism. In that form the song was, for some time, unavoidable; even as late as 1973 my sixth-grade choral director had us singing it, and it was still a popular wedding-tune among young couples. If they’d known, or remembered, the sentiment the original lyrics, echoing Friar Lawrence, expressed (“So dies a youth / So dies the fairest maid”)† they’d have turned collectively pale and fainted dead away.


*Donati and De Santis both won Academy Awards for their work.

†Search in vain for those words; although Weston is, onscreen, clearly singing the lyrics as I quote them, every online source I could find transcribes them as “So does a youth.”

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

 

Chekhov in Modesto: “American Graffiti” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

Universal Pictures had so little love for this extremely low-budget George Lucas project the studio nearly blew what eventually became a financial behemoth (13th on the list of top-grossing American movies as late as 1977) and a cultural touchstone of the decade. And although it actually takes place in the 1960s — the poster tagline famously read, “Where Were You in ‘62” — this picture, its wall-to-wall soundtrack of period oldies, the concurrent Broadway musical Grease and the subsequent unofficial (and infinitely more conventional) Graffiti television spinoff Happy Days led to a nostalgia craze for all things 1950s. Not everyone was so happy about those days, however. Progressives such as the film historian and critic Marjorie Rosen who lived through the ‘50s recalled the era as a time of stultifying conformity, reactionary politics and bullies wearing D.A.’s and motorcycle jackets. Yet even Rosen’s contemporaries among the original reviewers confused Lucas’ genuinely innovative, and rather despairing, look at the time of his youth as just a funny, nostalgic exercise. You mean the way nearly every teenager in Modesto, California is desperate to get out of it and the rest waste their time endlessly cruising the streets, waiting for something to happen and encountering hoods and speed-demons hoping to get someone else to risk his life in a race just to feel halfway alive? Some fun!

Although Ron Howard had been famous from childhood, the rest of the cast was pretty much unkown, and included a somewhat porky Richard Dreyfuss as the Lucas surrogate; a relaxed and likeable Paul Le Mat as a laid-back mechanic/hot-rodder who’s like the legendary gunslinger in a hoary Western, sighing as he’s challenged once again by some punk with a souped-up engine; Charles Martin Smith as the perennial loser; Cindy Williams as Howard’s girlfriend; Candy Clark as a sweet-natured good-time girl; the young Mackenzie Phillips as a misfit “tween”; Bo Hopkins as a street-thug; as well as Kathleen Quinlan, Joe Spano and Harrison Ford, some of whose scenes as Le Mat’s latest challenger, trimmed at Universal’s demand, were restored by Lucas in 1978. Wolfman Jack also shows up, as himself. (Well, who else would he be?)

Lucas was responsible for the picture’s self-contained, almost European structure (one night in late summer, from dusk to dawn) and shot it guerilla-style, for a little over three-quarters of a million dollars. Although Ron Eveslage and Jan D’Alquen are credited with the sharp cinematography, Haskell Wexler received a consulting credit and likely deserved the lion’s share of the praise for how beautifully composed and lighted the widescreen images, filmed largely at night, really are. The ensemble construction of the screenplay — Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck filled it out, and added humor, never Lucas’ forte — is almost Chekhovian, and when the picture ends you feel you’ve spent the night observing these young people intimately, and wondering where each will be next year at the same time. If that isn’t classic filmmaking, it’s certainly something you don’t see every day in America. 46 years later, you barely see it at all.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Wonderland: “The Stunt Man” (1979)

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By Scott Ross

The virtues, and the weaknesses, of this essential one-off remain intact after four decades. What still works in Richard Rush’s adaptation of the Paul Brodeur novel (on which Rush shares screenplay credit with Laurence B. Marcus) are the carnival fun-house milieu, the mood of comic desperation, the freewheeling energy, the vivid characterizations and the acting — especially in the peerless performance of Peter O’Toole as the flamboyant director of the film-within-a-film, hovering omnisciently in his special crane and dispensing bumptiousness and aperçus with equal aplomb. Rush builds up the atmosphere of Wonderland uncertainty so beautifully that by the climax we’re fully persuaded things could go any number of ways.

What bothers me about the picture now are the things that bugged me in 1979. First is the performance of Steve Railsback as the fugitive pressed into assuming the mantle of the title figure. At the time, having seen Railsback’s intense, chilling turn as Charles Manson in the television Helter Skelter, I thought my dis-ease with him here was residual. I’ve watched The Stunt Man numerous times since then, and am forced to conclude it’s not my prejudice that’s to blame, but Railsback — and Rush as the screenwriter and director. That he’s distrustful, even hostile, is understandable; that he exhibits a charmless, snarling arrogance and a seething, hyper-masculine proprietary claim on Barbara Hershey’s affections stamp him as someone to be avoided, not embraced. Yet everyone seems to love him. Why?

Second is the enforced anti-war metaphor, which felt misplaced during the period just before Reagan. (Not that there is ever a lack of war in the world, or of covert and hostile American actions, but Vietnam was a fading memory by the time Rush finally got the picture made.) Brodeur’s novel, published in 1971, concerns a young conscript who escapes from the bus taking him to basic training, and has an anti-Vietnam atmosphere baked into the situation. And in that book, the movie the young hero stumbles into is an avant-garde affair, largely improvised, not a big-budget war picture seeking relevance.

Third, the stunts themselves feel like cheats. As surely everyone remotely interested in movies knows by now, and knew then, filmmaking is a laborious (and often boring) process involving many set-ups, and rehearsals for the big set-pieces and stunts. Here, Railsback is repeatedly thrown into a continuous series of elaborate bits, and the on-screen cameras follow him from the beginning of each to the end, with no breaks. If this was meant by Rush to heighten the unreality of O’Toole’s set, it’s a miscalculation; all I am aware of when I watch these sequences is how impossible those big scenes would be to capture on a single pass.

Movie aficionados will recognize the Hotel Coronado setting as the place Billy Wilder shot much of Some Like it Hot.

 

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Flying: “Three Days of the Condor” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

The filmmakers behind this adaptation of a good thriller novel by James Grady called Six Days of  the Condor — Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel, who wrote the script and Sidney Pollack, who directed — did more than lop off three days; they used little more than the book’s basic plot, and a few key incidents. (They also transferred the setting from Washington, D.C. to New York. Why?) What I suspect was Robert Redford’s vanity also got in the way of narrative sense: When Grady’s Condor, survivor of a mass killing in a CIA literary shop, goes on the lam one of the first things he does is alter his appearance by getting a close haircut. Redford keeps his modishly long locks, even unto his ludicrous half-muttonchops. But at least the hair is his; Cliff Robertson wears one of the most elaborately stacked toupees I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t someone suggest to him that when a well-known, Oscar®-winning middle-aged actor suddenly shows up in a movie with bigger, thicker and fuller hair than he had in his 20s, and which doesn’t in any case match his sideburns, the audience knows he’s wearing a rug?

Although, along with shortening its time by half, Three Days of the Condor rather needlessly complicates Grady’s plot, there are some real compensations, not least of which is intelligence, and the screenwriters’ filling out of the novelist’s rather perfunctory feminine coeval for the hero, well embodied by Faye Dunaway. True, we could do without the dollar-book Freud “Condor” instantly psychoanalyzes her with, the phoniness of which is best judged by imagining how outraged he would be if she did it to him. With her famous blond hair dyed brown, Dunaway is almost unrecognizable — it’s astounding how that single change alters her features, softening the severity of her Classical beauty and making her seem more human, and more attainable. And there’s an amusing variant to the novel in Condor’s manipulation of the New York City telephone lines, although his spilling his story of Central Intelligence Agency mayhem to the New York Times, intended as a post-Watergate nod to the nobility of the press, merely seems foolhardy and, for a CIA employee, laughably naïve. The first call a Times reporter or editor would make after such a revelation would be to CIA.

John Houseman performs one of his standard haughty old men on whose every word others are required to hang, and Robertson telegraphs his character’s duplicity from his first scene. But Max von Sydow, as the chief assassin, is a more shaded character, and has a splendid scene near the end with Redford. Pollack’s direction is highly competent and occasionally more, as with the fight scene in Dunaway’s apartment. Like Pollack’s Tootsie, which also boasted the cinematography of Owen Roizman, Three Days of the Condor is often astonishing to look at; Roizman’s images are mouth-wateringly crisp, and (at least on Blu-ray) as fine-grained as any color film you will ever see. That may be more than a good thriller even requires, but how often these days is that observation relevant? And when, today, would you see a big-budget American picture critical of, rather than slavishly cheering on, that fascist nightmare known as the CIA?

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Unreasonable facsimile: “Anything Goes” (TV, 1954)

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By Scott Ross

A mess, with compensations. Not content with re-jiggering the 1934 original, the adapting writer Herbert Baker turned a resolutely 1930s Cole Porter show into a “Roaring ’20s” musical — I guess Baker took that “Times have changed” lyric literally — and, favoring idiot Charleston dance breaks and “Runyanland”-inspired stage antics, cut one of Ethel Merman’s best numbers (“Buddy Beware”) and left Bert Lahr, as the gangster Moonface, without his comic solo (“Be Like the Bluebird”). He also turned Billy (Frank Sinatra) into an agent, renamed him “Harry” and had him pining for Merman’s Reno Sweeney, rather than, as in the original show, the other way around. Okay, I get it: They had to trim the play to fit the 60-minute Colgate Comedy Hour format (in which case, why the extra visual material?) so Billy’s inamorata Hope had to go and the role of Reno’s English fiancée Evelyn Oakley (Arthur Gould-Porter) became practically a walk-on. But that’s no excuse for the raging inanity that marks much of the rest.

The commercial release on DVD comes courtesy of the lyricist Stephen Cole, a pal of Merman’s in her last years to whom her heirs gave her personal kinescope copy, and it looks terrific. Nor can an aficionado complain about the casting; the opportunity to see Lahr in his prime is alone worth sitting through the thing. It’s also, as he would have said, a kick to see Sinatra, at the peak of his form, in a live broadcast. Merman was identified with the role (or at least, with its songs) but she’s an odd choice for Sinatra’s love-match; I kept looking at her big frame and flabby, middle-aged limbs and wondering what the hell that healthy young man was doing making love to a fat, braying old broad, arm-flesh constantly a-jiggle. There’s nothing wrong with ageing. It happens to us all, if we live long enough. And braying was what Merman did. But had she never heard of sleeves?

That’s the problem with having stars re-create their big roles decades after the original premieres, although Merman is in great voice throughout. Lahr, of course, as the comic has no such problems, and this Anything Goes at least preserves for generations who never saw him perform live, or who know him only as The Cowardly Lion, his peerless way with a line and his trademark “g-nong, g-nong” expression, lifted and slightly altered by Curly Howard in the ’30s. Still, it’s hard to credit that this tasteless mélange was produced by Leland Hayward and Jule Styne.

Styne has been dead for years, but if someone had done this to one of his musicals, we’d still hear him screaming about it.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

O.K.: “Oklahoma!” (Todd-AO and CinemaScope versions) 1955

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By Scott Ross

The first film adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and the finest, in large part due to the intimate involvement of its original creators, and their determination to shoot as much as possible on location. R & H were not only the producers; they oversaw nearly every aspect of the production, including the planting of corn so that it would indeed be “as high as a elephant’s eye” by the time of shooting. (Sadly, Lynn Riggs, the author of Green Grow the Lilacs, the 1930 folk-play on which Oklahoma! was based, died the year before the movie was released.) When I was a small child, one of the local children’s television show hosts (I’ve forgotten which) began his daily program singing “O, What a Beautiful Mornin'”; when, never having seen the play or heard the cast recording, I first saw the movie, on a CBS Thanksgiving airing in the early 1970s, I was delighted to discover it opened with that song, and the camera moving through those leaves of corn made a strong impression. It was many years before I finally saw the widescreen version of the picture, but as fine as it is, it pales beside the Todd-AO edition. Shot not simultaneously but in tandem with the more widely-seen CinemaScope version, the Todd-AO, which runs slightly longer — it has a “road-show” Overture, Intermission music and an Entr’Acte — has a far deeper color palette (Robert Surtees was the cinematographer on both) and a richer look generally. There is more to see on the peripheries in Todd-AO, and a couple of nice effects: The way Gene Nelson’s lasso floats past the camera during the “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” number, for example, and how Aunt Eller’s gavel splits in two and seems to fly at the audience at the climax of the lunch-basket auction, which feels almost like 3-D, but without our having to wear those annoying glasses.

Oklahoma! - MacCrae and Jones

It helps, of course, that the picture was made by a director whose work was entirely in the realm of human drama. Fred Zinnemann takes the material seriously, and doesn’t attempt to stamp it with a superfluous personal style. That doesn’t mean the picture is devoid of visual interest — far from it; Zinnemann’s crisp, clean direction is the furthest thing imaginable from the anonymous style of most ’50s musicals, but never makes the style about him. Between Riggs’ original and Hammerstein’s adaptation, there was little for Sonya Levien and William Ludwig, the movie’s scenarists, to add, although they do improve the ending slightly (it’s a bit rushed in the show). There is one addition, a brief atmospheric scene between Gordon MacRae and Jay C. Flippen, that raises a question (how did Curly get his horse and saddle back?) it doesn’t bother to answer, although it’s preceded by a lovely bit of nature photography that is almost an illustration of a Hammerstein lyric (“when the wind comes right behind the rain”) we’ll hear in a few minutes. Pretty much the only other flaw I can find in the picture is one of continuity: The Agnes de Mille “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” dream ballet clearly takes place at dusk, but when Shirley Jones and Rod Steiger leave for the party, it’s just as obviously mid-afternoon.

Oklahoma! - Steiger in dream ballet

Rod Steiger and dancers in the Dream Ballet

I once worked as assistant director on an amateur production of Oklahoma! in which the aged director, who had become a bit dotty (everyone who worked with him at that time had stories) warned his cast to ignore the “badly miscast” movie — especially Steiger and Gloria Grahame. I wasn’t sure what he meant then, and am even less certain now. MacRae and Jones are charming and in excellent voice. Zinnemann wanted James Dean for Curly, but his singing was underwhelming; Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman were also considered, as was Howard Keel, who might have been ideal except that MacRae was less well-known, which gives his presence a fresher tone. Grahame is both funny and sexy as Ado Annie, and Steiger is genuinely frightening as the psychotic Jud, although the character lost some potential sympathy when Jud’s “Lonely Room” solo was not filmed. Steiger not only sings well, but in the dream ballet managed to dance creditably too — and for de Mille. No mean feat, that. (Astonishingly, he got billing below James Whitmore’s brief role as Annie’s shotgun-toting father.) Nelson, like Grahame, has enormous charm, and his athleticism as a dancer is given a strong work-out, notably in the “Kansas City” dance; Eddie Albert is delicious as the alleged Persian peddler Ali Hakum; and the Dream Curly and Dream Laurey, James Mitchell and Bambi Lynn (the latter of whom was in the original stage production) are superb. Marc Platt, the Dream Curly of the show, has a small role as a cowboy, and Ben Johnson, of all people, can also be seen at the railroad depot. Best in the cast, however, is Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller. Known, largely on Broadway (although she was in movies from 1915 through the ’40s) as a comedian and “eccentric dancer,” she’d been sought by R & H for the stage role but wasn’t available. And if at 65 her famed high kicks are less in evidence she grounds the movie in something very like Lynn Riggs’ original folk poetry: Feisty, funny, sensible and warm, Greenwood’s Aunt Eller exhibits the sort of frontier strength people mean when they use the word “indomitable.”

Oklahoma - Albert, Greenwood

Eddie Albert as the peddler, with the great Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller.

Oliver Smith’s production design, realistic to a fault throughout most of the picture, reaches its creative apogee in the Dream Ballet, a perfect melding of the theatrical and the cinematic: A Surrealist landscape combining the open space both of the performance stage and of the prairie, decorated with appropriate exterior suggestions and incongruous interior objects hanging in midair, a Hellish nightmare in which a bordello’s light fixtures suddenly shoot columns of red flame, a staircase leads to nowhere, and the backdrop alters abruptly from blue sky to a menacing cyclone. Smith’s work perfectly compliments de Mille’s celebrated choreography, which is, if anything, even darker on the screen: What on stage in 1943 represented a negotiation between Jud and Laurey over Curley’s fate that ended with a compromise allowing the cowboy to live becomes, on screen, abject surrender following an act of murder. If the post-South Pacific and King and I Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals represent a pulling back from the precipice, their movie of Oklahoma! conversely shows an older de Mille still intent on pushing the limits of what dance, and musical theatre, could do.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross